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Music

The brief union of Jerry Garcia and the Fender Stratocaster

@TylerGolsen

The Fender Stratocaster is one of the most iconic guitars on the planet. Everyone from Buddy Holly and George Harrison to Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton latched onto the classic guitar’s versatile sound and easy playability, and you’d be hard pressed to find a legendary guitarist who didn’t at least try out a Strat during their days.

Jerry Garcia, for all his prowess as a six string magician, is rarely associated with a single guitar. That’s because he had many, including quite a few that were custom made and one of a kind. Early in the Grateful Dead, most of the string players were Guild guys, including Garcia, who rocked a Guild Starfire as his first “professional” guitar. Gibson Les Paul’s and SG’s came and went with surprising frequency, and as the ’70s approached, Garcia had yet to dedicate himself to a single instrument.

That changed in 1970, when Garcia contributed guitar to Graham Nash’s album Songs for Beginners. In lieu of cash payment, Nash offered Garcia a 1957 Fender Stratocaster that Nash had found in a Phoenix pawn shop for $250. Garcia accepted, and soon began to modify the guitar. By the time he eventually switched to another axe, only the original body was left. Knobs, pickups, and necks were switched out as the guitar took on a Frankenstein’s Monster sort of quality, but it was the addition of cosmetic changes that led to the guitar’s famous name.

Garcia began to attach sticker’s to the guitar’s body, including an ironic “policeman helper” sticker and a Harley-Davidson patch. But it was the addition of an alligator wearing a bib and ready to eat on the pickguard that led to a rechristening of the guitar as “Alligator”. The band had only just played the Pigpen-led jam ‘Alligator’ for the final time at the end of the closing show of the Fillmore East on April 29th, 1971, by the time Garcia began regularly using the “Alligator” guitar live.

Even though the song didn’t survive, the guitar was now Garcia’s new number one as the band departed for their legendary 1972 tour of Europe. In almost every single song that wound up on Europe ’72, Garcia’s kinetic six string work was done on “Alligator”. The signature spank of the Fender Stratocaster was ideal for tracks like ‘Tennessee Jed’, but Garcia could also dial in a sparkling tone for ballads like ‘Morning Dew’. “Alligator” was versatile, and Garcia’s aggressive playing meant that he went through different parts like butter.

In 1973, Garcia befriended Alembic luthier Doug Irwin, who was looking to make custom guitars under his own name. Garcia told Irwin to give him a call if he ever succeeded, and so when Irwin eventually produced his first instrument, Garcia was the first to know. While that first guitar – named “Eagle” – never saw much use, Irwin’s second guitar for Garcia did. “Wolf” was quickly adopted as Garcia’s new number one, relegating “Alligator” to Garcia’s home collection. The last show that Garcia ever played with “Alligator” was on August 1st, 1973, on what was Garcia’s 31st birthday.

Irwin produced most of Garcia’s guitars after that, but Garcia still owned “Alligator” when he died in 1995. It was purchased by Grateful Dead collector Andy Logan in a 2019 auction, bringing in $524,075 for a guitar that Garcia only really used for a year and a half. Still, that year and a half produced some of the most iconic recordings of the Dead’s career, and “Alligator” remains a major component to that era of the band.

Listen to the sound boarding recording of “Alligator”‘s final concert down below.