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Exploring the guitars of Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia


The connection between Jerry Garcia and the electric guitar was nothing short of pure magic. Perhaps that’s strange considering that he started as a strict bluegrass banjo player. But with a nudge from close friend and bandmate Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, Garcia learned how to wield an electric guitar that was capable of communicating with the same conversational style that was present in his favourite bluegrass tunes.

Gracia’s role as a lead guitarist in the Grateful Dead was often praised in a vacuum, but Garcia himself considered the interactions between all of the instruments key to his own playing style. As the group continued to evolve and grow, so too did Garcia’s interest in tones. Constant change was a central component of Garcia’s personal philosophy, and whenever he could swing it, that same attitude filtered its way into his music as well.

Behind the Grateful Dead was an entire family of people, a few of which just happened to be forward-thinking sonic explorers. By the time the Alembic company had incorporated themselves outside of their employment of the Dead, sound engineer Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley, electronics expert Ron Wickersham, and luthier Rick Turner had been “alembic-izing” the band’s gear for years.

Garcia’s guitars started to take on a signature tone: one that was full and retaining the band’s early psychedelic edge while being able to explore an entire host of genres. Garcia could adjust the sound to be sweet, stinging, twangy, or rich, often depending on how he was feeling at a particular show. Throughout their later years, the incorporation of MIDI gave an entirely new sonic dimension to the band that was ripe for exploration.

From the start of the Grateful Dead in 1965 until his very final days in 1995, Jerry Garcia had anywhere upwards of 25 guitars. Some lasted for decades at a time; others were only used for a few months and discarded. With each new era of the Grateful Dead came with brand new guitar until Garcia finally slipped into a particular comfort zone with luthier Doug Irwin. These are the stories behind his most prominent axes.

1965: Guild Starfire

When The Warlocks officially changed their name to the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia had only seriously been playing the electric guitar for a scant year. For most of the time before that, Garcia was focused on either banjo or acoustic guitar. But a new electric direction became impossible to pass up, and so Garcia found himself an electric axe in a Guild Starfire.

Guilds were popular instruments with all of the band’s string players: Bob Weir and Phil Lesh had both also played the brand at different times throughout the 1960s. Garcia would wield this guitar through the recording of the band’s debut album in 1967.

Late 1960s: The Gibsons

Starting in the summer of 1967, Garcia decided to switch over to a 1957 Gibson Les Paul Gold painted black, not terribly unlike the guitar that Neil Young would become famous for playing with Buffalo Springfield and into today. From there, a period of Gibson usage began that stretched all the way through the band’s biggest appearances on the 1960s.

Les Paul Goldtops, SGs, and a Sunburst Les Paul all cycled through at this time. Alembic co-founder Rick Turner even assembled a Frankenstein guitar from different Gibson parts that was dubbed “the Peanut guitar”. Eventually, Garcia and the band decided to take a step back to their acoustic roots.

1970: Martin D-18

The country-tinged arrangements of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty called for a different kind of approach to guitar from Garcia. Acoustics were now required, and Garcia decide to employ a Martin D-18 to do the job. There’s very little electric guitar on either of these landmark albums, but Garcia’s SG or various Les Pauls along with a Sunburst Strat he had acquired that year were also used in the sessions.

The Dead enjoyed the acoustic sound so much that their live shows briefly incorporated an acoustic set into them. Between 1969 and 1970, some lengthy acoustic shows got the band into their Bakersfield period, but soon Garcia would find an instrument that lent him the twang of country and the power of rock and roll.

1972: “Alligator”

As a thanks for playing on his 1971 LP Songs for Beginners, Graham Nash gifted Garcia with his first true love of an electric guitar: A 1957 Fender Stratocaster with a swamp ash body and a maple neck. A number of modifications were made by the Alembic team to give the Strat that kept the guitar’s tone changing every so slightly over a number of years.

This was the guitar that pushed the band through the Europe ’72 tour, lending its voice to iconic lead guitar lines like ‘Morning Dew’, ‘Ramble On Rose’, and ‘It Hurts Me Too’. Later distinguished by its titular sticker, the Strat would forever be known as “Alligator”.

1973: “Wolf”

By the mid 1970s, Garcia formed what would become one of his most important musical partnerships with luthier Doug Irwin. Irwin was associated with the Alembic crew and sold Garcia his first-ever prototype guitar nicknamed “Eagle”. When Irwin came back with prototype number two, he went straight to Garcia.

“Wolf” got its name from another sticker put on by Garcia (something of a favourite modification for Garcia), and Irwin later had the design inlaid to the guitar itself. “Wolf” would become Garcia’s second longest-used guitar, appearing on stage and in the recording studio from 1973 all the way to 1990.

1975: Travis Bean TB 1000A

Mass produced guitars were no longer an interest for Garcia. While Doug Irwin became his go-to luthier, Garcia was also accosted by anew name in the world of custom made guitars – Travis Bean. Bean’s guitars had a unique feature: an aluminum neck that purported to add more sustain to notes and bends.

Fascinated by the possibilities of the aluminum guitar, Garcia’s tone took on a more metallic edge when Garcia began playing the guitar on a more frequent basis during the mid 1970s. A TB500 model also was circulated within Garcia’s arsenal at the time. By 1977, Garcia had decided to return to using the “Wolf” full time.

1979: “Tiger”

After getting “Wolf” returned to him, Garcia requested that Irwin make him a new guitar. Price was not a worry, and Garcia wanted Irwin to put all of his ideas into the guitar. The result was massively heavy “Hippie sandwich” named “Tiger”, a monster guitar that quickly became Garcia’s favourite axe.

The single most-used guitar across Garcia’s career, “Tiger” offered guitar an extensive array of sounds of effects with which he could expand his playing. From 1979 onwards, “Tiger” was the main guitar of Garcia’s until the 1990s. At the Dead’s final show in July of 1995, technical problems with his newer guitars meant that “Tiger” was the final guitar Garcia played live.

1990: “Rosebud”

The apex of Irwin’s career as a luthier was “Rosebud”. Complete with all the features that made “Tiger” great, plus a slightly reduced weight, made “Rosebud” the final of Garcia’s favourite axes. “Rosebud” was there on the final Grateful Dead years and shepherded Garcia to the end of his life.

Another copy of “Tiger” made by first-time luthier Stephen Cripe and entitled “Lighting Bolt” was used and loved by Garcia in the final two years of his life. And with that, the story of Garcia and his love of guitars came to an end.