Jerry Garcia’s Tiger and Rosebud: A Look at the Last Guitars He Played Onstage

Today, Garcia's 74th birthday, Warren Haynes will play Tiger in its first public performance since Garcia's death in 1995.
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PHOTO: Michael Putland | Getty Images

Jerry Garcia played his final performance with the Grateful Dead on July 9, 1995, at Chicago’s Soldier Field. For the show, he brought along a pair of guitars that had served him well over their lifetimes: Tiger and Rosebud, two custom-made instruments built for him by Doug Irwin.

Though both guitars had been succeeded by a new instrument called Lightning Bolt, that guitar was in the shop for repairs. Garcia opted to play Rosebud for the show, but halfway through, it began to experience technical issues. Out came Tiger, which he’d brought along as a spare. In an unexpected twist of fate, Garcia played his final notes with the Grateful Dead on the guitar, which had been with him longer than any other instrument he’d owned.

Today, August 1, Tiger will be played for the first time in public since that performance, when Warren Haynes will uses it as part of the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration with the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado.

The date is fitting: Today marks what would have been Garcia’s 74th birthday. The iconic guitarist died August 9, 1995, just one month after his final show with the Dead.

Led by Warren Haynes, the Symphonic Celebration band includes drummer Jeff Sipe, bassist Lincoln Schleifer, singer Jasmine Muhammad and singer Jacklyn LaBranch, who served as a backing vocalist in the Jerry Garcia Band from 1983 until his death in 1995. Following the performance, the core group will be joined by organist and longtime Jerry Garcia Band member Melvin Seals for a third set.

“Any time you play Red Rocks, it’s a special occasion,” Haynes tells JerryGarcia.com. “And when we were able to book the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration there on Jerry’s birthday, we knew the planets were aligning.

“We started thinking about ways to honor the occasion and who we’d like to have be a part of the celebration, and there really was no one who made more sense than Melvin. If all that wasn’t enough, having the opportunity to play Tiger for the very first time since Jerry played it at the last Dead show over 20 years ago, really is the cherry on top.”

Tiger’s appearance will be made possible through noted guitar collector and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who purchased the instrument at auction for $957,500 (with commissions) in 2002. (That record-setting auction also netted Irsay Garcia’s Wolf ax.)

Given this historic occasion, we thought it was a good time to take a deep look at Tiger and Rosebud and their important roles in Jerry’s guitar work.

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Tiger (1979)
In 1972, Garcia began a long association with Irwin when he purchased a guitar called Eagle from the luthier. Garcia liked the guitar so much that he placed a custom order with Irwin. That guitar—dubbed Wolf, for the cartoon wolf sticker Garcia had originally applied below its bridge—was completed in 1973. When Garcia went to pick it up, he was so impressed by it that he placed an order for another custom guitar before leaving.

Wolf became Garcia’s main instrument for the next four years, during which time he asked Irwin to make several modifications, including a buffered effect loop that let him wire his effect pedals to the guitar and bypass them with a switch. Eventually, though, Wolf was replaced by the guitar that Garcia had ordered back in 1973, when he’d received Wolf. That guitar was Tiger, which he received in July 1979.

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Garcia had given Irwin total freedom with Tiger, and he was not disappointed. The guitar was beautiful, with contrasting layers of tone woods, including cocobolo, maple and vermillion. Detailed pearl inlays on the body’s back and fretboard heightened the guitar’s status as a work of art.

But Tiger was also a testament to Irwin’s technical innovation. The guitar’s coil-tap switches, five-position pickup selector, unity gain buffer, effect loop and other controls gave Garcia the freedom to craft a broad range of tones from the DiMarzio pickups, which included Dual Sound humbuckers in the middle and bridge positions and an SDS-1 in the neck (the Dual Sounds were replaced in 1982 with DiMarzio Super IIs).

“There are 12 discrete possible voices that are all pretty different,” Garcia said of Tiger’s electronics. That tonal power is the reason Tiger was his main guitar for the next 11 years, a continuous run longer than that of any other guitar Garcia played.

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Rosebud (1990)

Rosebud was Tiger’s replacement, and Garcia considered it to be Irwin’s masterpiece. While it bore similarities to Tiger, it featured a very different complement of electronic components. These included three humbuckers and a Roland GK-2 hexaphonic guitar synth pickup. Irwin mounted the GK-2’s MIDI and synth controls on the guitar for ease of use. The guitar also had hollow body cavities that reduced its weight by two pounds.

Rosebud’s MIDI features were key to its versatility. Garcia had begun using guitar synths in the Eighties when he installed a Roland hexaphonic pickup on his Wolf guitar. In Rosebud, Garcia finally had one instrument with all the features he’d sought, allowing him to play a broad range of guitar tones as well as external sounds via MIDI.

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Rosebud was eventually succeeded by a replica of Tiger called Lightning Bolt, built by luthier Stephen Cripe. The guitar takes its name from the Grateful Dead lightning bolt, which adorns the cover plate below the bridge. But when it came time for the Dead to play Soldier Field in Chicago on July 9, 1995—Garcia’s last gig with the group—Lightning Bolt was in the shop for repairs. In its place was Rosebud. When the guitar began to suffer technical problems midway through the show, Garcia pulled out Tiger, playing his last notes onstage with the guitar that had been with him longer than any other instrument. 

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