Guitar Aficionado

Warren Haynes Gives Jerry Garcia's Tiger Guitar an Encore Turn

The famed Doug Irwin guitar hits the stage more than 20 years after Garcia played it at his last Grateful Dead show,.
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This is a feature from the November/December 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on actor Kiefer Sutherland and his debut country-rock album, Scott Tennant’s project that brings together Andrés Segovia’s guitar and the master’s unheard works, electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian and his impact on the instrument’s importance, the annual Guitar Aficionado Holiday Gift Guide and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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THE CAT RETURNS: More than 20 years after Jerry Garcia played it at his last Grateful Dead show, his famed Doug Irwin Tiger guitar makes an encore appearance with Warren Haynes and the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration.

By Richard Bienstock | Photos by Jeff Nelson

It’s dusk on a warm evening as Warren Haynes takes the stage at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the famed concert venue nestled in the side of a mountainous rock formation in Morrison, Colorado. The Gov’t Mule and former Allman Brothers Band guitarist is here to lead the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, a tour, now in its third year, dedicated to presenting the Grateful Dead frontman’s music with accompaniment from local orchestras.

As Haynes and his band, aided tonight by the Colorado Symphony, break into their set opener, the 1968 classic “Dark Star,” a cheer erupts from the thousands of Rocky Mountain Deadheads in attendance. This initial loud welcome is quickly followed by another, and possibly even louder, ovation, as the crowd acknowledges the instrument strapped across Haynes’ torso. It’s a guitar so mythologized in Grateful Dead lore that it’s known by just a one-word name: Tiger.

“Very few instruments in the world have that sort of connection with an audience,” Haynes remarks to Guitar Aficionado after the performance. “But Tiger is one of those instruments. It’s just so revered in the eyes and ears of Grateful Dead fans.”

Custom-built for Garcia by luthier Doug Irwin over a period of six years, Tiger features distinctively shaped horns, a top and back of deeply figured Cocobolo with layers of maple and vermillion sandwiched in between, and lavish touches like brass binding, detailed pearl adornments, and an ornate tiger image inlaid on the oval preamp cover, below the tailpiece. The guitar served as the Grateful Dead leader’s main stage instrument between 1979 and 1989. As such, it’s revered by the Dead faithful and as recognizable—and perhaps almost as representative of the band—as the dancing bear image or the “Steal Your Face” skull logo.

But there’s another reason why Tiger’s appearance at Red Rocks triggered such an intense reaction from the throng in attendance. The evening’s show took place August 1, on what would have been Garcia’s 74th birthday. It also marked the first time the guitar was played onstage by anyone since Garcia used it to perform “Box of Rain,” the final song of the evening, at his very last Grateful Dead concert. That show, at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 9, 1995, came just one month before Garcia died of a heart attack at the age of 53. That the Dead leader happened to be using Tiger at the time was something of an accident. Garcia’s main guitar in those days, a custom-built Tiger lookalike known as Lightning Bolt, was undergoing repairs on the night of the Soldier Field concert. The instrument he chose to use instead, another custom Irwin creation known as Rosebud, went on the fritz about halfway through the show. Thus, Garcia turned to Tiger to cap the evening—and, as it unfortunately turned out, his 30-year career with the Grateful Dead.

But when Haynes brandishes Tiger at Red Rocks, it’s as if Garcia is right there with him. “The guitar was built for Jerry,” Haynes says. “And it has a voice that instantly reminds people of him.”

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Until this night, however, that voice had been silent for more than two decades. How it came to be resurrected is something of a long, strange trip in and of itself, one involving a cast of characters that includes an NFL team owner and a Cy Young Award–winning Major League Baseball pitcher.

Per Garcia’s will, Tiger was returned to Doug Irwin after the guitarist’s death. Wolf, Irwin’s first custom creation for Garcia, came back into Irwin’s possession as well. In 2002, Irwin sold both instruments at auction. Wolf went for $700,000 and has made the rounds on the jam band circuit over the years, appearing in the hands of everyone from Neal Casal, guitarist in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, to Haynes, who has played the instrument numerous times at Symphonic Celebration shows.

Tiger, which Garcia played for the longest continuous stretch of time for any guitar he used during his career, was sold at auction to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay for an astounding $850,000 (the final price tag, with commissions, was closer to one million). Irsay, a passionate guitar enthusiast whose expansive private collection boasts such coveted and iconic pieces as Bob Dylan’s “Newport Festival” Fender Stratocaster, Les Paul’s 1954 “Black Beauty,” George Harrison’s 1964 Gibson SG, and, his most recent acquisition, Prince’s yellow Cloud custom guitar, has housed Tiger at his Indianapolis office ever since. The idea to bring the guitar out of retirement came, interestingly, from another sports-world luminary, if an unlikely one: San Francisco Giants pitcher Jake Peavy.

The 35-year-old Peavy is a two-time World Series champion, and he’s a guitarist in his spare time. In 2014, the Boston Red Sox traded him to the San Francisco Giants, and after landing in the Grateful Dead’s Bay Area stomping grounds, he was converted into an unabashed Deadhead.

“The Dead, to me, is a way to be,” Peavy tells Guitar Aficionado at Red Rocks while awaiting the evening’s show. “And the Giants are really married to the Grateful Dead family through things like Jerry Garcia Tribute Night, which we do at the ballpark.” The pitcher, who also runs the charitable organization the Jake Peavy Foundation, conceived of the plan to bring Tiger back to the stage after he and several of his Foundation associates attended one of the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well concerts last year. “We went to the show, and afterward we were sitting around and saw online that Wolf and Tiger were going to be on display somewhere,” Peavy recalls. “And one of the guys said, ‘Tiger is such an instrumental piece in the band’s history and in Jerry’s history. Wouldn’t it be great to see it played onstage again?’”

Peavy and his team began to seek out anyone who might be able to help with their quest and eventually landed on Chris McKinney, who curates the Jim Irsay guitar collection. “They found me on Facebook,” says McKinney, who traveled with Tiger to Red Rocks. “And honestly, it’s not that Jim had never been interested in doing something like this. It’s more that no one had ever asked.”

After getting the go-ahead from Irsay, McKinney brought Tiger to San Francisco this past May to meet with Peavy and his team. The initial plan, devised by Peavy’s camp, was to offer the iconic guitar to John Mayer, who was in town rehearsing with the recently formed Dead & Company for a summer tour. “But for a lot of reasons, he politely declined,” Peavy says. “Which I completely understand. He has some big shoes to fill, stepping into Jerry’s role in that band. And he’s not trying to be Jerry Garcia. He has his own sound.”

Mayer may not have grabbed hold of Tiger, but during that period when the guitar was in San Francisco several other key figures in the Grateful Dead world did. “I had a small get-together at my house, and guys like [former Grateful Dead road manager and Garcia tech] Steve Parish came, and you could see the whole room shift when he picked up the guitar,” Peavy says. “And we took Tiger to Terrapin Crossroads [the San Rafael restaurant and music venue owned by former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh] and gave it to Phil to hold, and it was like it brought Jerry back to him. In general, just to witness the emotion that was involved with the people that came and saw this instrument…you know, it’s not normal to see a grown man shed a tear over a guitar. But everywhere we went, you could see the reverence people had for it…”

This is a feature from the November/December 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on actor Kiefer Sutherland and his debut country-rock album, Scott Tennant’s project that brings together Andrés Segovia’s guitar and the master’s unheard works, electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian and his impact on the instrument’s importance, the annual Guitar Aficionado Holiday Gift Guide and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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