“I was working with Ibanez in the mid-'70s, and they showed me a new guitar from Japan. I played it, and they told me they'd made it for George Benson. I said, ‘You can call the police, but I'm taking it’: Bob Weir on Ratdog, and his unique custom models

Bob Weir performs onstage at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on October 2, 2002
(Image credit: Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

This interview was originally published in the February 1998 issue of Guitar Player.

For nearly 30 years, Bob Weir played in the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia, his partner in the Dead, was unabashed in his appreciation of Weir's grasp of hard-to-reach chords, adeptness at adding color, and extraordinary ability to harmonically bridge one of rock's most complex rhythm sections.

“Bob's the finest rhythm guitarist on wheels right now,” Garcia explained in his October '78 Guitar Player cover story. “He's like my left hand.”

With Jerry's death in 1995, the remaining members of the Dead shook hands and parted as friends. Weir quickly escalated his involvement with Ratdog, his blues-rock-experimental jam band with bassist Rob Wasserman, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, saxophonist Dave Ellis, drummer Jay Lane, and Matthew Kelly on harmonica and guitar. He's also hard at work collaborating on the score of a musical about Black baseball legend Satchel Paige.

“Not everybody gets a chance in midlife to reinvent himself,” says Weir, “and I'd be remiss to overlook that opportunity and challenge.

“These days, I'm putting most of my time into Ratdog. I really am loath to compare Ratdog to the Grateful Dead, though, because it's necessarily different. I was putting the band together when the Dead were around, and I wanted something different – otherwise, it wouldn't have been a vacation for me, which was the whole idea for Ratdog. So I got started out in a completely different direction, and with the demise of the Grateful Dead, I'm just following that through.”

Ratdog's origins occurred a decade ago, when Weir and Wasserman met at a Northern California club. They spent five years performing as the Weir/Wasserman duo before expanding the lineup into Ratdog.

“When it started out, Rob was my whole band,” says Weir. “We had a good chemistry – I knew where he was going to be and he knew where I was going to be. We had total command over all the notes that we were going to toss into the mix, and we could turn a corner as quick as you please.”

Because they were both playing acoustic instruments, Weir approached Alvarez-Yairi about co-designing a cutaway that produced a strong top end.

“Rob's instrument did all the low end, and we didn't want to get into any acoustic pissing matches,” he explains. “I stayed away from having a big-bodied guitar, like a dreadnought or bigger, for that reason, so we designed the Alvarez more or less from the 000-body size, and we've been refining that over the years. 

“The electronics are a Mills microphone and a Sunrise pickup, although I think we are going to go to a slightly smaller fingerboard pickup, like on the old Gibson J-45E. Then, if needed, I can pop a soundhole cover in or out with greater ease to cut feedback.

Bob Weir performs at the Central Park SummerStage in New York City on July 19, 1997

(Image credit: Bill Tompkins/Getty Images)

“On the electric side, I've been working with the guys at Modulus, developing a personalized version of their Genesis model,” he continues. “I've been leaning towards a Telecaster sort of harness, since the body resonance of the Genesis tends to lean more towards the Strat side. We're experimenting with different body compositions. Modulus puts a graphite T-bar through the neck, and once you adjust it, it remains absolutely rigid, so you can get by using any kind of wood for the neck.

“Softer wood is lighter and gives you a lot softer resonance characteristic, so the combination of the T-bar and soft wood is wonderful. On the ones we're making now, we use New Zealand red cedar, which is so close to swamp ash I can't tell the difference. Over the years, Modulus guitars have been criticized as being too brittle, but this is the other side of that coin.”

Ibanez showed me a new guitar that had just come in from Japan. I played it a bit, and they told me they had made it for George Benson. I told them, ‘No, you didn't. You can call the police or do whatever you're going to do to me, but I'm taking it’

Weir, who retains possession of nearly all of the guitars he's owned, cites two as his all-time favorites: a Gibson ES-335 from the early '70s (“an old sweetheart”) and an Ibanez George Benson model snatched from its namesake.

“I was working with Ibanez on some designs in the mid '70s,” Weir confesses, “and they showed me a new guitar that had just come in from Japan. I played it a bit, and they told me they had made it for George Benson. I told them, ‘No, you didn't. You can call the police or do whatever you're going to do to me, but I'm taking it.’ 

“It still has Benson's name on it, and I've written so many songs on that guitar. I don't know if George knows that ever happened, and I'd like to apologize to him.”

Weir's collaborators on the as-yet-unnamed Satchel Paige musical are David Murray and Taj Majal, who are scholars in their respective fields of jazz and country blues. As Weir details, they are attempting to compose true-to-period songs. 

“If you trace Satchel Paige's life, you'll find yourself in the same times and places as the birth and development of the blues and jazz idioms. The ballplayers on the Black teams would go to the dance halls and clubs at night to see the musicians, and the musicians would come to the ballparks during the day. They were all good friends, and they hung out pretty thick. There really is a story to be told there – on many levels – and it's a great way to trace the development of Black American music.

“I've been listening to a lot of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Jordan, and the old stuff from the late '20s and early '30s, like Fletcher Henderson. For the early part of the play, we've also listened to a fair bit of Delta blues and the old jug bands because Satchel Paige was country. Going back even further, we picked up on some of the moans and field hollers that predated blues. It's fun to go back and do that.

“We also listened to some of the old Dixieland greats and actually did a session with some of them when the story took us through New Orleans.” Weir and company plan to bring the production to regional theater this spring, with hopes of moving to Broadway later in '98.

While Ratdog weren't slated to begin recording until press time, Grateful Dead Records has just released Bob Weir/Rob Wasserman – Live, featuring a spirited 1988 set and the recording debut of Eternity, co-written with Willie Dixon.

The label has also issued several complete Grateful Dead concerts under the series title Dick's Picks. “I haven't been involved with these,” Weir says. “In fact, I haven't heard most of them. I want to put in a little more time before I go back and start plumbing that stuff. I'm trying to guard myself against reverting to my old ways of doing things.”

What does Bob Weir miss most about playing with the Dead? “Jerry, of course.”

Jas Obrecht was a staff editor for Guitar Player, 1978-1998. The author of several books, he runs the Talking Guitar YouTube channel and online magazine at jasobrecht.substack.com.