My Quest to Play Jerry Garcia’s Tiger Guitar

Life May Be Sweeter For This, I Don’t Know

We followed his assistant through a nondescript hallway into her office. She was his gatekeeper, and the fact that the only way to get into his inner sanctum was through her office reinforced this.

A sharp turn to the right took us into a small connecting room that featured a pool table which occupied most of the space, a large flat-screen TV on one wall, and a long, narrow Rolling Stones poster on another wall.

Maneuvering around the pool table, we entered a large, expansive room. I counted at least six more flat-screen TV’s, all of which were on, but muted, and tuned to a different sporting event. To our right was a huge modern-looking, custom-made wooden desk, and to our left was a long conference table. Everywhere I looked I could see sports memorabilia – footballs, basketballs, framed photographs and newspapers, and other assorted knick-knacks. This was his office. This was where he ran his professional sports empire and likely made million-dollar decisions every day.

But we weren’t there about sports. Frankly, I didn’t care. We were there for an entirely different reason.

In the corner of his office stood a plain-looking man in a red plaid shirt and jeans. Maybe mid to late 40’s. He was noodling around quietly on a black Les Paul plugged into a Vox amplifier. He looked up when we walked into the room and smiled as we approached him.

Tiger

Holding Tiger For The First Time

“This is Chris,” the assistant said. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. After a few pleasantries, the assistant left us alone. Chris put the Les Paul in a stand and led us back toward the big desk we had just walked by.

As we walked toward the desk, I saw it for the first time. The reason we were there. It was behind glass – the centerpiece of the hutch and bookshelf that matched the desk. The second I saw it, I felt myself gasp for air involuntarily, my body tingled slightly, and I knew my lifelong dream and yearlong quest was about to become a reality.

Chris walked behind the desk, opened the tall clear glass display door that protected the relic, carefully removed it and brought it around the desk for us to see.

He extended his arm toward me, gripping the instrument by its neck and said, “This is Tiger”, as he handed it to me.

I grabbed the neck firmly and deliberately with my left hand and the butt with my right hand and just marveled at it and mumbled, “Whoa.” My buddy and I briefly glanced at each other in disbelief.

I was holding Jerry Garcia’s Tiger guitar. The custom-built Doug Irwin instrument he played for 11 years with the Grateful Dead, his solo band, and in other side projects. The guitar he played more than any other in his career in front of thousands of adoring fans. The guitar that grew to near-mythic status as an instantly-recognizable icon by Deadheads and others around the world. The Holy Grail.

And it was in my hands.

Let My Inspiration Flow

I first laid eyes on Tiger around 1986. I was 15 and living in São Paulo, Brazil where I had moved to two years earlier from Michigan with my family because of my dad’s job in the automotive industry.

Playing In The BandSome kids at school had turned me on to the Dead and I picked up a copy of Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead by David Gans and Peter Simon during one of our “home leave” visits to Michigan. I studied this book religiously on the 45-minute bus ride to and from school every day as I listened to studio albums and poor-quality bootleg recordings of the Dead on my Sony Walkman. The imagery of the band was just as intoxicating as the music was to me, and there was something very special and different about Garcia’s guitar, which I saw for the first time in this book. It just oozed cool.

This was brand new musical territory for me, and I assimilated myself into the music and culture of the band during my time in Brazil. It was exciting and also felt a little dangerous because of the reputation the band had with drugs, especially during the “Just Say No” heyday of the 80’s.

I collected what live bootleg tapes I could, was on the Grateful Dead mailing list, had a subscription to Relix magazine, made Grateful Dead silkscreens in art class at school, and tried as best as I could to keep up with all things Dead-related from across the globe. I read about Garcia’s coma in Time magazine, but didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of it until a few years later.

I finally moved back to Michigan with my family in the summer of 1987. On the last leg of our return trip home, I was elated to see the Dead on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine which I picked up in the airport. In The Dark had just been released, which I had yet to hear. It seemed like everybody was cluing in to how awesome the Dead were. Little did I know that was the very beginning of the last act of the band that already grew to mean so much to me.

The Dead also had a profound influence on me as a musician. After years of piano lessons as a kid, it wasn’t until I got the Grateful Dead Anthology volume of sheet music that I truly began to really play music well. I would spend hours playing through that book from cover to cover. The spine is held together by duct tape now, and the pages are dog-eared and littered with corrections I made to the music over the years to be more accurate.

Me & Brent Mydland, 3/21/90

Me & Brent Mydland, 3/21/90

It wasn’t until April 11, 1988 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit that I would get to see the Dead live for the first time. I remember it well and it felt like I had been preparing for two years for that moment. That was the first time I would be in the same room, albeit a large one, with Tiger.

Over the next seven years I saw the Dead 43 times and the Jerry Garcia Band twice. I experienced some amazing shows, like the 1989 Alpine Valley run and the 1990 Hamilton, Ontario shows, where I got to hang out with Brent Mydland in the Sheraton Hotel bar. I have a photo with him along with a drink coaster he signed to me that are framed and hanging in my home recording studio. I saw his last five shows and even visited his grave in California a few years after he died. I tracked down John Barlow online pre-World Wide Web, and he was kind enough to communicate with me via email about songs he and Brent had been working on prior to Brent’s death.

In high school, I took up guitar and played in Dead-influenced bands in college. I played lead and my style was very obviously influenced by Garcia. I was a stickler for playing Dead songs “properly” and carried around a binder with lyrics and chords that I would bust out at parties and play through.

Tapes? Don’t me started on live tapes. After obsessively amassing a huge collection of well over a thousand hours of “low-gen, crunchy boards” on cassette (usually Maxell XLIIS-90), I spent years chasing down all the classic shows again on DAT. Only to have that format head toward obsolescence as I did it all again on CD-R. Now, of course, there’s easy access to more live Dead online than ever before, not to mention the huge amount of official live releases.

Grateful Dead: The Illustrated TripAfter Garcia died, I got to meet and chat with Bob Weir backstage at a Ratdog show in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and also briefly met Mickey Hart at a more formal book signing in Ann Arbor. I met Bruce Hornsby, too, during a mini solo tour of book stores he did right before Garcia died. And I also got to spend a little time with Robert Hunter after one of his solo shows in Michigan. Hunter and I corresponded via email for a time, too. He was very generous in giving me feedback on my songwriting.

In the late 90’s, I created a website to archive images of Grateful Dead ticket stubs and backstage passes that’s still online today. Images from that website are published in the hardcover coffee table book, Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip, and the official Jerry Garcia website features most, if not all, of my curated images.

What can I say? I love this band, I love the music, and I love Garcia’s Tiger guitar the most out of all the guitars he played. And that’s why I was so passionate about wanting to play it. I only mention all of this to give perspective and also to try to alleviate any concerns some people may have about me actually touching, let alone playing, the Grateful Dead’s “holy of holies”.

It’s The Same Story The Crow Told Me

Auction Book

Guernsey’s Auction Book

According to Wikipedia, “After Garcia’s death, a dispute arose between Irwin and the Grateful Dead regarding ownership of Garcia’s Irwin guitars. In his will, Garcia gave possession of these instruments to Irwin; the Grateful Dead challenged whether Garcia had the right to convey title and insisted that the band owned the instruments. The parties reached a settlement where Irwin was awarded Garcia’s more famous instruments, and the Grateful Dead took possession of the majority of the guitars. Irwin sold his guitars, the Tiger and the Wolf, at auction on May 8, 2002. The Tiger was purchased by Jim Irsay for $850,000.”

With the buyers premium added on, Irsay actually paid $957,500 for Tiger. This set a record at the time for the most money ever paid for an electric guitar.

Jim Irsay inherited the Indianapolis Colts from his father, and his net worth exceeds a billion dollars. I didn’t know who he was before the auction, but as soon as I learned he was the new owner of Tiger, I set a goal to track down Irsay and actually play that guitar.

Jim Irsay

Jim Irsay

I learned everything I could about Irsay that was available online. Like almost anyone with a lot of money, he has fans and he has haters. I can’t comment on his management of the Colts since I’m not a football fan and have no interest in that aspect of his life, but there seems to be a long history of controversy around his father’s decisions regarding the team as well as his own.

I also found a surprising amount of negativity that painted Irsay out to be a spoiled rich kid who doesn’t appreciate Tiger for what it is but who just wanted another trophy for his collection. As I do not know Irsay personally, I can only comment on what I’ve read and from talking with a few mutual acquaintances.

He seems to genuinely love and appreciate history, in particular popular culture and music. Through his wealth, he’s been fortunate enough to amass an amazing collection of guitars. In addition to Tiger, he owns George Harrison’s Gibson SG, and at least one of Elvis’s guitars, among many others. On guitar, he can strum a few chords and has a pretty rough gravely voice as evidenced in a YouTube video of him performing Bob Seger’s Turn The Page. He hangs out with Stephen Stills, Mike Mills from R.E.M., John Mellencamp, and longtime Mellencamp band guitar player, Mike Wanchic.

He also owns Jack Kerouac’s 120-foot scroll on which On The Road was written, and several other historical documents that I’m aware of.

Contrary to online speculation about the guitars in his collection being locked up never to see the light of day again, Irsay wants his collection to be seen and appreciated. He wants his guitars to be played, even if not by him. Tiger was on display for six months at the Indiana State Museum in 2012. It was also used to record Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again at a local Indiana recording studio. The On The Road scroll was literally on the road in 2012, on display in Paris, London, and other cities.

Then there was the story I read about a lady who had a connection to Irsay’s camp. Her husband was a big Colts fan as well as a Deadhead, and for his 40th birthday she told him she arranged for him to get some t-shirts and other Colts gear at the Colts headquarters. Upon arrival, she surprised her husband with a private visit with Tiger that she had pre-arranged.

So is Irsay a spoiled rich kid? Maybe, maybe not. But from all accounts, it seemed like he may have been open to letting a complete stranger play Tiger, and that’s why my quest began with the question, “How can I contact Jim Irsay?”

With regard to the broader question around the best and most “proper” use of Tiger, opinions are divided. There’s one group that thinks Tiger should indeed be preserved as a holy relic never again to be touched by human hands. Never mind that Garcia’s guitar tech, Steve Parrish, and probably several others regularly had their hands all over this guitar in its prime. There’s another group that thinks Tiger (and all famous guitars, for that matter) should be played, and played a lot. Of course, some people think Tiger should have a permanent home in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. And then there’s the group that thinks Tiger should be back in the hands of the Grateful Dead to do with as they see fit.

So that’s where my quest began. My idea was to propose to Irsay a donation for his favorite charity in exchange for an hour with Tiger. Simple, direct, and to the point. Now the only challenge was figuring out how to contact him.

I Wrote A Letter, Mailed It In The Air

For a year or two, I passively searched online to find ways to contact Irsay. I may have fired off a few emails to potential contacts and I might even have sent a letter or two. Nothing ever came of these half-hearted attempts.

Then, in 2011 I got serious about my quest to play Tiger. I figured my best bet was to find a friend of a friend who might have some connection to Irsay’s camp. So, I emailed a handful of my more successful business friends who I knew had large networks of acquaintances from all walks of life and asked them if they knew anyone who might know Irsay. I honestly wasn’t expecting to hear anything, and I knew it was a long shot.

A day later, I received a reply from my friend Bob. He told me one of his associates, Debbi, had done some charity work with Irsay’s office in the past and he connected me with her. I was really surprised that Bob had this connection because he was the last person I would think would’ve been able to help out. I later found out his daughter used to go on Dead tour in the 90’s (much to his chagrin), so he was somewhat familiar with the band.

I had actually met Debbi before, and I pled my case to her via email to see if she could put me in contact with Irsay’s office. Turns out she knew Irsay’s personal assistant, Cathy, pretty well and said she’d be happy to not only put me in contact, but she was determined to make this happen for me. Debbi really took this on as if it were her own personal mission, which I really appreciated.

J. Garcia

J. Garcia

Here’s the email I got from Debbi on November 8, 2011:

I spoke with Cathy in Jim Irsay’s office. She thought that your idea was a good one and said Jim may be open to it. However, the guitar is currently with the Indiana State Museum where it will be on display from January through May 1st. 

Cathy asked that I call her back in May and she will make the arrangements. 

So Greg, please put it on your calendar and remind me to make the call and we’ll get you to Indy to play that guitar. 

Done deal. 

Thanks,
Debbi

Wow!

So, I had to wait it out until the following Spring, at which time I started up the email thread again. A few more weeks went by and more emails were exchanged, but I still had not received any definitive answer.

Here’s one of the emails Cathy sent me on July 12, 2012:

I’ll try to get back with you by tomorrow.  Sorry for the delay…. I’m sure it will work out.

I was going stir crazy. I knew I was close but I felt I had to keep the pressure on or else my request would get lost or forgotten. So, I wrote out a donation check, left the “To” field blank, and FedEx’d it to Irsay’s office to demonstrate I was serious. The basic message was, “I’m ready. Let’s make this happen.”

The day after the FedEx was delivered, I received this email from Cathy, on August 7, 2012:

Jim said yes you can visit with Tiger for an hour as long as his guitar specialist is here, Chris. I just sent Chris an email and I know he’s out of town. Trying to get some dates from him that he’s free too and will get back with you. This will have to be a morning around 9 or 9:30 am.

Just wanted to give you a heads up.

Thanks, Cathy

P.S.  As far as the check, he said thanks but no.  I’ll give it to you when you come or I can shred it.

Unbelievable! Not only was Irsay open to letting me visit with Tiger for an hour, but he didn’t even want my donation!

A few emails later and we nailed down a date and time – August 14, 2012 at 9am.

24 years after I saw Garcia play Tiger for the first time, I was a few days away from playing it myself.

All Good Things In All Good Time

Close Up of Tiger

Jeff Holding Tiger

Cathy said I could bring a friend along, and I already knew who it would be – my good buddy, Jeff, who shared a love of the Dead equal to mine and who I also played countless hours of live music with in college, much of it Grateful Dead.

We drove down from Michigan to Indianapolis on Monday night, August 13, 2012 and stayed at a hotel downtown. We reminisced the whole way there about the old days of Dead tour and talked about what songs we wanted to play on Tiger.

We were pretty excited, and it was hard falling asleep that night. We were definitely like two little kids excited to see what Santa was going to bring them Christmas morning.

We awoke early and stopped at a Starbucks by Irsay’s office to grab a light breakfast. We were early so we were just killing time until our 9am meeting.

Finally, it was time to go and we drove the few remaining blocks to Irsay’s office up the road. We parked, walked into the lobby and asked for Cathy.

We waited restlessly until Cathy appeared. She greeted us with a warm smile, and led us back to Irsay’s office.

After we met Irsay’s personal guitar tech, Chris, and he handed me Tiger, and after I got over the shock that it was really happening, I asked him the obvious question, “Can we plug it in?”

“Do you have a 9-volt battery?” he replied.

Unlike most guitars, Tiger has active electronics, which means it needs a battery in order to play it through an amplifier. I was not prepared for this, but Cathy asked someone to track down a 9-volt.

Tiger's Electronics

Tiger’s Electronics

I was crossing my fingers someone could find a battery, but in the meantime we asked Chris if we could take some photos with Tiger. He said, “Yes”. And my buddy Jeff said, “Sweet”.

I handed Jeff the guitar, took out my camera and snapped off a bunch of shots of him holding it. Then we traded positions and he took a bunch of photos of me with the guitar.

Someone arrived a few minutes later with the battery and Chris took Tiger to a desk and removed the cover with the Tiger inlay below the bridge to install the 9-volt. The cover had four holes for screws, but Chris said two of the screws were missing when they took delivery of Tiger. I took photos of this entire procedure.

After he re-affixed the cover, Chris plugged Tiger into the same Vox amplifier he was playing earlier when we initially walked in the office. At first, no sound came out because he plugged the guitar cable into the wrong output jack of the guitar. Tiger has two output jacks for Garcia’s specially-designed effects loop system, and we just had a regular guitar rig to plug into. Once he switched output jacks, the guitar came to life as he strummed a chord or two and handed it to me.

Tuning Tiger With My iPhone

Tuning Tiger With My iPhone

So there I was, sitting on a stool, holding Jerry Garcia’s Tiger guitar, plugged into an amp, ready to rock. The moment was at hand. In my mind’s eye, I was onstage at Madison Square Garden, or Alpine Valley, or the Greek Theatre. And as I played a G-chord, it was very out of tune.

Chris said the strings had never been changed since they got it, except for the B-string, which broke and which he gave to a Deadhead friend of his. He thinks the strings may be the same strings that were on the guitar the last time Garcia played it.

Playing Old Familiar Tunes

Playing Old Familiar Tunes

Since it was so out of tune, I asked Chris if I could tune it, which he said was fine. I took out my iPhone and used an app to tune the guitar, which I thought was pretty funny for some reason. I wondered if that was the first time Tiger had been tuned with an iPhone. The whole guitar was about a half step flat and I was a little nervous tuning it up to pitch, just hoping the strings wouldn’t break.

The action was very low, and from what I’ve read online Garcia liked the action high, so either someone lowered it or the neck settled over the years.

I played through some bits and pieces of a few Garcia songs and sang a little of Black Peter. I didn’t have anything planned, and just kind of played what came to mind.

After getting over my initial nervousness, I calmed down a bit and settled into a groove and got comfortable playing the guitar. It felt good and you could definitely hear hints of Garcia’s tone coming through the Vox rig, even though it was just plugged in dry with no effects chain.

What can I say? It was a joy to play. Here’s a list of most of the songs I played a bit of:

Back of Tiger

Back of Tiger

Althea

Eyes of the World

Friend of the Devil

They Love Each Other

Scarlet Begonias

Fire on the Mountain

China Cat Sunflower

Black Peter

Casey Jones

It Must Have Been The Roses

Help on the Way

Shakedown Street

When I was playing these songs, I couldn’t help but wonder if Garcia was the last one to play them on this guitar. I like to think that this was the case, and that I helped to stoke the mojo of Tiger, even if just a little bit.

Jeff captured a few video clips on his phone of me playing some of these and he took plenty of photos. After I had my fill, I handed Tiger to Jeff and he played through some songs, too. He gave it back to me for a few more songs.

After just 30 minutes or so I felt like I was done. It was a weird feeling. After so many years of lusting to play that guitar, I didn’t feel an urge to keep playing it. It was kind of a sterile environment, anyway, and I’m sure things would’ve been different had I actually been playing it on stage at the Greek Theatre. But I was happy. Very satisfied. And then I handed it back to Chris and thanked him.

While Chris removed the 9-volt battery and put Tiger back in the display case, I looked around Irsay’s office. He had three beautiful, original handwritten letters by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln hanging on the wall above a long glass display case which housed the On The Road scroll.

Apparently Irsay is a big Who fan and there was also a framed photo of him and Pete Townshend backstage at one of the Superbowls that the Who played at.

On the way out, Cathy showed us a sports memorabilia room they were working on where Irsay had planned to display some of his guitars, including one of Bob Dylan’s.

Fare You Well My Honey

Jeff and I floated out of the office, back to our car, and back on the road home to Michigan, feeling very fulfilled.

On the drive back we told more stories about the old days of Dead tour and talked a lot of about what had just happened. Most of the photos were on my camera, but we emailed a few of the photos that we took on our phones to our friends. Everybody was really excited for us about the entire experience.

For me, this is something that I’ll never forget and that I’m very thankful for. The importance of Tiger in not only Grateful Dead history, but rock ’n’ roll history is something that I take very seriously and is part of the reason I wanted to document this experience. While it was indeed Jerry Garcia who created the magic that made Tiger such an iconic symbol, the guitar itself still resonates with some of that magic, and the vibrations of thousands of hours of music are sonically etched into the grain of the wood for all time.

When I got home, I sent a donation check to the Indiana State Museum in Jim Irsay’s name, even though he declined my donation directly. It was the least I could do.

A Dream Come True

A Dream Come True

I also contacted Thomas Lieber, who helped Doug Irwin build Tiger and asked him what it would cost to build a replica of Tiger. Here’s what he said:

Well yes of course I can do an exact replica if you wanted. An exact replica as stated on my web site would be $32,000.  It must be a worthwhile project for me to integrate all the mistakes we made on Jerry’s. 

The instrument pictured on my web site is the cleaned up version without all the afterthought cover up stuff. This instrument is $18,000.

A relative bargain compared the price Irsay paid for the original!

I thought his comment about “all the mistakes we made on Jerry’s” was interesting. It confirmed what Irsay’s guitar tech, Chris, said about the internal workings of the guitar. Apparently, the electronics are somewhat of a rat’s nest.

Looking at Tiger as just a guitar, it was not the best guitar I’ve ever played. There are many more affordable guitars that play much better than Tiger. That may be sacrilege to say, but it’s true, and Thomas and Chris’s comments support it.

However, Tiger will always be the best guitar I’ve ever played because of what it means to me and so many thousands of others. It is my holy grail guitar and I don’t think any other guitar will ever top it for me.

Finally, I firmly believe that Tiger should be played as often as possible, and by whoever wants to play it, as long as it’s treated with the proper respect it deserves. If I owned it, I would work with the Grateful Dead family to see it played at major events and I’d also make it available to be played by anyone for a charitable donation. I think Garcia would love to see his old friend not only helping out worthy causes, but also making more music again.

A lot more music.

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