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.
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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