Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia remembered with new eco-friendly Ocean guitar – The Mercury News
The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia played lots of different guitars in his lifetime. Now there’s a new one that others will play in his memory.
To celebrate what would have been Garcia’s 75th birthday this month, the Marin-based Jerry Garcia Foundation is unveiling an eco-friendly electric guitar named Ocean, so called because it has one of Garcia’s fish etchings inlaid on the fingerboard.
It was commissioned by foundation founder Manasha Matheson, mother of Garcia’s youngest daughter, Keelin, and designed and built by New York guitar maker Tom Lieber, who apprenticed with the late Sonoma County luthier Doug Irwin, maker of Garcia’s famous Tiger, Wolf and Rosebud guitars.
After searching for two years for someone who could make a plastic-free guitar, Matheson asked Lieber to do it after meeting him at a recent foundation benefit.
“I took Manasha’s concept and vision and ran with it, trying to fulfill her dream,” he says, speaking from his shop in upstate New York.
Tiger, a 13#xbd;-pound monster that Garcia strapped on for 11 years, from 1979 to 1990, was Lieber’s first collaboration with Irwin. It gets its name from the inlay of a tiger behind the tailpiece
“When we designed that instrument, we were thinking that we wanted to create our generation’s Les Paul,” he explains. “It was called the Garcia. It became the Tiger later on, but that was not our original intent. Forty years later, it has kind of become our generation’s Les Paul.”
Not a replica
Lieber makes a Summer of Love model guitar that was inspired by Tiger, but he refuses to build an exact replica out of respect for the late Grateful Dead paterfamilias, who died in 1995. Tiger was the last guitar he ever played.
“I have a moral issue about that,” he says. “We built that guitar for Jerry, and I won’t make that exact thing for anybody. It wouldn’t feel right.”
You may recall that Tiger, which Garcia reportedly bought for $11,000, was sold at auction for $1.9 million. Guitar collectors and aficionados should find Ocean far more affordable. That is if and when Lieber gets the go ahead to produce a limited edition of no more than 44 of them, with a price tag of $7,600 each, a portion of the proceeds going to Garcia-supported causes.
At the moment, though, only the prototype exists. According to the foundation, various notable guitarists will be invited to play it “at benefit events in support of ocean conservation, such as coral reef preservation, in addition to other worthy causes.”
“Jerry was more than the stage,” Lieber says. “He cared about things like the Great Barrier Reef. People don’t know that.”
An avid scuba diver, Garcia found refuge and escape from his fame under the sea. As far as Lieber is concerned, the coolest thing about this new guitar is the fish inlay on the solid maple neck that’s taken from one of Garcia’s drawings.
Fashioned from mother-of-pearl and abalone shell, in keeping with the oceanographic theme, the inlay was created by Pearl Works, a Maryland company that specializes in those gleaming inlays you see on guitars and other instruments. They took Jerry’s artwork, put it in a computer and generated an exact image of the original, just as Garcia first drew it.
“It’s magic,” Lieber says. “I get goosebumps just talking about it.”
The Ocean guitar is a kind of mash-up of different instruments Garcia played over the years. The Fender Stratocaster-style body, made of Eastern curly maple with a silky Chinese tongue oil finish, is modeled after Wolf, the first custom guitar Irwin made for Garcia.
According to an online history of Garcia’s guitars, he paid $1,500 for it, playing it for a couple of years in the early ’70s. It got its name when he slapped a cartoon wolf on the body that Irwin later replaced with a permanent inlay.
Like ‘Jerry’s spirit’
“The Wolf body means something,” Lieber says. “It’s an expression of Jerry’s spirit.”
Ocean is outfitted with custom Kent Armstrong pickups and solid brass, steel and bronze hardware that looks like it came off a Fender Telecaster.
“It’s kind of like a Tele-Wolf,” the guitar maker says. “One of Manasha’s favorite instruments that she still owns of Jerry’s is an old Telecaster.”
He modeled the streamlined headstock on the Butternut guitars he made for Blondie’s Chris Stein. A company that makes baseball bats used a laser to inscribe “Jerry Garcia Foundation” on it.
“There’s many hands involved in this guitar,” he notes. “Like the Grateful Dead was never just Jerry, it’s been a total collaboration. That’s how great things happen, through collaboration.”
Unlike the guitars Garcia played in his lifetime, Ocean isn’t a relic from the past, but a new manifestation of his principles and beliefs. At least that’s how Lieber sees it.
“It’s not an artifact, it’s art,” he says. “It’s an expression of Jerry’s spirit, showing the things he believed in are progressing and expanding.”