It comes as no surprise that Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia loved his guitars. He played many of them over the span of his thirty-five year stint as a professional musician, but perhaps his most beloved and most famous is Wolf, the custom guitar made by luthier Doug Irwin. Jerry played Wolf extensively in the 1970s, and last played it live in 1993. Since then the guitar has been seen in the hands of several other prominent musicians, including Warren Haynes, John Mayer (with Dead & Co) Tom Hamilton, and more.
Jerry Garcia was first introduced to Doug Irwin at a guitar shop in the early 1970s. Irwin worked for Alembic at the time, a company that started in the Grateful Dead family as a way of providing instruments that were more advanced than the other ones on the market.
The Grateful Dead always strived to have the best possible sound quality, that was depicted in the famous Wall of Sound and that also came to its members playing custom instruments, including Phil Lesh’s custom bass, which was also made by Doug Irwin.
Doug was working on a custom guitar at the time, the first one to be released under his own name (Irwin Guitars), and Jerry walked right over, liked what he saw, and purchased it on the spot. That guitar was called Eagle, and immediately upon purchasing it he asked Doug to build him another guitar, custom and from scratch. That guitar was Wolf, and Irwin delivered it to Jerry in May of 1973.
The body of the guitar is constructed of amaranth, more commonly known as purple heart, bookmatched on the top and back with curly western maple. It has a beautiful marbled finish and is packed with electronic features that were cutting edge for the time. Read about all the technical specs of Wolf straight from Doug Irwin’s mouth here.
Wolf got its name after Jerry slapped a cartoon wolf sticker on the body of the guitar. Later, after Jerry sent the guitar back to Irwin for some repairs after it was dropped from the stage during tour, Doug refinished the guitar and took the opportunity to incorporate the cartoon wolf logo into the body of the guitar.
The first time that Jerry played Wolf live was on September 5th, 1973 at a private party organized by the Hell’s Angels, where Jerry Garcia was on the bill along with Merl Saunders. The party took place aboard the motor vessel SS Bay Belle, cruising around New York Harbor. See some footage of the band performing “That’s Alright Mama” from that evening below, Jerry with Wolf in hand – but be warned, you are going to see boobies.
From there, Jerry played Wolf prominently throughout the 1970s, and didn’t really start to phase it out until 1979, then Doug Irwin finished Jerry’s next guitar and second most well-known, Tiger. Wolf came out of retirement in the late 80s for a brief experiment with MIDI technology. He also played it a few times with the Grateful Dead in the 90s, the last time being 2/23/93, though some commenters on the Internet Archive claim to have seen it at The Warfield with the Jerry Garcia band shortly thereafter.
When Jerry Garcia died, the band assumed ownership of his guitars. It turns out, though, that Jerry had actually willed all five of the guitars built by Doug Irwin back to Doug himself: Eagle, Wolf, Tiger, Wolf Jr., and Rosebud. A legal battle ensued and Irwin eventually ended up getting the guitars back in 2002.
He then promptly sold them. Wolf to Dan Pritzger, whose family owned the Hyatt hotel chain, for almost $1 million dollars and Tiger to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay for $950k. Wolf was then sold again in 2017 to HubSpot co-founder Brian Halligan for $1.9 million, making it the third most expensive guitar ever sold at auction. Today, both Wolf and Tiger reside at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
There have been occasional public appearances of the iconic guitar in the years since Jerry’s death. First, it was seen in July 2005 at a Phil Lesh & Friends two-night run at the Fillmore in Denver, when Jimmy Herring and Ryan Adams took turns playing the guitar. The story goes that the building had a power outage during the rehearsal on the first night and also during the performance on the second night. Both times were when the guitar was being played.
In October 2006, Wolf was played by John Kadlecik of Dark Star Orchestra during a show where Bob Weir appeared and sat in on the whole second set.
The late Neal Casal also had the honor of playing Wolf at a show with Chris Robinson Brotherhood in 2012.
Most recently, Wolf was seen in the hands of John Mayer, who played Wolf with Dead & Company at NYC’s Citi Field on 6/23/19. Check out some live footage from that show below.