The History of Jerry Garcia’s Guitar, Alligator

Jerry Garcia playing Alligator, 12/31/72, Winterland Arena. Photo: Bob Marks

The first custom guitar that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead ever owned was Alligator, the 1957 Fender Stratocaster that he played from the spring of 1971 until the fall of 1973. This includes the band’s legendary first European tour in the spring of 1972, known far and wide for the triple live album release Europe ’72, a staple in the Dead canon. Jerry received Alligator as a gift from Graham Nash in 1970, as a thank-you for the guitar work he contributed on Nash’s album Songs For Beginners (1970). At the time, the guitar was mostly unmodified, but that soon changed.

This was before the days of the famous custom Doug Irwin-built axes Wolf and Tiger, but it didn’t take Jerry long to realize the freedom bestowed upon him by a custom instrument. Once he experienced said freedom, he very rarely played a plain old electric guitar again. Alligator was the first taste that got Jerry hooked, as one might say.

Graham Nash first purchased the Stratocaster from a pawn shop in Phoenix for just $250. The guitar has a maple neck, a swamp ash body, and a maple finish. It looked like any natural finish Fender Stratocaster from the time before Jerry got his hands on it. The guitar later became recognizable by several stickers that Jerry placed on the body in 1972, including a “Policeman Helper” sticker, a Harley Davidson sticker, and of course the iconic Alligator sticker, which gives the instrument its name.

Modifications to Alligator were done very frequently by luthiers Frank Fuller and Rick Turner, who worked for the Grateful Dead-founded musical instrument innovation company Alembic. First it was just the volume knobs in March of 1971, when Jerry first received the guitar, but over time the instrument was heavily modified, so much so that the Fuller and Turner referred to Alligator as a “Frankenstein”.

The technicians had their hands on it four times in 1972: in January, March, July, and December. Fuller and Turner made some final modifications to the instrument in August of 1973, but by that time Jerry had already moved on to another instrument, and had his hands on the Doug Irwin custom-built Wolf, which first appeared in September of 1973. Interestingly, Wolf came packed with one of the few things that the Alembic luthiers left untouched from the original form of Alligator: a set of Fender single coil pickups.

The first time that Alligator, pre-sticker, appeared was reportedly in February or March of 1971 at a Garcia / Saunders show. Jerry then brought it out for a few shows in May with the Grateful Dead, still pre-sticker. By the end of that summer, Jerry had started playing Alligator regularly, and by March of 1972 he had slapped a few stickers on it. The Alligator sticker itself was one of the final additions to the guitar, and was first seen in June of 1972, which was after the Europe ’72 tour. Alligator was retired after the Grateful Dead concert that took place on Jerry Garcia’s 31st birthday, August 1st, 1973 (which you can listen to at the bottom of this article).

Jerry Garcia playing Alligator, pre-sticker, May 1971.

It’s interesting to note that Jerry actually did not play Alligator at the famous Veneta, Oregon show on August 26th, 1972, which is also known as the Sunshine Daydream concert that was filmed and later released as a concert film in its entirety. Jerry was playing a different Stratocaster at that show, one with a sunburst finish that only appeared on that late-summer run. He picked Alligator back up in the fall of 1972 and continued playing it until the fall of 1973, as I mentioned. After that it was never played live again, though one would imagine that Jerry still picked her up at home every now and again, for old time’s sake.

After Jerry’s death in 1995, Alligator ended up with his family in the Jerry Garcia archives, where it stayed all the way up until December 2019, when it was sold at auction for $524,075 to Deadhead and guitar collector Andy Logan, who also owns Garcia’s Lightning Bolt and Top Hat guitars and a slew of extremely nice replicas of both Jerry and other Grateful Dead members instruments. Alligator is not among those replicas, as he has the original, but it goes without saying that Alligator has been replicated by fans and guitar companies alike, just like Jerry’s other famous guitars.

Listen to the Grateful Dead concert from August 1st, 1973 below, the last time that Jerry played Alligator live.

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