If you’ve ever listened to any 80s Grateful Dead, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Jerry Garcia’s guitar, Tiger in action. It was his most-played instrument from 1979 through 1989, and it continued to be a regular instrument in Jerry’s arsenal right through the end. In fact, there are even some who speculate that Tiger was last guitar that Jerry played at the final Grateful Dead concert at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 9th, 1995, after problems with Rosebud arose near the end of the show.
Tiger is a custom guitar built by luthier Doug Irwin — the third Doug Irwin guitar that Jerry owned, following Eagle and of course, Wolf. When Irwin delivered Wolf to Jerry in May of 1973, Jerry was so pleased with the instrument that immediately asked Doug to build yet another guitar for him. According to an old Doug Irwin interview with dozin.com, Jerry told Doug, “I want you to make me another one, but I don’t want you to hold back, I just want you to go for it. I’m not going to tell you what I want, you can just make it the way you want.”
So that’s exactly what Irwin did. He went to town crafting the absolute best guitar that he could come up with at the time. It took Irwin more than six years and 2000 hours of work to finish building Tiger, and it was finally delivered to Jerry in 1979.
The guitar is beautifully crafted with exotic hardwoods, sandwiched together in a way that became known as the Alembic “Hippie Sandwich”: first there is cocobolo, then a stripe of maple, a layer of vermillion, and a core of flame maple. This is surrounded in a brass binding, with a western maple neck and an inlay of a tiger just above the fretboard, thus giving the guitar its name. The guitar is extremely heavy, weighing in at 13.5 pounds, but Jerry clearly didn’t mind lugging that thing around.
Inside of Tiger, Irwin made use of the best technology available at the time and packed it full of features. Part of this was an unconventional wiring schematic that allowed Jerry to send full volume to his pedal board, even if he lowered the actual output volume on the guitar. This was accomplished with a 9V battery unity gain and some ingenuity, and allowed Jerry to fully and easily bypass the pedal board if he wanted to. Read more about the full technical specs of Tiger here.
The first time that Jerry played Tiger live was with the Grateful Dead on August 4th, 1979 at the Oakland Civic Center. Interestingly enough, that same night also marked the first times that the Grateful Dead performed future staples “Althea” and “Lost Sailor”.
From there, Jerry played Tiger almost exclusively until 1989, when technology had advanced to the point that allowed MIDI synthesizers to be built into a guitar, allowing Jerry to make his guitar sound like a number of other instruments. That’s when Wolf came out of retirement as an experiment with MIDI, and then Irwin handed over the next guitar, Rosebud in 1990 which became Jerry’s go-to after that. Jerry did still use his beloved Tiger from time to time, including as I mentioned earlier at the last-ever Grateful Dead concert on July 9th, 1995.
After Jerry’s death in 1995, there was a legal dispute over Jerry’s guitars, as the Grateful Dead assumed ownership of the instruments but Jerry had actually willed all five of them to Doug Irwin: Eagle, Wolf, Tiger, Wolf Jr., and Rosebud. After a long legal battle, Irwin won the guitars in court and promptly sold them, Wolf to Dan Pritzger of the Hyatt hotel chain family for close to $1 million dollars and Tiger for $950k to Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts.
Irsay still owns the guitar, and at one time it was on display at the Colts Headquarters in Indianapolis, but today it resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Tiger has only made one on-stage appearance since Jerry’s death. That was in 2016, when Warren Haynes debuted the guitar at the Jerry Garcia 70th birthday celebration at Red Rocks.
It was also made available for John Mayer to use on Dead & Company tour in 2016, though Mayer never did play it.