Wolf’s Howl: How a Beloved Jerry Garcia Guitar Made the Long, Strange Trip to Dead & Co.’s NYC Show

The Grateful Dead fandom at Citi Field was abuzz about John Mayer using a famous but long-unplayed guitar of Garcia's.

John Mayer, left, and Bob Weir
Amy Harris/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Dead & Company’s show Sunday at New York’s Citi Field was their 13th on the band’s current tour, but something was different about this night, which fans started to buzz about as the show went on. John Mayer was playing a unusual guitar — a light brown model that turned out to be Jerry Garcia’s “Wolf,” which is currently featured as part of the “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Built for Garcia by San Rafael guitar maker Doug Irwin in 1973, it was first used at a private Hell’s Angels party in New York’s harbor aboard the SS Bay Belle on September 5 of that year. Garcia was accompanied by keyboardist Merle Saunders at the gig.

The guitar, made of amaranth and Western maple with an ebony fingerboard and 24 frets, earned its nickname when Garcia replaced Irwin’s eagle logo with a “blood-thirsty wolf sticker.” It’s now inlaid with a “hungry, cartoonish canine.” He last played it in in 1993.

After Garcia’s death in 1995, the band attempted to claim ownership of his guitars, five of which were built by Irwin, including another one dubbed “Tiger.” But Garcia had left the guitars to Irwin in his will.

According to biographer Joel Selvin in “Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter in the Grateful Dead’s Long, Strange Trip,” published in 2018: “GDP (Grateful Dead Productions) counsel Hal Kant had long cautioned the GDP management about the guitars in Garcia’s will. Kant was certain the guitars had been paid for with corporate funds and, consequently, belonged to the company. The band members feared that Irwin was going to turn around and sell the guitars to the highest bidder and that their bandmate’s precious instruments would disappear from public view. They knew he couldn’t resist the money.”

After GDP loaned the five guitars to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Irwin’s attorney Doug Long sued the Dead organization in 2001 in Marin Country Superior Court. That October, GDP settled and returned the Wolf and Tiger guitars to Irwin.

As anticipated, Irwin promptly put the guitars up for auction. Both were initially sold in 2002. Wolf was purchased for close to $1 million by Dan Pritzger, whose family owned the Hyatt chain and whose cousin, J.B., is now governor of Illinois. He sold it to HubSpot co-founder Brian Halligan in 2017 for $1.9 million. Tiger went to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay for $850,000.

In 2005, Jimmy Herring and Ryan Adams took turns playing Wolf at back-to-back Phil Lesh & Friends shows at the Fillmore in Denver. During the rehearsal on July 14, there was a power outage in the building and then during the July 15 show, while Wolf was being played, half the stage lost power.

Warren Haynes, another stand-in for Garcia, used it on the Garcia Symphonic Celebration tour in 2013 and again for the Jerry Garcia 75th Birthday Celebration at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado in 2017.

After the Garcia Celebration, photographer Jay Blakesberg — who had shot various permutations of the Dead for more than 30 years — offered to connect Mayer, who was selected to take Garcia’s position in Dead & Company in 2016, with the guitars. Mayer had come out to Red Rocks to sit in with original Dead member Bob Weir, who was performing with his own band, Ratdog.

“After soundcheck, I asked him if he wanted me to bring Wolf or Tiger to his dressing room to check out,” Blakesberg recalled on his Facebook page Monday. “He declined the offer. I now know why: he just didn’t feel like he had earned that honor and privilege just yet. In late March (2019), John reached out to me and said, ‘This idea keeps happening to me, to play Wolf.’ And then he asked me, ‘Do you think it would be appreciated by the Deadheads?’ I immediately said ABSOLUTELY! I knew the time was right! I felt a deep responsibility to do what I could to make this a reality as I knew the whole community would love it and I did not want this idea to slip away. In my mind, John had proven over and over that he is family! John felt like he needed to try the guitar before he could commit to playing it in front of an audience of Deadheads. Wolf was also heading to the Met Museum a week later for the Rock & Roll Musical Instrument exhibit currently on display.

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Courtesy of Jay Blakesberg

“My good friend David Meerman Scott has been the Wolf handler since it was purchased at auction a few years earlier by Brian Halligan,” Blakesberg continued. “David was my first call within minutes of getting off the phone with John. David, a longtime Deadhead, was onboard to navigate the logistics on behalf of Brian. He told me Wolf happened to be in San Francisco and we arranged for Wolf to immediately visit John for a day in Los Angeles. John was ecstatic after playing with it for 4-5 hours!!! Game on! Logistical hurdle #2 was getting the Met Museum to agree to letting it go for as many shows as John wanted to play it. John felt the easiest thing to do was to play it in NY ONLY since that’s where it would be living the next 6 months. I agreed since we all know how huge NYC has always been for the Grateful Dead! The perfect place for this to happen!!”

This brings the story up to date. Dead & Company had a busy weekend, playing first at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. on Saturday night. They then hastily made their way to the home of the New York Mets for the much-anticipated annual show at Citi Field, which featured 15 classic Grateful Dead songs, bookended by opener “St. Stephen” and an encore of “Brokedown Palace.”

Blakesberg explained that Wolf arrived at the ballpark from the Met at 3 p.m. on Sunday. The first job was for Mayer’s tech to restring the 46-year-old guitar. “He had a small Fender amp in his dressing room and the minute he plugged in and started to play Garcia licks, the room exploded with sound and color swirling in the air,” Blakesberg wrote, bursting with enthusiasm. “We never knew if he would play it the whole show or just a few songs. The guitar sang and screamed with LOVE from the first notes of ‘St. Stephen’ played on that stage! Wolf had truly come home! By the time the band got to the end of the second set you could see how the guitar and the player had become ONE and that last solo in ‘Morning Dew’ took us all collectively — the band and the fans — to that special place where we all commune in the group mind and the energy flows freely from stage to audience and back again. And we all knew that everything is exactly the way it should be!! Truly epic night, and I know John is still flying high from the experience.”

As are the fans, including this writer, who was in the audience last night and also attended the band’s show at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY on June 18. This one was far superior and now we know why. It was as if Dead & Company were channeling Garcia’s unique energy from start to finish. In fact, it was the first time Wolf had been played with more than one original member of the Dead (Weir and drummer Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann are in the group) since Garcia died. Highlights included the seldom-played Garcia-Robert Hunter tune, “High Time” (from 1970’s “Workingman’s Dead”), the lengthy “Terrapin Station” and a time-traveling medley of early favorites “The Other One” and “Morning Dew.” The show ended with the emotional “Brokedown Palace,” which contains the lyric Selvin’s book and the Dead’s 50th anniversary shows in 2015 were named for: “Fare thee well.”

A coda to this special night for Dead & Company and fans was the fact that there were two power outages during the show, the first occurring during “Fire on the Mountain” — lasting about two minutes, during which the audience sang the chorus a cappella — and the second during the extended “Drums”/“Space” instrumental section. So powerful was the band-fan confluence at Citi Field, the sound system could barely keep up with it.