Sunday, July 1, 2012

On Lightning Bolt - Jerry Garcia's Controversial Final Guitar

'Lightning Bolt,' as Jerry's last guitar is referred to, has a bit of a controversial reputation.  Jerry adopted the guitar in 1993 and used it as his primary electric guitar until his death.  It is pictured above as the background to the logo for Mike's Grateful Dead Blog.

On the one hand, the tone sounds like an acoustic guitar, not like the incredibly sophisticated and "electrified" tone of Rosebud or Tiger1.  Lightning Bolt is very clear though and cut through the mix nicely.  

On the other hand, Lightning Bolt was much lighter and easier for Jerry to manage for the 3 hour Dead concerts.

On The one hand, Doug Irwin (main designer of Jerry's guitars for many years prior to Lightning Bolt)  is like a Michaelangelo to most Deadheads - and deservedly so.  For over 20 years the Grateful Dead's amazing concerts were performed with Jerry using a Doug Irwin Guitar -  from The Wolf in 1972 up through Rosebud which was retired in 1993.  Jerry left the guitars to Doug Irwin when he died - it's stated as one of the first things in his will.  The rest of the Grateful Dead (in a total dick move) intervened and prevented this from coming to fruition by claiming the instruments that the Dead used in their live concerts were property of the Grateful Dead entity, not individual performers.

On the other hand, no one really knows anything (or seems to care) about Stephen Cripe, the Florida woodworker hobbyist who crafted Lighning Bolt from watching a Grateful Dead video and mailed it unsolicited to Grateful Dead headquarters.  If you consider the unlikely story that Garcia adopted the guitar and then Stephen Cripe died when the fireworks he was making in his shed blew up (cover story for meth lab?), this story is stranger than fiction and is worthy of Dead folklore.

Lightning Bolt's Facility of Playing

Below are posted 2 sets from Richfield Coliseum on September 9th, 1993.  If you watch these (particularly the 2nd set) you will hear Jerry playing with incredible fluidity. In fact, there are times when he is utterly unconscious in the 2nd set.

While I, too, prefer Rosebud's sound to Lightning Bolt, I would definitely sacrifice some sound quality to allow Jerry the ability to more easily express himself and hit higher heights.

I actually saw the Shoreline run a few weeks before this Richfield show where Jerry introduced Lightning Bolt (according to this site).  That was a pretty phenomenal Shoreline run (by Shoreline standards).  Jerry seemed to take well immediately to Lightning Bolt because in addition to these shows there is a lot of additional great music throughout the rest of 1993.

Lightning  Bolt's 'Acoustic Sound'

Jerry was actively rehearsing and recording incredible acoustic music with David Grisman around the time Lightning Bolt showed up.  Jerry's acoustic chops really got honed during this period.  His strong fingerpicking prowess was on display not only on great albums like Garcia/Grisman and Not for Kids Only, but also in Grateful Dead concerts in the 1990s.

Jerry started adding a lot of additional voices to his guitar arrangements of Grateful Dead songs, and you can really hear his emphasis on fingerpicking in songs like Stagger Lee, Lazy River Road, and Friend of the Devil (the intro guitar riff).  So, it makes sense that he would opt for a clear sound like Lightning Bolt provided to make sure each string would ring out clearly - like an acoustic guitar. 

Behold, Lightning Bolt in a great show from Richfield.  The audio (for soundboard) is here. There will be much more discussion of this show in my next blog entry:

Richfield Coliseum on September 9th, 1993 Set 1

Richfield Coliseum on September 9th, 1993 Set 2

Thanks to "Obie's" Pictoral Guide to Jerry Garcia's Guitars for for invaluable information.
Thanks to StickyFingers44111 for uploading this incredible footage.

1listen to Bird Song on Without a Net for the incredible tone of Rosebud although I think it is actually the guitar called Tiger. 
Disclaimer: This is part of my blog about the world of The Grateful Dead. Music is a beautiful thing because it is so personal and subjective, so keep in mind that this is one man's opinion (and be sure to read my blog manifesto to understand a little more about where I'm coming from).


Sundar said...

"The rest of the Grateful Dead (in a total dick move) intervened and prevented this from coming to fruition by claiming the instruments that the Dead used in their live concerts were property of the Grateful Dead entity, not individual performers.".

No, I think Phil was the lone member who opposed the band's (surviving) decision...basically the rest of the band was saying that it wasn't Jerry's place to just give away the guitar since it legally belonged to the Grateful Dead. And the fact that Jerry's will was a poorly written one, made it vulnerable in a court...and that's what nailed it. But Phil says in his book something to the effect of "if Jerry went out of his way to state that in the will, then we need to respect that! Regardless of whether it's legally binding or not."

And I believe the band came to a compromise and let it go to Doug who eventually sold it because he couldn't deal with the tax associated with it.

GDmike said...

Great update, I am glad that it happened that way. I cant say the will wasn't poorly written ( I think its the only one I've ever read) but when I found a copy online I did read it and it was really explicit that it was Jerry's wish - written in plain English, not possible to misinterpret that part. I'm very happy to hear the guitars went to Doug Irwin eventually, and if he needed the money then I'm glad he sold them and got the cash.