On June 23 at Citi Field in NYC, John Mayer played Jerry Garcia’s famous Wolf guitar onstage with Dead & Company. This was the first time Mayer performed with one of Garcia’s instruments. “It wasn’t time until it was,” he said in an Instagram post. “NYC, we were all holding Jerry’s guitar tonight. I cherished the responsibility.”
The guitar was built by California luthier Doug Irwin and first used by Garcia at a private party for the Hell’s Angels in NYC in 1973. The instrument was made with a purpleheart and curly maple body, a 24-fret neck and an ebony fingerboard inlaid with African ivory (except for the first fret which is mother-of-pearl).
Irwin built the guitar with a plate system for mounting pickups so Garcia could experiment with traditional Fender Stratocaster pickups and humbuckers — the guitar now has humbuckers in the bridge and middle positions and a single-coil in the neck. To control the pickups, the guitar has a five-position selector, tone controls for the front and middle pickups and a master volume control (two mini-toggle switches control pickup coils). The guitar also has two output jacks: one went directly to the amp and another went to an effects loop (another mini-toggle switch brought the effects loop in or out).
Garcia used the instrument throughout the ‘70s and then used it to experiment with MIDI synthesizer technology in ’89. He last played it onstage with the Grateful Dead in Oakland in 1993.
In 2017, the guitar sold for over $1.9 million at a Guernsey’s auction benefiting the Southern Poverty Law Center. Brian Halligan, the Boston-based CEO of HubSpot, placed the winning bid with intentions that the guitar be played. “I think it is best served by being played, so I plan to do so,” he told Rolling Stone. “I plan to lend it out to the Garcia family whenever they want it.”
The day after Dead & Co.’s Citi Field concert, longtime Grateful Dead photographer Jay Blakesberg shared how the instrument ended up in Mayer’s hands: “In late March, 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?’, and I immediately said, ‘Absolutely!’ There were some logistical issues involved,” Blakesberg wrote in a Facebook post. The guitar was slated to be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll” exhibit and Mayer wanted to try it before leaving for his Australian tour. The guitar’s handler, David Meerman Scott, quickly got it to Mayer for a day in Los Angeles. Since the guitar would be on display in NYC for six months, Mayer decided the best decision was to play it only for the Citi Field show.
“It arrived around 3 p.m. at Citifield where John’s expert guitar tech restrung it,” Blakesberg wrote. “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.” According to the photographer, the crew didn’t know if he’d play the guitar for a few songs or for the entire show. But Mayer performed exclusively on the instrument, much to the delight of the audience. “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,” Blakesberg wrote. “And we all knew that everything is exactly the way it should be!”
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