Membership in the Planet Earth Rock & Roll Orchestra had its privileges.
So named by David Crosby and Paul Kantner, this loose array of California musicians—including most of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young—produced a number of albums between 1970 and 1971, including David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name, Jefferson Starship's Blows Against the Empire and Graham Nash's Songs For Beginners. It was in return for Jerry Garcia's service on the latter that Nash presented the Dead guitarist with a 1957 Stratocaster purchased in 1970 for $250 in a Phoenix pawn shop.
Though often remembered for his instantly recognizable custom guitars made by luthier Doug Irwin, the Strat that became known as "Alligator" was Jerry Garcia's first seriously altered axe. For two years, starting in mid-1971-including on the beloved Dead double live album Europe '72-Garcia used the maple-necked Strat with a swamp ash body as his primary instrument. Like nearly every piece of Grateful Dead equipment, though, the guitar underwent massive and constant modification.
Garcia plays the mostly-unmodded Alligator in France in 1971.
Born in the back room of a Palo Alto music store in 1965, the Dead were gear obsessives from the start, and their innovations in live sound would come to transform the industry. By the time Nash gifted Garcia with the Strat, the band had spun off their own instrument and gear-building auxiliary company, the still-operational Alembic. With guidance by Dead sound guru and former LSD chemist Owsley Stanley, the technicians at Alembic experimented constantly, and Garcia's Strat found itself on the Alembic workbench numerous times.
First appearing onstage in the summer of 1971, the Strat’s only modifications were swapped-out Raytheon volume knobs. First and foremost, for Garcia—who played bar gigs most nights the Dead were off in the early ‘70s—the instrument had to be roadworthy. In his memoir, Home Before Daylight, Garcia’s longtime roadie Steve Parish recalled a night in Buffalo on Garcia’s first tour outside the band, where “it was so cold that when Jerry stepped out on stage and strummed his ‘Alligator’ ... the face plate on the guitar broke and the guts popped out. That’s how the show began.” Alligator got patched up with gaffer’s tape, and a new brass plate affixed at the tour’s end.
Later in 1972, Garcia would add a number of stickers to the body, including a grinning cartoon alligator on the pickguard that gave the guitar its name. But by then nearly every other bit of the instrument had been overhauled in a series of refinements by Alembic technician Frank Fuller.
Garcia playing the future Alligator after its third round of modifications and first round of stickers in Germany, 1972.
"What I really wanted was to be able to get some of the metallic clang Strats have," Garcia told David Gans in 1981. "They have better string-to-string separation ... they don't mush up on you the way Gibsons do, and it was that clarity that I was looking for, too-that crispness you associate with country-and-western guitar players."
Mapped out by Deadheads (who have likewise built replica Alligators), the guitar transformed into a serious custom job including (but hardly limited to) new Schaller tuning pegs and gears, a series of bridges (Gibson ABR-1 Tune-o-Matic and an Alembic custom), a new control plate (hammered brass), taller frets, and an in-board post-volume "blaster". "Each pickup cover had its own individually grounded wire," one thorough history of the guitar notes.
With Garcia playing the guitar on the band's first full European tour, the fat psychedelic crunch of the '60s morphs into a more barn-storming tone influenced by Don Rich, guitarist for country singer Buck Owens and one of the architects of the Bakersfield Sound. Supplemented by a new batch of songs written with lyricist Robert Hunter that continued the pair's explorations of a surreal Americana, the Strat's newest modifications included the Alembic blaster (wired into always-on position) and its first two stickers, an R. Crumb "Keep on Truckin'" and a Harley-Davidson logo, all seen (or heard) in various videos of the legendary tour.
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Alligator's retirement party on August 1, 1973 featured a legendary perforamce of "Dark Star".
Switching out for other Strats from time to time later in 1972 and early in 1973, the "Frankenstein" (as Alembic's Ron Turner and Frank Fuller called it) played its last show on Garcia's 30th birthday—August 1st, 1973-in Jersey City, NJ. Recorded by Deadheads, naturally, Alligator was sent off with an appropriately cosmic 25-minute "Dark Star". When Garcia began playing "Wolf" in the fall of that year, his Doug Irwin custom, it came built with one of the only bits of Alligator that didn't get changed: Fender single coil pickups (and stock Strat wiring). Many great jams would follow, but Alligator earned its teeth as Garcia's first deeply modified guitar.