By Nate Lapointe

Alligator, Wolf, and Tiger Oh My! (part 1 of 2)

Welcome to “How Does the Song Go?” A column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before. Today and next week we are going to consider this music through the filter of which guitar Jerry Garcia was playing at the time some of the most important material in their catalog was debuted.

1969 saw Jerry on a Gibson SG for most of the year. Early 1970 he switched to a Fender Stratocaster. By the middle of that year he’s back on the SG. By January 1971 Jerry is playing the Rick Turner Peanut guitar on which Skull and Roses was recorded. The Gibsons and the Peanut guitar just mentioned had two humbucking pickups, one near the neck and one near the bridge of the guitar. The Fender Stratocaster has three single coil pickups. If you’re not familiar, a quick internet image search will help you see the differences between a Gibson SG and a Fender Strat. These pickups are literally listening to the strings, picking up the vibrations and converting them to electricity via an electromagnet comprised of magnetic poles and copper wire. Where and how they listen has everything to do with the tone and timbre of the instrument.

An example of the Gibson sound, “Saint Stephen” from Live/Dead in 1969. Specifically at 4:41 for the riff.

An example of the Peanut sound, “Big Railroad Blues” from Skull and Roses in 1971. The intro riff.

Notice how both guitar tones are rich, full, deep, and pushing the amp to distort.

By May 1971, Jerry had settled on a blonde 1955 Fender Strat that was given to him by Graham Nash as a thank you to Garcia for playing pedal steel guitar on “Teach Your Children” the year prior. This guitar becomes the first of his in which things become customized. In other words, the Grateful Dead begin modifying the instrument, changing the tailpiece, tuning pegs, electronics, and of course, adding stickers, the most famous being the Alligator on the pick guard. The main piece of the tone, the pickups, remains stock however. This single coil sound would become his signature sound for the next two decades.

An example of the Alligator sound, “Tennessee Jed” from Europe ’72 in 1972.

As a guitarist myself, I can speak about the various forms in which inspiration can move an artist brightly. Writing a song on guitar vs piano will likely influence the outcome of the composition. The pickups you are hearing as they produce the sound of your guitar can drastically influence the way one performs. The plethora of songs debuted in 1971-1972 reflect the fruitful creative wave they were riding at the time. It is the author’s opinion that the switch to Alligator and its single coils had a large impact on this period, both from a compositional and improvisational perspective.

Having played this Alligator guitar numerous times, I can speak of its ability to inspire a musician. No, I don’t believe inanimate objects have power over us. But I DO understand why he spent so much time playing this guitar. The new tailpiece installed by the Dead is not a traditional Fender tailpiece in which the string bends almost 90 degrees after crossing the bridge. It’s a gradual angle similar to a Gibson. That combined with the three single coils makes it somewhat of a hybrid, exactly what Jerry was looking for as he wavered between the two camps over the previous two years. My dear friend Andy Logan, steward of the Alligator, did his due diligence and compiled a list of all songs debuted on the guitar and was kind enough to share his research with us for this article. What follows is that list:

First songs played on Alligator:
Promised Land 5/29/71
Brown Eyed Women 8/23/71
Empty Pages 8/24/71
Tennessee Jed 10/19/71
Jack Straw 10/19/71
Mexicali Blues 10/19/71 *Keith’s 1st show U of Minnesota
Comes a Time 10/19/71
One More Saturday Night 10/19/71
Ramble on Rose 10/19/71
Hideaway 11/7/71
You Win Again 11/15/71
Run Rudolph Run 12/4/71
Muddy Water (only time) 12/5/71
Big River 12/31/71
Chinatown Shuffle 12/31/71
Your Love at Home 1/2/72 (played once)
Black-Throated Wind 3/5/72
Looks Like Rain 3/21/72
Two Souls in Communion 3/23/72
Hey Bo Diddley 3/25/72
Are You Lonely For Me 3/25/72 (played once)
Mannish Boy 3/25/72 (played once)
Take it Off 3/25/72 (played once)
Mona 3/25/72 (played once)
How Sweet it Is 3/25/72 (played once – only GD version!)
Sidewalks of New York 3/28/72 (played once)
Who Do You Love 4/14/72
He’s Gone 4/17/72
Rockin’ Pneumonia 5/23/72
Stella Blue 6/17/72
Mississippi Half-Step 7/16/72
Box Of Rain 10/9/72
Weather Report Suite 11/19/72
China Doll 2/9/73
Eyes Of The World 2/9/73
Here Comes Sunshine 2/9/73
Loose Lucy 2/9/73
They Love Each Other 2/9/73
Row Jimmy 2/9/73
Wave That Flag 2/9/73
You Ain’t Woman Enough 2/15/73
That’s Alright Mama 6/10/73
Train To Cry 6/10/73

Next week we look at Wolf and Tiger. Until then, happy listening.

Nate LaPointe is a member of Cubensis, SoCal’s premier Grateful Dead music experience. In addition, Nate has worked with many artists including Bobby Womack, Vince Welnick, and Selena Gomez. Nate currently resides in Redondo Beach, CA where he performs, teaches, and records music.