Only a few months had passed since Steve Cripe got the crazy notion of building an instrument for the hippie master on another coast. And yet there it now was, in Jerry’s hands. Do crazy dreams come true? Sometimes.
When the first notes of ‘How Sweet It Is’ rang out from Lightning Bolt/Florida at a Jerry Garcia Band show on August 7, 1993 , at the Seattle Center Stadium, it inaugurated, in a sense, a period that would become the final two years of Garcia’s life. A couple of weeks later, on August 21st at the Autzen Stadium at the University of Oregon in Eugene, the guitar would appear onstage with the Grateful Dead inside a stadium filled with tie-dyed revelers, spinners, tapers—the faithful, as Steve Cripe himself would say. Deadheads responded with a joyful noise to the chords of
“Here Comes Sunshine” emanating from Jerry’s guitar. Most probably didn’t even notice it wasn’t one of the familiar Irwins, not from far enough away.
Lightning Bolt’s debut would represent only the beginning of a wild ride of attention for its maker. Deadheads are nothing if not exacting in their scholarship over the band, even down to the minutia of the tech gear. According to Cripe “98% of Deadheads probably thought it was another Irwin,” but after the Eugene and Shoreline shows, those paying close enough attention had one burning question—what’s the deal with Jerry’s new guitar?
While no mention of Lightning Bolt seems to appear in reviews of the August 1993 shows, by the time the Dead rolled across country for the customary East Coast Fall Tour it was clear Jerry was laying down his licks on a new guitar.
A member of a particularly studious Deadhead subgroup, the amateur recordists who propagated band-sanctioned recordings made from a special section in the audience near the soundboard known as ‘tapers,’ recalls noticing Lightning Bolt from the first notes of the Philadelphia Spectrum run of shows in mid-September. “Whether it was the new guitar or the up-to-the-minute hardware recently installed in Lightning Bolt, Jerry had a different sound going on that tour,” recalls James D. McCallister. “It was bright, airy at times, almost acoustic in newer Americana-style tunes like ‘Lazy River Road.’”
Indeed as Cripe himself asserted, at first McCallister assumed the instrument was a new Doug Irwin, at least until the next year when word got around. That’s when the Deadhead press came calling at Cripe’s doorstep to hear the story of what by then were the two new Garcia guitars, and a viable new business for the craftsman began to emerge from the notoriety.
Making a second guitar—one that had been ordered by a customer, not some spec job on a crazy whim—would prove at first to pose an interesting challenge. Its maker might have pulled off the mad feat of crafting Lightning Bolt and actually getting it into Jerry’s happy strumming hands, but one thing the woodworker hadn’t done was take notes. Or photographs, for that matter.
It wasn’t as easy back then—nobody had a phone in their pocket, much less one with a ten-zillion megapixel camera attached. During the time Cripe waited to hear whether Harriet Rose would agree to deliver Lightning Bolt to Jerry, the guitar sat around his workshop for over a month. “Dumb,” had been Cripe’s only reaction to not photographing his work before shipping it off, but let’s face it: for many artisans, it’s the process and not the outcome—sometimes being in the moment of creation holds more energetic juice than the finished object.
In any case, once Cripe began work on the guitar soon to become known as Top Hat (or ‘Florida 2’), after a certain point he realized he needed information about his own work in order to replicate it. Not so much to standards Jerry had laid out, rather the musician’s expectations from having handled the prior instrument—and with apparent gusto.
But making a second version of an approved design proved challenging without record keeping of the specs. Other than the feel of the wood in his hands and an eyeball squinting at a fuzzy videotape frame-grab, he had simply created in the moment without writing anything down. Again, however—Lightning Bolt had been a mad whim. Who knew it would lead to Jerry ordering another one.
At last Cripe decided he needed at least secondhand access to Lightning Bolt. Now into September and with the new guitar fully up to the technical specs necessary to fully interface with the Dead’s digital, top-of-the-line hardware array, the band had taken the instrument on tour. The best he’d be able to do would be another in a series of phone calls.
Cripe reached out through channels sufficient to catch up to Steve Parish at Madison Square Garden, about two hours before showtime.
The guitar tech got on the line, wondered what was shakin’. As Cripe recalled in Spring 1996 article of Unbroken Chain #54 (see Featured Image above), “I asked for measurements or templates of the neck of Lightning Bolt. [Parish] didn’t understand, asking how I had shaped the neck. I told him I had winged it; I kept cutting until it felt good. He told me to wing it again.”
Then the legendary guitarist Garcia himself got into the conversation. He, too, instructed Cripe to trust his woodworking instincts the way he had in building Lightning Bolt. Besides: “If I don’t like it,” Jerry cautioned, “I’ll send it back.”
The novice-turned-pro luthier may have been expected to once again work his artisanal magic on the body, neck and headstock of the instrument, but he also had help this time: the expertise of Gary Brawer was only another dial tone away, with the [gearhead] ready and willing to provide guidance on the electronics for the second custom Garcia guitar to emerge from the chrysalis of the Cripe workbench.
Cripe kept shaking his head—another guitar for Jerry. One was a fluke, but this time the man himself was waiting on the damn thing. The mission was clear—it had to be organic but done right. Nothing much was at stake except the pleasure and satisfaction of the most revered musician known to Stephen Cripe. That’s all. And some money, which always helped.
Ready for the final touches of the Firecracker logo on the headstock and the embossed icon that would identify the guitar. This one depicts a bedecked dandy of a ‘deadhead,’ with the so-named “Top Hat” being delivered in November, 1993.
Just in time for a holiday season capping off one crazy and magical year, a check arrived in Florida. It covered the agreed-upon price of $7,000 for the two guitars. Steve considered the first one a gift, so the fee was mostly to cover the construction and delivery of Top Hat. That’s the way he thought of it.
The check’s memo field read:
Two Custom Guitars For Garcia — OK Per Parish.
Top Hat, while never played in public—according to Parrish, Jerry took it home for a period and played it there quite a bit—was never returned. Not part of the deal was a third guitar, Eagle, that [DESCRIPTION OF DIFFERENCES BET. THIS AND BOLT/HAT] Cripe built at the same time as Top Hat. “It was probably going to be Jerry’s next guitar,” Steve said to Hal Hammer, Jr. Maybe so, but with no additional orders from a Garcia about to enter a creative fallow period stemming from health problems, Eagle would remain in Steve’s possession.
Not that the lack of an official order from the Grateful Dead office kept the luthier from planning—and even building—guitars intended for his rock idol. Whoever ended up playing the fine instruments, Steve Cripe had now achieved a level of mastery of the craft to which he’d turned his creative sights, and it would ultimately produce another beautiful “one for Jerry.”