About Cripe

Sculpting exotic woods with natural finishes into a musical instrument was a natural extension of his skills as a craftsman. Before turning to guitar making, he sailed the Caribbean for years, detailing boats with the same woods he would later use to create fine instruments.

Cripe’s logo, a mother-of-pearl inlay on the headstock of Garcia’s “Lightning Bolt” guitar, symbolized yet another passion in his life, manufacturing custom fireworks. Tragically, an accidental explosion took Cripe’s life in 1996.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Steve Cripe in person, but I feel as if I knew him: he shared with me and so many others his passion, artistry, and vision, imbued in the beautiful guitars he crafted. Those guitars still sing, carrying Cripe’s voice with every note.

This site documents my efforts to learn about this talented, visionary luthier. Many people who knew Steve and who treasure his work have graciously consented to be interviewed, and I am still learning of others. If you are one of them, please let me hear from you. Here is what I known so far.

Steve Cripe (1953-1996)
Photo Courtesy of Pat O’Donnell, Resurrection Guitars

Early Years

Stephen Ray Cripe was the second child born to Orval Ray “Pete” and Helen E. Cripe on August 6, 1953, in Sturgis, Michigan. His parents raised Rhonda Eileen Cripe, now Williams, and Steve on a 160-acre farm in southern Michigan, located between Sturgis and Centreville.

When asked about her family, Williams says:

“Daddy spent a large part of his career working for American Can Company in Elkhart, IN. He only obtained his GED certificate but was he smart! He could figure out anything and was driven to do so. He fixed our cars, tractors, lawnmowers, and chopped wood. My Mom earned two Masters degrees, won numerous “Teacher of the Year” awards as a high school English instructor and was creative around the house. If she saw an outfit that she liked, she would study it, cut a pattern out of newspaper and sew it for herself. She made the majority of my clothes and they were nicer than anything in the stores.

My parents were frugal having been raised during the depression. They rarely hired anyone to do anything. Daddy renovated our 100-year-old farmhouse, built furniture, and planted a huge garden every summer. Mom would take the surplus from the garden and can or freeze the food for the winter. I worked with her and Steve fed the cattle and chopped wood, lots of wood for our fireplace.

In 1968, I went off to college and around that time Steve moved with our parents to Elkhart, IN, where he attended high school. He may have taken a woodworking class in high school, but I’m not certain. He was clearly talented but danced to the tune of a different drummer. So much so, he was expelled from high school in his senior year for (ironically) setting off firecrackers in the girl’s restroom. He later received his GED certification.

He followed my parents to Marathon, FL, around 1972 and bought, renovated, and lived in a 42-foot then a 32-foot cabin cruiser. He married Dayle Brenda Waters and they lived on the water for about seven years before divorcing. He was a self-employed woodworker and honed his craft hand building ornate wood interiors for sailboats and yachts in the Caribbean among other wood repair jobs.

Steve would work all winter, and then spend the summer with his wife sailing the Bahamas. My parents had a 40-foot cruiser as well and together they would anchor in the Bahamas. They each had a dingy, would “spear” fish for food, explore the islands, read books and generally relax.

Our parents taught us that if we were going to do anything, we should do it right, and take pride in what we did. They also taught us the Protestant work ethic… ”First you work, and THEN you play.”

Steve’s woodworking talents became well known in South Florida. Once, when a movie studio was shooting a Charles Bronson movie in Miami they needed a specific, difficult to build prop, and they commissioned Steve to build it for them.

Steve worked almost exclusively with exotic woods and reworked the inside of boats. But he dabbled in making furniture, and other things that fascinated him. He made a handgun, and a working cannon, that currently is in our living room. Steve had a real knack for working with his hands. AND, the quality of his work was excellent.

Steve had wealthy clients who would fly him to the northeast US coast to sail their boats to Florida. They spent time on their boats and enjoyed their extended stays in Florida while Steve commandeered their vessels. He was also the captain of a large boat and took it from Florida to South America with a crew that reported to him.

He also did a stint as a Merchant Marine. He really hated reporting to others, but he did a second ‘term’ at my dad’s urging. My dad told him it was an excellent way to see the world.

Around 1983, he relocated to North Carolina for a year or so and lived in the beautiful wooded countryside with my parents. They moved there because after thirty-some years of boating, much of it in the tropical sun, my dad was prone to getting skin cancer. Steve and my dad built a large garage for my parent’s home. He dated a woman who was an artistic photographer. They had nice adventures motorcycle riding around North Carolina taking pictures.”

He then moved back to Miami, Florida, where among other things he worked as an apprentice to a fireworks dealer.

Self-Taught Luthier

He wanted to learn to play the guitar and started by building one. He purchased a book on guitar building in 1990 and began applying his woodworking skills to his new hobby. Working out of his house, he was initially frustrated with the process, commenting that, “due to errors in the book and a lack of musical instrument experience, my first guitar had a neck about the same size as the business end of a baseball bat!” He persevered, corrected his errors and after a short time trying to play the guitar, realized that he had more fun building them.

Cripe yearned for feedback on the quality of his guitars. A fan of the Grateful Dead since the early 1970s, he decided to make a guitar for Jerry Garcia and get his opinion. In March 1993, equipped with a copy of the Grateful Dead video “So Far”, he used the freeze frame feature of his VHS player along with a few pictures to study and fashion a guitar body closely resembling “Tiger”, the guitar Doug Irwin built for Garcia.

Freeze frame images from Grateful Dead “So Far” video
Courtesy of Grateful Dead Productions, Inc.

He added his own unique design by laminating a nine-ply neck through the body construction. In addition, he created a distinctive headstock with a three-pronged asymmetric design at the top. Cripe said, “My logo, an exploding firecracker, is inlaid in the headstock.”

Steve Cripe holding a Lightning Bolt replica he made for a client.
Photo Courtesy of Pat O’Donnell, Resurrection Guitars

It was the seventh guitar he finished and it took him two months to complete.

Delivering the guitar to Garcia proved to be the real challenge. Through networking, Harriet Rose agreed to get it to Pam and David Grisman who saw that Garcia got the guitar.

In July 1993, Cripe got a message from Dennis McNally, the Grateful Dead publicist saying, “Jerry was fiddling around with the guitar and was intrigued by it and that this was a good sign.”

In August, Cripe got a call from Steve Parish, Garcia’s guitar tech, who said, “Jerry loved the guitar! He was using it for the Jerry Garcia Band and opening with it with the Grateful Dead.” Cripe said, “Parish went on to ask a lot of questions about the guitar and that’s when we officially named it ‘Lightning Bolt’ and he asked me to build a backup” guitar for Garcia.

Cripe asked Parish to “take measurements or draw a template of the neck” of the guitar. Parish was puzzled to learn that Cripe “winged it”, in terms of shaping the guitar from the video. Parish told him to “wing it” again and Garcia got on the phone and told him to “just do it. If I don’t like it, I’ll send it back”.

To better prepare this second guitar for Garcia, Cripe received guidance from Gary Brawer who handled Garcia’s guitar modifications. They spoke at length about Garcia’s preferences and Brawer sent him a video of electronics considerations. “Top Hat” was delivered to Garcia in November 1993. Garcia never returned it to Cripe.

Garcia referred to the guitars as Florida One and Florida Two.

His first sale resulted in a check dated December 13, 1993, for $7,000 from Grateful Dead Productions, Inc. The check stub said, “Two Custom Guitars For Garcia OK Per Parish.”

Scan Courtesy of Pat O’Donnell, Resurrection Guitars 

Cripe started to get noticed by Deadheads and orders for guitars started coming in. The Unbroken Chain, a Grateful Dead fan magazine, featured an article written by Cripe called “Jerry’s New Guitar,” in its 47th Edition, March 1994 issue.

Courtesy of Garcia, Cripe received backstage passes to a run of Grateful Dead concerts at the Miami Arena on April 6, 7, and 8, 1994. He witnessed the performance next to the drums about nine feet behind Garcia.

Cripe’s first and only meeting with Garcia was at these shows. Cripe said, “We spent about forty-five minutes talking about guitars. He (Garcia) said that both instruments looked like museum pieces.” Ironically, they are both now being exhibited at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Cripe told the St. Petersburg Times, “It took me a while to get anything out of him about how he would change the guitar.” However, Cripe noted that Garcia said, ‘it’s almost like I sent you the specs for what I was really looking for in a guitar.’ The whole thing was just great; it was a highlight of my life.”

Cripe moved from Miami to Trilby, FL, in 1994, to be closer to his parents who lived in Spring Hill, FL. There he built a workshop to construct his guitars for his growing business. In the same work area, to supplement his guitar enterprise, he also made fireworks.

Cripe again received tickets and backstage passes to a Dead concert in Tampa, FL, on April 7, 1995. He did not get to see Garcia but he met with Parish who told him “’Lightning Bolt’ held up better than any other guitar Jerry has owned and that Jerry was playing “Top Hat” at home.”

Around the time of Garcia and Cripe’s birthday in 1995, August 1st and 6th respectively, Cripe was working with a leftover piece of wood from “Lightning Bolt” when he started getting “strong feelings about Jerry”. That week, August 9, 1995, Garcia died.

Cripe’s second article appeared in Issue 54 of Unbroken Chain, in which he elaborated on the details of making Garcia’s guitars. When asked, “What will happen to the guitars? Will you get them back?” Cripe said, “It would be nice to have “Lightning Bolt” back so I could take pictures of it.” He never saw the guitar again. Bemoaning Garcia’s death, Cripe’s last words in the article were “At least we have the tapes (referring to audio tapes of live Grateful Dead concerts).”

In the spring 1996, Cripe met Pat O’Donnell of Resurrection Guitars at a guitar show in Orlando. Pat said, “I was strolling around the show when I passed a booth that had these amazing guitars. It turned out to be Hal Hammer’s booth. I asked who owned the guitars and Hal told me they were his friends’ guitars, Steve Cripe. Cripe showed up and we struck up a lengthy conversation that went well into the night.”

Tim O’Donnell, Pat’s son says, “they both had similar backgrounds in the boat and woodworking business. They left the show and weren’t seen for the rest of the day. Pat was amazed at the woodworking and artistic skill in Cripe’s guitars and Cripe was amazed that Pat could make a five pound guitar sound so good with massive sustain.” They talked by phone over the next few weeks and planned to attend NAMM together but it never happened.


While working with high phosphorous gunpowder for firecrackers, Cripe was accidentally killed in an explosion in his workshop on May 21, 1996.

The following are excerpts from the St. Petersburg Times, reported on May 22 and 23, 1996 by Nancy Weil; Jeffrey Brainard:

“Tuesday afternoon, the 42-year-old guitar maker died in a fiery explosion. Authorities think he might have been working on M-80 firecrackers to sell for the Fourth of July.

Cripe’s parents said their son was a stickler about safety, and always forbade anyone from smoking near his workshop.

Investigators found about 25 casings for fireworks inside the trailer. Filled with gunpowder, the finished products would have been used to make a loud blast, not an aerial display. They probably would have been more powerful than a commonly sold, loud firecracker known as an M-80. Authorities didn’t know for sure what set off the explosion.

Neighbors said they had heard him igniting smaller firecrackers that morning at his property.

Neighbor Jack Smith had been to Cripe’s workshop Monday and admired a guitar that was almost done. Cripe was using black wood, and Smith said he was struck by never having seen wood quite like it before. “He was working on a guitar. It was a beauty.” Smith said that he enjoyed hearing Cripe talk about making guitars and liked to visit his neighbor in his workshop to chat. “I hate it,” Smith said. “I lost a friend.”

We all did.

The charred remains of “The Masterpiece”

Cripe’s workshop after the explosion

A memorial set up with “Eagle” and “Tribute” the day after the accident.
Photos by Hal Hammer, Jr.