The Gear of The Grateful Dead

Photo by Warner Bros. Records. Licensed under Public Domain.

With over thirty years, 2,300 shows and twelve band members of history, tracking the gear of the Grateful Dead is like navigating a labyrinth. When the band first formed in 1965 and played their first shows at Ken Kesey's Acid Tests (fueled by their eventual sound engineer and LSD distributor Owsley Stanley), their stage setup was a far cry from their eventual stadium-filling Wall Of Sound. The original line-up of Jerry Garcia (guitar, vocals), Bob Weir (guitar, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), Bill Kreutzmann (drums), and Ron McKernan (keys) was still finding its stride. With each decade and lineup change, however, the band's rig evolved. Here's a member-by-member look at the gear used from 1965 to 1995.


Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia was one of the first, if not the first, major players to tour and record with custom-built guitars. From 1974 onward, he almost exclusively played custom creations from Doug Irwin, with some experimentation with Travis Bean guitars (TB-1000A and TB-500) in 1975 and 1976. His Doug Irwin "Wolf" was a regular player until Irwin built him a guitar known as "Tiger," an exquisite 13.5 lbs. custom creation that became his main axe from 1979 to 1990. Another Irwin custom, "Rosebud" was Jerry's go-to during the final years before his death in 1995. Because of his constant experimentation with custom guitars (and their custom wiring), emulating Jerry's tone isn't as simple as going out and replicating the rig he used.

Before settling on Irwin's creations, however, he played a Guild Starfire (1965-67), a couple P-90-equipped Les Pauls (1967-68), and a Bigsby-equipped Gibson SG (1969). The 1970s could be considered Jerry's Stratocaster-and-acoustic era, with regulars that included a Martin D-18, a '63 Fender Stratocaster and a natural finish '57 Fender Stratocaster (known as the "Alligator" in reference to a sticker it wore) he got from Graham Nash.

As far as amps and effects go, Jerry kept it relatively simple, using a silverface Fender Twin for much of the 1970s and a Mesa Boogie Mark IIa later on. His mainstay effects included a Mu-Tron III (his original sold on Reverb in May 2015), a Mu-Tron Octave Divider, a Vox (sometimes Colorsound) wah, and an MXR Analog Delay.

Jerry Tone's On A Budget

Phil Lesh

In many ways, Phil Lesh's experimentation with custom basses paralleled Jerry's pursuit of tailored hardware in the 1970s. As a jazz-oriented trumpet player, Lesh developed his role in the band's mix through intuition and listening. He had never played bass much before joining the Grateful Dead, though he was an extremely talented composer and musician. Lesh's lines took on the walking flow of a jazz bassist or the right-hand counterpoint of a classical pianist, often meandering in a "lead bass" fashion during extended improvisations. This exploratory, active-listening approach naturally led Lesh to pay the same attention to his instrument's tone.

Phil briefly started out playing a Gibson EB-0, but eventually switched to a Fender Jazz Bass in 1968. From there, a modified Gibson EB-3 (1969) preceded what became his main bass for several years: an Alembic-modified Guild Starfire known as "The Godfather." With custom circuitry packed into the bass bout and foam packed into the treble bout to fight feedback, this hacked creation paved the way for Lesh's first four-string custom Alembic bass (1973). Both of them featured Alembic's quad pickup (one output per string) along with two humbuckers. Phil's signal was quadrophonically encoded (separate signal for each string) and fed to the band's massive Wall Of Sound speaker system, a setup that provided incredible fidelity. While Doug Irwin built for Phil as well, he mainly used Alembic and six-string Modulus basses for the rest of his years with the Grateful Dead.

For amplification, Phil mainly relied on McIntosh amplifiers, using a tube-based 3500 model before switching to a solid state 2300 model. He also used a Fender Dual Showman. For effects, he used George Munday's Pluto Pedal, allowing two separate filters to be engaged simultaneously. His custom Alembic also used Munday's circuitry internally.


Bob Weir

Like the Grateful Dead's other instrumentalists, Bob Weir took a non-traditional approach to his role as rhythm guitarist, often providing counterpoint to Jerry's lines and playing in a register higher than what convention would dictate from a second guitar. Jerry's rig and Bob's rig evolved in tandem, highlighting a sort of sonic and aesthetic symbiosis. Both started out playing a Guild Starfire IV, both moved to custom-built guitars in 1974, and both moved to MIDI-equipped instruments in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

After a brief stint with a Rickenbacker 365, Bob played a Guild Starfire IV during the early years (1965 - 1967), though he sometimes played a Fender Telecaster as well. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, his main axe was a cherry '65 Gibson ES-335. While he occasionally brought out a Gibson SG or black Les Paul, this ES-335 defined his sound in the early 1970s. In 1974, he worked with Ibanez to develop a custom 2681 model, a guitar that - like Jerry's Doug Irwin creations - became his signature guitar for the next decade. In the mid-1980s, Bob starting using a Modulus Blackknife, around the same time that bassist Phil Lesh switched over to Modulus instruments. Their lightweight graphite construction made long concerts and grueling road schedules more feasible. Bob continued to use the Modulus and a Casio PG-380 (MIDI-compatible) throughout the last years of the Grateful Dead's touring career. He also used an Alvarez Yairi WY-1 acoustic, a model which is still produced today as his signature model.


Bill Kreutzmann & Mickey Hart (The Rhythm Devils)

With Jerry, Bob and Phil all approaching their instruments in unique ways, it's no surprise that the Grateful Dead's percussion section was also precedent-setting. The band was one of the first (James Brown's band is another) to have two drummers playing together on nearly every song. Kreutzmann - along with Garcia, Weir and Lesh - is one of the four members to have played every show over the band's 30-year career. Hart joined soon after the band formed and became an indispensable part of the band's sound for the rest of their time together (Garcia affectionately nicknamed them the Rhythm Devils). Their relationship remains one of the great collaborations in modern music, defining so much of what the Grateful Dead stood for - unity, music as shared power and brotherly love.

Sonor Rosewood Kit

When it comes to the gear these two have used over the years, it would take an encyclopedic article to detail all the various noisemakers, hand drums, traditional kits and digital modelers involved. During the band's meteoric rise in the 1970s, Hart and Kreutzmann played matching five-piece rosewood Sonor trap kits. They mostly used a variety of Zildjian cymbals, though kit additions from Slingerland, Gretsch, Yamaha and Ludwig weren't uncommon. Kreutzmann was more rooted in a traditional kit than Hart, who often played alternative percussion instruments or used mallets on more traditional drumheads.

One alternative instrument that has to be mentioned is "The Beam," an 8 ft. aluminum beam strung with 13 piano bass strings all tuned to D. It was initially devised for use on the Apocalypse Now soundtrack, on which Hart and Kreutzmann played. Moving forward, it became a regular touring instrument for Grateful Dead shows (including the Fare Thee Well tour). This ethereal tone - along with various samples (sometimes of quasars from outer space) triggered by mallet hits and other unusual sounds from drumheads not usually associated with rock - gave the percussion section a primal, mystical and almost tribal feel. There's no one way to try and capture the Rhythm Devils' sound, but using a simple kit with plenty of folk percussion additions and samples will at least give you a similar palette to work with.

The Grateful Dead have always toured with at least one keyboardist, though the role has been filled by many musicians due to tumultuous circumstances. The original keyboardist, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, died in 1973 as a result of alcohol abuse (he was joined for a time from 1968 - 1970 by Tom Constanten). Keith Godchaux replaced him at keys until 1979, when drug use forced his departure. He died the next year in a car accident. Brent Mydland occupied the role for the next eleven years, until he died of a drug overdose. Vince Welnick carried the band behind the keyboard until Jerry's death in 1995. He later committed suicide in 2006. Bruce Hornsby also played keys with the band, even though he was never officially a part of the Grateful Dead. He toured with them from 1990 to 1992. He has, however, played with the Other Ones (a former member side project) and took his place at the keyboard during the 50th Anniversary Fare Thee Well tour.

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