Doug Irwin

Founder of D. Irwin Guitars and Luthier for Jerry Garcia's Eagle, Wolf, Tiger, Wolf Jr., and Rosebud

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Interview By:
Seth Augustus Quittner

SQ: How did you and Jerry hook up?
DI: Well, it's kind of a long story, I met him at a guitar store one day. I was finishing a guitar which was the first one I had built under my own name, and was in the back working on some pickups, and a couple of guys came back (after I had left the guitar out in the store) and said "Oh, Jerry Garcia is out front, he wants to buy your guitar." Well, we were always joking with each other, so I didn't take him serious. After about the fourth time they came back, they finally talked me into going out front, and there was Jerry and he liked the way the neck felt, bought the guitar right on the spot, and asked me to make him another guitar, which became the Wolf.

SQ: How many guitars had you built before this one?
DI: Well I had built, jeez I don't know how many exactly. I started out going to college to be a biochemist. All through high school, that's what I decided I was going to do, I was going to be a biochemist. After two years of college, I decided well I got to think about this a little bit, I don't know about this biochemistry stuff, those guys want to mess with things I don't think should be messed with. So I decided to think about it a little bit and at this point, I was about 19-20 years old, I moved out to San Francisco from Rochester, New York.

SQ: About what year was this?
DI: This would have been in the 1970s. While I was living in San Francisco, I had a wife and a kid and we were on welfare and they were bothering me, they wanted me to get into some job training. So they said, "well what kind of job do you want to train for?" I thought about it for a while and I said, "well I want to be a guitar builder." "No, you can't do that, there's no job codes for that." Well I went down to the EDD, the Employment Development Department, and there was a job code for it. So I wrote a program to train myself to build guitars out of books. They said, " you can't do this", I said, "yes I can", they said, "no you can't." So I took them to a fair hearing over it and I won, and I can do it. So I got the welfare to pay me to build a guitar in my kitchen.

SQ: That's a great story. Usually when people tell you that you can't do something, it means it's possible.
DI: Oh yeah, definitely. I'm probably the only person that ever trained on the WIN program that's still doing the job they trained for.

SQ: So you built one in your kitchen--did you just use some power tools and some chisels?
DI: No, I had to go to a high school, night school woodshop class to use their tools, but after I got the wood cut up, I was able to do it all in my kitchen with a few hand tools. Then after I finished building this guitar, I went out and hit the sidewalks and looked for some more job training, and I came across this company called Alembic--and they hired me on.

SQ: Were they in San Francisco?
DI: Yeah, they were in San Francisco at the time. This was when they were still down on Judith Street, down an alley. I always thought people were saying "Olympic", so I couldn't find the place. But, after a number of tries, I finally located the place, and Rick Turner was working there and he decided to--since welfare was willing to pay half my wages--he decided to hire me on. I built a number of guitars working for them, but while I was working for them, and I worked for them for 1-1/2 or two years, I decided to build an electric guitar of my own because they were using all these lone pickups with all the electronics, and that worked great for a bass, but it didn't work good for a guitar. I mean, they got pretty famous for their basses, but nobody ever really played an Alembic guitar. So I decided to build one with regular pickups in it on my own time, because we were allowed to, you know, do our own projects after work. That was the guitar that Jerry first saw, that's the first guitar that I build under my own name·..... Alembic was originally composed of Bob Matthews who was the original bass player for the New Riders of the Purple Sage.


SQ: Was he a builder?
DI: No, he was a recording engineer and he landed contracts to record the Grateful Dead, a Warner Brothers contract, so they had some money to operate with. So they decided to form this company and they were going to build electronics for guitars and sound systems, and then build musical instruments and call it One Stop Rock N' Roll. It was a real interesting experience. I was very fortunate to find it.

SQ: So, Jerry fell in love with that guitar(the Eagle), and asked you to build him another one that same day?
DI: Yeah. He bought that one and then he said well I want you to make me another one but with Stratocaster pickups.

SQ: So that was the beginning of many years of working together?
DI: Yeah.

SQ: How many guitars in total did you build for him?
DI: Five that were completed.... The first guitar I built that Jerry bought was one that was a double cutaway made of bird's eye maple and walnut, and it had a couple dual-coil humbucking type pickups on it. At the time, Jerry was using a lot of single-coil pickups and when he bought that guitar, the first thing he said right away was, "Wow, man if I could get this with a Stratocaster pickup, maybe I could play this shit."

SQ: So the first guitar had no symbols on it at all?
DI: Nothing. Just my logo in the peg head which is an eagle, and on most of Jerry's guitars, he has what I call the deluxe logo, where it's the eagle circling the earth.... He wanted another guitar, but he wanted it with Stratacaster pickups, he didn't want regular humbuck-ers. So, I built the next guitar for him, which was a guitar that I had actually already started at the time that he ordered it, and it's made out of PurpleHeart and Curly Maple. It had an ebony fingerboard and mother-of-pearl inlays in the fingerboard. It's kind of hard to describe that inlay pattern. This is the one that became
the Wolf.

SQ: Can you talk about the Wolf and the different totems that were used?
DI: It was just stuff that evolved out of it after a while. It wasn't put on there at first. The Wolf didn't show up on that instrument 'til about three or four years later.

 

SQ: That's something he put on the guitar?
DI: No, he asked me to refinish it and he had a little decal on there that was similar to that, and since I was refinishing it, I knew the decal was going to be gone, so I just redid it as an inlay. When he saw it, he said" wow, that's really nice, you saved that sticker." I went "no, no, no".

SQ: What is Purple Heart?
DI: Purple heart is sometimes call Amaranth, but it's the wood from the northeast coast of South America, which is where the Guineas are. Purple heart comes from there and it's a tree that's naturally, I mean this is the actual, natural color of it, is outrageous purple. It's a purple that makes some guys wish, their Cadillac was that color. It's the natural color of the wood. When you cut the wood open, it's kind of grayish looking. But once it's had exposure to a little bit of light, it periodically changes from gray to purple, and sometimes you get pieces from a tree that's just like electric purple. No Cadillac was ever painted that out to be one of the stiffest woods in the world.

SQ: It's not brittle but it's stiff?
DI: It's not very brittle either, it's some really serious hard, stiff wood. The U. S. Department of Forestry has surveyed woods all over the world for the American Lumber Industry, so they don't have to pay to do it. Of the wood surveyed by the Forestry Department, purple heart is the stiffest and strongest wood and some of the measures that they measure strength, because there's a lot of different parameters in strength. Wolf w/ mods There's the type of strength that's how hard is it when you hit it, how hard is it when you stretch it out over30 feet and drive across it. There's a lot of different measures of hardness, but purple heart is one of the stiffest woods there is.

 

SQ: Is it expensive?

DI: Well it's not really terribly expensive, amazingly. It's a wood that has an extremely unusual color, but yet it glues very well. Some of the woods from Central and South America like coca-bola and rosewood are incredibly beautiful, but they don't glue as well as some other woods because they have a lot of oil in them. The oil makes it, you know how hard it is to, did you ever try to glue two pieces of oil together? If you use spray adhesive, you can actually do it. I've become kind of an expert on glue over the years. I was amazed when I started building guitars, it's like--how do things stay together, man? An acoustic guitar, when it's strung up with just regular strings on it, has about 475 pounds of tensile tension on it. The only thing that's holding it together is glue and other pieces 1/8-inch thick. It's pretty amazing. And I was always pretty amazed, wow I mean this shit can happen, man, these things can last a long time, this is pretty amazingly strong glue. I've been fortunate to find some really good glues over the years. For gluing the wood together, I recommend Franklin's Titebond. It's definitely the stuff to use, they make a superior glue that works, I mean I have scraps that I've saved over the years, I've never thrown any wood away, and if I take scraps of stuff I glued together 30 years ago and put them into a vice and break them up with a hammer, the wood breaks every time, not the glued joints. That's right, the glue is always the strongest joint if you do it right. And 30 years is a good long time....Yeah. I mean that's the thing, that's why every once in a while I break up an old piece like that, because I don't just want to have somebody tell me it's sturdier, I want to see this shit. I can stand behind Franklin's because it's incredibly strong stuff and I've glued a lot of things together with it and it all stays together real nice.

 

DI: He liked the Wolf so much when I delivered it, he said "I want you to make me another one, but I don't want you to hold back, I just want you to go for it." He said, " I'm not going to tell you what I want, you can just make it the way you want."

 

SQ: Man, can you ask for a better project than that?

DI: Oh, no, that was it.

 

SQ: What went through your mind during the first stages of that?

DI: I mean, I just thought to myself, "jeez how many times does anybody in their life get a chance to do this, where somebody says yeah, go for it. Don't hold back, do it the way you want to." I really made an effort to make it my best effort. It's a guitar unlike any one I've ever built since then. It's got a lot of detailing on it. I put over 2,000 hours actually directly into working on that guitar, and this is the one that became known as the Tiger, it has plate with an inlay of a tiger in it. These names just kind of developed over a period of time, they weren't originally named. But, he started playing the one with the Wolf on it, and after I built the second one, just so we know which guitar we were talking about, we started calling one the Wolf and one the Tiger.

SQ: What was the Tiger made out of?
DI: The Tiger is made out of coca-bola and a western maple. It's softer, well it's a similar type of maple that the Wolf was made out of, but it's mostly coco-bola which is the wood from South America that's got some really intense color to it. In the case of the Tiger, it's a reddish-orange piece,
pretty tiger-colored.

SQ: And the Neck?
DI: The neck is made out of laminations of Maple and Vermilion actually. I'm not exactly sure why I used the Vermilion, I just wanted this orange stripe going around the side. Vermilion is one of the ones that's very difficult to glue because it has an oil in it that's pretty migratory. It moves around.

SQ: How did you end up gluing it?
DI: Well it's possible with coco-bola to take a solvent and tease some of the oil out of the surface of the wood so when you glue it, you can get a good glue line. That's what I normally do, I tease as much of the oil out of the surface that I'm gluing so that I get good adhesion there.

SQ: That must have taken a lot of trial and error to learn all that, huh?
DI: Well, yeah, but it's somewhat trial and error just comes up. Because everything is an experiment.

 

SQ: Are these things you learned on your own, or were you able to confer with other people on this?

DI: I was able to confer with other people, but some things I made up as I went along. You find there's a limit to how far knowledge has gone and you're making it as you go.

 

SQ: So you've amassed some serious knowledge in doing these projects over the years.

DI: Yeah, I started out to be a scientist, and I still am a scientist. I apply the sciences that I've learned to the work that I do and I find it to be really rewarding.

 

SQ: You're mixing art and science.

DI: Oh yeah. Well making a musical instrument is an amazing challenge because a musical instrument is a tool of the imagination. Making tools of the imagination is an interesting challenge. There are no definitive answers to anything in making musical instruments.

DI: So they developed those names and in 1989 when I finished another guitar for him--the one that became 'Rosebud', it has the skeleton saint on it. The skeleton saint in the act of repelling death. He said, " Well what's the name of it?" and I said, "Listen, I just did the inlay, you got to come up with the name." So he decided to call it 'Rosebud', and I was really pleased that he picked that name. It made me think of Citizen Kane. The significance of Rosebud was, Rosebud was the name of the sled that he was sliding on when the people came and took him from his natural parents. What he really wanted was, that was the last thing he said when he died, they wanted to know what the significance of Rosebud was, well Rosebud was the thing that he most wanted but couldn't seem to have. I thought it was really interesting that Jerry picked that name for the guitar.

SQ: What kind of wood was Rosebud made out of?
DI: Rosebud was built in the same materials as the Tiger is. It's kind of a duplicative of it, although it's not quite as ornate as the Tiger.......After a while, I completed the fifth guitar for him, Wolf Jr. which was one that he never really used much on stage or anything, it's a guitar that doesn't have a head because it has an unusual tremolo system on it. It's a Steinberger Trans Trem, and it uses strings, it has a ball end on each end of the string. So it
didn't have a peg head on it.

SQ: What's the advantage of having the two string ends like that?

DI: Well the idea was trying to come up with a tremolo system that would actually, because the tremolo allows somebody to lower the pitch of the strings by dropping the tension on it, but hoping that this whole thing that's all spring-loaded is going to come back to exactly the same place is at best a hope.

SQ: That's a long shot.

DI: Yeah, it's a long shot, so there were people that were trying to find some way to make the tremolo system work·

 

SQ: Floyd Rose, for instance?

DI: Well yeah, but Floyd Rose doesn't really solve the problem. Although there are some problems that Floyd Rose does solve because it's a problem when you break a string and you got to put another string on there because they'll all hooked to the same bridge. Well once you put another string on and retune it, then all the other strings are out of tune. That was one of the things, a lot of people liked the idea of the tremolo on a guitar, but as far as using it and hoping that it came back into exact pitch was hoping a lot. Some musicians are really pretty good at making that work, but Jerry was really exacting, he had to have the notes right. It couldn't be an eighth of a note off. So he never really used the tremolo very much, but he had me build the prototype of that, to see if we could solve the problems there were.

 

SQ: It was an experiment in progress then?

DI: Yeah.

 

SQ: Why was it called Wolf Jr.?

DI: It looked very similar to the Wolf except it doesn't have a peg head, but it's the same body style and it's made out of similar maple. I just really couldn't think of what to do at the time, so I just decided that we'll call it Wolf, Jr. and there's an inlay that I made for it but I never got a chance to put on it yet, of Wolf, Jr. The Wolf is like, it's like a kid. It's made out of the same materials and everything, but instead of being like the 19-year old looking Wolf, he was like the nine-year old looking Wolf, so it's got kind of a goofy look on his face. That's Wolf, Jr. I thought eventually this could evolve into its own cartoon.

 

SQ: What type of Wood was Wolf, Jr. is made out of?

DI: It's made of Peruvian Walnut and Maple. All these guitars are 25-1/2" scales, which is the Fender scale as they call it, which is the length of the string from nut to bridge, whereas Gibson is the other common guitar scale which is 24-5/8" so you're talking about almost an inch, 7/8" difference between them. A little bit longer scale means you have to have a little bit higher tension on the strings to get the same note and it might give you more definition in some notes. But it's neither here nor there because it's all music, it's not perfect anyway.

 

SQ: What kind of hardware did you use on the guitars--tuning pegs, bridges?

DI: I used a lot of Schaller stuff, exclusively Schaller tuning stuff on all of Jerry's guitars.

 

SQ: Any particular model number?

DI: Well the M6, M6G because I got the gold-plated. Jerry had an unusual body chemistry. Of all the people that I've worked on guitars for, I've worked on guitars for a lot of people, Jerry had the most corrosive sweat.

 

SQ: What effect did that have?

DI: Actually it was kind of interesting because he can eat through chrome nickel plating in three weeks. I'm not kidding you, this is like what bumpers of cars are made out of you know, it's resistant. But gold, he didn't react to, and it lasted a long time.

 

SQ: I wonder what caused that to happen?

DI: Well, just the fact that human beings are all similar, but we're all different. Body chemistry from individual to individual varies quite a bit. The gold tuning gear was really, I mean that's one of the reason that I used Shallers because they really do incredible plating and stuff like that. When they do gold plating on something, they don't fool around. The gold really lasts a long time, they use such a nice shade of gold, too. There's 21 colors of gold in natural shades. But Germans are really good at making metal stuff. It's kind of the only thing they had to work with. They're sitting on top of the iron triangle and it's not a good farming region, so what do you do?

 

SQ: Have you built other instruments besides electric guitars?

DI: Acoustic guitars, I've worked on a whole bunch of different acoustic instruments. I've worked on Chinese bass banjos. Well, I've built one, oh jeez I can't even remember the names of things right now, but I built a loop-like instrument, I built a couple Udes , I've worked on all sorts of different kinds of instruments, harps, pianos, and I've done a lot of other woodworking, too. I've done dashboards for Mercedes. I made wooden eyeglasses. I've made all kinds of things out of wood. I built a lot of different pieces of furniture and I built the first roll-top rolling tray. It's about 20" circular and it has a roll-top and it's a rolling tray. I have pictures of this thing. I got $1,200 for it. It was a pretty nice piece and I've made a lot of interesting things out of wood.

 

SQ: I hope you get your shop together soon.

DI: I'm definitely going to, I'm really looking forward to it too because in the last three years, it's forced me to be a lot more resourceful not having any tools or machinery to work with, but I don't let it stop me from keeping me working. I found that I can get by with pretty minimal tooling, but I have a really extensive amount of tools and I'm really anxious to get back together with them and be able to do things.

 

SQ: You just need a space to get it together?

DI: Yeah.

 

SQ: What kind of tools do you use when you build instruments?

DI: I have a lot of heavy machinery, I have a surface planer and a band saw and a big table saw, a joiner, a router-shaper, a bunch of stuff like that. You have to re-saw your wood to begin with into what you want. To get really choice wood, you haveto get it somewhere further down the line, you might get it when it's still a log, you have to saw it up into the dimensions that you're going to require to make an instrument out of.

 

SQ: So, you start out with logs?

DI: Well, I just started out with slabs on the coca-bola that were dragged out of the jungle on mule back. I cut the stuff down, I have a lot of stuff that I cut that I have stored. Because seasoned wood is really important for musical instruments. It's important because if you're going to put a lot of time into making something, you want to make it out of something that's really stable. If a piece of wood survives the first three or four years without cracking and stuff like that and it's dried properly, then it's probably going to be around for several thousand years and still be in good shape. There's Chinese furniture that's 5,000 years old that looks like it's brand new, and it still has the original black beetle finish on it. They made lacquer out of black beetle wings. The guy that made the lacquer, the royal lacquer maker, it must have been a hell of a job. That's the challenge now days for an artist you know, because some really nice things were made by people that had the wherewithal to set up the official palace ivory acquisition team. Being a guitar builder nowadays is a little different than that. But materials are available all over.

 

SQ: How did these guitars interface with, the incredible sound systems that Jerry played through over the years?

DI: One of the things Jerry did, and that's what he had me do, he had me originally do it with the Wolf, was put a Roland Midi
on it, which is the musical instrument digital interface. Jerry used the Midi system a lot different than most other people do.
There's four major modes of using a Midi, and Jerry used it a lot to play the guitar, but he could call up the sounds of other instruments, not a synthesized sound, but you know an actual sound of that instrument. So he can be playing along on stage and the next thing you know, all of a sudden he's playing an oboe.

SQ: An oboe sample?

DI: Yeah, they'd sample an oboe, but they measured the parameters of sound a lot more extensively than notated music does, and writing music is not an easy thing to do either. All those little notations that tell you what it's going to sound like before you even hear it. It's quite an art writing music. It's pretty amazing. A lot of music was written in times for musical instruments that didn't exist yet, which is pretty amazing. People wrote whole parts of symphonies for instruments that weren't even there yet.

SQ: Talk about tools for the imagination.
DI: Yeah, it's pretty amazing stuff. I think music is one of the more worthwhile endeavors that man has found.

 

SQ: You and Jerry worked a lot together with these guitars. Did you guys hang out together and brainstorm about these things?

DI: No, not really.

 

SQ: He gave you free reign---"Here's a guy I can trust, go do it" is that the way it was?

DI: Yeah.

 

SQ: Do you have any anecdotes about Jerry that you want to recount?

DI: I didn't really hang out with Jerry a lot, but I'd see him at shows because I had the backstage pass so I could get up on stage and all that. Jerry was--one of the things I really liked about Jerry so much was--he was just such a real person. It used to amaze me because I'd seen it happen quite a few times, people would come into a room and there'd Jerry be sitting and they'd go, "you're Jerry Garcia." After you heard that 10,000 times, you got to start coming up with some different things to say. Jerry used to come up with something different every time.

 

SQ: Do you remember any of them?

DI: Off hand I can't really remember any. But he came up with a whole bunch of different responses, the kind of things people would say. People would be dumbstruck and say, "You're Jerry Garcia!". "Okay well tell me something else I didn't know? Oh really?" Jerry was such a real person and you could sit down and talk to him just like anybody else. He was real commonsense and very understandable. He just had a lot of warmth in talking to him. He was easy to talk to. Jerry was a great guy. Jerry didn't understand in himself I don't think, but he had this amazing quality of bringing dignity to things wherever he went. I thought about this for many, many years and I don't know any better way to describe it as that, but he had an amazing quality of just bringing a lot of dignity out of people when he was there. It never hurt things at all. Jerry was a real, Jerry was a very lofty patron of the arts. He really helped a lot of people. There's probably 250 businesses in the Bay Area that exists today because of Jerry Garcia.


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