Jerry Garcia's guitar finds new life on Vermonter Zach Nugent's debut album
The lead guitarist for the 1960s rock band Grateful Dead affectionately called one of his guitars "The Wolf," and while it’s been played in many live shows over the the years, it hasn’t been featured on an album since 1978. But it’s making a comeback now.
Zach Nugent plays lead guitar for Dead Set, the house band for Nectar’s in Burlington. In his debut album "Good So Far," Nugent plays Garcia's former instrument, "The Wolf."
Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Zach Nugent about the guitar and his new album. Their conversation below is edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: First question right out of the gate, how in the world did a guitar once owned and played by one of the world's most famous musicians find its way into your hands?
Zach Nugent: I know. It's wild. I asked myself that almost every day, too. So someone who's a good friend of mine, Brian Halligan, he's, you know, he's a businessman, but he's a man of all trades, too. And he had the opportunity to acquire Wolf in 2017 at an auction that was at Brooklyn Bowl in New York. And he won by just a little bit, but it took him a while to realize that he wound up with Wolf. And so Brian and I became friends not terribly long after that.
I played Wolf many times since then, both on and off stage. And I was lucky enough to play Wolf on my new album, which came out this year. So it's a pretty mind-blowing experience. Wolf hasn't been on an album in almost 50 years.
Your friend here, it must be quite a good friend, did he just give you Wolf? Did he give you this guitar? Because I imagined that it went for a pretty high price at that auction originally.
It did go for a pretty high price. I think the price was matched by somebody. But I think all-in-all, the guitar went for around $3 million. Yeah, pretty wild. So there's almost always somebody with the guitar aside from me, you know, there have been times where I have the guitar in my custody, and I'm alone and you know, I go to lunch or something. And I wind up taking the guitar to the bathroom with me. It doesn't go anywhere without me.
It's like the Stanley Cup.
Yeah. Right. So Brian, you know, does keep the guitar full-time. He still owns the guitar and I just do most of the work on it. And I'll play it in shows around the country. We've done shows in California, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and of course, a bunch of shows in Vermont here with it. So Brian is a super generous and super sweet guy. There are a lot of guitars of that status that don't ever make it out again.
For Deadheads, we know this guitar, it actually has a picture of a wolf on it, sort of a cartoon wolf, and an amazing sound. And as you said, it has not been played in quite some time. The last time it was heard on a recording was 1978 "Shakedown Street." Is that right?
Yeah, Jerry retired Wolf in 1979 for his Tiger guitar. Wolf did make it back out again in 1989 for a string of shows, and again in 1993. But those were all live shows. And so it hadn't been in a studio since 1978.
Describe this guitar for us a little bit. What's special about it?
The guitar is really special because it was the first regularly stage-played custom guitar of Jerry's, made by a luthier named Doug Irwin, who wound up building all of Jerry's guitars. The construction is beautiful, it's a super unique shape, and uses a bunch of exotic woods and the woods of the most prime selection.
And Doug actually has told me personally that if you were to cut Jerry's guitars in half with a bandsaw, you'd see the most beautifully figured wood all glued up together inside, because they wanted to do no-holds-barred and and go all out with these guitars. So no matter what angle you look at this guitar from, or you hold it, or you spin it, or you play it, it's just completely breathtaking and beautiful. It's a pretty amazing work of art.
And for Deadheads you know, even people who aren't guitar nerds or nerds of craft or anything like that, this guitar was on the closing of Winterland, it was at the pyramids with the Grateful Dead in Egypt, it’s in the Grateful Dead movie. It's a really iconic guitar for Deadheads and for guitarists alike. People who aren't Deadheads at all, who know nothing about the guitar, freak out about it because it's such a unique piece. It's such a one-of-a-kind, amazing craft.
Let's talk about your debut album for a minute here. It's called “Good So Far,” and it really features an eclectic mix of tunes — some that to my ears sound very influenced by the Garcia or Grateful Dead sound, like the introductory notes of the first tune on the album, it's called “Trouble Overnight” — while others have a more acoustic or country-flavored tunes like "Same Old Reason" or “Say It’s Gonna Kill Me." So I'm wondering, Zach, is the Wolf guitar also being played on those cuts? Is it featured on every tune on the disk?
It's not on every tune, it's on all of the electric tunes. But there are a handful of tunes like the ones we just mentioned that Wolf’s’ not on, but what I do love about those is that the acoustic guitars on those, everything that I'm playing on the album acoustic-wise, was built right here in Burlington, Vermont, which is pretty special.
What does it mean to you personally, to play this guitar? How does it feel to play it?
In some ways, it still feels like it hasn't hit me. It's like something in my mind almost doesn't let me believe that I'm playing that guitar.
Jerry's Wolf has burn marks on the headstock, where the strings tune up. And that's from where he used to stick his cigarette between songs, and it would burn down and inevitably, he'd let it burn too far. And so there's all these burn marks in a cigarette shape, right where you can see Jerry used to stick a cigarette. And it's things like that, you know, I'll be playing and I'll look down and see these burn marks where Jerry would put his cigarette in the middle of a show at Winterland Arena in 1974, "Oh, right, this is Jerry's actual guitar!"
So the goosebumps never stop coming. And they come at random times. But I sort of have to keep checking in and pinching myself and being like, "This is the real deal. It's right here in my hands."