By Rebecca Apodaca
December 6, 1969: I was 16 years old and I was going to run away with two other girls to see The Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert (we hadn’t made it to Woodstock). The recording of the concert was made into the film “Gimme Shelter.” I chickened out of climbing out my window, in the dead of winter, to hitchhike 400 miles. They went without me.
Soon, it was the summer of 1973. I was a music major in Santa Cruz CA, 75 miles south of San Francisco. I made trips in and to “The City” and “The Haight.” Jerry Garcia was going strong with the Grateful Dead and Alembic. Doug Irwin was building a guitarthat I would eventually be appraising.
Fast forward 38 years. I received a call from New York from a man had been searching across the nation for someone to appraise his guitar for insurance coverage. “Do you know who Doug Irwin is?” he asked. I said I associated the name with San Francisco and asked if it was the man who made those beautiful guitars for Jerry Garcia. He said, “All the other experts told me, ‘I don’t know who Irwin is and I have no idea how to appraise this guitar.’” He said only 10 Irwin guitars were made, Garcia owned five and one had sold for $850,000. He had bought this on eBay. It was not owned by Garcia. I told him I knew how to appraise it. This is the difference between a Certified Appraiser who is educated in appraisal studies
and someone who gives his or her opinion. Two years of appraisal classes had taught me the methods to use. I explained I needed to see the guitar. He refused to ship it to me. Three months later, client Fred Einspruch hopped a plane from Alaska to LAX, rode the rental car 50 miles to my location and brought me one of the rarest guitars I’ve encountered.
Irwin and Alembic
At 17 years old, New York kid Doug Irwin started modifying guitars. He came to California and worked for Alembic. Alembic started out as a consultation company between Ron Wickersham and his wife, Susan Frates. Ron designed the first multi-track mixing console. Ron, along with Rick Turner, www.renaissanceguitars.com, started working with the Grateful Dead on recording true concert sound, with the use of his new recording technology. They invented active electronics for guitars. They worked on guitars for the Grateful Dead, David Crosby, Phil Lesh, Jack Casady and John Entwistle. In ’69, Ron recorded the Altamont concert that also included the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The Hells Angels handled security. A bonfire was started because of the cold. A fan threw a P.A. speaker into the bonfire. A bike was knocked over, prompting the Hells Angels to protect the stage, and a fan was killed.
Irwin met Garcia in a music store in San Francisco, and Garcia bought one of his guitars on the spot and, eventually, owned five. The most famous were Wolf and Tiger. This guitar was first sold at a music store called “Chicken That Sings,” to Kevin Morgenstern. I was able to interview Irwin’s apprentice, Thomas Lieber, www.lieberguitars.com, and Morgenstern. Lieber stated Irwin had made about 50 to 60 guitars while he was at Alembic and 24 withLieber’s assistance. Lieber stated Alembic let their builders use the factory to build their own. Former Alembic foreman Frank Fuller confirmed this. Fuller taught Irwin to build guitars. Fuller stated they could build one of their own guitars a year. Eventually, Irwin went on his own.
Lieber said that, due to economics, Irwin started making furniture to pay the bills, and Lieber left to continue to build guitars. Lieber still creates his own beautiful instruments, along with the influence of bassist Stanley Clarke. Due to an accident, Irwin is no longer making guitars and was unavailable to interview. I contacted Morgenstern. Morgenstern was performing on this guitar circa 1977 with the Hunter/Comfort band and opening for the Jerry Garcia Band. They toured major venues from the West to the East Coast. Robert Hunter was the Grateful Dead’s lyricist. This guitar was recorded on the Promontory Rider album as well as a more recent CD of Morgenstern’s. The guitar was modified. I traced the unmarked neck pickup to Seymour Duncan in the early ’80s. The marked Seymour Duncan back pickup was from the late ’80s and designed for Jeff Beck. The DiMarzio mid-pickup was added in 1986 to help match Jerry’s specs.
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