Stephen Ray Cripe 1954 - 1996
Stephen Cripe was a woodworker who spent years building custom interiors for yachts in the Caribbean. In 1991, bored, he decided to try his hand at something new - sculpting electric guitars.
He turned out a few early models from a cramped workroom in his home. He thought he was making a nice little six-string, but who could say?
That's when Steve Cripe, a fan of the Grateful Dead rock band for 20 years, hit upon an idea: Why not ask his hero, possibly the most finicky guitar player in the world to try it, Jerry Garcia.
It would be a long shot, sure. Maybe a miracle. Over the years, dozens of guitarmakers had sent instruments to Garcia, lead guitarist of the Dead. What were the chances he would use a guitar sent by a novice?
So Cripe was amazed a few weeks later to hear Garcia was playing it on stage. All the time.
Not only that, but Garcia's staff asked him to make a second as a backup.
Cripe's rock 'n' roll fantasy had come true.
The story has filtered out among the band's devoted fans, known as Deadheads, since Garcia died in August. Now Cripe is getting a surge of orders from Deadheads who want a guitar like Garcia's.
The dream is continuing: A little shed behind Cripe's home in a remote, undeveloped section of Pasco County is filling with guitars under construction.
And Steve Cripe is one happy guitarmaker.
Cripe taught himself guitarmaking, crafting distinctive-looking instruments by layering rosewood over other dense woods.
But he needed someone to tell him if the sound and feel of his guitars - the "playability," as he put it - were right.
He sought out an acquaintance who played in a heavy metal band in Miami called Cryptic Curse. But with all the amplification and distortion, "You couldn't tell the difference from any other guitar,"
That's when he hit upon his long shot.
He had been a fan of the Dead since 1972. One of the longest-running acts in rock, the band sang of mystery and sharing and cultivated a family bond with its fans.
Using a video of a Dead concert, Cripe sketched a copy of a favorite custom-made guitar Garcia had been playing for 11 years. Cripe modeled a guitar after that one and sent it to Garcia in 1993.
The instrument honored Garcia's interest in preserving rain forests, using recycled rosewood originally harvested in Brazil for the fingerboard. For the guitar's body, Cripe said he reused East Indian rosewood taken from a bed once used by opium smokers in Asia. Cripe said he was aware of the irony - Garcia was a heroin user - but said his chief interest was in recycling a good piece of wood.
Unlike most guitars, this one's neck consisted of one solid piece of rosewood extending all the way through the center of the body.
Although electric guitars are amplified, solid construction is thought to shade and improve their sound quality. Garcia's earlier guitars included commercial models with necks bolted to the bodies.
The guitar Cripe made for Garcia included electronics that were later replaced by Garcia's staff.
It was the seventh guitar Cripe ever finished - lucky seven.
Through a friend of a friend of a friend, Cripe sent it to Dave Grisman, a mandolin player who had played bluegrass with Garcia for years. He had no promise of hearing back. Then he got a message from Garcia's publicist that Garcia was "intrigued" by the instrument. Before long, Garcia was playing Cripe's guitar in concert. His staff told Cripe that Garcia loved the feel of it.
"I almost fell over," Cripe said.
Other guitarmakers who wanted to send Garcia instruments weren't as proactive as Steve," said Dennis McNally, publicist for the band. "We would try to discourage them in a kindly way."
Over the years, Garcia tried different guitars as his tastes evolved and the technology of guitars improved, McNally said. "One may assume none ever completely satisfied him."
What did Garcia like about Cripe's guitar?
"That's like asking, "Why does a man like a woman?' " McNally said.
"A violinist will tell you the difference between a Guarneri and a Stradivarius. To a different extent, the same is true of electric instruments. There are a lot of imponderables that go into it."
Garcia's guitar collection numbered about 25, and some of his favorites acquired their own names, which fans knew well. Later models were named after images shown on plates at the bottom of the instrument.
Cripe's guitar was dubbed "Lightning Bolt," after one of the band's logos. He started using it instead of "Rosebud" on all but a few songs. When Garcia's staff commissioned Cripe to build a copy of Lightning Bolt as a backup, he was flattered, but unprepared: He hadn't measured or photographed the original.
Cripe said a member of Garcia's staff suggested he simply wing it. Garcia broke in on their phone conversation, saying, "Just do it. If I don't like it, I'll send it back."
He never did.
Cripe had told Garcia's staff to pay him whatever they thought the second instrument, called "Top Hat," was worth. He got a check for $6,500.
It was the first guitar he sold.
The two guitars from Cripe came to be known among Deadhead cognoscente as the "Florida guitars."
Cripe met his hero only once, for about 45 minutes backstage before a 1994 concert in Miami.
Garcia, who has been described as humble, at times enigmatic, didn't rave with enthusiasm. "It took me a while to get anything out of him about how he would change the guitar," Cripe recalled.
But Cripe said Garcia did pay a high compliment: "He said, "It was 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, everything fell into place."
Cripe said Garcia's staff encouraged him to send more of his creations. But Garcia died in August at age 53 before Cripe could deliver.
Rumors of Cripe's Cinderella tale had spread among Deadheads before Garcia's death. But the full story didn't get out until guitar- and Deadhead-oriented magazines interviewed him as part of retrospectives of Garcia's life.
That has brought Cripe a welcome surge in requests for copies of Lightning Bolt.
To keep up, Cripe is working as many as 16 hours a day in the shed behind his home in Trilby.
He charges $4,000 per guitar. He spends about three months making each one, building three at a time. He expects to fill six orders over the next six months.
He had wanted to make guitars full time when he moved from Miami to Trilby 1 1/2 years ago to escape urban hassles and be near his parents, who live in Spring Hill. But the business didn't take off right away. He's still not certain he won't go back to boats. But . . .
"Now that the cat's out of the bag," he said, "I think I'll be busy."
All of Cripes guitars had a firecracker exploding on the head stock.
Quoted from The Tampa Tribune, 5-21-96
A powerful explosion killed a 42-year-old guitar craftsman Tuesday, sending flames shooting through his workshop and knocking pictures off the walls of neighbors' homes.
Authorities responded to a 2:15 p.m. call for help from residents who reported that a workshop was engulfed in flames.
The medical examiner had not confirmed the identity Tuesday evening, but Sheriff Lee Cannon said authorities believe it was Stephen Ray Cripe.
Cannon said officials have recieved reports that Cripe was manufacturing fireworks in preparation for the Fourth of July.
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