Hands-On Review:Guild Acoustic Guitars

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Rejuvenation of a half-century tradition of fine luthiery
by F.B Bodine Jackson

In a move that's proven to be a boon for guitarists of every stripe, Guild has transferred its operations to the Fender plant in California. It's a historic move for a giant in the history of guitar.

Guild Acoustic GuitarsIn the beginning
Back in 1952, Polish immigrant Alfred Dronge, a professional guitarist and music store owner, brought together a small group of luthiers with the intent of building fine handcrafted guitars. From their humble beginnings in a 1,500-square-foot loft in New York, Guild guitars very quickly caught the attention of serious guitarists.

With the endorsement and advice of New York's great jazz guitar recording artists and the talent of former Epiphone luthiers, Guild was off to an auspicious start. Word quickly got around that Guild archtops offered fine woods and detailed craftsmanship for moderate prices. In 1954 Guild expanded their line to include flattop acoustics, beginning with the jumbo body. These guitars were met with great enthusiasm as well, offering bold projection; clear definition; and warm, subtle tonality.

In 1956 the young company relocated across the river to Hoboken. Jazz giants Johnny Smith and George Barnes helped develop signature guitars, as did rockabilly great Duane Eddy. Guild was building a stellar reputation. They hired master luthiers such as the "Three Amigos"-Carlo Greco, an Italian classical guitar builder who'd lived in Argentina; Fred Augusto, a finishing specialist; and Gilbert Diaz, formerly of Gretsch, who hailed from Puerto Rico.

The brass ring
With such talent in the factory and in the recording studios, Guild was well-prepared for the guitar explosion that accompanied the folk and rock revolution of the '60s. A full line of electric guitars and basses had been introduced and Guild instruments could be found in music stores across the country. Seeking more room and greater production capacity, in 1968 Guild settled in an old furniture factory in Westerly, Rhode Island. Many of the furniture woodworkers were kept on and retrained as luthiers, and a good part of the original staff moved from New Jersey. In 1972, Al Dronge crashed his private plane commuting to the factory from New Jersey. Despite the tragedy, Guild managed to keep its direction, and some of the finest guitars of the '70s came out of the Westerly factory.

New blood
By the early '90s, though, Guild had changed hands a few times and was suffering from financial instability, aging facilities and tools, and general lack of focus. Fender came to the rescue in 1995 and the entire workforce breathed a sigh of relief to be in the hands of a financially solid company already dedicated to making great guitars.

A steady influx of interest and money returned Guild guitars to their former glory but the old furniture plant was beyond renovation. In 2001, Fender made the difficult decision to move Guild operations to their modern plant in Corona, California. Much of the original Guild equipment was relocated and key Westerly talent helped set up and train the new staff, though they chose not to relocate to Corona. Fender called in its heavy hitters-master luthiers such as Bob Benedetto, Tim Shaw, and a several old hands from Fender's Custom Shop-to set up jigs, fine-tune production runs, and transform a fresh crew of woodworkers into Guild luthiers.

In order to get the most out of the move, Fender sent out reps to buy vintage Guilds so they could be analyzed for the original exact specs that made them great. A new device has been developed to ensure totally accurate and consistent neck angles, and a computerized woodworking machine for creating flawless joints is dedicated entirely to the production of Guilds. Fender's state-of-the-art finishing facilities permit environmentally safe nitrocellulose lacquering, and a sophisticated fingerboard planer is now in full production.

For Guild fans everywhere, this complete rejuvenation is great news. Its salutary effects can be best heard and felt on the new Guild flattops. There are currently twelve models in production: three jumbos, three dreadnoughts, three jumbo 12 strings, and three acoustic/electrics.

Click to EnlargeJumbo tone
The jumbo acoustic was Guild's first flattop guitar, originally manufactured in Manhattan in 1954. Guild's jumbos are 17" wide at the lower bout and 21" long. That's a lot of solid spruce soundboard for fantastic projection. During the '60s Guild luthiers discovered they could get a freer, more resonant tone with the X bracing a little off center. The new jumbos adopt that pattern, as well as the 4.8" body depth (except the JF30, which is 5" deep). The jumbos coming off the line play and sound amazingly close to the '60s models Guild's craftspeople are using for reference.

12-string splendor
In the late '60s, when the folk and rock markets demanded the rich, bright sound palette of a 12-string guitar, Guild's luthiers accepted the challenge and designed a sweet-sounding 12-string jumbo that offered more volume and much clearer definition than other flattop 12-strings. It caught on quickly and remained one of the world's most-sought-after 12-strings. A double truss rod system insures neck stability and prevents warpage. Painstakingly true to the originals, the F412 and F512 guitars feature AAA Sitka spruce tops and gold Grover Rotomatic tuners. The more-affordable JF30-12 also features a solid spruce top, and all of these instruments sound magnificent.

Delectable dreadnoughts
Responding to the great popularity of the dreadnought body style with the folk crowd, Guild produced their first dreadnoughts in 1963. Guild's designers focused on string-to-string balance for even projection of treble, mid, and bass ranges. Their success made Guild dreadnoughts revered almost immediately. Crafted with all solid woods and spruce tops, the modern versions evince the same mellow but expansive tone, value, reliability, and responsiveness. Players from John Renbourn to the Barenaked Ladies have sworn by Guild dreadnoughts.

Solid wood acoustic/electrics
The acoustic/electric models are the most improved instruments in this bold transition. The new F47RCE, Guild's cutaway mini-jumbo/grand auditorium acoustic, features a solid rosewood body with a choice solid spruce top. The F47MCE is an identical blonde solid maple body version of its rosewood brother. The D50CE is Guild's new dreadnought cutaway acoustic electric. The solid rosewood body and solid spruce top punch out big balanced chords or smooth lead lines with equal grace. All three are powered by a Fishman Prefix Pro Blend system.

Guitarists sometimes adopt a knee-jerk reaction against change. But the rejuvenation of the Guild acoustics is a change back to the precision craftsmanship and consistency that made Guild famous in the first place. It's definitely a change for the better.