In the mid ’60s, Guild took its knocks for making guitars that looked “inspired by” Gibson models. Fans of the brand think the sterotype is unfair, of course, and certainly, many Guilds from the era have their own intrigue. One very good example is the Starfire Bass.
Guild was founded by musical-instrument importer/distributor Al Dronge in the early 1950s, and many of its craftsmen were former Epiphone employees who opted to stay in town after Epiphone moved to Philadelphia. In ’56, Dronge moved the company’s production to the top floor of the Neumann Leathers building in Hoboken, New Jersey, where it would remain until it moved to Westerly, Rhode Island, in ’67.
Guild’s Starfire guitar was introduced in 1960 as a thinline hollowbody with a Florentine (pointed) cutaway, but models introduced in ’63 had a semi-hollow design with a “center block” and double Venetian (rounded) cutaways, a la Gibson’s ES-335-anchored thinlines.
The Starfire Bass debuted in ’65, its design obviously influenced by Gibson’s EB-2, which had been around since ’58.
From the top down, the Guild has the well-known center-hump headstock with two-per-side tuners, “peaked” logo, “Chesterfield” inlay, and a shield-shaped truss-rod cover. Its neck is made from Peruvian mahogany and has a rosewood fingerboard with 21 frets. Scale is 301/2″.
The body was the same one used on Starfire six-strings, measuring 161/2″ wide and 17/8″ deep (even if the catalog says it’s 2″!).
The wood used to make the body varied with the finish – sunburst instruments (and the occasional natural-finished example) in the line were given maple bodies, while cherry-finished versions were made of laminated mahogany. A typical Guild sunburst finish had a more orange-ish tint in its lighter portion than did a comparable Gibson.
Binding on the Starfire Bass’ top was three-ply (white/black/white) and the original version sported two parallel handrests. The bridge/tailpiece was made by Sweden’s Hagström, and had rosewood saddles that could be intonated individually.
The original pickups also came from Hagström, and there are significant differences between the single-pickup Guild and its Gibson counterpart; the EB-2 had a pickup in the neck position, while the potent Hagstrom Bi-Sonic pickup on the Starfire was roughly in the center of the top.
The Starfire is touted in Guild’s ’66 catalog as having “…the acoustical advantages of a hollowbody guitar in a double-cutaway bass with famous Starfire features. Aided by the resonance of its arched top, this guitar propels your group with the tight, strong sound that keeps the other instruments rocking right along.” (Yes, the text does refer to the instrument as a guitar…) The owner of the bass you see here, Walter Parks, believes the placement of the pickup helps validate the catalog’s claims.
“It provides a marvelous detail that a neck-position pickup doesn’t,” he said. “In most situations, the treble needs to be dialed down considerably. The pickup thereafter becomes robust, yet still provides plenty of point and focus to the note. There’s noticeably more sustain in the bridge-pickup model, probably because there’s more top wood resonating. And while they’re electric, mid-’60s Guild basses have wonderful acoustic properties.”
Parks’ band, Swamp Cabbage, plays funky blues on old Guilds exclusively and rehearses in the old Neumann Leathers building in Hoboken!
A two-pickup Starfire Bass was introduced in ’67, and was popularized during the psychedelic movement by Jack Cassady of the Jefferson Airplane and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead (some examples modified by the up-and-coming Alembic company).
By the early ’70s, the Starfire’s pickup was moved to the neck position, with a Guild humbucker replacing the Hagstrom Bi-Sonic (though neck-position versions with Bi-Sonics stayed in production for some time). Handrests were moved, offset between the pickup and bridge, and the bridge plate acquired an asymmetrical silhouette that referenced the harp-shaped tailpiece found on many Guild electric guitars.
The single-pickup Starfire Bass was discontinued in ’75, and while it may not have the historical significance of the Gibson EB-2 or its two-pickup Guild sibling, players and collectors know it’s another example of Guild’s underrated ’60s instruments.
This article originally appeared in VG January 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.