Guild in the Post-Fender Era

Round and Round She Goes
Guild in the Post-Fender Era
The New Hartford Plant is strikingly similar to the one left behind in Westerly, Rhode Island.
Guild in the Post-Fender Era
The factory in Westerly.

Since its beginnings in 1952, Guild has gone through many changes in ownership, location, marketing approach, and design philosophy. In the course of a change in ownership and three moves, the Guild line has seen major changes in materials, structural specifications, equipment, personnel, and techniques.

It has been a strange odyssey, indeed. When Fender bought the company in late 1995, Guild was headquartered in Westerly, Rhode Island. In 2001, its factory was closed and production moved across the country to the Fender plant in Corona, California.

That operation closed in 2005, when Fender bought the Tacoma Guitar Company, and production was moved to the Tacoma factory in Washington. The Tacoma factory was closed in ’08 and production was moved to a factory in New Hartford, Connecticut, where Ovation and Hamer have been made since Fender bought those brands. So, twice in the last decade, Guild has traversed the continental United States.

Two truths become clear when one researches the Guild brand. One is that Guild’s management knows the changes in locations, marketing strategies, and other aspects of guitar production and sales left the company with major obstacles to overcome if the brand is to prosper. And second, through it all, those involved want the traditional Guild guitars to remain faithful to the brand’s legacy while not being slaves to it.

The Fender/Guild facility in Nashville, started by guitar veteran Bruce Bolen in 1995, was initially Fender’s center for artist relations in that city. It morphed over time to be a center for customizing artists’ instruments and it was Bruce who introduced the Fender Springhill guitars that preceded Fender’s acquisition of Guild.

Guild in the Post-Fender Era
(LEFT) The Factory Floor at Guild’s New Hartford plant. (RIGHT) The factory floor in Westerly. While it looks quite different than New Hartford, the functions remain the same.

Today, the Nashville facility works with artist instruments, serves as a center for R&D, and does warranty work for Fender, Guild, and other brands owned by FMIC. It has two important roles in this tale; the Nashville folks played a major role in providing consistency and expertise as Guild circled the nation. It also was the site where some really wonderful Guild and Benedetto branded guitars were made. Like the electrics, these are no longer made and are not part of our story.

When Guild was acquired by Fender, Tim Shaw and others at the Fender facility in Nashville were charged with evaluating Guild flat-tops. Bill Acton, then Marketing Director for Guild acoustics, surveyed dealers and players to determine when the best of each model had been made; i.e. which era had produced the best D-55s, D-50s, F-50s, etc. Bill, Tim, and others then acquired representative models and began to examine them closely for bracing patterns, bracing size, top thickness, top radius, bridge plates, materials, finishes, and every other aspects. Shaw explained that the goal was to make guitars that were “vintage defensible.” That is, Guild would take the best features of their best guitars and replicate them in current production. They would not, however, copy something that had been done badly in the ’50s or ’60s just because it was done traditionally.

Two changes were made right away; first, back braces were made lighter and, second, fingerboards routinely went to 111/16″ widths at the nut as opposed to the 15/8″ Guild had used for years. Finishes would remain lacquer. These guitars were still built in Rhode Island by the same people who had been building Guilds for years. There was a push to improve quality control, and the post-Fender Westerly-made Guilds are well-built, their design not radically different from pre-Fender guitars made in that plant.

But the Westerly plant was old and suffered from poor climate control, and Fender wanted to provide a more stable environment. Saying the cost to retrofit the plant would have been enormous, it moved production to Corona – a decision not made easily or taken lightly. Some believed that in closing the Westerly plant, the brand would lose years of expertise not easily replicated in California. Others argued space was available in a modern plant with state-of-the-art climate control, and moving the tooling to California, combined with a careful start-up, would create Guild guitars rivaling or surpassing anything that had been done before.

The move necessitated major changes to the guitars; the folks in Westerly made guitars based on long-practiced techniques evolved over time. They did not have engineering drawings, and the process was not portable, since none of the Rhode Island crew would move to California. This was where the “vintage defensible” strategy was implemented. Drawings had to be created to detail specifications on each part of each instrument. Those drawings reflected what had been learned in the “vintage defensible” investigations.

Most of the tools and tooling from Westerly were sent to California, and to the Fender plant in Mexico where braces, raw necks, and internal parts such as tail blocks were made. So in that regard, there was some consistency of manufacture. Yet, none of the people who made Guilds in Rhode Island moved to either new plant. It was up to Tim Shaw and Jon Kornau to spec the guitars, insure their quality, and keep faith with the Guild tradition.

Guild in the Post-Fender Era
(LEFT) The first-year (1964) Guild D-50, made in Hoboken, New Jersey, before Guild’s move to Westerly, Rhode Island. (RIGHT) The latest version of the Guild D-50, made in New Hartford.

It didn’t work. There was a significant learning curve because the luthiers in Corona were accustomed to building solidbody guitars with polyurethane finishes. Spraying lacquer and building flat-tops was difficult, time consuming, and a much more finicky process.

There were very important specification changes in the Corona era. For example, back braces were lightened yet again, in the late-Corona period, top braces were scalloped on most models, and bridge plates on most models were changed from rosewood to maple. However, management and control issues led Fender to believe that flat-top guitars needed to be built in a separate facility. In addition, electric-guitar sales were growing and Fender wanted more space to make them. Some believe Fender pulled the plug on Corona just as its builders reached the end of that learning curve, and that later Corona guitars are fine instruments.

Today, Corona-built Guild flat-tops do not have a good reputation, and consequently are less desirable on the used market. This is due to real problems that some of the Corona guitars had and the fact that after the move to Tacoma, Corona-built Guild guitars were sold off by the company at steep discounts, thus devaluing them both in terms of price and reputation. The same occurred with Westerly-built guitars when that plant closed, and later with the remaining Tacoma inventory. Resale value for these instruments has not, however, been impacted nearly as much as those built in Corona.

The move to Tacoma brought more changes to the Guild line. Some guitars changed cosmetically, with different binding or rosettes. The most significant was the switch from Sitka to Adirondack (a.k.a. “red”) spruce for the tops of F-30, F-40, D-40, and D-50 guitars. Adirondack spruce is a premium wood and makes a significant tonal difference in guitars (pre-World-War-II “golden era” flat-tops from Martin and Gibson had Adirondack spruce tops). These changes were made while Donny Wade was the marketing director for Guild.

This was clearly not an effort to copy what had been done in the past. Rather, designers and builders were trying to create an instrument that, while still sounding and looking like a Guild, was something that had never existed – a pre-WWII Guild.

Top bracing was changed yet again with the pattern, size, and radius of the braces being reworked, while the dovetail neck joint was modified to improve neck pitch and stability. Shortly after moving to Tacoma, the factory started to make its own bracing and other parts that had been made in Mexico during the Corona era.

Most of the Guild tooling, side-bending machines, and forms, went to Tacoma, as did some tools. The latter were not used since there were more-modern machines in Tacoma. Again, no builders went with Guild from California, so much of the consistency with the past had to come from oversight and specs. The Nashville folks played an important role in training Tacoma’s employees and providing consistency with the past.

Many of the Tacoma-produced guitars are outstanding. Tacoma employees had been building flat-top guitars and had experience with most of the techniques for building Guilds. The changes made to the Guild line kept the essence of Guild, but with important new elements that made the line more appealing to a modern market. Some say the transition from the poly finish of the Tacoma-branded guitars to the Guild nitro was a steep learning curve, while others say it was easily accomplished. In either case, Guilds that made it to market from Tacoma have finishes that are well-done.

Guild in the Post-Fender Era
(LEFT) The Westerly side-bending machine that was replaced by a modern. (RIGHT) CNC device, now used to bend sides.

As with Corona, however, all was for naught. After a few short years, Guild was on the road again, and the latest move – to New Hartford, Connecticut – provided something of a rebirth. Again, no staff moved, not even Meaulnes Laberge, who was in charge of Guild research and development for much of the time it was in Tacoma, and who was central in creating the new specs and drawings that defined new Guild flat-tops.

Also staying in Tacoma were the tools and tooling, with the exception of the machine that bends the backs for arched-back guitars. Much of that equipment was bought second-hand in 1953, and time had taken its toll. Besides, New Hartford has its own machine shop, which made much of the new tooling.

Marketing Director David Gonzales and Plant Manager Frank Untermeyer have been given the same charge as those before them – to make new Guild guitars that are both faithful to the past and appropriate for the modern market. The modifications to the Guild line have been the most significant to date. A major focus has been to make the guitars lighter, and thus have a more open sound than earlier versions that have a reputation for weight. To that end, all guitars now have Adirondack spruce top braces because the wood is stronger than Sitka. This allows for the braces to be lighter than, yet as strong as, thicker ones of Sitka. The tail block was changed from a solid mahogany to laminated birch that is as strong, but lighter.

All U.S.-made Guild 12-strings now have a single truss rod with two graphite bars flanking it, the idea being the setup is both more user-friendly and lighter. The double truss rod system of earlier Guild 12s worked well, but was heavy and could be tricky to use.

All traditional models now have open-back tuners thought to be both more refined-looking, and known to be lighter in weight. The top radius has been changed from a 40-foot to a steeper 30-foot, to provide more projection from the instrument. The tenon on the dovetail neck joint has been enlarged to increase stability and the heel has been slimmed down. All Guild necks are now three-piece mahogany with walnut replacing maple as the center strip. The three-piece neck is stronger than one piece, and walnut is a closer match to mahogany as the woods react to changes in temperature and humidity. All Guilds now have a double-action truss rod.

Guild in the Post-Fender Era
Dave Brown hand-shapes a Guild neck at the New Hartford factory.

Some rosettes have been changed. All headstock overlays are now either ebony or rosewood, as opposed to the earlier plastic ones. In addition, all pearloid has gone the way of the Dodo bird; if it looks like mother-of-pearl, it is!

After much debate, pickguard shapes have been modified. Some wanted guards shaped like those from the ’50s, while others believed the larger ’70s guards were the gold standard. New guards, made with an improved simulated-tortoise material, offer a compromise.

With all of that, two questions emerge. Are these still Guilds? And can the brand claw its way back to prominence in a guitar landscape that is rife with American and overseas competition?

In the ’60s and ’70s, Guild, Martin, and Gibson were the three major flat-top guitar manufacturers in the United States. There were few Taylors, Larrivees, Gurians, or Mossmans available for the mass market. But today, several of those companies are major players, joined by dozens of import brands that continue to improve and increase their appeal to guitarists.

People often wonder why Guild isn’t held in higher regard. When one considers the ups, downs, and changes of direction the company has gone through for the last 50 years, it’s remarkable it still has even a modest following. And to rebuild the brand, Fender must remain committed to it.

Another question that dogs the brand is, “Are these still Guilds?” They certainly look like Guilds, but they have undergone fundamental changes. The real test is their sound – they are clearly more open-sounding than earlier versions, and Adirondack spruce adds a bell-like quality to their tone, though they retain the essence of the “Guild sound.” The Sitka-topped guitars sound, like all new Guilds, more open than some earlier versions, but they sound like Guilds.

Good sound has no objective measure. If you play five ’50s Fender Telecasters on the same day through the same amp using the same cord, they will all have a great “Tele sound,” but they will not sound alike. The same goes for acoustics; guitars from one maker will have common characteristics, but each will have a distinct voice. But remember – the beauty of our collective love affair with guitars is that each of us gets to determine what works. If we all wanted the same sound, there would be no need for the variety of instruments available to us.

Jay Pilzer, often referred to as “The Guild Guy,” is the owner of New Hope Guitar Traders. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Duke University and retired from collegiate teaching in May, 2009. He has written several articles about guitars and historical subjects and is an active guitar dealer, songwriter, and performer.

This article originally appeared in VG July 2010 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.