The Return of Guild: Inside the New Factory with the Builders Behind It

Few companies represent the American dream like the Guild Guitar Company. With guitar becoming a global instrument in the early 1950s, Alfred Dronge, a guitarist and retailer, teamed up with former Epiphone executive George Mann to make their own version of the jazz guitars that were the focus of the era.

Guild had the advantage of a late start in the guitar design game and was quickly able to make competitive guitars that weren't tied to deep-rooted traditions, as Martins and Gibsons were. With the guitar boom of the 1960s, Guild cemented itself as a classic American acoustic builder with the dreadnaught “D” series. These guitars blurred the lines between Martin and Gibson designs and instantly became a great option in the suddenly-crowded acoustic market.

Guild’s greatest contribution to acoustics is the “F” series jumbo, especially the 12-string maple-bodied model. Its stability and sound were unlike any acoustic 12-string on the market, and it carved out its own sonic space in the acoustic-rich folk and blues music scene of the ‘60s. Diverse players, such as Brian May, John Denver, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Slash, have embraced the unique sound of the jumbo 12.

Guild Electric Guitars

Guild also had a competitive line of electrics, with hollow, semi-hollow and solidbody offerings that blurred brand lines. The large body jazz style “X” series and Starfire series were a great counterpoint to classic Gibson models, and the solid bodies like the Thunderbird, SG-like S-Series, M75 Aristocrat and a slew of unique 1980s models gave a true third option in the generally two-brand-dominated electric market.

Guild was also historically the “working man’s” guitar. Many of us were first able to truly appreciate the Guild heritage through the used market, as affordable resale prices made vintage Guild attainable compared to similar Gibson models. An original 1970s S-100 sells for around $1500, where a Gibson SG of the same vintage averages about $2000. Vintage Guilds were even more affordable just a few years ago.

Members of the music community were thrilled when Fender purchased Guild in 1995. After stints in Corona, CA and Tacoma, WA, the parent company went on to open a New Hartford, CT shop which produced standard models and occasional custom shop lines such as the Orpheum. However, fans were disappointed when Fender suddenly decided to sell the brand and cease USA production in 2014.

While Fender was in charge, Guild began a run of Chinese-made acoustics and Korean-made electrics, along with USA custom shop models. When the company was sold, many wondered what would happen to the brand; would the buyer turn it into a money grab and just sell low-quality copies, like Harmony and Silvertone? Would it be a custom shop-only endeavor like Hamer?

Fortunately, the brand was quickly bought by well-respected classical maker Cordoba, which moved production to Oxnard, CA, nearer to its West Coast headquarters. Fans of of the brand were curious about the new owners, the future of the brand, and if Guild’s heritage would remain central to the new products.

Master Builder Ren Ferguson Takes the Helm

Fender had recruited the services of Master Builder Ren Ferguson, whose history with both Fender and the Gibson Montana Acoustic Custom Shop is legendary. When Cordoba purchased the brand, industry leaders were interested to see how Guild planned to utilize Ren as a measure of Cordoba’s commitment to the new Guild project.

It's clear that the company is taking a careful approach to bringing Guild back the right way, with a focus on quality and affordability."

From meeting with Guild President Jonathan Thomas and touring the factory, it's clear that the company is taking a careful approach to bringing Guild back the right way, with a focus on quality and affordability, which is rare for such a potentially big manufacturing operation in the United States.

“Prior to acquiring the brand, we knew that we would need to figure out how to make the best guitars Guild has ever made in the US. We knew that weren’t going to do it in Connecticut anymore because prior to selling the brand Fender had decided to shut down that facility. Throughout the acquisition process we spent a lot of time in the New Hartford factory with Ren who at the time was already involved with Guild.”

Thomas says the acquisition was a perfect fit as it enabled the company to compete in other product categories, including steel strings and electrics, while enabling the Cordoba brand to remain focused on nylon string guitars. Plus, Ren was on board with the purchase and fully committed to the Guild relaunch, to the extent that Thomas relied on Ren to design and build his own dream factory.

“Throughout the acquisition process we spent a lot of time in the factory in New Hartford, walking the floor with Ren, strategizing: How do we pick this up and move it to California? It ended up being about 13 53-foot flatbed trucks,” Thomas says. “Included in the machinery was really great historic Guild stuff that has lived with Guild since the Westerly, Rhode Island factory,” including the press that made all of the famous and distinct arch-backed acoustics.

Thomas praised Ren as knowing more about guitar wood than almost anyone on the planet — down to the specific forests and mills that are cutting the logs, which was invaluable when starting the factory. The sale of the brand also included a stock of high-quality wood that Ren had set aside for the Guild project, some of it aged for 10 years prior to the acquisition.

Keeping Ren in the fold was key for Cordoba, as he had already been the architect of the U.S.-made Guild Orpheum series, which Thomas considers some of the finest Guild guitars ever made. With Ren’s blueprint in place, the factory has visions beyond the two acoustic models being made from the outset, and has laid the groundwork for future large-scale production. “My role is to provide Ren with what he needs, and let him work his magic,” Thomas said.

With that in mind, we focused our discussion on the goals of Guild under the new ownership.

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First Models

At the Guild booth at NAMM 2016, American production models at great prices were highlighted, and the focus on affordable models continued. “That’s what Guild is all about,” Thomas said. “They are made to be played and that’s our vision going forward. That’s not to say we won’t make more expensive, highly appointed guitars with great woods; we’ll get there. Right now we are focused on making guitars that are accessible to a lot of people.”

Guild M20

Guild M20

Guild and Ren decided to resurrect a long forgotten but classic Guild model -- the M20, known as the Nick Drake model. “This is a great guitar to start on for a new factory: affordable, all mahogany and perfect for what what we envision Guild should be today,” Thomas said. The M20 is a small body, 000-style guitar, which was a popular student model from the 1950s. The new model has a satin finish and improved bracing.

A methodical and careful approach is the driving force for the models: “We want to start with the simpler guitars,” Thomas said, “and really focus on consistency and quality, and just build great instruments.”

The next model made at the new factory is the D20, which is an update to the classic D25 model, but now with a solid flat back, rather than arched. This model is an all-mahogany dreadnought, with a satin finish and improved bracing. Both models come in a natural or sunburst finish, either fully acoustic or with an LR Baggs Element VTC system. Both made-in-California models are targeted to fall in the sub-$1500 price range. The next USA models on the horizon are the classic D55 and F512.

Thomas also sees the continuation and expansion of overseas production: “The goal of the brand is an accessible guitar, a workhorse,” Thomas said. “Our production overseas allows us to make great products at affordable price points that we could never reach making guitars in California. And that continues working hand in hand with making fine guitars here in the USA.”

Thomas also mentioned that the beloved jumbos and 12-string acoustic models that were Guild hallmarks are also in the works, as well as electric models.

Electric & Acoustic Models

Guild Starfire II ST

Guild Starfire II

Thomas spoke of the well-received Fender Newark Street series of electrics, which featured the M75 Aristocrat and Starfire Semi-Hollowbodies, and plans to pick up where that production left off. On the electric side, Guild introduced the double humbucker Starfire II ST, a thin-bodied all-mahogany hollow-body. Adding a Tune-O-Matic and stoptail demonstrated the company’s commitment to small improvements on the classic formula.

“The plan is to bring back old stuff, but innovate with modern components,” Thomas said, “easier to play, and make them work better for today's musician, without losing the retro-historic coolness of what the model has to begin with.” Historically these models had floating rosewood bridges, which limited their playability to the rock musician. Also, the unique and funky 1980s models have not been pushed aside by the new owners, and might live again.

On the acoustic side of foreign production, the OM 240E is a new orchestra-shaped flat-top model with a solid spruce top and the famous Guild arched back. This model has a street price of less than $500, which is very competitive for its features.

Archtop acoustics will also be in the works: “Of course, that’s a major part of Guild’s history,” Thomas said. “That’s how Guild started out … with workers from the Epiphone factory. They were an archtop company before they ever made a flat top … it's a major focus for us … We built the factory with archtops in mind, electrics in mind; we want to do it all here.” Thomas noted that these models are still far off, so more details would have to wait.

The Future

There is so much history to pull on -- that is where our focus is going to be. Taking those ideas, reimagining them, and bringing them back today."

Completely new models are not the current focus, Thomas said. “Guild has such a great history of so many different styles of guitars, from archtops to jazz guitars to semi-hollow guitars and even solid bodies. There is so much history to pull on -- that is where our focus is going to be. Taking those ideas, reimagining them, and bringing them back today as models that will really succeed and do well for today’s player.” Thomas did show off a prototype of an all-flame maple Starfire IV and a quirky unnamed solid body which blended the look of a Guild S-300, Fender Stratocaster, and the headstock of a Gibson Firebird.

When touring the factory, it's easy to see that there is a great mix of modern and classic guitar construction techniques. The factory is shaped like a horseshoe, and opens with a machine shop. This is an impressive part of the operation, where Guild employees will make the equipment they need, rather than being limited by existing technology. Some of the classic machines from the Westerly factory are also still running, such as the pressing machine that made all of the classic arched-backs.

CNC machines are also there, as they're a vital part of the modern guitar making process. Many Ren Ferguson innovations are present, such as the fire-hose gluing rigs used for attaching fingerboards, and an elevated drying rack. The paint shop is equally impressive, with a focus on using nitrocellulose and hand-sprayed sunbursts. Final assembly is where the hand-work is really seen, with necks being carefully hand-fitted and adjusted one at a time.

Thomas let me examine one of the first finished D20 models to be inspected. The evenness of the satin finish, the color of the sunburst, and the quality of the wood were all equally impressive. The sound was also excellent, with a fuller, less honky midrange than expected in a mahogany-topped model.

Thomas pointed out that the factory is still in its early days, and that consistency and quality is taking precedence over quantity. With that said, it's easy to see that the factory has greater aspirations than the initial two models. Guild is in good hands, and the brand will hopefully continue for many decades into the future.

Guild is finally being given its due by the new ownership, with reverence being paid to its past. While improvements have been made in crafting techniques and hardware, the new owners want to honor the tradition of Guild, and make it grow in a crowded but nostalgic guitar market. Keeping a craftsman like Ren Ferguson ensures that production is being handled the right way. While the USA factory has the potential for larger production, it was evident that the deliberate focus was on consistency and quantity at this early stage. Company President Jonathan Thomas is the son of former Guitar Center and Fender CEO Larry Thomas, so the company has a great understanding of the music instrument industry.

Thomas seems like a proud father when talking about the company, and had a hard time picking a favorite model: “It’s like asking who's your favorite child,” Thomas said. “These days I’m playing a maple jumbo F-2512, but I really love them all.”

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