Sunday, October 7, 2012

Guild Guitars is Back!

It is no secret that American guitar-maker Guild, founded in 1953, has gone through numerous changes in recent years.  After the guitar company was purchased by Fender in 1995, there was the Guild departure from its long-time manufacturing site in Westerly, RI, for the west coast in 2001. Soon thereafter the Guild facility was moved from Corona, CA, to Tacoma, WA.  In 2008, Guild moved back to New England after Fender bought Kaman Music Corporation's production facility in Connecticut.  Each change brought some discontinuity and uncertainty that negatively affected customer and dealer enthusiasm and loyalty.  Product lines came and went, some of the records on older models were lost along the way, and confidence in contemporary Guilds as a marquis guitar brand waned.  Resale values on Guild guitars cannot compete, for example, with those for guitars from C.F. Martin & Co., a family-owned company that has been making guitars in the same location in Nazareth, PA, continuously since 1838.

Well, this past week I was lucky enough to be given a complete tour of the workshop floors of the new Guild manufacturing facility in New Hartford, CT, hosted by Guild with a group of fellow Guild aficionados who congregate online at Let's Talk Guild.  It is a bright and clean facility occupying a historic pre-civil war manufacturing plant that years ago housed a cotton mill and a sewing machine manufacturer, among others. It is retro-fitted with sophisticated temperature, humidity, and dust controls to maintain an ideal guitar-making environment.  It was fascinating to watch programmed routing machines cut out various guitar parts with lazer-like accuracy while individual shop workers sculpted guitar necks, assembled guitar bodies, and applied sunburst finishes by hand.  Huge computer-controlled lathes operate next to industrial-era hand presses.  We were able to view every aspect of guitar building from the wood supply room to the final set up of a finished instrument.

What was striking was the obvious enthusiasm and pride every employee had, from shop-floor artisans to top management, for the production of beautifully crafted instruments.  Most employees there have been making guitars for years, if not decades.  They share responsibilities for multiple stages of the guitar-building process and each is empowered to reject work that does not meet the shop's high quality standards.  Master Luthier Ren Ferguson, overseeing acoustic engineering for Fender as of this year after decades at Gibson, summed it up best for us: "Why build a guitar out of something that doesn't already have music in it?"  That Fender was able to lure Ren away from settling into a tranquil retirement in the Midwest to instead participate in research and development at Guild speaks volumes about a renewed commitment to produce the highest quality Guilds yet.

Picture courtesy of Brad4d8
Another score for Fender this year is signing up Doyle Dykes to represent Guild guitars.  Doyle is a premiere fingerpicking guitarist who helped put Taylor guitars on the map, but some of his earliest guitars were Guilds. Doyle was in New Hartford, CT, this week to finalize Guild's first signature model, a custom F47-sized acoustic/electric with quilted Maple back and sides. We had the chance to play the prototype, still being tweaked to Doyle's specifications, which will be launched in January 2013 at the annual NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) trade show in Anaheim, CA.  It is a beautiful guitar and Doyle made it sing in a private concert for our group after lunch.  I was especially touched with Doyle's tribute to the 9/11 victims, an instrumental piece whose hook references two-tone rescue sirens and reminded me of the plaintive fire-fighter rescue beacons that littered the World Trade Center site after the towers came down.  I was not the only grown man in the audience who shed some tears.

Picture courtesy of
Guild will also be celebrating its sixtieth anniversary next year, and is preparing a limited run of anniversary guitars to be also unveiled at the NAMM show.  We were able to view a number of these special all-koa-bodied guitars, which will be limited to 60, at various stages of production.  I was also able to spend some time later in the day playing one of the finished guitars.  Sweet!

The take-away is that Guild is back up to speed making its Standard and Traditional Series lines of guitars in quantities that should meet demand, along with some exciting custom projects, while maintaining its tradition of hand-crafted instruments.  Guild is back baby!

P.S.  We were under strict orders to leave our cameras at the door, but here is an article with great shop-floor pictures of the Guild guitar-making process at the New Hartford, CT facility.  Additional pictures are posted on Guild's Facebook page.