Once upon a time, the original Guild Thunderbird—like its mythical namesake—seemed to only exist in legend. It was crazy rare, and probably most familiar to record collectors who gazed upon the gatefold of Muddy Waters’ ’68 Electric Mud. My own fascination with the instrument was born admiring Zal Yanovsky in old Lovin’ Spoonful video clips and snapshots of Jorma Kaukonen, who allegedly used a Thunderbird to record Jefferson Airplane’s masterpiece, Surrealistic Pillow. Those artifacts aside, there wasn’t a lot of information out there for a curious young guitar archeologist. What was this odd Frankenstein fusion of Fender Jaguar and Gibson SG? And how could a Guild—this wasn’t the product of some fly-by-night garage operation—be so flipping impossible to find?
The fact is, the S-200 was never an easy sell. The styling was too bizarre for an upmarket instrument in the mid ’60s. Even when Guild’s DeArmond subsidiary (Guild was then owned by Fender) revisited the S-200 with an affordable and beautifully built reissue called the Jet Star in the late ’90s, the marketplace responded with indifference. But now, with interest in electric guitar history’s odder threads at an all-time high, the S-200’s time may have come. And the latest incarnation of Guild is giving the model a new lease on life with a faithfully executed, Korean-built version (now officially known as the T-Bird) that’s devilishly stylish and full of sonic surprises.
Even in these more open-minded times, the S-200 body profile—which evokes the offspring of a Fender offset and a non-reverse Gibson Firebird glimpsed through a funhouse mirror—will likely continue to polarize. To more open-minded beholders it cuts a strikingly curvaceous figure. The mahogany body looks splendid in the carefully executed three-color sunburst. Fit and finish are excellent save for a few exceptions: most notably what looks like traces of adhesive cleanup where the nut meets the rosewood fretboard. For a guitar with this much mahogany content (the neck is also mahogany), the S-200 is relatively light. It’s certainly less weighty than my ’90s DeArmond reissue or the memory of the one vintage S-200 I’ve had the pleasure to play. (Then again, it does lack the latter’s ill-conceived, built-in guitar stand that made the guitar an object of derision for many.)
The neck has a pleasing, if somewhat generic feeling, wide C-profile. Though right out of the included soft case, the action was too high to really enjoy it. A quick truss-rod adjustment and a tweak to the bridge helped get the guitar in better fighting shape, revealing feel and playability not worlds apart from a modern Les Paul. The tallish, medium-jumbo frets might be tough on players with a heavy touch. They can pull first position chords sharp if you squeeze even a bit too hard. Players with a nuanced touch will extract the best tones.
The T-Bird’s odd proportions can affect playability in some ways. The abbreviated lower horn can make the guitar slip off your lap in certain seated positions. You also feel the presence of the substantial upper horn whether sitting or standing. Play it standing with a strap, though, and the S-200 feels very balanced.
The Hagstrom-style vibrato is more or less faithful to the original. Tension is variable, though it’s neither as smooth as a Stratocaster’s nor as bouncy as a Jaguar’s bar. The mechanical feel and limited sense of leverage feel more akin to a Bigsby. But, like a Bigsby, it can be very expressive within its relatively limited pitch range.
Soaring with Switches
The S-200’s offset waist isn’t the only feature that stokes thoughts of Fender’s Jaguar. The switching system—particularly the 3-switch array—conjures the look and, to some extent, the function of the Jaguar’s. You activate the 3-switch set by setting the slider switch by the bridge pickup to the down position. This enables you to use the bridge and neck pickups individually or together and switch in the bass-cut tone capacitor for any combination. Switching the two-position switch to the “up” setting gives you the neck pickup exclusively, which enables you to shape different neck-pickup tone profiles using the independent volume and control sets, and switch between them using the mode switch. You can’t perform the same dark-to-light tone shifts within the range of the bridge pickup, although the tone capacitor switch is useful for creating a thinner, more high-mid-focused and single-coil-like tone that sounds cool for funky vamps and with thin fuzz tones.
Song of the Big Bird
The S-200 is fitted with Guild’s LB-1 alnico 5 humbuckers. The pickups are rated on the lower end of the resistance range: 5.06k ohm in the bridge and 7.02k ohm in the neck. (The latter rating is in the vicinity of a vintage Gibson PAF.) I love the more spacious feel of low-output humbuckers, but while the Guild’s result in a little more air, headroom, and less compression, they’re missing a touch of sparkle and excitement to my ear. That may be bad news for players who like to run straight into an amp. But for players that dig multiple pedal gain stages and other stacked effects, the lack of any dominant color and the mellower output may be a virtue. And at most volume and tones settings the LB-1s have a pleasing harmonic balance and warmth.
Faithful to the original Thunderbird, the S-200 T-Bird is an idiosyncratic, quirky, and at times smartly functional work of guitar design. Minimalists may cringe at the guitar’s copious gadgetry. But in the hands of resourceful players the T-Bird has the kind of balance and sound-crafting potential that can inspire dynamic song arrangements and stoke inventive approaches in your playing style.
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