june 2010

Valuing a ''90s Guild 12-string and a look at the company''s history

Hello, Zach.

I have a great Guild 12-string jumbo here, and this thing sounds huge! Everything is original except for the electronics. The serial number is AJ520145. I researched the guitar a little bit, and I think it is from the 1990s, but I’d like to know what year it was built and what it is worth today. I’m also wondering what happened to Guild?

Tom
Syracuse, New York


Hi, Tom.

There is no question that Guild’s jumbo acoustics are some of the loudest guitars out there! Your guitar appears to be a model JF-55 12-string, which is no doubt a loud guitar. Unfortunately, Guild guitars aren’t what they once were, and most of this is due to several ownership changes and manufacturing relocation over the years. Let’s discuss Guild’s glory years first.

Jewish emigrant Avram “Alfred” Dronge founded Guild in 1952 in New York City. In the early 1950s, the union labor force was very prevalent in New York, and it forced many guitar builders out of the city. Epiphone finally had enough of the union and relocated to Philadelphia in the early 1950s. Many Epiphone employees didn’t want to move, so Dronge recruited several of them to work for the new Guild guitar company. The first Guild guitars appeared in 1953, and in 1956 manufacturing moved to Hoboken, New Jersey. By the late 1950s, production was rolling and Guild was offering a full line of acoustic and electric guitars.

In 1966, electric parts producer and supplier Avnet Inc. purchased Guild, but Dronge remained president. In 1967, Guild relocated to what would become its home for the next 35 years in Westerly, Rhode Island. Becoming a corporate entity didn’t seem to affect Guild negatively like it had Fender and Gibson, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Guild was blossoming. But tragedy struck in 1972, when Dronge was killed in a plane crash. Guild’s vice president, Leon Tell, then became president until 1983.

In 1986, Avnet sold Guild to an investment group, but that was just the first of what would be many sales of the company in the next 10 years. In 1989, the Fass Corporation (later renamed U.S. Musical Corporation) became the new owners. Electric production was suspended for much of the early 1990s as the company focused on acoustic production. In 1995, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation purchased Guild, and it continues to own them today. Guild was FMIC’s first big purchase in the music industry, and during the late 1990s the company prospered with the reintroduction of its electric line. In 1997, a Guild custom shop opened in Nashville, Tennessee, and in 1999 luthier Robert Benedetto signed an agreement to build a few high-end Guilds.

As FMIC grew, it acquired more brands and seemed to focus on bottom-line profits. It closed the Westerly factory in 2001 and moved all production to an existing manufacturing facility in Corona, California. Many Guild enthusiasts consider this to be the unofficial end of Guild. Guild production moved again to Tacoma, Washington, in 2004 after FMIC purchased Tacoma Guitars. And in 2008 it was moved once again to New Hartford, Connecticut, when FMIC bought Kaman Music Corporation. Guild has strictly produced acoustic guitars since 2005, and many of their models are now produced overseas. However, the Westerly factory is still in use by a new guitar company called Campbell American Guitars, which employs several former Guild workers.

According to the serial number on your guitar, it was produced in 1995—a time when ownership was being transitioned from U.S. Musical Corporation to FMIC. But the guitar was indeed built in Westerly. Your JF-55 features Guild’s revered jumbo body style in 12-string configuration, a solid spruce top, solid rosewood back and sides, scalloped bracing, abalone rosette, ebony fretboard with pearl block/abalone wedge inlays, gold tuners, and an ebony bridge. The electronics are more than likely aftermarket, and as long as the guitar hasn’t been altered, it won’t affect the value negatively. It appears to be in excellent condition, so today your guitar would be valued between $1500 and $1800. The JF-55 12-string was introduced in 1991, and the regular six-string was introduced two years earlier. Both models were discontinued when the Westerly factory closed in 2001.

Today, Guild is considered FMIC’s high-end acoustic line. A few Guilds are still produced in the US, but they aren’t nearly the same as what came out of the Westerly factory. This is disappointing for many Guild enthusiasts, and it has driven the value of Westerly-produced instruments higher, because no more Guilds will come from that location. Most collectors wouldn’t even consider this guitar vintage, but it already has vintage-style value based on its history, and I would certainly consider that a treasure!

For more information on Guild guitars, read The Guild Guitar Book: The Company and the Instruments, 1952–1977 by Hans Moust.

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A true bedroom beauty, this Jazzmaster was uncovered after 42 years of non-use just miles from Premier Guitar headquarters.

Every vintage enthusiast has heard clichéd stories about finding rare guitars at unincorporated area garage sales or in relatives’ attics. One of the most interesting has to be the vintage Stratocaster literally hidden inside the wall of a home. In recent years, the chances of this occurring have been sparse at best. Vintage guitar hunters caught on to this style of treasure hunting long ago, scouring rural areas for those elusive ’59 Les Pauls and ’62 Strats we all dream of. Sometimes, however, the stars align and a rare piece shows itself. The 1965 Fender Jazzmaster pictured here is a prime example.

It was purchased brand new by the owner’s grandfather in 1965. He passed away in 1968, and the guitar was forgotten about. Recently, the owner’s grandmother passed on, and the family discovered the guitar—still stored in its original black case. Reportedly, the case itself had not been opened since 1968, which helped preserve the instrument for the next 42 years. The original flatwound “Spanish” guitar strings were still on it, and the finish had faded to a smooth, velvety feel. The neck was exceptionally well preserved, with very little wear on the gloss finish. It literally felt brand new. Some of the smaller construction details—such as the traditional Stratocaster knobs, celluloid pickguard, and clay-dot inlays—hinted at it being a model from the 1964 to 1965 transition period.

A special thanks to the guitar’s owner, Jon Vargason—who lives only a few miles from PG headquarters in Iowa—for letting us shine some light on this amazing vintage find.

Why small gear builders are struggling, and how some are coping

The guitar business is in a weird spot. It’s the best of times for some, the worst for others. Never before has so much quality gear been available to players. Never before have there been so many of us looking for gear. You’d think everybody would be happy. Yet the folks who build and sell the gear are struggling to stay in business. And the players, well, they’re still hunting for that perfect piece of gear.

Since the mid 1980s, we have seen a resurrection of the entire industry. We’ve come from a point when it looked like both Fender and Gibson were about to go under (1985 and 1986, respectively) to now having more manufacturers of guitar gear than ever. In straight numbers, production hasn’t been this high since 1964—and that was a spike sparked by the Beatles, not a sustained period like we’ve seen over the past few years. This renaissance was built on three trends: 1) The popularity of reissues of the iconic electric guitars of the first golden era, 2) buyers’ desire for high-end gear, and 3) the ability of manufacturers to produce gear of excellent quality at lower prices. It’s a rare case of an industry actually listening to the market. It was a good business model and, for a time, it worked.

The Economic Blues
The state of the economy, of course, has not helped. According to Music Trades, the oldest and probably most-read journal of the musical instrument industry, sales of musical instruments dropped by 19% in 2009. That’s the single biggest dip ever recorded—and Music Trades ought to know, because they’ve been in publication for well over 100 years. Shaky economics have put a pinch on the pocketbooks of gear buyers at every level.

Perhaps we’ve come to a point where the industry has gotten so good at what it does that it’s almost too much of a good thing. The quality of the gear available today is really astounding. There are more high-end builders of guitars and amps than ever before, and the products they produce are mini works of art—pieces of craftsmanship well beyond any production-line pieces of previous periods. They take the best of what we know about building and make it available to every player. For a price. Many of the small shops reside in what has come to be called the “boutique” category—a term that has become synonymous with “expensive” and that has, I believe, unfairly categorized a lot of good builders who truly do make a superior product.

Savaged by Overhead

Take, for instance, my friends over at Savage Audio. I have known Jeff Krumm and his team for years. They have a solid reputation for quality repair and tremendous customer service, and the amplifiers they build are some of the best offerings ever available. Savage amplifiers reside squarely in the “overbuilt” category: heavy cabinets, massive transformers, better-than-military-grade wiring, and circuits that have some serious thought and expertise behind them. Savage got into the amp business back in the mid ’90s, building amps for rock stars like Beck, Pearl Jam, and R.E.M. to take out on the road—where quality is paramount. If you’re building an amp for a guy who is about to go out on a 200-show world tour, you build the amp to stand up to any abuse. You overbuild it, because that’s the type of quality a pro player requires. It’s not overbuilt to be expensive.

Savage has sold these amps to the general public for some time, and they have always commanded some of the highest prices in the amp game. But the Great Recession of the last few years has really put a squeeze on high-end amp sales. This leaves Savage and their dealers in a tight spot. In fact, recently Savage found themselves forced to sell their amps direct from the shop as the only way to continue to build to their quality standards and still be able to offer amps to the public.

The Quality Conundrum
The odd juxtaposition here is that the big guys have gotten much better at offering great quality gear at the lower end of the price spectrum. Back in ’64, when you bought a budget guitar that’s exactly what you got—something that was just barely playable, might last for a year, and probably produced a sound that was dubious at best. Now the budget-level offerings are much different. I was at Larry Taylor’s house a couple months ago (Larry played with Canned Heat at Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont, and has played with a zillion other artists since—Larry knows gear) and he was freaking over a new guitar he had just bought. I figured it was another classic piece, something that would go right along with his collection of fine vintage gear. But when I got to Larry’s gear room, the new jewel he so proudly handed me was a Jay Turser JT139T hollowbody with two P-90s. I thought he was kidding until he showed me the build quality. Nice frets, good fit and finish, fine hardware. He plugged it into his reissue tweed Fender Deluxe, and I’m telling you it sounded righteous. I had the same experience recently when I bought a Squier Classic Vibe ’50s Telecaster. It’s truly one of the best axes I’ve ever played. And at $300, I don’t feel guilty about it.

So, good for the big guys. They finally got to the point where they’re building boutique-style gear in China. They’ve worked out the kinks, and even the pickiest internet forum-jockeys are impressed. But where does this leave the small guys? Jeff Krumm and his team continue to build Savage amps one at a time, using the best materials they can get their hands on and playing and listening to each amp for hours until they are completely sure it’s A-1 quality. I think we all admire that kind of dedication to craft. At the same time, it’s hard to deny the satisfaction you get out of thrashing around on a well-built budget piece of gear that you didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy.

I admire the guys at Savage for their work ethic. I also know how much work it took the folks at Jay Turser and Fender to get their factories abroad to build their guitars exactly to spec. I’d hate to think that these two extremes are a mutually exclusive deal— that, to like one, you have to hate the other. Because I sure don’t—I get quite a kick out of playing my $300 Classic Vibe Tele through my $3000 Savage Glas 30.

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