Ode to a Guild Dreadnought
How a used Guild D25C became the keys to the cosmos—and a better life in music.
I should probably name my acoustic guitar. After all, my dog Dolly has a name, and while she’s an old pup, I’ve known that guitar much longer. And like Dolly, that Guild D25C I got in the mid-’90s has given me many gifts.
I bought the guitar after borrowing it from a friend’s music store to play some acoustic radio gigs. I’d always felt awkward on acoustic before, but this ’80s Guild was an immediate joy to play, with a very electric-like, thin-profiled neck and a surprisingly even and ringing tone hampered by just a bit of boominess via its dreadnought body. When the radio gigs were over, I paid $400 for it.
I installed a pickup and then beat the hell out of the guitar, playing some acoustic shows, but mostly letting the instrument’s comfort and playability take me down a rabbit hole from which I’ve never fully emerged. You see, at the same time as I got my D25C, I began chasing the blues of North Mississippi Hill Country. And after logging many trips to be at the feet of R.L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough, and others, the pull was irresistible. Burnside’s style was especially magnetic, and I found myself drawn to fingerpicking, slide, and open tunings.
The summer shortly after I got the guitar, I began spending a few days a week at the beach with my Guild, slowly developing my own Burnside-inspired idiosyncratic fingerstyle approach—really delving into slide and playing in open D and G. It was slow going, and the Guild received no mercy. Whether I was on the fretboard or in the water, the guitar spent six hours or more of every beach day unprotected from the baking sun and hot sand.
We all encounter instruments that play a special role in our lives. They inspire us to become better songwriters and players, and maybe even better people.
I had gigs and a day job, so my conversion from rock plectrist to blues yeti was slow. It took three summers of beachy Guild abuse until I felt like I could play the style in public. But along the way I did learn some of the intricacies of primal slide and how to control dynamics and be fleet and nuanced with my fingers. I emerged a different player, and the Guild became a different guitar. After all that time in the sun, it felt and sounded lighter and airier, with a brighter, more balanced palette. Despite all the warnings about exposing guitars to punishing elements, it had gotten better, and the instrument continues to reward me with its comfort and tone.
My Guild taught me that a guitar doesn’t have to be a special instrument to be a special instrument. It’s a humble model that many players I know dismiss in favor of pricier or more boutique 6-strings, but because of when it arrived in my life, it became the keys to the kingdom of my playing style—a kind of blind cave fish approach built on archaic blues and my instinct for psychedelia and improvisation.
We probably all have an instrument like this—an unfancy guitar that nonetheless helped us grow and become ourselves. For me, the benefit of learning a new approach to the instrument on acoustic and then transferring it to the faster, more sonically flexible world of electric guitar was immensely gratifying. But I still love that Guild for itself, and it still yields songs, compositional ideas, and an endless supply of good vibes. And when I’m cranking a Les Paul through a pair of amps in stereo, I can feel the raw DNA of the Guild in what I’m playing.
Instruments that play a special role in our lives inspire us to become better songwriters and players. Maybe even better people, because in formulating a personal approach as a guitarist, we establish a kind of equilibrium that gives us confidence to play and perform, and confidence in our own place in the world.
Sure, guitars are wood and wires—mostly—but when we work to bond with them and play them for all they’re worth, they can be as rewarding, faithful, and inspiring as a good dog. Or a good friend. They take us on journeys within ourselves and in the real world. They create opportunities for learning, adventure, and joy. And who doesn’t want more joy?
Hopefully you have at least one guitar you love as much as I love my battered Guild D25C. And if you don’t, maybe you’ll adopt that instrument soon. Because every guitar can be a door to the cosmos. All you need to do is open it and, to paraphrase Timothy Leary, tune up and turn on!
Hello, Hollowbody. F#ck You, Feedback.
My years-long search for the “right” Bigsby-outfitted box finally paid off. Now how do I make this sumbitch work in my band?
Considering the amount of time I’ve spent (here and elsewhere) talking about and lusting after Gretsch hollowbody guitars, it’s taken me a remarkably long time to end up with a big Bigsby-outfitted box I truly love. High-end Gretsches are pricey enough that, for a long time, I just couldn’t swing it. Years ago I had an Electromatic for a while, and it looked and played lovely, but didn’t have the open, blooming acoustic resonance I hoped for. A while later, I reviewed the stellar Players Edition Broadkaster semi-hollow, and it was so great in so many ways that I set my sights on it, eventually got one, and adore it to this day. Yet the full-hollowbody lust remained.
I’ve long been more of a single-coil player than a humbucker guy, so the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I was by the idea of a hollow with pickups that weren’t of the Filter’Tron variety. I also liked the idea of a lower-key aesthetic. So in early April, after a bunch of research and listening, I pulled the trigger on a beauty from the other stellar “G” hollowbody brand. With its transparent blonde finish and P-90-esque Franz single-coil pickups, the Guild X-175B Manhattan I picked up ticks both boxes nicely. And for a very reasonable used price, too.
After outfitting it with a set of Thomastik-Infeld flatwound strings, I ended up loving the Manhattan’s woody resonance so much I had to try it with my band. Problem is, I play in a drums-and-guitar duo where my Vibrolux Reverb runs in tandem with a bass amp to fill out the sonic space (two of my main band axes are baritones, and a keyboard goes through the same pedalboard and amp array). As you might’ve guessed, the Manhattan did not initially love the bass amp. When I plugged in with my usual settings, the howling was so rabid I figured the Guild would never work out at band volumes—or at least not in that band.
You can’t ride the wild horsey without widening your entire playing mindset to be much more cognizant of when something … threatens to cause a fit of mad buzzing.
But the more I played the 175B through other amps and at quieter volumes, the more I realized I had to give it another go. The guitar’s acoustic depth and the Franz’s clear-but-mellow, almost Jazzmaster-esque response are so old-school charming but big and bold and vibrant that I decided it might be worth revamping settings for the entire bass-and-guitar-amp rig.
Figuring it all out has been a wild mustang ride. Tremolo and vibrato intensity needed to be increased a tad to yield the same vibes they do with other guitars. But my usual gnarly fuzz tastes are too out-of-control and indistinct with the Manhattan, so fuzz might be off the board indefinitely. The good news is that you can work that howling susceptibility to your advantage and create huge, pulsating sounds that are as bombastic in their own way as a fuzzed-out solidbody.
To bridle the beast, I tried shoving a sock or four through the f-holes. It worked a bit, but it also deadened the sound and killed that “alive” feeling that makes the resonating body so cool to work with in the first place. So out the socks went. Interestingly, bringing down the volume of the Vibrolux—not the bass amp—helped significantly, though I refuse to take it below 3 because it just won’t sound right. Being mindful of how playing positions and proximity to the amps exacerbate the problem are also key. Even so, you can’t ride the wild horsey without widening your entire playing mindset to be much more cognizant of when something—most often it’s simply sustaining a 6th-string note—threatens to cause a fit of mad buzzing. It’s an entirely new world of dynamics, dampening, and muting, with both your fretting and your picking hands.
We’re still experimenting with how all this might shake out in the band, but so far the sounds and overall vibes are so cool we’re considering adjusting song arrangements, instrumentation, and tunings to better coalesce around the Guild’s wonderful sounds. (The simplicity of one guitar, one keyboard, and not too many pedals has its attendant benefits, too, including a streamlined sonic aesthetic and reduced time and technical issues between songs.) Anyway, wish us luck!
Repetition Is Our Friend
Could this be why “serious guitarists” often sound so … boring?
It seems the more passionate you are about an artistic pursuit, the more pressure there is to be not just physically proficient at it, but—especially if you create your own material—to come up with something “new.” I suppose this mindset must go back centuries, if not millennia. That said, the ongoing internet/social-media experiment—still a tiny-ass blip on humanity’s psychosocial evolutionary timeline—has also conditioned us to put those tendencies into blazing overdrive over the course of a single generation.
I’m not here to bemoan our tech-driven, mental-health clusterfuck, though. Instead, I want to remind you that the pressure to “innovate” is completely in our own heads. To be a “serious” guitarist, you do not need to come up with some brilliant new fingering pattern or rhythm. You do not need to invent fancy-ass chords. You do not need to create mind-numbing numerological key-modulation formulas or devise a new post-pseudo-palindrome composition format. If you consistently feel compelled to do the aforementioned when you sit down to write music, ask yourself—am I doing this to be “a good guitarist”? Chances are, a lot of the time it’s insecurity or the need to impress (aka “insecurity”) that’s driving it. My mission here today is to tell you that repetition is our friend.
So go ahead—hit that note or that chord again. And again and again and again … See how cool it feels when you do it with conviction?
More specifically, I contend that a single, insistently repetitive and irresistibly grooving quarter-, eighth-, or 16th-note bass line, done right, pretty much always brings a smile, gets asses moving, or otherwise circulates the blood of those within earshot in ways that have to be good for us. (And, of course, the insistent line doesn’t actually have to be played on a bass.)
There are so many examples of this from the last hundred years of music, you’d think it doesn’t bear, er, repeating. We could all name tunes from across the stylistic spectrum that immediately touch something within us based solely on their hypnotic rhythm. For me, a killer recent example is the opening track off Irish quintet Fontaines D.C.’s new album, Skinty Fia.
With “In ár gCroíthe go deo” (“In our hearts forever”), bassist Conor Deegan III’s undeviating eighth-notes are the restless skeleton around which haunting church-choir harmonies, guitarist Carlos O’Connell’s eerily cycling Mustang noises, Grian Chatten’s thick Dublin-accented pronouncements, and co-guitarist Conor Curley’s alternately chiming and stuttering Jaguar manipulations are able to flesh out the melancholy tale and send it to its beautifully disconcerting climax. Without them, the whole thing would be a wallowing, amorphous mass.
Fontaines D.C. - In ár gCroíthe go deo (Official Lyric Video)
But the power of repetition isn’t confined to bass. Fontaines frontman Chatten uses the technique to mesmerizing, tension-building effect on vocals, as well. So go ahead—hit that note or that chord again. And again and again and again. Repeat that phrase over and over a few times. See how cool it feels when you do it with conviction? The power of repetition is why so much modern music follows the verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula (admittedly, a bit too much for my taste).
Of course, regardless of instrument, mere repetition doesn’t work magic on its own. The core bass work on “In ár gCroíthe go deo” would be just another rock-solid eighth-note line without the rest of the band’s careful additions, all bound together by a vision and attentive listening. But—at least for me—it’s valuable to periodically get slapped awake to the power of lines like this. I doubt I’m the only one who sometimes just can’t see the “forest” (the emotion or mood or message I want to convey) for the endless possible varieties of chords, progressions, scales, tempos, time signatures, etc. that are the “trees.”