As new guitars start to emerge from Guild’s Oxnard, California, plant, I am hearing a characteristic sound that’s probably the result of luthier Ren Ferguson’s finely attuned sonic palette. The latest to emerge is the M-40E Troubadour, which features a solid Sitka spruce top on a solid African mahogany body. Last year, I reviewed the all-mahogany Guild M-20, also known as the Nick Drake guitar, one of the first guitars produced by the nascent Guild factory in Southern California. From the M-40E’s beautiful satin-antique burst finish to its sparkling midrange, I see and hear striking similarities to the M-20. The M-40E is based on the 1960s-era Guild F-20 model. It is a concert-sized instrument that packs a punch, especially when plugged in.
Looks can be deceiving. With its smoky sunburst finish and diminutive size, from a short distance, the M-40E could almost be called cute. The grain of the solid Sitka spruce top beautifully shows through the finish. The African mahogany back and sides are stained Cabernet Red. The open-geared tuners, with their cream buttons, have a cool vintage vibe. There are some other nice touches, such as the bone nut and saddle, and the Indian rosewood fretboard and bridge. I’m not a huge fan of the binding, which is listed as “cream” although it looks a couple of shades whiter, but that’s a small quibble. A peek inside the guitar shows an X-braced top with some interesting little diamond-shaped additions. The frets are dressed nicely and overall workmanship is impeccable.
The satin finish feels silky smooth against your body and your fretting hand, a feature that translates into easy navigation of the rosewood fretboard. The C-shaped neck profile and 1-3/4-inch nut, as well as a comfortable 2-1/4-inches of string spacing at the bridge, provide a comfortable fit for fingerpicking.
You are apt to be surprised when you play and hear this guitar. It is loud and punchy. The small size keeps the M-40E from sounding boomy, but it has a thick midrange that should cut through most environments. Keep in mind that this is not a big guitar, so the bass response is more tightly wrapped around the midrange spectrum. Lead players should be pleased with the playability of the M-40E. I picked some bluesy single-string solo runs with ease and comfort. The 24-3/4-inch scale and the light D’Addario Coated Phosphor Bronze Light gauge, .012-.053” strings made string bends a breeze. I also appreciate the balance in volume between strings as I play through some arpeggiated runs. Guild’s attention to sonic detail has resulted in a finely balanced instrument that rings true from low to high.
THE ROAD TEST
Shifting gears, I strum my way through Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” which produces not a shimmery, but a throaty sound. I thoroughly enjoy the articulated midrange response whether I’m strumming or picking my way through Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” or the cowboy classic “Home on the Range,” completing my “home” trilogy.
Next up, I want to hear how the M-40E responds to alternating bass on old blues tunes—I am especially interested to hear how the M-40E, with its shorter scale and light-gauge strings, will respond to a lower tuning. First, I lower the sixth string and play Blind Blake’s “Chump Man Blues” in drop-D. Everything sounds great, with no buzzing. Then I try Skip James’s “Hard Time Killing Floor” in D-minor tuning (D A D F A D). With the pitches dropped significantly the guitar does not buzz and it seems to adopt and even darker tone that is reflective of material I am playing.
I switch back to standard tuning with more fingerpicking, including John Fahey’s arrangement of “In Christ There Is No East or West.” I experience great balance between bass and treble, with clear definition in the higher and lower registers, giving the guitar an intimate quality.
The M-40E comes equipped with an LR Baggs Element VTC under-saddle pickup, with the volume and tone dials mounted inside the soundhole closest to the bass strings. I have played the VTC in a couple of other guitars and am impressed by the accurate reproduction of a guitar’s acoustic sound without any of the “quack” associated with under-saddle transducers. Even with the tone wheel dialed all the way up, the M-40E sounds warm and lush.
The guitar should provide plenty of pleasure for all kinds of pickers, but especially for players seeking the comfort of a small-bodied guitar. But don’t expect a “big” sound like a dreadnought or OM-sized guitar. Still, in a market that is flooded with diminutive guitars, the M-40E stands out for its solid craftsmanship, superior tone, and comfortable playability.
At a Glance: Guild M-40E Troubadour
BODY Concert size; solid Sitka spruce top; solid African mahogany back and sides; satin finish
NECK Mahogany; 20-fret rosewood fingerboard; 24-3/4-inch scale; 1-3/4-inch nut; Guild nickel vintage-style open-geared tuners
ELECTRONICS LR Baggs Element VTC pickup
CASE Guild hardshell case with built-in humidifier
PRICE $1,599 (for M-40, natural finish, no pickup); $1,899.99 with options as tested (M-40E, with pickup and sunburst finish)
Made in U.S.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.