By Teja Gerken
A Vintage Guitar That Never Existed Creates a Cool Blend of Influences
Guild is one of the most significant North-American makers of flattop acoustics. Founded in 1952, in New Jersey, by former Epiphone employees, Guild came on the scene at a time when the only mainstream choices for high-end flattops were Gibson and Martin. The company established a name for itself by offering not just great value but also original designs, which included dreadnoughts with arched backs, the first modern 12-strings, and later, some of the first flattops with cutaways.
Since 1995, Guild has been part of Fender, and its guitars are currently manufactured in the New Hartford, Connecticut, facility established to build Ovation guitars. (In 2008, Fender acquired Ovation’s parent company, Kaman Music Corporation.)
Along the way, Guild hired former Gibson luthier Ren Ferguson to lead the company’s design team, and the instruments being produced now are among the finest the brand has ever offered. While a good portion of Guild’s efforts have been in recreating its classic models, the company is also developing designs. Among the most significant of these is the Orpheum series. I recently checked out the slope-shoulder 12-fret mahogany dreadnought.
A Stout Picking Pal
Picking the guitar up, your first impression is how stout it feels. The body is large, and it hardly tapers toward the neck block. That means you have to wrap your picking-hand arm around to get into playing position. For that reason I could see the guitar being uncomfortable for smaller players. There’s something about combining a 12-fret neck with such a large body that makes it feel shorter, and combined with the guitar’s short scale, I hardly had to reach to get my fretting hand into first position. Once the initial surprise wore off, I found the Guild comfortable, and I liked the relatively shallow D-profile of the neck, which felt similar to those on other Guild dreadnoughts I’ve played.
The review guitar had ultra-low action. This made it incredibly easy to fret, and a joy to play with somewhat softer attack. I’ve often felt that 12-fret dreadnoughts are underrated as fingerstyle guitars, and the Guild reinforces that opinion; this guitar type is worth checking out if you play without a pick. The guitar had a quick response, even when played softly, and it had a great lower mid-range and bass tonality. But the Guild’s bottom-end whoomph didn’t overpower the trebles, and I was surprised by how clear and balanced a rendition of Stefan Grossman’s “Bermuda Triangle Exit” sounded on the guitar. This positive fingerstyle impression continued when I put the guitar into drop-D and DADGAD tunings. Playing through a few fingerstyle arrangements of Irish tunes, the overall vibe was more modern than vintage, which is perhaps where the Guild signature fits into the potpourri of the Orpheum slope-shoulder 12-fret’s design.
Played with a pick, the guitar sounded nice and rich when strummed without too much force, but with the low factory action, it didn’t take much to reach the dynamic ceiling, which made its presence known by way of fret buzz when I dug into the strings. I can only guess the volume and tone potential that the guitar’s Adirondack red-spruce top must possess, but I’m certain that higher action would greatly increase the instrument’s dynamic range.
A Melting Pot of Designs
Longtime Guild fans will be quick to point out that even though the slope-shoulder 12-fret has several distinctive vintage-like touches, it’s like nothing the company has ever made before. And this is basically the idea behind the Orpheum series: What if Guild had been founded 20 years earlier? That’s the question the company’s design team asked itself. This concept would have put Guild right smack into what’s often referred to as the “Golden Era” of flattop guitar making, and the result is that the Orpheum series (which also includes orchestra, jumbo, and 14-fret dreadnought models) is a melting pot of vintage specs by Gibson and Martin, with a dose of Larson Brothers and classic Guilds added to the recipe.
The guitar’s elongated body shape and 12-fret neck invites a comparison to Martin’s original 12-fret dreadnought design. However, the instrument’s solid headstock, greater body depth (almost 4 ½ inches at the upper bout, and 4 ¾ inches at the lower bout), and short 24 ¾ inch scale bring it closer into Roy Smeck’s Gibson territory. That the review guitar came with the optional sunburst finish (natural is also available) further reinforced an overall Gibson vibe. But the guitar’s appointments, which include cool blue, orange, black, and red rope-style purfling, cream body binding, and an inlaid rosette that matches the purfling’s colors, are completely original (a similar design is used for the guitar’s back-strip). That rosette includes a ring of the same cream-colored plastic used for the binding to cover the inside of the soundhole, sealing off the otherwise exposed wood grain and yielding a classy appearance.
The guitar’s solid headstock has the vintage Guild shape and the old-style script Guild logo, and it is outfitted with a set of open-back Gotoh tuners with custom cream-colored buttons featuring the classic Guild “shield” imprinted on each surface.
The Orpheum slope-shoulder 12-fret mahogany dreadnought was built with a beautifully even-grained Adirondack spruce top and attractive mahogany back and sides. The guitar’s ebony fingerboard was left unbound, and simple pearl position markers lead to a workman-like appearance. As is the case with most Guilds, the Orpheum has a three-piece neck, consisting of two mahogany halves with a thin strip of walnut in the center.
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The Guild’s craftsmanship was impeccable throughout. Whether you’re talking about the fit and finish of internal parts (bonded with hide glue), the “thin as a breath” nitrocellulose finish, or such details as the beautifully compensated bone saddle, this slope-shoulder 12-fret dreadnought left no doubt that Guild is able to hang with the best when it comes to the construction of its instruments.
Overall, the Guild Orpheum 12-fret mahogany dreadnought feels and sounds like a vintage guitar that never existed, melding a cool blend of influences in the process. Guild has created a versatile instrument that’s bound to appeal to individualist players. At a time when few chances are taken with new guitar designs, Guild should be applauded for being willing to depart from its own tradition.
NECK Mahogany neck with dovetail joint. Ebony fingerboard and bridge.
24 3/4-inch scale. 1.8-inch nut width. 2 5/16-inch string spacing at saddle. Nitrocellulose lacquer finish.
STRINGS Medium-gauge Guild M-450 strings.
TUNERS Chrome Gotoh open-back tuners with cream buttons.
PRICE $4.799.99 list/$3,800 street.
Made in USA.