Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Guild S-200 Thunderbird



In the pantheon of guitars I still wish I had, the Guild Thunderbird ranks at the head. It was the guitar I always wanted, and I got not one but two of them. Then I sold them because I had to at the time.

Now, years later, when I run across a picture of one like this one from someone's collection, I stop short and linger over its design.

I look at the three slider switches, like a Fender Jaguar. The on-off switch, like you'd ever turn it OFF. The big shiny lead pickup knobs (that go to 9, from back in the days when there was still a value placed on reserve) and the two smaller ones for the rhythm. I look at the wanky old Hagstrom tremelo unit--I had a stop tailpiece installed on my sunburst T'bird, much like I'd done to my poor Les Paul Standard years ago, turning from an investment of an instrument into a 'players' guitar'.

I think about the guitar stand in the back. Basically, if you've never seen one, it's a nine inch flat metal bar that is hinged so that it sticks out at about a thirty-five degree angle from the reclining Thunderbird. On the same waved edge as the rear strap button, there are two tiny rubber feet that work with the guitar stand to give it stability and grip. Only they don't, really. Yes, the guitar will stand up but it will also tump over easily and its head will snap right off, like many of the repaired Polaras and Thunderbirds you see nowadays. There is a reason why there's a sticker affixed to the Guild guitar stand that says "Patent pending." The 'kickstand' patent may well be pending still, forty years later.

The Thunderbird is one heavy-ass guitar. That's a lot of wood right there; yet it's not a badly balanced guitar, though it seems like it should be.

I admit I favored Jet Stars for years which are considerably smaller 'junior' models. That's the guitar I'm playing on the cover of The Sound of Music, and there's another one laying around on the floor. There was a point that I had four of them, some with the six-inline headstock, some with the Hagstrom vibrato, all very cool guitars. One bit the dust when it fell out of a truck in Brussels, Belgium. The dB's' guitar tech, Jimmy Descant who now, understandably, builds rocketships, tried to keep me from learning this prior to the show, because I did react badly and stomped around for hours, pissed at myself for having shitty cases.

I knew when I had a Jet Star that it was only a matter of time before I had to have a Thunderbird. I found a red one at Chelsea Guitars in New York and next thing I knew, I owned it. It was a superb guitar, lighter than the Sunburst I acquired later. It was my main guitar on the Green Tour with R.E.M.; you can still see it in action on an NRBQ DVD that I am on. When money got tight, I sold it to Charlotte Caffey from the Go-Gos who bought it for her husband Jeff McDonald. You can see the guitar on the inner sleeve one of Redd Kross' CD's. I bet he still has it today.

By now, people are understanding the worth of Guild Thunderbirds. There was a point where Guild was an excellent bargain for collectors in that they didn't command the kind of kings' ransom that you'd fork out for a Les Paul or a vintage Stratocaster. Plus they were weird-looking, and maybe of a time. Mine were bargains, but that's not what I miss about them.

Playing the T'bird was very commanding. It had the softness to the touch of a good Gibson, but the pickups were quieter than Gibson humbuckers; maybe that was more of the aforementioned reserve. Notes that came from that instrument weren't coaxed but rather agreed upon by guitarist and guitar somehow.

When I was a kid starting out, I would see Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin' Spoonful
and his amazing Thunderbird on TV and marvel at the tone that I assumed had to be the guitar's (I have read since then that Zal did indeed use his Guild for recording.) I was given Electric Mud by Muddy Waters for Christmas the year it came out. It had a gigantic photo in the sleeve of Muddy, in a white robe, processed 'do and a Guild Thunderbird. Did I need any more confirmation than those two guys?

I hope I can own one of these great unsung guitars again one day before I go; it was a singular experience being a Thunderbird owner, fielding the questions and the quizzical looks when I'd pull it out of its case. And the questions turned to understanding nods once the guitar was plugged in and being played.

12 comments:

Gary Oxford said...

Notes that came from that instrument weren't coaxed but rather agreed upon by guitarist and guitar somehow.

My Gibson The Paul can never agree on what notes to play. I thought that was just because I'm a sloppy player, but maybe I've got the wrong guitar.

hangzhou7906 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sean said...

looks like the guild you played with Hootie "all those years ago". Ya know, you're post has inspired me to eBay around for a vintage Guild...

mmmmm.....vintage.

Anonymous said...

You know what... ? I've just discovered this guitar tonight... and fell in love with it at first sight Looks great, and might sound great too... Don't have that much money,so I guess I'll try to find a De Armond Jetstar, but many people might do that too, that's why they're not that cheap anymore... Keep on playin'... Hello from France... Laurent.

Anonymous said...

I have a 63 guild thunderbird. bought it in 70 for $65

Love the guitar and still play it every day

never use the stand

Anonymous said...

Hey Peter-Nice piece! I always thought if Pianosaurus played "Real" guitars it'd be Thunderbirds! (at least mine would!) I'm currently writing them up for VG and came accross your blog-brought a tear to me eye! Greetings fron "Dodge" and playing my '65 S-200 right now...

Chees! Peter Stuart Kohman

jonder said...

I was just watching the live Redd Kross DVD and trying to figure out what Jeff was playing... Google led me straight to this post! Strange coincidence, as I was listening to your beautiful song "She Was the One" earlier today.

Todd Shuster said...

Hi, Peter,
Long time fan, first time caller. I bought a '66 Thunderbird for $35.00 from my local music dealer when I was 16 ('74). The body was shot, but it played well. My model has the single coils that Guild switched to, which made it even more like a Jaguar. After a while, the electronics went and it spent a lot of years in its case. I'm currently having it restored (albeit with a custom color). I've been trying to collect more info about the guitar and I appreciate your great blog (and the incredible music you've created over the years). Hope you find another T'bird one day. Best, Todd Shuster

thegreentreesmusic said...

great post man!
your love of the thunderbird
really shines through....
got here watching zally in the spoonful videos going
"God, i love this guy!
and what is he playing?!?"

love to hear more stories from
playing on the Green Tour
with R.E.M.

all blessings!

Anonymous said...

I still have it! The red thunderbird has been on every record and almost every tour since I got it.
A magic guitar dripping with hoodoo.
Jeff McDonald

Ct blues player said...

Great to hear the comments on the Thunderbird. I bought a 1963 model in the summer of 1969 and stiil play this. The action crawls compared to a Strat but the smooth tone and fingering compel me to keep this axe! I played a number of gigs while in school,but do not miss the weight on my shoulder after the fourth set of the night!

axis3000 said...

ii bought one in '79 for $50 !!!