In order to try and impart a bit of logic to the proceedings, I employed something called a decision matrix. This is a tool I learned from a project manager many years ago and I use it to make decisions for purchases all the time. For example, if I’m going to buy a car, I will evaluate individual aspects of each car (stereo, comfort, power, etc.) with a numeric value. I will then total up each car’s scores and the winner should be the logical choice. I usually add a weight to the scores and then multiply each score by the appropriate weight as well. In other words, if I’m really concerned with the power, I’ll give that a weight of 5 so a raw score of 3 would result in a weighted score of 15. I then compare the raw and weighted scores to see if they agree.
In the case of guitars, a lot of what matters is either subjective (tone), or very personal (neck feel), so bear in mind that these numbers are for my tastes and you may very well score them differently. Still, it’s a fun exercise, so let’s see if the math matches with my gut feelings.
The following is a quick recap on the guitars including links to the original reviews, listed in chronological order according to their date of manufacture. If you would like to hear and compare sound samples from the guitars, click on the Full Review link within each guitar’s section. Pro tip: Open two or windows so you can play then side by side!
1974 Guild Bluesbird M-75
[ Full Review ]
I got this guitar for a great price because it has some obnoxious wear on it including a nice lacquer burn caused by someone closing an old coily cord on top of the guitar before putting it away in the case. This is a lightweight tone monster of a guitar with its vintage Guild HB1 pickups and I’ll be honest when I say that it surprised the hell out of me when I first played it.
1975 Bluesbird M-80 CS
[ Full Review ]
This double-cutaway Bluesbird M-80 CS from 1975 is one of the strangest of the group both because of it’s double-cutataw body, and because the thicker body adds a fair bit of weight which makes the neck seem ridiculously long. Looks aside, this guitar is another tone monster with its vintage Guild HB1 pickups.
1981 Bluesbird M80
[ Full Review ]
This guitar, from the early 1980s is one of the thinnest of the bunch while also being one of the heaviest. This guitar sports Guild’s short-lived XR-7 pickups which surprised me with their articulation and chime. This guitar is a great guitar in its own right, but how does it stack up next to all these superstars?
Probably my emotional favorite going into the bake-off, this 1997 Bluesbird is probably the most Les-Paul-like of the bunch. This is the first of the group without Guild pickups, instead sporting Seymour Duncan SH1s. This is also one of only two in the group with a wider 1 11/16″ fretboard which is probably why it grabs me when I play it.
2016 Newark Street Bluesbird
[ Full Review ]
The baby of the group, this is the 2016 Guild Newark Street Bluesbird. The Newark Street series is made in Korea, and as such this is the only guitar in the group not made in the USA. This guitar also sports Seymour Duncan pickups. Can the lone import guitar stand tall with the big guns?
Be warned, most of what you’re about to read is very subjective. Hell, I’m rating things like looks and sound and how much I like the top. Understand that these are my impressions, and after having all five guitars and playing them all for months, these are my conclusions based on my experiences. You may not agree, but I figure my experiences may help someone who’s trying to decide between these choices.
For me, the M-80 CS from 1975 is just goofy looking. Sure, it’s a monster player that sounds great, but when it comes to looks all the other guitars beat it. The 1981 M80 is very… ’80s looking. The 2016 Newark Street Bluesbird actually tied with the 1975 M80 because the ’70s guitar gets points for vintage coolness while the 2016 Bluesbird looks almost right as it pretends to be from decades past.
The 1981 M80 sounds surprisingly good with it’s XR7 pickups, and since the two more modern Bluesbirds both have Seymour Duncan pickups, they’re right up there with it. Honestly, there is not a bad-sounding guitar in the bunch and they all score highly. It’s just hard to top vintage HB1s.
Fretboard and Neck
I really love ebony fretboards but if the neck is small that trumps anything else, so the ebony boards on the vintage Bluesbirds just couldn’t override the smallness of the necks. Honestly, again, they’re all great guitars and none of them get a bad rating, but the wider necks win every time for me.
From a pure looks standpoint, the two modern Bluesbirds clinch it with their tops just oozing flame. Sure, the Newark Street top is probably a veneer, but it looks fantastic. All of the guitars in the group have arched tops to varying degrees, and the three older guitars are all plain. While the plain tops are very nice and the 1975 M80 CS especially exudes a fair bit of class, for me the nice flame wins every time.
I actually scored the Newark Street Bluesbird below the 1997 Bluesbird which is not really fair since they both have the same pickups in them, but there’s just something different about the tone from the two guitars that makes me like the 1997 better. That’s probably more to do with the design of the guitar itself or maybe even the electronics, but there’s something going on there. Really, though, none of the pickups suck in this group.
For me, a big part of playability is the feel of the neck so the two modern guitars get the win here. The 1974 M-75 would have won hands-down if it had a wider neck because it’s an absolute blast to play and it’s just a killer guitar but the neck just doesn’t work for me. In fact, if the 1974 Bluebird had a wider neck it would probably win almost every section except for the top.
The 1997 ties with it because it’s the closest to a vintage Les Paul I’ve ever seen from Guild. When I plug this one in I go right for the Plexi setting and turn up the gain.
The 1981 M80 does poorly here because I’m just not really inspired by it. It’s a great guitar, but it just can’t compete with the rest of them when it comes to pure joy of playing for me. I suspect many would disagree with me here.
As much as I think the Newark Street Guilds can be great guitars, I think Guild’s manufacturing facility in Korea has yet to really figure out the whole Quality Control thing. The bottom line with Newark Street Guilds is they’re great if you get a good one, but when you get one, look it over carefully because the chances of getting one with issues (usually minor or cosmetic) seems to be a bit higher than it is with the others in this group.
Regardless of what they actually weigh, the feel of the two winners is substantially different than the other guitars on the list because they’re both chambered and both thinner than the rest. The other three feel heavy in comparison even though some of the are also chambered.
Of course, this scoring and chart means that these are the right guitars for me. Some people will look at my findings and scoff that a Newark Street Guild of any flavor could possibly compete with, let alone be more desirable than a 1975 Guild with HB1s, but consider this: I told my teenage daughter that she could have any of them for her own. She chose the Newark Street model. Sure, that could just be the inexperience of youth, but I give her credit because she knows what she likes, and for her the reasonably good looks coupled with the low weight makes it a winner. So far after some six months she has never regretted her decision and if you can imaging the guitars she has access to while they’re in my care, that’s saying something.
My goal was to sell off some of these guitars because I don’t need so many. So, which one wins forgetting about things like decision matrices and math? For tone with the stock pickups, the M-75 wins. It’s amazing how great this guitar sounds even against the other vintage Guilds in the contest, but this one has something that other pre-1980s Guilds in the group don’t have: chambers. That makes it lighter and gives it an edge in the tone department. It’s also thin and light and I can play it all day long.
For pure vintage mojo, I gotta go with the older M80, but it’s ridiculously heavy, not well balanced since all the weight is in the body, and I’ll be honest, I think it looks weird with its truncated horns. It’s a monster player, though, even with all my complaints about it. Sadly, though, it was the first one I sold off.
The 1981 M80 gets a nod for playability because it’s just so thin, even though it is a heavy beast. It’s also got the 24-fret neck which does not have a bound fretboard. The XR-7s are surprisingly good sounding and don’t overdrive the amp like some of the hotter Seymour Duncans do, but that means that it also loses the delicious chime that the vintage Bluesbirds gain with their HB-1 pickups. This is a very modern-sounding guitar that’s fun to play. Sadly, the master volume is gone on this one.
For “hey, is that a Les Paul?” effect, the 1997 wins. It also wins for modern gut-punching power with its hot pickups and wider fretboard. We lose the ebony fretboards here, and the phase switch is gone, and after playing the vintage Guilds with the MV and phase switch, this guitar felt almost too simple. It rocks, though, and let me tell you, it rocks hard. This guitar wins for playability for me because this is the first of the bunch that has a more modern 1 11/16″ neck. It’s also a lot of fun possibly in part to the “look at me red” finish.
The Newark Street gets points for playability because it’s so thin and light (like the M-75), has the wider fretboard (like the 1997), and sounds similar to the 1997 because it has similar pickups in it. It loses points though because of the tuners that I dislike, the lame plastic switch tip and the slightly less sturdy feel than the rest of them. This is the only non-US made guitar in the bunch and the difference is noticeable but only really if you play them side by side. This is a surprisingly fun guitar to play that sound great, too. Believe it or not, I actually thought I had mislabeled the sound files because this guitar sounds a LOT like my 1997 Bluesbird.
Hmm.. It doesn’t seem like there’s a clear winner without the math, either. Musical instruments are profoundly personal things since even the slightest differences mean different things to different people Some people prefer smaller necks, and some like them huge. Some like hotter pickups, some people dislike ebony fretboards, and some people just like what they like.
For my tastes, ranking them by gut feel I end up with the order as follows:
You know what’s funny? That’s the exact same order that my decision matrix determined, so there’s something to the math after all. Or, perhaps I should just learn to trust my gut when it comes to guitars and leave the math for the Ham Radios.
Which one should you buy? Why, all of them, of course! Then you could do your own bake-off and tell me your conclusion in the comments.