1981 Guild S300

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Ahh, the Guild S300. Ain’t nothin’ else quite like it. Of course, that’s mostly because it’s pretty odd looking, but ask almost anyone who’s owned one and they’ll tell you how much it rocks. I’ve owned four and yes, they all rocked. Hard.

A Guild S300A-D was my only guitar for over 20 years and as a result I have a soft spot for these odd-looking beasts, so when the opportunity presented itself for me to score a 1981 Guild S300, I jumped on it. I needed to own this 1981 S300 both because I was without an S300 at the time and because I wanted to write about one of my favorite guitars which I could only do properly with one in hand. As luck would have it, the one that landed in my lap happened to be in almost like-new condition. Let’s take a look.

Introduction

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Introduced in 1978 and produced until 1981, the Guild S300 was a very distinctive looking guitar in a world overrun with Strats and Les Pauls. With it’s two-humbucker layout, it was a rock ‘n roll machine, but if you wanted single coils you could get the identically shaped S70 that included three single-coil pickups oriented like a Strat. Those S70s came with some other differences such as the tuners, fretboard, and pick guard as well, but the definitive “new Guild” shape was the same. That shape was used for a lot of guitars at the time including the S70, the S65, the -D variations of those (with Dimarzio pickups), and the lower-end single-humbucker version named the S60.

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A Guild S60 was my first real guitar, bought from a friend back around 1979 or so. That recalcitrant-looking teen in the photo with the sunburst S-60 connected to his dad’s analog tape deck through a kick-ass late ’70s coily cord is non other than your’s truly. While the photo of me with the guitar brings back a fair bit of nostalgia for a simpler time, if I’m being honest what it really makes me long for are the days when I could kneel like that ’cause this old man’s knees ain’t what they used to be. Sadly, I gave that guitar away to a cousin during a fit of generosity and it was stolen some time thereafter so there’s no chance of me reuniting with it. That’s a shame because that S60 guitar was my first introduction to the greatness that is the Guild HB-1 pickup.

The Guild electric guitars of this era are rock machines. With its mahogany body and low-wind HB-1 pickup that guitar has a similar vibe to a Les Paul Jr., though the Junior had that P90 Mississippi Queen/Aqualung growl that that no humbucker can touch. Still, imagine a Les Paul Jr. with a Gibson PAF pickup and you’d be right about where that S60 was tone-wise.

GuildS300CatalogSpread
The S-300 came in a couple of versions, the simplest being the S-300 which had a mahogany body and two HB-1 pickups like the one that is the subject of this review. Additionally, the S300 came with Dimarzio pickups in which case it became an S300D, and if the S300 had an ash body then it became an S300A. If you ordered the guitar with an ash body and Dimarzios, then you had yourself an S300A-D.

Remember, these guitars were sold in the late ’70s and early ’80s when people were pulling out those lame old “regular” humbuckers and dropping in Dimarzios, so everyone wanted that super-cool bare-bobbin upgraded look because that’s what modern guitars looked like.

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When I out-grew my S60 (or so I thought at the time), I bought myself an S300A-D which happened to be the first thing I ever bought with my own money. I foolishly sold that guitar decades later in an event that would eventually lead me to buy no less than three other S300A-Ds in an effort to try and reclaim my youth. If you count all the S300s I’ve owned, the one in this review would be number four.

Yeah, I love these guitars.

As cool as I think these guitars are, I don’t think they ever caught on because, well, just look at the damn things. The catalog entry for the S300 calls this “the new Guild shape” which I guess is as good a name as any. It’s goofy looking in a way that worked in the mid ’70s but quickly didn’t work in a world where everyone was suddenly buying Super-Strats. That, plus the fact that no famous musicians of the time ever bought into the S300 look made these guitars have a relatively short lifespan of only a few years. That’s a shame, really, because they are great guitars as anyone who has owned one will tell you.

Finish

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The S300s are finished in lacquer and if you find one of these on the used market it will likely have a fair bit of finish checking on it. The one in this review does not which is frankly pretty amazing given the fact that it is 36 years old as of 2017. This guitar was clearly not played much and likely spent its life sitting in its case somewhere undisturbed and unmolested.

One of the things you’ll hear long-time guitarists talk about, often after looking around to see if anyone else is listening, is that they love the smell of their instruments. Lacquer has a tendency to outgas for many years after the guitar is finished and the smell of a lacquer guitar is something that we all adore. And yes, I’ll admit that when I first opened this case up at home I picked the guitar up and smelled it, and yes, it smelled great.

Available colors for the S300 were sunburst, cherry, black, walnut, natural or white while the ash-bodied versions were available in sunburst or blonde. I believe the guitar in this review to be walnut unless it was cherry and the finish faded a great deal. Sadly there is no sticker in the control cavity to confirm what the original color was but the finish inside the lip of the cavity is the same color as the outside so I’m calling this one walnut.

Fretboard and Neck

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Every S300 I’ve ever encountered (and most all other Guild electrics from this time period) have 1 5/8″ necks at the nut, and I can tell you that this one was spot on the 1 5/8″ mark.

These necks are smaller than I’d prefer, but they’re deep enough to be comfortable and since an S-300AD was my only guitar for 20+ years, the neck on this guitar just feels like home. Even though I gripe about 1 5/8″ necks all the time, the S300 just feels so right that I can’t put it down. Of course I tend to be biased about all my Guilds, but the S300 is just such a great feeling guitar which is probably one of the reasons that I keep buying them.

The fretboard on this 24 3/4″ scale neck is ebony and the fret markers are simple dots. There is no binding on any S300 that I’ve ever seen and, though I love bound fretboards, this is another case where this guitar just feels right without it.

1981-Guild-S300-FretMarkers
The neck is fairly long in part because of the overall design and the fact that these are 24-fret guitars. When I was in high school I played in a band with a guy that had a 1979 Starfire IV and I used to love to be the guy with the 24-fret neck because I was the only one that had the fretboard space to play the last note in the solo from Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. Those extra two frets where the only way I was getting any solo time, so I really appreciated them at the time! The side markers are simple but contrast well enough to probably be seen on a darkened stage, but hey, you shouldn’t be looking at the neck while you play, anyway.

The catalog describes the fretboard as being curved, and indeed the radius measures at an almost perfect 9.5″. The frets are described in the catalog as wide and measure .10″ wide by .03″ high making them the typical Medium Jumbo fret wire seen on Guild electrics from this era.

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The neck on this guitar is one-piece mahogany and is the only Guild electric on which I’ve ever had to adjust the truss-rod though, to be fair, it was completely loose and was probably never touched since it left the factory. As soon as I tightened it just 1/2 turn it straightened right up. While this S300 has a one-piece mahogany neck, the S-300ADs that I’ve owned all had three-piece necks which I firmly believe was the reason for their rock-like stability. There is no appreciable difference in feel that I can discern between the one and three-piece necks.

Build Quality

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These guitars are amazingly well made, as are all Guilds from Westerly and even Corona. It has a masterful wood joint at the neck and there are no workmanship flaws anywhere on the guitar. On S-300As, the wood used in the body is often two and even three pieces but the pieces are so well matched that on more than one of them I was convinced that they were one piece until I found the seam. Whoever had the job of matching the wood together really cared about their job. I hope that person was recognized for the care they took, and if not, then let me take this opportunity to salute them here. Well done.

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My only complaint about these guitars and some of the others from this time period is the fact that the end pin is pressed (hammered, more than likely) in and not screwed in. On multiple Guild electrics from this era I’ve had the end pin just fall out, and of course that usually happens at the worst possible moment like during a jumping split on stage. You know, back in the 1980s when even typing the words “jumping split” didn’t hurt. When I was gigging with an S-300AD I filled the hole with a dowel, glued it in, then screwed in a set of strap locks and never looked back.

This guitar weighs a very reasonable 7 lbs 11oz. The S-300ADs that I’ve owned all felt like they weighed about 38 pounds since they were ash so this one feels nice and balanced based on my memory of those heavier guitars.

Pickups

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The pickups on an S-300 or S-300A are Guild HB-1s while an S-300D or S-300AD would have come with a Dimarzio PAF in the neck and a Dimarzio Super Distortion in the bridge.

We were all after hotter, louder, and better pickups in the early ’80s, so a lot of these guitars shipped with Dimarzios installed which was great for the time. This guitar has the HB-1s in it and they are as great as they are every other time I’ve gushed about them. I also think that they’re a better choice because the Dimarzio options can be darker than the nice bright HB-1s.

This is my first S300 with HB-1s and after one strum I found myself wishing that I’d had these pickups in all my S300s, but then I wouldn’t have looked as cool as I did in the ’80s with those sexy bare bobbins. ‘Cause, you know, that’s what was important.

Electronics

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This guitar appears pretty typical with its two humbuckers and four control knobs. It has a pickup selector switch and a phase switch as well which was a pretty popular item on Guild solid-body electrics from the ’70s and ’80s. One of the things I love about these guitars is the fact that all of the controls are out of the way. I’m a pretty dynamic player (meaning I’m mean to guitars) and when I get going on some instruments I end up hitting the controls. Strats are among the worst for me, but many of the Super-Strats from the ’80s also liked to put the volume control right next to the bridge pickup in order to better facilitate volume swells. I invariably smack those with my hand as well which probably means I should lighten up on the downstrokes but, dammit, I need to ROCK!

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The control cavity is completely shielded with copper foil which gives it a sort of Mars rover look to my overly developed Sci-Fi reading mind. The wiring is relatively clean and none of the pots are scratchy. Like everything else on the guitar, it looks like it sat unused for decades.

The wiring on a Guild S300 is actually pretty interesting because though it looks on the surface to be just like any other two-humbucker four-knob guitar, it’s actually not. These guitars are wired in a way that never clicked for me even after owning one for over 20 years because the difference only manifests itself in the middle position that I never used as a 20-something guitarist in the “bridge pickup or GTFO” time that was the ’80s.

On a typical two-humbucker guitar with four knobs such as a modern Les Paul, when playing in the middle position if you roll one of the volumes to zero in the middle position, the guitar will go silent. This is the case on my 1997 Guild Bluesbird and my 1998 Starfire as well, but this does not happen on a Guild S300. Why? Because of the wiring.

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This feature is called decoupled wiring because the volume pots are not coupled together like they are on a typical modern Les Paul. If you look at my drawing, you’ll see that the pickup connects to the middle connection on each volume pot. On a modern Les Paul, the pickups and the selector switch connections are swapped on the volume pots which makes the entire thing interact differently when the middle position is engaged.

Decoupled wiring is cool because each volume control is more useful in the middle position, but the problem with decoupled wiring is that the tone darkens considerably when the volume is rolled down.

Another thing that stood out to me when I looked at the components is the fact that there are 200K pots for tone. Additionally, while there is a fairly standard .047µF capacitor on the neck tone pot, there is a tiny .010µF capacitor on the bridge tone pot. A lower resistance pot generally makes a trebly pickup sound darker and a smaller valued capacitor generally means less treble rolled off as the pot is turned down, all of which combines to make me wonder if the engineers where trying to fatten up the tone of the HB1 pickups a bit.

Hardware

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The Gotoh Guild-labeled tuners are my favorite tuners ever, mostly because they were what I had on my only guitar from the age of about 16 to 36, so for me they became the very definition of what tuners should look and feel like.

According to the catalog, all hardware is chrome plated and as you can see from the pics, this example is still in exemplary condition with the only hint of wear to the plating appearing on the selector switch which almost looks nickel in comparison to the bright shiny chrome on every other piece of hardware.

1981-Guild-S300-Bridge
The mueller bridge and Guild tailpiece are iconic for me and I love the look. By this point in time Guild had moved the tailpiece closer to the bridge in an effort to increase string tension, something that a lot of people seem to dislike, at least when it comes to the Guild S-100 guitars where many people seem to prefer the looser tension of the original configuration.

The tailpiece is solid brass according to the catalog, and is “firmly anchored” to the guitar. I’ve always felt that these S300s were sustain monsters and it wouldn’t surprise me if these blocks of brass are a big reason why.

Sound

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As you’re probably tired of reading by now, I categorize these guitars as rock machines. But why? As I wrote, the mahogany body with the bright chimey pickups makes for a great combination similar in theory to a Les Paul Junior or even a Gibson SG. Conceptually this guitar is pretty similar to the Guild S100 and differs mostly in its shape and fretboard material, though it’s thicker and blockier than the S100 which means more mass which translates to killer tone and sustain.

Tiny Tweed

D-Shape

E-Barre

Open Chords

JCM 800

A-Barre

Backline

D-Shape

Angry 800

E-Barre

Riff


This guitar feels like it sustains for days and I tried to capture that by letting chords ring out in the recordings. It’s a delight to play and the fact that the pickups are chimey and articulate really work well in combination with that bell-like sustain. The guitar is very resonant acoustically and like the S300A-D of my youth, is almost as much fun to play unplugged as it is with a cranked Marshall. OK, that’s not true, because through a cranked Marshall this thing is like the shot of Demerol they gave me after knee surgery: instant bliss and I get angry when you try to take it away.

For these recordings I used my normal Axe-FX Ultra setup through the QSC K12 speaker recorded into my trusty Olympus LS-10. As usual, three of the recordings are through the Tiny Tweed patch, though I also added a recording through the JCM-800 and one through a pretty hair-band setting called Backline. I added another to the group from the patch called Angry 800 which is basically a JCM 800 with a TS-808 and a cocked wah in front. I just fell in love with this guitar on this patch, and I loved it on every pickup selection. This guitar through a cranked amp is something to behold, and I think it’s that magic combination of great low-wind pickups in a slab of mahogany that just rocks.

This is a surprisingly versatile guitar with HB1 pickups because it can deliver great clean tones on the neck pickup all the way through the tonal spectrum to raunchy overdriven tones on the bridge.  Of course, it can’t nail that single-coil tone and it can’t quack like a Strat, but I have so much fun playing it cranked that I really couldn’t care less about what it can’t do because I’m having far too much fun enjoying what it does.

Playability

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As stated earlier, these guitars have smaller 1 5/8″ necks but the necks are a bit deeper than some of the 1970s Guild electrics I’ve owned, so they’re very comfortable to play. The 24-fret neck coupled with the guitar’s design makes the neck seem very long when standing, and I find myself sometimes getting a little lost if I’ve spent a lot of time with some of my Starfires because the frets aren’t always where I think they should be.

Upper fret access is ridiculously good because of the design of the guitar, and with the 24-fret neck I can hit notes I only dream of on other guitars. Since the fretboard has a pretty curvy 9.5″ radius, playing open chords is a delight which is one of the reasons I think that I like the way this guitar plays even with its smaller neck width.

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With the controls all grouped together and out of the way I can play this guitar aggressively without throwing anything out of whack. Since the body is only an inch and a half thick all around except for the slight bevelling on the top edge (front and back), it’s very comfortable to play while standing and the shape of the guitar makes it great to play while sitting as well.

About the only gripe I have with the layout is the fact that the output jack is on the top which means that either the chord sticks out perpendicular to the top or I buy cables with right-angled plugs.  I have always had an irrational dislike of right-angled plugs, probably because I need ’em when I don’t have ’em and have ’em when I don’t need ’em, so I have always just tolerated the straight plug sticking out of the top of my S300s.

Thanks to the uncoupled wiring design, the middle position on this guitar is a bit more useful than other similarly equipped guitars, at least in my opinion. I would imagine others agree because there are a fair number of websites out there describing how to alter Les Pauls to migrate to the decoupled wiring layout.

Conclusion

These are fantastic guitars and the only thing people generally dislike about them is the shape, but for me the shape is part of the appeal. I mean, how many distinctive guitar shapes are there? When I see one of these I know immediately that it’s a Guild and I know that it’s one I’ll like.

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With it’s cool decoupled wiring and HB1 pickups, this guitar is a tone machine that is right at home with crunch or high gain while also producing some very nice clean tones. With four octaves of fretboard and amazingly good upper fret access, this is a guitar that was made to rock.

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Devoid of many of the flashier attributes such as neck binding, elaborate inlays, carved tops, or gold hardware, this is basically a slab of mahogany with killer pickups which is always a great combination.

While most Guild electric aficionados tend to gravitate towards the S-100, or the Bluesbird, those guitars look like they’re trying to steal buyers from Gibson, and with good reason. An S300, though, is 100% pure Guild and is unapologetically its own thing. For me, an S300 is a must-have, especially when I can find one that’s this clean. As time goes on these guitars will become harder and hard to find, so if you’ve ever thought about owning one, now’s the time. You just can’t have this one. This one’s mine.

 

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