Guild Nightbird I

Today we’re going to take a look at the Guild Nightbird I. Not the Nightbird or the Nightbird Custom or The Nightbird GG, or… You know what? We’ll talk about the crazy number of Nightbird models later. For now just accept that this is a Nightbird I.

This isn’t really a model that I lusted after so there’s no cool story about me wanting one since I was born (20 years before the guitar was even made). Nope – I bought this one just to write it up, so lets see if it’s worthy of the Guild Nightbird name by evaluating all its details in a completely impartial and unbiased way. Well, as impartial as unbiased as an unabashed Guild fanboy can be.

Introduction

Yes, there are a lot of variations on the Nightbird theme, and I’ve covered those differences in my GAD’s Guide to Guild Nightbirds article.

This guitar is a Nightbird I which means it’s got a spruce top, no neck or headstock binding, a rosewood fretboard, and chromed hardware. This guitar also has Dimarzio pickups which is a departure from most other Nightbirds, or at least the high-end Nightbirds that people usually associate with the Nightbird name.

While this is still a very well-made guitar, it is the sort of entry level Nightbird. That doesn’t mean that it’s a cheap guitar by any stretch (It retailed for $995 in late 1987 and $1045 in 1988) but is instead more of a way to get the cool Nightbird features like a carved spruce top and a semihollow body without paying for all the bling found on the Nightbird II which is like the original Nightbird. If that’s confusing go read that link two paragraphs back.

While the lack of bling was fine from a cost-savings point of view, a couple of the feature changes made a pretty dramatic difference when comparing the Nightbird I to a Nightbird II or original Nightbird. Let’s take a look.

First, the fretboard is both rosewood and unbound, both of which make for a very different looking, and more importantly, different feeling guitar. It is the first thing my eye is drawn to when I look at a Nightbird I, and though that may be because I’ve spent a lot of time staring lovingly at my other Nightbirds, I think the plain rosewood board looks out of place on this guitar.

The other big difference is the pickups, and though I’ve never been a big fan of putting EMGs in Nightbirds, the Kent Armstrong pickups in the original Nightbird GG aren’t too shabby and the Guild HB1s are some damn fine pickups. Guild eschewed all of those choices on this guitar and instead put in passive Dimarzios. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it changes what it means to be a Nightbird at a certain level.

The early 1987 price list includes the Nightbird I and the Bluesbird with the Bluesbird starting $200 more (without the $100 flame maple upgrade!) so the Bluesbird was a higher-end instrument than the Nightbird I, at least in 1987. Remember, though, that the 1987 Bluesbird was a completely different guitar that the one most people associate with the Bluesbird name. The 1987 Bluesbird is what I generally call the Setzer Bluesbird because of his hand in the design.

Put in a way that would likely annoy Guild fans, the Nightbird I was the least expensive Les Paul type Guild you could buy in 1987.

Finish

I assume this guitar to be finished in lacquer because all of the other Nightbirds seem to be, but assuming is always dangerous which is probably why I do it so much. Or something.

The finish is very well done as it is on all Guilds from the Westerly plant, and the amber coloring over the spruce top is quite nice and also pretty iconic when it comes to spruce-topped Nightbirds. There’s really not much else to say because there are no problems to be found which is kind of amazing given the fact that the original case I got this guitar in is a bit of a (fully functional and protective) mess.

Fretboard and Neck

This is a short-scale guitar (like a Les Paul or Bluesbird) and the neck is a comfortable C shape, though it’s a bit shallow compared with other Guilds of the same era. It feels a bit more like a shredder neck than most other Les Paul shaped guitars except for maybe the R0 Historic which is known for its less aggressive neck.

The fretboard is fairly wide at just a bit over 1 11/16″ at the nut and feels great all the way up the neck, though if I’m being honest I really miss the neck binding as a result of playing my other Nightbirds. That’s obviously a personal thing and also a bit of an elitist observation so understand that if you’re not used to playing other Nightbirds that this is not a problem in any way – it’s just different than most of the guitars that share the Nightbird name.

The fretboard is rosewood and the neck is one-piece mahogany. The frets measure at .027″ high by .08″ wide making these pretty typical Guild frets and not the jumbos found on the Setzer Bluesbird from the same year.

The fretboard is a fairly flat 12″ without being crazy flat like a shredder. I tend to like the 12-14″ radiused boards because I think they’re a nice compromise between too rounded (7.5″) and too flat (20″), though given the choice I’ll personally opt for flatter over more curved, likely because of my history playing in the ’80s when Super Strats were all the rage.

This is one of the few Nightbirds with dot inlays which is another obvious sign of the effort to keep the price down. This along with the unbound rosewood board makes the guitar look very plain to my eye which is again because of the comparison to other Nightbirds. The headstock is also more plain than other Nightbirds and has a black veneer where most others in the series have the sexy brown veneer found on high-end Guilds of the era. It has the nice Chesterfield inlay, though, whereas the truly lower-priced Guilds generally do not.

Build Quality

Though I seem to harp on the lack of high-end appointments, that’s only because this carries the Nightbird name and Nightbirds tend to be very high-end instruments. Even with the lower trim level, this is still very much a Guild.

The neck joint is beautiful and rock solid and this feels like a quality guitar in every way. I do find it interesting that though this guitar is a “low level” Nightbird that it still has 9-layer binding on the body. This makes me wonder if the same body is used on both the Nightbird I and spruce-topped II while the necks and hardware are upgraded for the II. This would make sense from a manufacturing standpoint, but that’s pure speculation on my end so don’t take it as truth unless you hear it from Hans Moust.

I should also point out that though I tend to refer to this is the low-end Nightbird that it still feels better than just about any Gibson below the $2000 price point out there today, at least to my judgmental hands. I do prefer a nice neck binding, though. Did I mention that already? I think I did.

This particular guitar weighs 7 lbs 11 oz (3.49 kg) which is light for a guitar of this style, but not particularly light for a chambered guitar of this ilk. Hell, I had an Historic Les Paul that was solid and weighed only six ounces more but that’s not really a comparison that means much of anything since that was a $4000 guitar on the used market. That guitar was a magnificent 2004 Gibson Historic R9 if you’re wondering and it was a fabulous guitar, though I sold it and bought two Nightbirds with the proceeds.

Pickups

The pickups in the Guild Nightbird I are listed only as Dimarzio in the price guides and catalogs I’ve seen and I could not find much more about them.

I emailed Dimarzio about the pickups and the response what that the bridge pickup (shown to the right) is likely the original version of the Super 2 (DP104) though the cover on that model has 12 holes. My theory is that Guild changed the cover or ordered them with different covers to fit into the Nightbird esthetic. Sadly, if there were any additional markings or labels they are long gone. I look forward to Hans’ next book when mysteries like this will probably be solved.

My guess regarding the neck pickups is that it is a PAF Pro which is advertised as a 8.96K ohm pickup. I know the Guild S300ADs that I’ve owned all had Dimarzio PAFs in the neck, so maybe they went with the PAF Pro in the neck of the Nightbird in an effort to help me understand what the hell is going on some 30 years later. Honestly, the world should work like that and the fact that it doesn’t is a constant source of consternation for me.

Electronics

I have one comment on the electronics cavity: it’s a mess. OK, you knew there was more than one comment, but dammit I hate messy wiring.

Although the wiring is messy, there’s nothing terribly exciting about it aside from a minor quirk that the selector switch is wired to both the master volume and tone whereas I expected it to be wired to the volume pot and that then wired to the tone pot. The difference in what I just described is irrelevant since this is an AC circuit but I noticed it because it was different than what I’m used to seeing. It’s interesting but I doubt it’s important.

Both of the pickup are 4-wire models so they can both be split and/or phase-reversed, but only the neck pickup wiring is taking advantage of this capability. I found that odd, too, because most Guilds I see reverse phase on the bridge pickup. This also doesn’t matter since reversing phase on either pickup achieves the desired goal and the reason I usually see it done on the bridge pickup is because of the way that vintage Guild HB1 pickups were built which only allowed phase reversal to be done on the bridge.

Hardware

The tuners are chrome Grover Rotomatics which are pretty standard on Guilds from this era – at least on the non-shredder guitars. I like these tuners a lot though I do prefer the larger pegs on the Schallers that Guild used in the ’70s and ’80s. Rotomatics are pretty much a standard for well-made guitars in my book.

The strap pegs are the oddly shaped Gripper type and if you ever break yours (I’ve broken two over the years) you can get replacements at StewMac here. Thanks to whomever it was on the Let’s Talk Guild forum who pointed that out to me. Sadly I’ve forgotten who you were.

The bridge and tailpiece are both very heavy being made of solid brass and are made by Mueller if memory serves. These parts are fairly unique to the Nightbird though they have been known to show up in other places. Their big blocky design are a dead giveaway when shopping for Nightbirds so if you don’t see these big block parts when shopping the used Nightbird market those parts may not be original (The Nightbird ST and DX are the exception). I do have one Nightbird that does not have this bridge, but it’s of questionable origin to begin with so it’s kind of an outlier. See my article linked earlier on the identification of Nightbirds if you’re curious to learn more.

The knobs are typical of Guild electrics from the 1980s. They are black domed knobs with knurling and two indented stripes on the sides. The tops are a sort of matte finish which is the key to identifying if they’re original. If you see a white dot and a bit of shine to the tops, the knobs are probably modern ProLine replacements. I find these original knobs quite hard to come by and I really dig the way they look and feel while playing.

The switch tip on the pickup selector is also hard to replace as that slightly domed top is a a bit of a Guild-specific feature. If you see a rounded top like on every other guitar on the planet, it’s been replaced with a modern part.

Sound

When it comes down to it, this is a two humbucker guitar but it’s got some character that a typical Les Paul doesn’t have thanks to a variety of factors.

The semi-hollow body design imparts a bit of an ES-335/Starfire tone to the guitar and the phase switch certainly adds some variety to the guitar, though only if your’e  fan of the nasally Peter Green out-of-phase tone. But aside from those obvious design points, what really separates the guitar from most similarly shaped guitars is the spruce top.

ODS100 Clean

Open Chords #1

Open Chords #2

7th Chords

JCM-800

A Barre Chords

D-Shape

Riff

Citrus

D-Shape Chords

While most guitars that look like this have a maple top, this one is spruce which is an interesting variation on the traditional design thanks to the original Nightbird prototype which was designed by George Gruhn. The spruce top is carved on the top but flat on this inside like a Les Paul maple top but that Spruce top just adds something different to the tone. Whether or not you can hear that difference is up to you, and if you can, deciding if you prefer it over a maple-topped guitar is the next step.

As usual, for these recordings I used my normal Axe-FX II XL+ setup through the QSC K12 speaker recorded direct into my Macbook Pro using Audacity. I recorded using the ODS100 Clean patch, as well as the JCM-800 and one through a setting called Citrus which is a replication of the Orange Rockverb 50 and has become the “I wish it was still the ’80s” setting I like so much.

For each recording I cycle through the neck pickup, both pickups, both pickups with phase reversed on the neck, and finally the bridge pickup. All knobs on the guitar are on 10 at all times.

This guitar does pretty well and it doesn’t disappoint, but I’m not sure that it inspires me, either. To be fair, I’m quite spoiled because I own some seriously nice guitars, but I also have some very inexpensive guitars that blow me away. This one doesn’t seem to do that even though it has a cool vibe. I think I would be tempted to swap out the pickups in this guitar for something with a bit more chime. If it came with original Guild HB1s I think it would be a tone monster but the Dimarzios don’t seem like a great choice to me, or to be more specific, they don’t seem like a great choice to me based on my many decades of learned biases. Just because it doesn’t sound the way I want it to doesn’t mean anything to someone who loves the tone.

Playability

This guitar plays like a very light Les Paul, so if you’ve ever played one of those, or any guitar that’s even remotely shaped like one of those, then you get what it’s like to play a Nightbird.

This guitar does have very nice sustain, and there are no real complaints otherwise, but for me the neck just doesn’t feel like other Nightbirds and that will forever be a distraction for me. This guitar, though, was not designed for me; it was designed for someone who wants the Nightbird experience without the high price. To that end, I’d say the guitar is a success.

Conclusion

I like this guitar, but I don’t love it. I can’t get past the impression that this is a cheaper neck slapped onto a high-end body and it just looks unbalanced to me. Having played many Nightbirds, it also feels unbalanced, but only in an esthetic sense – not in a physical sense (it balances fine while sitting and standing).

My complaint about this guitar must be taken from the point of view of a collector with access to too many very nice Guilds, some of which are magnificent Nightbirds. If you are unable or unwilling to spend the money that a Nightbird GG, II, or Custom commands, then this could be a great option.

Would I recommend this guitar? That depends on what you’re after. If you want the full Nightbird experience, then no – wait for a GG, II, or Custom. If you want most of the tone and don’t care about the bling, then yes, this is a great guitar. If you happen upon one of these in a pawn shop or on the Internet for a good price? Hell yes! This is a Guild after all, and that means it’s a damn fine guitar.

7 thoughts on “Guild Nightbird I

  1. I had one of these guitar brand new as a teen and sold it within the last 8 years or so. In the last couple of years I’ve been looking for that exact guitar to try and buy it back, but the only problem is, I don’t have any info on the guy that bought it from me. I just know he was a local musician in the Boston area. The guitar in this pic looks exactly like mine(chips and all) and the date of manufacture is the same though I’m not sure about the serial number. Do you mind telling me where you acquired this guitar and if it turns out to be the one I owned, would you be willing to sell it back to me? Feel free to contact me either way. Thank you,

    James Ryan

      1. I’ve forwarded on your information.

        Sadly, I don’t know where it came from. I bought it on eBay and the auction info is no longer available.

    1. Sorry, James. I now own the Nightbird I, and it fits my hands too well. It’s staying in the collection for the foreseeable future.

      1. Thank you for getting back to me. If you ever decide to sell it would you mind reaching out to me? Like I said, I’m not totally sure that it’s the same one that I owned but there were some chips on mine that would identify for sure. Enjoy the guitar. They are surely underrated, and make some beautiful sounds.

Leave a Reply to James Ryan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *