This 1966 Guild Starfire III came to me as a surprise gift. Well, it came to me after I apparently bought it on eBay while under the influence of Nyquil and Aged Rum. Well, it was fine Aged Rum and Coke (the real Mexican kind with real sugar, dammit) and then a shot of Nyquil. Maybe two. At least I think that’s what happened because the next day I woke up to a shipment notification for a this 1966 Guild Starfire III in very nice condition that I didn’t remember purchasing.
Anyway, it’s here, so let’s review it!
This guitar is the first Guild I’ve owned that was made in the Hoboken, NJ factory. There is a fair bit of mystique amongst Guild aficionados about the Hoboken guitars and a fair number of people greatly prefer this era of Starfire (regardless of model) over those from any other factory. If you were not previously aware, the Newark Street import line of Starfires being sold in the late 2010s are all based on these 1960s-era Guilds. Guild says that the Newark Street guitars are inspired by the originals and are not absolute reissues, but it’s pretty clear when looking at a Newark Street Starfire III that it’s an almost identical copy of a ’60s model.
According to Hans Moust’sThe Guild Guitar Book, the Starfire III was first introduced in 1961 and went through changes over the years, perhaps the most notable having to do with the pickups included. Pickup changes included what are generally called Mickey Mouse pickups, Dearmonds, the AntiHums seen in this guitar, and in 1970 or so the Guild HB1s were added. The Starfire III was discontinued in 1973 and wasn’t revived until 1997, my guess being due to the resurgence of jazz swing after the comeback of Brian Setzer with his The Brian Setzer Orchestra album in 1994 and the follow-up Guitar Slinger in 1996, though it may just be that Fender (who bought Guild in 1995) just decided that the world needed a new Starfire III.
The guitar on the cover of the 1965 Kinks album, The Kink Kontroversy was a 1963 Guild Starfire III owned by Dave Davies according to Hans Moust on this old Fender forum post. Note the different pick guard which assuming it wasn’t replaced, is one of the ways you can differentiate the different years.
The 1966 catalog describes the Starfire III as a favorite for many years because it was specifically designed for the young artist with a flair for showmanship. The cynic in me translates specifically designed for the young artist as the inexpensive model while similarly translating a flair for showmanship to red.
The guitar came standard in Cherry Red and Sunburst with red being the color I see most often and I daresay a red Starfire III is an almost iconic design.
The 1966 price list shows the Starfire III at $395 in Cherry Red which coincides with the hand-written note on the catalog image shown here from the copy in my personal collection. A note on the bottom of the price list states that, The above guitars are available in Emerald Green, Ebony Grain, Amber, Black or other special colors on special order at $20 additional. The emerald green examples are pretty coveted, but the most common color I’ve seen is red.
Perhaps the most famous image of an artist with a Guild Starfire III is this one of Jerry Garcia. There are many pics of him from The Warlocks days sporting a Guild Starfire with Dearmond pickups, but this one more closely resembles the guitar in this review with its AntiHum pickups and stair-step pick-guard. The earlier Starfire IIIs had a curved pick-guard which is what was copied for the Newark Street guitars.
Certainly many famous artists played Starfire IIIs over the years, but one of my favorite examples is Norah Jones who played a DeArmond-equipped ’60s Starfire III in her Live in Amsterdam concert video from 2007.
Norah Jones clearly has a love of vintage Starfires because she is often seen playing one, and in this pic, grabbed from JazzTimes, she is seen playing a later model with AntiHum pickups and the star-step pick-guard like the one in this review.
The case this guitar came to me in is… not so great. I believe it to be original based on the color of the felt inside and the aged look of the latches, but it does not say Guild on it. That doesn’t really surprise me since this looks like the low-quality case option available at the time.
There were a variety of options case-wise for the ’66 Starfire, and the original owner of this example apparently decided that the better otions weren’t worth the money. Pro-tip: the better case is always worth the money. The Hard top only, flannel-lined case retailed for $22 while the Hard Shell 3-ply veneer, plush-lined case was a cool $80. Remember this was 1966 when only two years earlier US pocket change was still made with real silver, so those dollar values shouldn’t be dismissed. According to the official inflation calculator, $22 in 1966 would be equivalent to $170 in early 2019. To compare, the Newark Street hardshell case sells for $149 in 2019.
Honesty, I’m impressed that this guitar survived as well as it did in this lame case. Hell, judging by the condition of the case I’d venture a guess that the guitar spent most of its life in the case and the case spent most of its time under a bed or in a closet. Kudos to whoever took care of this guitar, because though it’s clearly been played, it’s also clearly been cared for.
If you’re in the position of needing a new case for a 1960s Guild Starfire III, I can verify it fits like a glove in a Newark Street Guild Deluxe Electric Guitar Wood Case (size Guild Starfire or T50 Slim). I was able to test this because I happen to have a Newark Street Starfire III that’s also being reviewed, and I can tell you the guitar seems much happier in the nicer case even though it’s spent the last 50+ years sleeping in the other one. Hey, everyone needs a mattress upgrade from time to time.
The finish is quite obviously lacquer based on the miscellaneous lacquer marks burned into it by things like the infamous surgical-tube covered guitar stands of the time. The guitar glows a sickening green under a UV light which is smooth and even except where there is more wear and where there are obvious holes in the finish such as the aforementioned spots on the back of the neck.
When I bought this guitar I thought it looked too good to be true because 50+ year old guitars don’t usually look this good. Still, I’ve seen my share of very attractive 50-year old people, so the possibility did exist, but like some of those attractive people I wondered if any work had been done to maintain the appearance of youth.
There are signs that a buyer can look for to see if a guitar has been refinished, but this guitar didn’t really show any of those. I did spy a drop of white material in the f-hole which made me curious, but I didn’t see any sign of overspray in there, so I made sure to look around in that area with my borescope. While i didn’t find any definitive signs of refinishing, I did find something that looked a bit strange to me, though to be fair I don’t spent a lot of time with a borescope inside 1966 hollow-body guitars so I didn’t have a good baseline with which to compare.
On the underside of the f-holes on both sides of the guitar there is a fair bit of white… stuff. At first I wondered if this was some sort of glue that someone had used to seal up the f-holes while they refinished, but since I found no other obvious indications of refinishing, I was left wondering what this was. After a discussion on the LetsTalkGuild forum about this, the best guesses I saw were either some sort of wax or polish residue that had wicked under the f-holes or some sort of adhesive used by someone trying to seal the f-holes in order to reduce feedback. Neither answer would surprise me, honestly, because this guitar has signs of being waxed a lot in its life and it also feeds back like a champ with even a little volume. If you’ve got another idea about the white goo, please leave a comment.
Fretboard and Neck
This is a short-scaled guitar like most Gibsons, though very slightly different in length like most Guilds. It feels absolutely wonderful in the hand with its one-piece mahogany neck and bound rosewood fretboard. The fretboard inlays are simple dots which have always worked for me on this model. I’ve always sort of thought of the Starfire III as the working-man’s guitar, sexism notwithstanding, especially since I listed two female players in the introduction. How about a working musician’s guitar, then.
This guitar’s fretboard radius measures 9.5″ and the neck is 1 11/16″ at the nut. The fretboard is fairly worn down in the cowboy chord section of the neck, and there is a fair bit of wear on the frets, but I don’t feel either when playing, perhaps since I’ve learned to play with a lighter touch since my early monkey grip days.
I like the neck on this guitar a lot more than most of the Guild electrics I’ve played from the 1970s, all of which have 1 5/8″ wide and very shallow necks. This neck has a great feel to it and I wish they never moved away from this design, though they did go back to it or something similar to it with the ’90s reissues.
The frets measure .04″ high by .100″ wide which matches many of the other Guilds I’ve reviewed. I like them because they’re slick and fast, but if I’ve been playing my jumbo-fretted guitars lately then they’re a bit of a distraction. Of course, if I play a vintage Guild for a while then the Jumbos become the distraction. What can I tell you? My life is complicated.
Here’s what you need to know about the build quality of this guitar: it’s a hollow-body guitar that hasn’t collapsed in on itself in over fifty years.
Now, to be fair, some do, and that’s not necessarily due to the design. This guitar has parallel bracing which means that it has two long braces that go from the front to the back of the guitar just inside the f-holes. Those braces are one of the ways that the Newark Street reissues differ as you’ll see when I publish the review of that guitar.
This guitar weighs 6 lbs 5 oz (2.86 kilos) so it is an absolute featherweight. I measured the top to be .2″ thick (just over 3/16″) with my calipers.
Another way that the guitar is quite different than the Newark Street guitar has to do with the space under the end of the fretboard. That space is empty in this 1966 Starfire III while there is a large wooden block in that space on the Newark Street model. My completely uneducated guess is that the block is there in the modern copy of this guitar to help keep the top from collapsing which something that can happen on hollow body guitars.
The constant force of the strings pulling on the neck and pushing down on the bridge can cause all sorts of failures in a guitar that’s built a lot like a violin or other stringed instruments that can also suffer from similar maladies. As a result, one of the things that my Guild-loving brethren told me to watch out for was the break angle over the bridge. Thankfully, it looks pretty good, but when I first got the guitar, it looked a little strange. Why? Electrical tape.
When I got this guitar, the bridge didn’t sit properly, the action was way too high, and I thought there might have been something seriously wrong with it. When I tried to remove the bridge, I could only rock it until I pulled forcibly. That’s when I found that the bridge was held down by rolls of electrical tape. I get why people tape down bridges and I’ve seen everything from glue to sandpaper to carpet tape to screws right through the bridge into the top. Now I’ve seen rolled up electrical tape, too. Electrical tape is generally made from vinyl and vinyl reacts with lacquer, so using electrical tape to keep the bridge in place is a seriously bad idea. Anyway, I pulled that tape off and now it plays and sounds great.
The pickups in this guitar are the coveted Guild AntiHum mini-humbuckers. These are the real deal and they deliver the goods just the way you’ve heard. They’re jangly and chimey, though not as jangly and chimy as, say, DeArmonds from the same era. They are coated in chrome and are shiny silver in color like every other metal bit on this guitar. The pickups are original equipment and measure 6.54k Ω at the bridge and 6.53k Ω at the neck making them about as closely matched as possible.
Unlike the larger HB1 pickups that would be introduced around 1970, the AntiHum pickups have only one hight adjustment screw on either side. This can lead to the pickups being tilted with there being no easy way to rectify the issue, and indeed the neck pickup on this guitar has a slight cant towards the fretboard. The only way this can be fixed is by bending the legs on the bottom of the pickups, which was something I was unwilling to do on a 52 year old guitar that plays and sounds great.
At first, I didn’t pull the wiring harness because that’s a huge pain in the ass, if I’m being honest, and since the pots are pretty corroded there would be no easy way to measure their values without dismantling the harness which I was unwilling to due on such an original vintage piece. I then changed my mind and I’m glad that I did.
The wiring isn’t rocket science on most Guilds, and this is a two-humbucker four-knob setup like most others. The wiring is coupled which means that the volume will go to zero if you turn either volume down all the way with the pickup selector toggle in the middle position. Still, the wiring is not as simple as I’d assumed.
Pulling the wiring harness let me see that the pots appear to all be original and I have to say that I’m surprised that none of them pop or crackle or do anything other than what they should do. All of the pots are 500k Ω except for the tone pot on the neck pickup which is 200k Ω. Note that that is not a typo – the pot is 200k, and not 250k.
The 500k pots all have code 1376631 which translates to CTS pots dated to 31st week of 1966. The Guild pot code for these, which is stamped on them, is 004019. The neck tone knob is stamped 004026 which is 200k and also dates to 1966.
From previous examinations and some discussions on the LetsTalkGuild forum, I believe at least some of the Guild Pot codes to be as follows:
004019: 500k Ω
004020: 500k Ω
004026: 200k Ω (not 250k).
In addition to the 200k tone pot on the bridge pickup, the tone capacitors are pretty cool vintage components. The neck tone cap is clearly labeled .047μF while the bridge cap I needed to measure to make sure.
The bridge tone cap measured .224pF on my BK Precision LCR meter, which I was glad I had because I could not make out what was printed on the component thanks to a great deal of residual goo from the electrical tape that had bound the wires for 50 years. Don’t worry – I made sure to replace it with a new wrapping of electrical tape before reassembling the guitar.
The wiring is all very well soldered, well wrapped, well routed, and just looks like it came from a time when people cared about the work they did.
I believe the Guild-labeled Bigsby (Guildsby) is polished aluminum and it looks glorious. It’s common to see these tailpieces with a great deal of oxidation on them and the beautiful luster on this example is a testament to whoever took care of this instrument for the majority of its life. Given the wax in some of the nooks and crannies in this guitar, it wouldn’t surprise me if this piece was regularly waxed as well.
The feel of the Guildsby while playing is just smooth and luxurious in a way that only well-crafted and worn in (but not abused) hardware feels, and let me tell you, this guitar feels better than almost any modern Bigsby-equipped guitar I’ve owned, and I’ve owned a few.
Just looking at the lever and joints on the tailpiece makes me appreciate the attention to detail in this time capsule of quality. The edges are smooth, the design is elegant and the entire assembly has a sort of refined art deco feel to it that is absolutely not there on modern examples of the Bigsby even though they’re based on the same design principles. It’s like looking at the Chrysler Building and comparing it to other buildings in Manhattan. Sure, they’re all buildings, and some of them are even pretty damn great in their own right, but not many can compare when it comes to the iconic look and experience of the real thing.
The tuners, on the other hand… well, the tuners suck. No wait, let me put that into a more profound sentence befitting the previous comparison of the bridge to the Chrysler Building:
The tuners F#$*%ing suck!
When I received the guitar the tuners would barely turn. They felt gritty, scratchy, and made actual crunching noises when used. Imagine every other adjective you could possibly use to describe tuners that suck and you’ll be halfway there. Actually, they held tune fairly well in the short term, so I guess that’s a plus, but that was mostly because they were almost impossible to turn. The tiny tuning pegs didn’t provide enough purchase to be able to apply enough torque to turn the damn things when the strings were under tension so I had to use my peg winder as a handle just to be able to tune the guitar.
According to The Guild Guitars book by Hans Moust, Guild transitioned away from the Grover Sta-Tite tuners to these import abominations in the mid 1960s. Stamped Japan on the underside along with Pat App 036805 these tuners have no redeeming value aside from the arguable benefit of being historically accurate. I measured a 15.5:1 ratio and that process convinced me that something needed to be done because turning one of them 15.5 times made me want to just saw the headstock off of the guitar and walk away. It was that painful to just turn the damn things, never mind using them to actually tune the guitar.
Abandoning such thoughts of luthiery violence, I unstrung the guitar, removed each tuning machine, completely dismantled them all, cleaned them with naptha, and finally lubed with silicon. In the process of doing all of this I discovered that the problem wasn’t the gears, as I had suspected, but rather the metal-on-metal contact of the worm gear shaft with the base plate. More to the point, these contact points had apparently never been lubricated and the dry contact point had become contaminated with grime and possibly metal shavings. Maybe even very small rocks.
After tearing all the tuners off, cleaning and lubricating them, they are much more usable than when I first got the guitar. Do I love them? No, I still hate the small ugly keys and they still feel like cheap tuners, but at least I can turn them without additional tools. As such I upgraded my assessment of the tuners from they F#$*%ing suck! to a more reserved they really suck. High praise, indeed.
If I were to gig with this guitar these tuners would be gone and that’s from someone who doesn’t like the idea of drilling new holes in vintage instruments. If you’ve got one of these guitars and you want to keep the tuners but they’re misbehaving badly, don’t be afraid to take them apart like I did. It’s not rocket science and the improvement was dramatic. Even if they do still suck, they’re now usable and keep the guitar in tune, so it could be worse.
Then again, after I did all this work I tuned up the guitar for some play time, then placed it in its case before leaving town for a week. When I got back the guitar was so profoundly out of tune I started to wonder what was wrong. I’m perfectly fine with an old guitar going out of tune over time, but this was just ridiculous. As a result I’m lowering my assessment from they really suck to they totally suck. That’s still better than they F#$*%ing suck! but anything less than they work great really translates to they need to be replaced in my rather complicated hierarchy of terms.
This guitar has a wonderfully rich mellow tone unplugged. It sounds like a well aged 50 year old guitar in a way that a newer guitar just can’t match. Hell, I have 25-year old guitars that could be considered vintage that don’t match the magic tone of this guitar unplugged. Since it was built in the ’60s it may well have been built with old-growth wood, but you can’t discount over fifty years of aged maturity.
Plugged in, though, this guitar can go from mellow to biting and everything in-between. I’d say it’s a perfect fit for any guitar-based genre short of hair-metal where super high gain and dive-bombs are the order of the day. The only drawback for some of the louder types of music, especially live, would be its absolute insatiable hunger for feedback.
Rockabilly Hot Rod
Stray Cat Strut Ending
’49 Mercury Blues
As usual, for these recordings I used my normal Axe-FX III through the QSC K12 speaker recorded direct into my Macbook Pro using Audacity. I started my normal recordings using the ODS100 Clean patch, but spent most of my time with this guitar in a preset called Rockabilly Hot Rod which is shown. The amp for that preset is based on a Brownface Vibrolux. The Stray Cat recording is using the middle position with both pickups selected, while the Sleepwalk and ’49 Mercury Blues are recorded both using just the bridge pickup. Note that these are both using the same amp setting! The only thing different is the delay which is higher for Sleepwalk. The crunch you hear in ’49 Mercury Blues is from me digging in with a heavier attack. Fair warining: I might have had too much coffee before the ’49 Mercury Blues recording.
I also recorded a couple with the SuperTweed preset because I really dug the tone. The SuperTweed is not a real amp, but rather more of a Tweed Deluxe on steroids that exists within the realm of the Axe-FX. With the bridge pickup selected I got a real P90 into a Deluxe vibe that I just loved.
This guitar has a rich aged tone that’s quite obvious even unplugged. Acoustically, this guitar has got some impressive volume and sounds rich and warm like a vintage guitar should. I think the warmth provided by the mahogany body and neck balanced with the chimey pickups makes for a pretty successful combination. This is an instrument that knows what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and like with a person, that leads to a certain confidence in its abilities.
The aluminum bridge and saddle makes for a brighter tone than on my Newark Street Starfire that has a wooden base on the bridge. This guitar really responds to dynamic playing, and with an amp on the edge of breakup it’s extremely satisfying to play more or less cleanly and then dig in to get some serious grind, and the Rockabilly Hot Rod setting with that Vibrolux I wrote about really delivered that. For most of those recordings I had the delay set to about 100ms, but raised that considerably for Sleepwalk.
There’s magic in this guitar. The bridge pickup has a fabulous jangly bite that with the right amp just soars. The neck pickup delivers a nice complex hollow-body sound with all of the complexity that you’d expect from a vintage instrument. The middle position provides the perfect balance of both. I did have to dial down the pole pieces on the bridge pickup when I got the guitar because they were way too high for my kind of playing and the bass side was just flubby and devoid of definition with any kind of overdrive. After adjusting the pickups the guitar behaved much better for me. Unfortunately, During the recordings (about 40 minutes of playing) I probably had to tune the guitar six times because of those damn tuners.
This guitar is just fun to play because I pretty much couldn’t dial in a bad tone once I’d gotten it set up to my preferences. Hell, it even rocks with heavier stuff because of the delightful sparkle in that bridge pickup which can drive a Marshall like crazy. Taking that a step further, I decided to see how it would simulate Martin Barre’s Locomotive Breath tone which was a Les Paul Jr. plugged straight into a cranked HiWatt. I really liked it, but this shows how that jangly bridge pickup, while versatile, is not a P90 because they midrange girth isn’t there like it is with the Les Paul Jr.
This guitar thrives with a nice Fender-type amp on the edge of breakup, and it makes me miss my ’63 brownface Bassman because I bet this guitar would have made it roar. In fact, if I were to compare the sound this guitar gets with any other guitar I’ve owned it would be my Gretsches that had TV Jones Classic pickups in them. I tried to chase that tone after I sold my Setzer SSLVO by buying a couple of Starfire IIIs with P90s, but the P90s were too aggressive in the midrange to really capture the Dynasonic jangle. This guitar, though, does that with ease. The guitar doesn’t have the stage presence of a bright orange Gretsch, but it can deliver the goods. A lot.
Judah EVH (Not the Guild)
The bridge pickup even sounded amazing playing some Van Halen which I did just to annoy all the but it’s an elegant vintage guitar snobs (you know who you are!) At first, I did that just for fun but then became mesmerized by how freaking good those sparkly pickups sound with some gain. And some delay. And some phaser. And a simulated Variac (yes, really – the Axe-FX can simulate a Variac).
I have a FrankenStrat replica from Judah Guitars that I modded to install a Semour Duncan Custom ’78 that does a great job delivering the original Van Halen album tone and after listening to that guitar in comparison I realized that I’d pushed the old Guild a little too far and needed to take a break. Still, tone-wise the Guild held it’s own! Sure I couldn’t dive-bomb with it and the EVH guitar has the advantage of being tuned down a half-step, but damn if that 52-year-old hollow body didn’t hold its own, even if it couldn’t hold its tuning.
Simply put, The ’66 Guild Starfire III is a guitar where every selection sounds great.
This 1966 Starfire III plays like an old vintage guitar. The question is, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, judging by some of the money people have paid for vintage instruments, I’d say it’s good, but I think a fair bit of that is nostalgia or tone-chasing.
This guitar has low wide well-played frets, and when compared with a modern guitar, the frets are a bit of a shortcoming. That’s not to say that they’re bad, but I’ve come to prefer jumbo frets thanks to me spending a fair bit of my impressionable years in the ’80s, and while the vintage frets don’t bother me, they don’t make me pine for the days of yore, either.
Thankfully, this guitar is in great shape structurally, so it plays very well aside from the slight fret wear issue. It’s got great action with adjustment room to spare and chords and bends alike both play with ease. The real magic is in the tailpiece, though, because that vintage Guildsby just feels like the richest smoothest aged whisky you could imagine, which is saying something since I don’t drink whisky.
The bridge is compensated for a wound third which is a very old-school thing for this aging rocker, but that’s not a bother for me because I don’t tend to spend a lot of time up where the cutout was designed to work on a guitar like this.
The guitar is very fun to play with a light jangly tone that is the hallmark of the Guild AntiHum mini-humbucker pickups. Seated with the guitar resting on my right leg it feels like it’s got a huge ass, and seated with it between my legs like a classical, it feels like it’s got a huge ass. At no time with the guitar did I feel like *I* had a huge ass, so I suppose that’s one for the plus column. While not uncomfortable, this guitar shines while standing, and since it’s so light at less than 6.5 pounds, standing for hours is a breeze.
My biggest gripe from a playability standpoint is the damn tuners which just don’t stay in tune worth a damn. Actually I’m not a huge fan of the pick guard since it makes a hollow thumping sound under my fingers, but that’s an incredibly easy problem to rectify so it’s barely worth mentioning.
There’s a reason that these Hoboken-made Guilds are so highly praised, and it’s pretty obvious the moment you start playing one. They’re fabulous guitars that sound great, look great, and play great. Not only that, but they can be found for a lot less money than you’d pay for a comparable Gibson from the same era. On top of that, they might even be better guitars!
This is, indeed, a fabulous guitar, but it is seriously hampered by the dreadful import tuners that have no business existing, let alone having been standard issue on a fine US-made guitar from the late-’60s. Because the tuners are so bad I would say that this is one of the few vintage guitars that I’d recommend either replacing the tuners or looking for a deal with one that’s had them replaced already. While there is value in keeping things original to a collector, from a playability standard the tuners on the ’66 Starfire III are a detriment to the guitar’s purpose.
The tuners are a real shame because this is a great guitar in every other way. Is it worth quadruple what I paid for my Newark Street Starfire III? I’m going to probably surprise a lot of people by saying no, but that says more about the Newark Street Starfire III than it does about this 1966 model.
Like I wrote earlier, there is magic in this guitar if you’re up to the task. Just don’t be surprised if you see them for sale with upgraded tuners.