Guild Starfire III-90

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I have  thing for Bigsby-equipped guitars, owing in large part to my obsession with Brian Setzer’s music. In my quest to capture Brian Setzer’s Tone, I’ve owned far too many such guitars. After buying and selling my fair share, one of my favorites is the Guild Starfire-III with P90s.

After about 2000 or so, Guild (then owned by Fender) moved production from Westerly, Rhode Island to Corona, California. A lot of people in the Guild community were worried that the legendary quality of Guild guitars would plummet with Fender at the helm, and while Fender did a great job of letting Guild electric guitars die in the long tun, having owned many of each I’m here to tell you that these Corona-made Guilds are every bit the guitar of the Westerly-made models. This guitar is no exception. Let’s find out why. 

Introduction

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The Starfire III is Guild’s single-cutaway Bigsby equipped hollow-body guitar. They often came with mahogany bodies which were usually finished in red, or with maple bodies in a variety of finishes, usually blonde or sunburst. Over the years these guitars have been outfitted with Guild mini-humbuckers, full-sized HB1s, Seymour Duncan SD-1s (shown in the 1998 mahogany model pictured), and Fender HB1s, but there are a few of these great guitars out there in Maple with P90 pickups. For my money, this is the killer combination.

On the LetsTalkGuild.com, forum, we call a Guild-branded Bigsby a Guildsby because we’re all just clever that way.

The ’60s Starfire-IIIs came with the coveted Guild mini-humbuckers which produce a wonderful almost chimey sound. Unfortunately for me, the necks on these older models are usually quite small and I quickly discovered that I don’t enjoy playing them. When Guild reintroduced them in the 1990s, they included wider more modern fretboards, making these guitars feel much better in my hands. Add P90s to this guitar and the versatility just goes through the roof.

Finish

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Until recently I owned two of these Starfire III-P90 guitars: one in red, and one in a sort of tobacco sunburst, though I traded the red one for a nice Guild JF65-12 12-string. Both of these guitars are maple, and I don’t believe they made any of these Starfire-III-P90s in mahogany, though I believe that simply just because I’ve never seen one. I believe them both to have been finished in poly, though as with all the other Guilds I’ve owned, the finish is so good that it’s hard to tell.

A note about the sunburst colors is in order. If you look at some of these pictures you’ll notice a wonderful reddish (almost bourbon-burst) like quality to the finish. Sadly this does not usually show up in normal light but is brought out by the light of the flash and sometimes by direct sunlight.

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Additionally, the flame comes and goes depending on the angle in which the guitar is viewed. While this is common on many flamed maple guitars, the red-finished Guilds I have are not very transparent and the flame can be difficult to see at all, which is a shame because the flame is beautiful. My red Bluesbird from 1997 behaves in much the same way. Luckily, these guitars play and sound so good that any issues I might have with flame visibility are quickly forgotten. I should point out that this isn’t a problem, per se, but rather just an observation about the red finish.

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You can really see the different ways in which the sunburst finish appears in the pictures with the guitar in the grass. With the guitar lying flat on the grass, the finish is mostly reflecting light from the blue sky and is not getting direct sunlight at all. Thus, the flame seems to retract a bit and the finish seems more of a tobacco burst.

Putting the guitar on its side and letting the sun hit it more directly changes the angle of the light, and the guitar not only displays its beautiful flame, but the red highlights start to show in the finish as well.

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I am a huge fan of what Gibson Les Paul fans call Brockburst (named from the guitar on page 75 of The Beauty of the Burst), and in the right light this guitar almost starts to get that color. Gibson has also called this finish Scotch-burst, Bourbon-burst, and a host of other clever names, none of which have anything to do with this guitar.

The finish, like all Guilds of this era, is spotless with no problem areas, drips, or other anomalies. Who ever sprayed these guitars knew what they were doing.

Fretboard and Neck

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According to my gauges, the radius appears to be 12″  which is just about perfect for my tastes.

The nut is 1 11/16″ wide and the neck is deep enough that I wouldn’t call it thin while not being overly fat, either. I’ve owned some real base-ball bat necked P90-equipped guitars, and these don’t have that going on but they’re still a bit beefy. While I’m fine with a nice fat neck, I dislike super-thin necks with a passion.

If you look at the picture of the two Starfire-IIIP-90s in the grass, you’ll notice that the fretboard on the sunburst one is a dark color while the red guitar has a very red-tinted color rosewood. I have no idea why this fretboard is so red, but it’s one of the first things I noticed about that guitar when I first got it. I use Fret Doctor on all my fretboards, which often darkens lighter rosewood boards found on less-expensive guitars. It has had no effect on this guitar over repeated applications. I feel no difference between the two and the guitars both sound great, so I stopped caring pretty early on. If you’re a master of rosewood, I’d love to hear your theories as to the differences.

Build Quality

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It’s probably tedious reading all my Guild reviews that all go on about how great the quality of Guild guitars is and has been, but it’s true: I’ve never played a bad Guild, and I’ve owned (counts on fingers) 26 of them so far.

Every seam, every fret, every little detail is exactly how it should be. Even the pics you’ll see when I write about the electronics will show that the inside of the guitar is clean and (dare I say?) pretty. Compared with the gut shot from my review of the Newark Street X-175B, this Starfire is a work of art internally.

Older Guilds are often prone to binding rot, and I’ve seen many of the ’60s and ’70s Guild electrics (mostly Starfires) suffer from this fate. That and shrinking headstock veneers are examples of the older Guild’s few flaws, neither of which I recall seeing on any 1990s or later instruments. Later Westerly and early Fender Guilds are superb instruments.

Pickups

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I pulled the neck pickup in both of these Starfire IIIs and they have no markings on them whatsoever, save for a single sticker that says “neck”. I did not pull the bridge pickups because I just restrung the damn things and didn’t think of it while the strings were off, and restringing a Bigsby/Guildsby is just enough of a pain in the butt that I didn’t want to do it again. Both of my Starfire IIIP-90s appear to have identical pickups, but what they actually are remained a bit of a mystery, and as anyone who knows me will attest, I hate a mystery.

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I emailed renowned Guild historian and author Hans Moust about them, and he said that they should be Seymour Duncan P-90s. Seymour Duncan’s website says that all of their pickups are clearly marked, and in my annoyingly pedantic mind “neck” is not what I’d consider to be “clearly marked”, so I posted my question to their forum.

From what I can find, these appear to be dog-ear Seymour Duncan Antiquity P90s without the normal aged covers that these pickups come with, which wouldn’t surprise me because they sound great. When it comes to P90s, I prefer Alnico 2 magnets, which I think gives them that magic rock tone I desire and these pickups deliver the goods in that regard, further solidifying the case for these being Antiquities.

I shimmed the bridge pickup on both of these guitars in order to bring it closer to the strings which I felt worked much better. The bridge position alone felt a little thin and weak compared to the neck position, and this affected the middle position since the two pickups were a bit unbalanced. With the shim, everything is great including the balance between the pickups and the tone with both of them engaged. If you’re not familiar with dog-eared P90 installations, the shims are required because there’s no other way to adjust the height once mounted.

Electronics

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Electronics are typical of late-’90s Guild electrics with the wires nicely bundled and wire-tied. The wiring harness does not buzz or rattle at all, though it did on the red one and I had to have it taken care of. As of this writing these 14 year old guitars, so it’s only fair to expect something to go wrong somewhere, and in this case the wiring harness just managed to be resonant to A, which thankfully was only a problem when As were involved, which of course was all the damn time.

Actually, the red Starfire had some issues when I first got it, all of which I had taken care of by a pro. I’m more than happy to work on my own guitars with few exceptions, one of which I’ll cover in the next section. I also discovered when recording the sound clips for this review that there’s a bit of crackle in one of the sunburst guitar’s pots, but that’s normal on a guitar that’s 14 years old.

Hardware

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The hardware on the sunburst Starfire IIIP-90 is all like new, but I think the spring in the Guildsby could stand to be replaced. I have a feeling that it may have been stored in the case with the handle up in the past which is a big no-no with any Bigsby/Guildsby-equipped guitar. I consider these Bigsby springs to be consumable items, though, and a new one for a couple bucks from Stewmac won’t break the bank. One of the first things I tend to do on any guitar with a Bigsby is to replace the strings and stick a penny under the handle spring which raises the arm up a bit thus putting it in a higher position that I greatly prefer. Sure, buying a larger spring is the right way to do it, but years of “here’s how you fix it back stage” education has served me well.

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The red guitar came to me with some questionable mods, the most egregious of which being the attempted “pinning” of the bridge to the top, and by “pinning”, I mean some jackass drilling through the bridge into the wood. I have no problem with pinning the bridge on a stage-ready guitar, but first there’s the holes in the bridge that look terrible, which is made worse by the fact that whoever did it didn’t intonate the bridge properly before they drilled so the end result is more holes and no permanent bridge position because the screws had to be removed.

The bridges on these guitars aren’t the greatest things ever, but they work reasonably well. I generally replace my Bigsby-equipped guitars with Compton bridges because I like the tone and the look and they intonate well for my needs, but I haven’t done so with either of these guitars, possibly due to laziness and the fact that the existing bridges function and don’t annoy me like the one on my Gretsch SSLVO did.

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Whoever decided that they were a master luthier on this guitar apparently also decided to do their own nut work, which is one of the rare jobs I will not tackle on a guitar (aside from some minor filing). The first time I changed the strings on the red Starfire, the nut just fell off completely. I had this professionally replaced as there was no damage done since the problem was just a poor gluing job by a do-it-yourself hack. It did reveal the nice chunk of rosewood used on the neck, though, so that was cool.

These issues don’t detract from the quality of the guitar because they were things that were done to it by someone who should have probably just let it be. After a couple hundred dollars of professional work, the guitar plays like the fine instrument that it is, even though it still has holes in the bridge. The sunburst Starfire had no problems except for the weak spring which sadly was not completely rectified with a penny.

Sound

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These guitars sing when unplugged since they’re basically acoustics without any form of center block or even sound post inside. Well, you don’t see many acoustics with arched maple laminate tops, but you get the idea. They’re almost as much fun to play unplugged as they are into an amp.

My first Starfire III was a red mahogany model from the 1990s with Seymour Duncan pickups. It was a great guitar, but it was too dark for the sound I was chasing, so I ended up selling it. One of the things that attracted me to these P90-equipped Starfire IIIs is the fact that they have single coil pickups which should give a bit more chime while still offering that fat midrange commonly heard with P90s. In my opinion, they deliver this in spades.

All recordings in this section were recorded with an Olympus LS-10. The amp is an Axe-FX Ultra set to the “Tiny Tweed” setting. The speaker is a QSC K12. All guitar knobs are on 10 for all recordings.

Unplugged, this guitar is lively and resonant, no doubt thanks to the chambered body style and set neck. Plugged in, one of the first things you may notice is that these are single coil pickups, and as such they will happily amplify every ground loop and fault that exists anywhere with 10 miles of the amp into which they’re connected. That’s the price you pay for all that P90 goodness. These aren’t humbuckers, and they don’t pretend to be. If you don’t like the hum, go play a Les Paul, or maybe just a Starfire-III with Guild HB1s.

For this review I first played just an open E-chord with some Guildsby action, then I played a variety of simple chord progressions, all with the neck pickup selected, then both, then the bridge pickup.

The Tiny Tweed amp was chosen pretty much because I like the way it sounds, and also because I like the way it highlights the different sounds possible with this guitar. With the neck pickup, the guitar has a sweet jazzy tone that lets the hollow body really come through. The middle position, while also jazzy, thins out a bit and gives me more of the Brian Setzer tone that’s a bit jazzy while also being a bit on the harder side with an amp on the edge of breakup.

While the neck and middle positions can be soft and smooth, the bridge pickup delivers all the snarl I need for those harder rockabilly or even flat-out rock songs. All the guitar knobs were set to 10 for all recordings, and I never touched the amp settings. The difference in tone and output is all the pickups.

These guitars have even more flexibility once you start to dial off the treble with the tone knobs, and even more when you start to fiddle with the individual volume pots in the middle position. I tend to like very thin picks because I like the highs and the attack I get with them, but for comping jazz chords, either fingers or a fatter pick coupled with a bassier setting on the neck pickup and you’ve got yourself a nice thin jazz box.

Since the P90s have a bit of chime to them while retaining a nice fat midrange, these guitars are very versatile. Moreso, in my opinion, than a Starfire III with even Guild HB1s, and I love my HB1s!

Playability

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I love playing these guitars. As someone who’s spent too much time chasing the rockabilly/Brian Setzer thing, I was naturally drawn to the thicker jazz-box-type guitars like Gretsches and Guild X170Ts, and while those guitars deliver a deeper sound thanks to the larger bodies, these thinner Starfire IIIs are much nicer to play standing up, in my opinion.

The frets are nice, and are much larger than the ones commonly seen on 1970s era Guilds. The fretwork is excellent, and the fretboard is fast enough to rock on while the neck is thick enough to be much more comfortable than many of the thinner-necked Gretsches I’ve played. I used to have a Gretsch SSLVO (Brian Setzer signature model) that was an outstanding guitar, but the V-Neck never felt quite right to me. The necks on these Starfires is much more like a C-shape, and is much more comfortable to me.

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One thing I’m not a big fan of on most Guild semi-hollows and hollow-bodies is the pick guard. Depending on the year of manufacturer, it can be downright in the way when playing since some of them actually sit up over the pickup rings. These guitars, having P90s, have slightly different pick guards that aren’t quite so annoying, but they’re still in the way when I dig in for more raucous songs, so in many of the photos you’ll see that I’ve removed them.

Note that when playing live, or just with the amp up high, that these can be screaming feedback demons that will quickly train you to keep your fretting hand on the strings at all times lest you subject the audience to ear-splitting feedback in short order, and I don’t mean the kind of feedback that slowly builds until you realize that something is wrong. Turn the amp up, take your hands of the strings, and the screaming begins immediately.

Feedback isn’t a design flaw, but rather just a side effect of the guitar being fully hollow. That’s why Guild X170s have sound posts, Setzer Gretsches have trestle bracing, and Starfire IVs have center blocks. Like I wrote above: keep your hands on the strings when you’re not playing and the feedback thing is managed. Besides, if you take your hands of the strings, then you’ll get single-coil buzz, anyway.

Conclusion

I grew up playing in the 1970s and ’80s, and was a hard-core hair-metal spandex-wearing freak of the first order. Actually, I never went in for the spandex thing, but I certainly did have the hair. At any rate, back then I was a super-strat, Floyd Rose forever kind of guy, and here I am reviewing what amounts to a thin-line jazz box. What the hell happened?

Tastes expand, for one, and as I got older it became possible for me to expand my gear horizons because I cut my hair and got a real job. Sadly, becoming a corporate sell-out is what it took for me to afford the nice guitars. Life, it has been said, is not without a sense of irony. I, it has also been said, do not have the skill or talent to make good money playing in a band, as much as I loved doing so.

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I’ve owned a lot of guitars in my life, including $3,000 Gretsches bought in my quest for tonal nirvana. The Gretsch sounded great, but I didn’t bond with it like I did with this sunburst Guild Starfire-III-P90. I had a Guild X170T bought for the same reasons, and while I loved the way it played, the pickups (Fender HB1s) left me flat. P90s make the Starfire III an amazing guitar, and I wish Guild would make them again. Hell, I’d love to see an orange X170T with P90s!

For all my talk of jazziness and tweed amps, don’t forget that some of the most iconic songs in rock, namely those recorded by George Thorogood, were recorded on a Gibson guitar that looked just like these do (An ES-125). These things can absolutely rock the house in one song and then do a soft jazz standard the next, and that’s why I love them so much. They’re just so damn versatile. They also look pretty damn good.

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These guitars don’t come up for sale very often, and you’ll need to keep an eye out if you want one. I was lucky enough to own two, one of which I got on Craigslist thanks to my network of spies who informed me of its existence only an hour away, and the other I snagged on eBay. In other words, you may need to hunt, and you may need to be patient, and you may need to pay too much, but if you do find one, buy it.

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2 thoughts on “Guild Starfire III-90

  1. WOW, your Tobacco-Burst Guild is amazing. I like mine, but yours looks like it belongs in a museum, seriously, the one depicted here w/ P90’s is a work of art. Beautiful Burst-Top!! I just picked up one of these Starfire III -P90 last year off Craig’s . . . WHY are these guitars so inexpensive at $1100.00?? I mean, it’s literally a thin-line ARCH TOP, NO CENTER BLOCK, sooooo cool !!!! Don’t worry I don’t plan on Spraying expandable foam inside the F-Holes ~ LOL . . .mine is sun/tobacco burst too also w/ p-90’s. Built 2001, Westerly Guild Plant . . . and it is nearly mint . . . The workmanship is flawless, binding, fit, finish ~ AND It’s an American made guitar, It is as close to custom shop as anyone will get without paying the custom shop price . . . and the guitar plays & sounds amazing and the Bigsby is a bonus as far as i’m concerned. My local Sam Ash carry’s the newer Japanese pro-line Gretsch’s, Falcon’s, Country Gent along with many Electromatic’s and they are all very cool, and ofcourse the coolness factor with Gretsch is near the top if your still Gigging/Playing-Out, cuz I have been looking at the Pro-Line Gretsch’s for almost 2-yr but something told me to wait. So after I saw NEIL GIRALDO (pat benetar’s guitarist) on TV playing a Guild Starfire III I had to investigate. Let’s just say, I would assume NEIL GIRALDO can afford to play / perform with ANY GUITAR ON THE PLANET and he is playing a Guild Starfire III and as I saw and read where he said it is by far the BEST SOUNDING / PLAYING guitar he has ever owned (HIS #1) . . . Really?? Yes!! . . . and that is a quote . . Google it . . . I will never sell my Starfire III P90 . . it is the bomb .. . for how nice it plays & sounds, looks and stays perfectly in tune. The action is almost as LOW has my ’76 Les Paul. The P90’s are beyond cool . . Honestly, if you inscribed GRETSCH on the head stock of this guitar, it would easily sell for > 3K, maybe even 4K . . it’s that good. Shame that Guild could not survive in Westerly producing these awesome guitar’s . . . what was Fender thinking to move production to Corona ~ duh??

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