Today’s bit of 1990s Guild goodness is a Westerly-made Guild Starfire III from 1997. This black beauty came to me by way of private sale after requesting a Westerly Starfire with SD1 pickups on a popular guitar site.
The mid-late’90s is my favorite era of Guild electric guitars. From the Nightbirds to the last days of Westerly, I just love every guitar I’ve come across from that bit of Guild history, so I am forcing myself to try my best to be open-minded about this 1997 Guild Starfire III because Hot damn – I love that! does not make for a very thorough review. Let’s see if I can find something I don’t like about this guitar.
According to Hans Moust’s most excellent Guild Guitar Book (pg 63), the Guild Starfire III was introduced in 1960 and stayed in production until the Starfire III was discontinued in 1973 while the Starfire II stayed in production until 1976. Various minor changes happened over that time, with the most notable probably being the pickups which included DeArmonds, Guild AntiHums, and finally Guild HB1s. The Starfire III would remain discontinued for 24 years until its reintroduction in 1997, making this guitar a first year reissue Starfire III.
Starfire IIIs have usually been available in mahogany or maple, and the 1966 Hoboken Starfire III and the 2016 Newark St. Starfire III that I reviewed were both mahogany guitars. This one, however, is a maple guitar with a beautiful black finish that reminds me again of Hans’ book where, on page 62, he mentions that in the early ’60s some of the black Starfire IIIs were named Blackfires, which I think is a great freaking name. This red Starfire III is the one I bought some 10 years ago and was one of the first Guilds that got me collecting them. Though I would end up selling that one some years later, I can still vividly remember the feeling of taking it out of the case that first time and being blown away by how light it was.
In the 1996 Guild catalog, the only electric guitars listed are the X170, The X700 Stuart, and the Artist Award, along with the only solid-body, the S100. As mentioned, 1997 saw a resurgence of Guild electric guitars with the first catalog sporting a red mahogany Starfire III on the cover and the catalog page for the guitar (along with the Starfire II) mentioning the Starfire’s return after a 23 year absence. Based on my own observations, I think Guild must have made a lot of them in 1997 because it’s one of the most common years I see when hunting for Starfire IIIs. Looking at the often incorrect Guild-published serial number chart, my observation seems validated with the serial number range for Starfire IIIs in 1997 ranging from AG300001 to AG301083, though I should point out that this range of 1082 guitars includes both Starfire IIs and IIIs.
Later in 1997, Guild changed catalog formats and started publishing a series of magazine/catalogs known as the Guild Gallery magazine. In the first of these Gallery magazines, there is a nice two-page spread showing a black Starfire II with a short write up by none other than Jay Pilzer of New Hope Guitar Traders in NJ. Jay is one of the premier Guild collectors and traders in the world who operated his NJ store for what seemed like forever until he retired and closed up shop in 2017. People like me can do what we do largely because of people like Hans and Jay who did it first.
Another bit of related paper in my catalog archive is this flyer/mailer that Guild produced with a copy of a Starfire II/III review from Guitar Player magazine from that same year.
From what I can tell Guild continued to make the Starfire III under Fender’s ownership until Fender stopped making Guild electric guitars and moved acoustic production to the Tacoma Guitar plant in 2004. For the last few years of production Guild also produced a very sexy Starfire III-90 with P90 pickups which you can read my review of here.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at this 1997 Guild Starfire III.
There is nothing in the catalogs that I have that lists the finishes used on the guitars from 1997, but based on my own experience I suspect that this guitar is finished with nitrocellulose lacquer. Between the feel of the guitar and the yellowed binding and headstock veneer, the guitar just has that nitro feeling to it. Feeling is certainly a subjective thing, though. There’s also the matter of the guitar’s fluorescence.
Although I’ve never found any scientific proof, I believe that nitrocellulose lacquer-finished guitars fluoresce a sickly green under a blacklight. The only literature I could find on the subject had to do with nitrocellulose-coated microscope slides and the problem of UV fluorescence when studying them with microarray scanners, so that’s not strictly guitar related. I first noticed this as a teen in the early ’80s when I was playing my Guild S60 near my cool blacklight posters (it was the very early ’80s), so my experiments have been, perhaps, lacking. If you know of a scientific reason for nitrocellulose or lacquer to fluoresce (glow) under a UV light, please leave a comment with a source because I’d love to know more. I know people have used the UV light test forever to check for repairs on vintage Les Pauls, but the amount of Internet pseudoscience out there is crazy.
Fretboard and Neck
This is a 24 ¾” scale guitar that has a bound rosewood fretboard with simple dot inlays. This formula is the same for every Guild Starfire III that I’ve ever seen, and I think it works well for the model.
The fretboard is a beautiful piece of rosewood that is something the newer Newark St. import Guilds just can’t match. The frets measure .04″ high by .100″ wide which makes them jumbo frets according to the Dunlop chart.
The neck measures just a touch under 1 11/16″ at the nut and is .85″ deep before the first fret which gives this guitar a fabulous feel in the hand that I just love. This mid-late ’90s era of Guild electrics is my absolute favorite and that’s largely due to the neck dimensions I’ve experienced on the many ’90s Guilds I’ve played, though the quality build, components, and the pickups also play a large part in the equation.
This is a well made guitar that feels like a typically solid Guild. It feels more substantial than either my ’66 or Newark St. Starfire IIIs, though I think that may have to do with the weight and very slightly thicker body on the ’97. This is a fully hollow guitar and there are no sound posts of any kind present inside the body.
The body on this guitar measures just shy of 2 1/8″ (~54mm) at the edge where both my ’66 and Newark St. Starfire IIIs measured about 1 7/8″ (~48mm) at the edge. Six millimeters doesn’t seem like much in print, but play either of them for a while and then pick up the other and you’ll notice the difference right away. All three guitars are 16″ (40.64 cm) wide at the bottom bout.
This guitar weighs 7 lbs 2 oz (3.23 kilos). That’s almost a pound ( .45 kilos) heavier than my 1966 Starfire III but the difference in thickness, the different wood (maple vs. mahogany) and the much beefier tuners easily explain the difference.
Based on the catalog pics from the Introduction, the binding was originally white and has aged to a wonderful yellow thanks no doubt to yellowing clear-coat. That sort of makes the yellow-from-the-factory yellow binding on the Newark St. guitars seem kind of lame, but then that’s a detail that I’m pretty sure no one really cares about.
The pickups in this guitar are Seymour Duncan SD1 pickups which are pretty great in my opinion. You can read my detailed review of these and other pickups in my article, Guild Full-Sized HB1 and SD1 Pickup Variations. These pickups are closely related to the Seymour Duncan SH-1 ’59 pickups which were designed in the spirit of the original Gibson PAF pickups from the 1950s. These pickups have four wires which means that they can be split, have their phase reversed, or even be wired in serial or parallel configurations, but Guild chose to employ none of those features as a default on these guitars. The fact that the pickups have four wires means that you could easily add such features with a push/pull pot, though working on the wiring in a hollow body guitar is not for the faint of heart.
These pickups don’t quite have the chime and jangle of the old Guild HB1 pickups, but they sound great in a vintage PAF kind of way and they look fantastic in their traditional Guild double-hump covers that I just love. These pickups do clean to high gain and everything in-between and they do it with style, so I definitely recommend these in any Guild. Do I like the vintage HB1s better? Yes, but I have yet to feel the need to replace any SD1s in my Guilds that have them.
The pickups in this guitar measure 7.15k Ω in the neck and 8.16k Ω in the bridge which makes the bridge a fair bit stronger than the neck. The vintage Guild HB1 pairs I’ve examined always seemed to be more closely matched, often showing almost identical readings between them, but having a stronger bridge pickup is definitely not something I would complain about, and the bridge pickup in this guitar is a monster.
The electronics in this guitar are what I would call standard fair late-90s Guild electric, meaning of the five or six 97-99 Guilds I’ve had, the electronics have been pretty much the same among all of them, putting aside, of course, differences in pickups and things like additional master volumes on some models. This makes perfect sense as Guild (owned by Fender since 1995) would have tried to standardize between models to simplify production and take advantage of economies of scale when ordering parts.
The pots are all 500k Ω made by CTS and all four date to 1997. The pickups, as stated are Seymour Duncan SD1s, and both capacitors are ceramic discs stamped 203M which translates to .02μF. All of this is a departure from the earlier 1966 Starfire I reviewed that had different values in the tone pots and where each pickup had a different value capacitor.
The wiring is coupled which means that turning down either volume pot to zero while the pickup selector is in the middle position mutes the guitar.
Between the pickups, and the component values, this guitar has a more straight-ahead rock sound to it than the earlier ’66 Starfire with its AntiHum pickups and arguably more well-tuned components.
The tuners on this guitar are Grover Rotomatics, and I am a fan, especially when compared with the absolutely awful tuners on my 1966 Starfire III.
Oh – and a pox on the people who felt that it was a good idea to put stickers on guitars in the name of repeat business. After writing that I had to look up the Conservatory of Music in Terre Haute and discovered that they closed in December of 2016 after being in business since 1949. Then I felt bad because I hate to see any music business fold, especially long-lived ones. I guess I take my pox back, but I still hate stickers on guitars.
The bridge is all metal and is of the Bigsby rocker bridge type, but the thing I love about this guitar’s bridge is that it is finally intonated for a plain third (G) string. Many of my Starfire IIIs, X170Ts, and other Guildsby-equipped guitars have a wound-third bridge that doesn’t really work for me, so it’s a pleasure to see that Guild embraced the new rockin’ age of the plain third. I gotta bend my third!
This is a very different guitar than the ’60s or Newark St. models, mostly because of its much more aggressive full-sized SD1 humbuckers. Where the vintage and Korean Starfire IIIs have a chimey ringing quality to their tones, this guitar is a more powerful-sounding rock machine. To be fair this guitar would also excel with any clean tone requirements and the neck pickup is a thing of beauty for jazz, but I can’t help but dial up some drive with the bridge pickup dimed.
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, though I should note that thanks to an issue I was having, I upgraded both the firmware on the Axe-FX and my version of Audacity. That shouldn’t matter at all, but in the interest of science (or for what passes for science on the Internet), I thought I’d make it clear that there was a change.
All knobs on the guitar are on 10 at all times, and if you’ve read my other Starfire III reviews (1966 and 2016) then you’ll know that I have a slightly different set of recordings for these guitars because it is my intention to compare them in another article.
Rockabilly Hot Rod
Stray Cat Strut Ending
’49 Mercury Blues
As mentioned in the electronics section, this guitar has a different character than the 1966 Starfire, and between the slightly different body, the different pickups, and the change in the electronics, it’s easy to see why. I’d probably describe this guitar as being more modern sounding, and then I’d slap myself because that doesn’t really mean anything. Then again, as it’s been said, writing about music (or tone [timbre, really], in this case) is like dancing about architecture.
Still, this guitar has a more powerful, slightly darker timbre than the vintage Starfire. Where the ’66 Starfire has a chimey quality to it, this guitar sounds more powerful or more aggressive. When I think of the ’66 Starfire I think more of a jangly Beatles sound, whereas with the ’97, I think more a straight-ahead rock sound. While I would be looking for a nice Fender tweed amp for the ’60s Starfire, this ’97 makes me want to find a cranked Marshall Plexi. Maybe even a JCM800, though that probably says more about me than it does the guitar.
While the bridge pickup delivers all the aggressive bite I could ever want, The neck pickup has a wonderfully airy yet woody tone that I just love, and that’s with or without gain. The middle position delivers as well with that more hollow tone that we all hope for when both pickups are selected.
The pickups aren’t quite as magical as the vintage Guild HB1s that I love so much, and they’re arguably two steps (or more) removed from the vintage AntiHums from the ’60s, but they’re still relatively low-wind PAF style pickups, and it’s hard to go wrong with that recipe.
This is a great guitar to play either sitting or standing, and even though it’s a hair thicker than the vintage or Newark St. models of the same name, there’s really no inconvenience tied to the additional thickness, at least in my hands. The Guildsby is nice and smooth and the guitar just feels great all around. The only issue, and this is true of pretty much any hollow-body, is that of feedback.
Since this guitar is fully hollow, it will absolutely howl at any significant volume, though as a lover of Brian Setzer, I learned years ago that riding the master volume is the key to happiness with such a guitar. Sadly, this guitar does not have a master volume, so you’ll need to ride the volume for whichever pickup you’ve selected instead. Of course you can stuff old gym socks in the f-holes, but that just seems to ruin the fun for me. I say, bring on the howl! Tame it. Learn it. Love it.
About the only thing I dislike on this guitar is the pick guard. I don’t like any of the Westerly Guild pick guards that sit over the pickup rings because I have a tendency to hit them when I play aggressively and because it tends to make a terrible tapping noise under my fingertips that I can feel and hear when playing. Well, I can’t hear it with the volume up, but since I can feel my my brain reminds me that it’s there. Luckily this guitar looks just as great with the guard on or off so for wild gigs I’d pull it off.
I did have some trouble with the B string popping out of the saddle when I abused it, but that’s an easy fix and not something I’d really ding the guitar over, especially since this isn’t exactly a new off-the-shelf example.
After almost 3000 words, my conclusion is, Hot damn – I love this guitar! Yes, I think a master volume would be a good addition, but no Guild Starfire III I’ve ever seen had one, so this one doesn’t suffer for its absence. In my mind, the Starfire II and IIIs have always been a working musician’s guitar prioritizing performance over bling.
The look, especially in this black finish, is just dynamite. Additionally the guitar plays great, and it sounds like a million bucks. What’s not to love? Nothing. There’s nothing not to love, and that’s what happens when I spend too much time writing without enough sleep: unintelligible logic in the form of double negatives.
I’ve owned two 1997 Guild Starfire IIIs, and I’ve loved them both. One was Mahogany and the other Maple, and they were both great in their own ways. Would I recommend this guitar? Hell yes! Of the four Starfire IIIs currently in my possession (a ’66, this ’97, an ’02, and a NS ’16), this is the one I’ll probably keep. Stay tuned for my very scientific post comparing them to see if I change my mind!