Some guitars just appeal to you. Others don’t, and some controversial designs inspire either lifelong devotion or immediate scorn amongst players and collectors. Such is the case with the Guild S-200 Thunderbird, the brainchild of Mark Dronge, now president of DR Strings, and son of Guild founder, the late Al Dronge. There’s no denying it; the S-200 is hardly a “grey area” instrument. Some think it looks like the cartoon character Gumby. Others say it resembles a shark fin. Another writer referred to it as, “a Hershey bar left out in the sun.” Whatever your opinion, you can’t ignore the S-200. On a personal note, this writer once owned two original S-200 T-Birds, followed by two less than satisfactory DeArmond reissues (they were purple and heavy as boat anchors), and currently a very well made reissue Guild Newark Street Series S-200. You might say I have a liking for the design, in fact, I think it’s downright elegant. Obviously, I’m a fan.
Over the years, other builders like Veillette-Citron and Pure Salem (and there may be others) have copied the S-200, but only the current Guild company owned by Cordoba Music Group has ever reproduced a faithful replica, albeit with a few improvements. And they have done a good job of it.
A commercial flop in its day, less than two hundred were produced from 1963 to 1968, the Thunderbird was Guild’s first solidbody electric and one that almost never saw the light of day due to Al Dronge’s dislike for rock ‘n roll. Dronge was a jazz fan, and Guild specialized in archtop jazz guitars for the most part and based their early reputation on such instruments. But music was changing. Musically hip Mark Dronge was a Beatles fan just out of college, working in his dad’s business. Fender had released their “plank” Telecaster in 1950, Gibson followed with the Les Paul model in 1952, and although Guild was a latecomer entering the solidbody game, at Mark’s insistence, Al Dronge grudgingly agreed to build a solidbody electric. Mark related the story behind the S-200.
“We were late entering the solidbody market, because my father didn’t understand them. Here’s what happened with that guitar; I was involved with that design, but it wasn’t finished, and then I went on a two week sales trip. When I came back, my father had put it into production without my knowledge. He put the Merle Travis model headstock on it, as well as that idiotic folding stand in the back that was so unstable. Those guitars used to fall over and break because of that thing. It was an unfinished guitar. I never had time to develop it properly. Zal Yanovsky of The Lovin’ Spoonful loved it, and so did Muddy Waters, but it wasn’t a big seller for us at that time.”
That pretty much sums up the fate of the S-200. Due to the small number manufactured in the ‘60s, it has become the rarest vintage Guild solidbody guitar. And to think, this writer sold his two for a pittance compared to the prices originals now fetch, partially as a result of The Black Keys Dan Auerbach’s use of one. Let’s take a look at a nice S-200 that recently came into Lark Street Music.
This first year production S-200 is finished in a moderately faded cherry red, with a slightly darker area encircling the body like a sunburst finish, and its neck is a lighter shade of red. Most S-200s were either cherry or three-tone sunburst, although a few green ones were supposedly made, and Guild painted one purple for Zal Yanovsky. This guitar is completely original with no modifications. The circuitry, openly copied from a Fender Jaguar, features two separate tone circuits (rhythm and lead) and a slide switch that allows the player to choose either one. There are also three other sliders; a treble cut, and on/off switches for both mini humbucking pickups, which sound quite good; not as full as large Gibson humbuckers, but with plenty of high end cut and certainly closer in tone to pickups found on a Les Paul Deluxe. There are two volume and two tone controls, an AdjustoMatic bridge and one of those infamous Hagstrom tremolo units that operated surprisingly well in this case, considering they have a reputation for throwing most guitars out of tune. One of the tone control pots exhibited some scratchiness, but that’s an easy fix.
The thin neck is topped with a rosewood fingerboard, block inlays, and the headstock veneer features a stylized thunderbird in faux pearl. The open back tuning pegs function easily and effortlessly. The body is naturally relic’d, with numerous dings, scratches, wear and dents from decades of use.
In terms of playability, this S-200 Thunderbird is a winner. It is light in weight, well balanced, and held its tuning well through numerous string bends and strong chording, and there was very little fret wear, a small miracle, considering the sheer amount of use it must have seen over the years. And of course, let’s not forget the infamous collapsible, magnetic stand in the back of the guitar. As Mark Dronge said, it is highly unstable and could cause the guitar to fall and become damaged. It’s best to use it as a conversation piece only, particularly in light of the fact that this rare Guild is priced at $5500. This author would invest in a very sturdy guitar stand immediately, or just keep it in its hardshell case, which is included with the sale.
Is it worth $5500? The Vintage Guitar 2017 Price Guide places this model at $4000 in High Condition and $3000 in Low Condition. This particular S-200 falls somewhere in between. Motivated buyers/collectors will sometimes pay a higher price for a rare guitar, usually more than they should. It’s all about the amount of that dreaded affliction called GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) one possesses.