It’s 23 August 1966. The Warwick Hotel in New York City. As a press conference with The Beatles draws to a close, a young man steps forward brandishing a guitar. Mark Dronge - the son of Guild Guitars founder, Alfred Dronge - mounts the platform where John, Paul, George and Ringo remain seated behind a long table.
“George thought the guitar was for him,” Mark Dronge later recalled. “He was annoyed when I passed him and presented the guitar to John...”
The guitar John Lennon received that day was a Guild Starfire XII, a 12-string double-cutaway semi-acoustic with a brown stain finish, gold hardware and a pair of DeArmond 2000 single-coil pickups. The idea to get the guitar into a Beatle’s hands, and score the big sales like Gretsch and Rickenbacker had enjoyed, sadly backfired. Lennon couldn’t have cared less about the Guild. Harrison, who messed around with it backstage on the Fab Four’s final US tour, was already moving away from the 12-string thing. He was all about the SG and Epiphone Casino. The Beatle guitar that never really was now resides at the Hard Rock Cafe in Honolulu, Hawaii.
That would be the end of the story if Guild hadn’t just released a new version of the Starfire XII. Now called the Starfire IV ST-12, this Korean-made reboot casts the same shadow as Lennon’s cast-off while featuring some smart spec tweaks. Our double-bound f-hole-loaded ST-12 is assembled from sheets of pressed laminate mahogany. Starfire models fall into two camps: the hollow body I, II and III guitars; and the semi-hollow IV, V and VI. The new ST-12 has the IV body style, which means it has a double-cutaway chassis with a hardwood centre block running through the middle, just like a Gibson ES-335.
The set neck is mahogany, too, and features a Gibson-style 629mm (24.75- inch) scale length. Your 240mm (9.5-inch) radius fingerboard is fashioned from either Indian rosewood or ebony, depending on the production date of the ST-12 that falls into your clutches. To be honest, the bound ’board on our guitar could be either. We’ve seen Indian rosewood this dark. We’ve seen plenty of ebony this light. What we do know for sure is this Guild has 22 narrow jumbo frets, cream neck binding and a bunch of pearloid dot inlays.
John and George’s XII came spec’d with a floating bridge and a harp tailpiece. The new model features a way more stable anchored tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece format. A dozen 18:1 ratio sealed tuners come finished in the same nickel plate as the rest of the metal bits. That includes the pickup covers, which shelter a pair of Guild LB-1 ‘Little Bucker’ items. The wiring loom is your classic two volumes, two tones and a three-way pickup selector toggle switch.
Let’s be honest. The Starfire IV ST-12 is a seriously good-looking guitar. The Cherry Red polyurethane finish is flawless. The maple strip that runs up the back of the neck adds a quality vibe. Ditto the Art Deco-style stepped pickguard with its little star motif, and those iconic reflector control knobs.
Of course, as pleasing as any guitar is to your ocular cavities, it has to play great. That goes for double with a 12-string. The additional string tension can leave your digits working like a dog. Guild has boosted the ST-12’s playability with a slim neck profile and a set of easily manipulated D’Addario EXL150 Nickel Wound Super Light 0.010 to 0.046-gauge strings. While the factory-set action isn’t especially low, it is comfortable, yet the strings have enough space to ring out. We expected some finger and wrist fatigue to creep in. Hours later, we’re still in good shape. Here’s the standard procedure for trying out any electric 12-string for the first time. Step one: play the opening chord from A Hard Day’s Night. Step two: make an arse of Roger McGuinn’s intro to The Byrds’ version of Mr Tambourine Man. Step three? Repeat step two. Chances are it’ll end up sounding more like Rog’s raga lead on Eight Miles High. You get frustrated. You walk away. That’s the problem right there. The electric 12-string is the Michael Caine of the guitar world. Everyone loves ’em but the assumption is, these things did their best work back in the Swinging 60s. You play a couple of XII-rated staples and think that’s all a guitar like this can do.
The Starfire could well be the guitar that unlocks the potential of an electric 12 for you. A Rickenbacker 360/12 has a very specific set of skills. That bright chimey sound that we all know - and a great proportion of us love - transports us back to Beatlemania like a time machine. Think of the Starfire IV as more of a 335 that just happens to have twice as many strings. Yes, it’ll get you through a set of Tom Petty covers, but it has, erm, many more strings to its bow.
The LB-1 ‘Little Bucker’ pickups are based on original 1960s models and are pitched somewhere between the tone and output of a single coil and a PAF-style humbucker. In practice, you get a proper old-school jangle from the bridge unit on a clean setting. Add some overdrive, however, and the tone fattens up considerably. Palm muting the strings softens the 12-string drone and gives you a beefy chunk that works great for rhythm parts.
The neck position LB-1 is slightly hotter than its back-mounted amigo. The fatness is already present here, even on a crystal clear setting, and that tonal girth is where the Guild comes into its own. You can strum big open chords on this thing, and then pull your dynamics back and comp jazz progressions. You can play blues on this guitar, too. Probably the greatest Guild Starfire XII exponent was late bluesman Robert Lockwood Jr. He pulled fat-sounding licks from his 12-strings. Go ahead – bend the strings on the ST-12. Yes, even two at a time. There’s also more space between the strings here than you get on your classic Ricky. Guild lists the nut width on this new guitar at 43mm, but our trusty tape measure actually pegs it at 45mm. The nut on a Rickenbacker 360/12 is 41.4mm. Can’t get on with a Ricky because the neck is too narrow and the string spacing is a bit tight? You’ll encounter a fair bit more wriggle room on the ST-12.
So, what did we learn? First of all, typecast a great electric 12-string at your peril. The Guild Starfire IV ST-12 is a versatile guitar if the player is prepared to adapt his or her technique. It’s also pretty, an absolute joy to play and hangs right in that 3.6kg (8lb) sweet spot. This guitar doesn’t actually have a lot of competition. Look around: there aren’t that many great electric 12-strings out there. It’s way more affordable than a Rickenbacker, and it’s more sophisticated than a Danelectro ’59X 12. Okay, so John and George might not have gone a bundle on their 60s Starfire XII, but we reckon this modern version from Guild is FAB gear.