Guild Benedetto Signature Artist Award Archtop

Some guitars, you pick them up and play them and instantly you can tell that there’s no magic there. The strings sound dull; the action feels stiff; there’s no presence to the notes; the instrument feels wholly inanimate in your hands, like a machine or a tool-quite literally like an ax. It’s hard to be inspired with such a lifeless instrument.

But then there are those rare guitars that are imbued with magic. You touch them and they sing. You can play no wrong notes on these wondrous instruments. The sound is so rich and alive, the tones resonate with so much personality that you can practically feel a living presence in the wood you are cradling in your arms. In those inspired moments you and your guitar are working together as one, like jockey and thoroughbred racing toward the finish line.

I have experienced that exhilarating sensation on only a few occasions over the past 30 years. One happened recently at Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island, where I encountered the new Guild Artist Award archtop jazz guitar. While this beautiful hollow-body instrument has been Guild’s flagship archtop for several decades, going back to the early 1950s when it was introduced as the Johnny Smith Award model, it has recently gone through some subtle yet significant overhauling at the hands of master guitar maker Bob Benedetto, who joined Guild as a consultant in 1999. The new Benedetto Guild Artist Award still carries the company’s distinctive triangled pearl and abalone inlay pattern on the fretboard and headstock along with the trademark golden engraved harp tailpiece. All the aspects of the traditional Guild design that are also apparent in the Manhattan (played by Jimmy Bruno) and La Venezia (played by Howard Alden) models-body shape, headstock, cutaway, neck, f-holes-remain intact. And yet, the tweaking that Benedetto instituted at the Guild custom shop in Nashville has resulted in an instrument that is remarkably better sounding than its predecessor, as I noted in comparing the difference at Mandolin Brothers’ showroom.

Switching from a ’92 Artist Award to the new Benedetto model, I was instantly struck by the dramatic leap in tonal quality. The bass notes are fuller, more robust, like good wine aged in the casks-darker, deeper, more alluring. And the highs leap out with uncommon clarity and authority for a hollow body. This is due in part to the combination of woods that Benedetto chose for this model (carved European spruce top, solid tiger stripe maple on the back and sides, five-piece maple neck), which promotes richer resonating, sustaining tones. Also, a Benedetto-designed floating humbucking pickup (Model S-6) is both quieter and punchier than the DeArmond single coil in the ’92 Artist Award. Bottom line, this new Benedetto Artist Award plays louder with less effort and is far more accommodating to string bending than most hollow-body jazz boxes.

The ebony fretboard of the Benedetto Guild Artist Award is quite fast and the overall response is so even up and down the neck that you get that same butterscotch smooth tone across the strings whether ascending or descending. Also, you can really dig into this Guild with pick or fingers and it will respond accordingly, producing a sound that is far more aggressive and cutting than is normally associated with a fat-body jazz box.

The improvements in this new Artist Award are even readily apparent from playing the instrument acoustically. The notes leap out and you can really feel the resonance in the wood, like a vintage Martin acoustic. Plug it into a good amplifier and the improvements, particularly the wider frequency response and impressive warmth, become even more pronounced.

On the design front, the binding is more dramatic, making the neck look much blacker than predecessor models. The stair-step pick-guard design is another improvement. And the contoured ebony saddled bridge that gently compensates from bass to treble is a vast improvement over the gold-plated even bridge.

With a list price of $10,000 (and a street price of $7,000) this Benedetto Guitar Artist Award is a dream guitar for serious players without a nightmarish price tag. A tribute to excellence and value.