It was not the very best time to open a music store. The winds of war were blowing in Europe and though no one wanted to get involved in another war, everyone knew they couldn’t remain isolated forever. Money began to tighten and American industry was retooling to support the war effort.
Barney Sagman had some money and liked the idea of investment in a music store. Alfred Dronge was an enthusiastic and ambitious young musician who had worked for Harry Newcorn and Silver & Horland. He had acquired a broad knowledge of instruments and retail and wanted a store of his own. With Sagman’s money and Dronge’s experience, they felt it just might work.
Alfred Dronge, born Avram Dronge on August 16th, 1911 in Poland, had immigrated to America with his parents in 1916. Along the way, he took up classical guitar and banjo, but became enamored with American Jazz guitar through Eddie Lange, Nick Lucas, and others. He had married Dorothy Abrams in 1934 and had 2 children: the daughter’s name was Joy and the son’s name: Mark. Dorothy and Alfred met on a Bay Line Cruise ship on the Hudson River where Alfred was playing a regular gig with a small orchestra. He also gave guitar lessons to supplement their income.
The shop at 130 Park Row was a 2 story building with 2 other businesses – both related to musical instruments. The adventure paid off. Within 2 years, Dronge was able to buy out Barney Sagman and rename the shop: Alfred Dronge Music. He specialized in used instruments and there were plenty of them to be found. He also invested in a repair shop. The need for repairs was clear: he would take in used instruments, repair or restore them and make them available for resale. One result is becoming familiar with all types of instruments and intimately familiar with what makes an average instrument or what creates an exceptional instrument. Many of the world’s finest luthiers started by repairing old instruments.
Alfred Dronge got to know most of the representatives from all the major American Musical instrument manufacturers by dealing with them from his little shop in lower Manhattan. Representatives like George Mann from Epiphone would linger in New York City as there were so many music shops to deal with. Dronge built a reputation on fairness and always paying on time. He ran his business carefully and built strong relationships that would help him later.
Dorothy contracted Hotchkins disease at age 27 and died at age 31 in 1943. Alfred quickly remarried Dorothy’s younger sister Mildred Abrams. This was not unusual in Jewish tradition and helped ensure stability and family continuity in raising the children. It was also a difficult time during 1941 through 1945 where material shortages limited the availability of new instruments. Fortunately, Dronge had focused the business on used instruments and was able to weather the war years.
After the war, Italian accordions were popular and profitable. They became the new specialty of the shop. Dronge began importing Sonola accordions built by Cupido in Castelfidardo, Italy. This worked so well that Dronge gave up the store in 1948 to concentrate on the import business and built a distribution market. The new business was called: The Sonola Accordion Company and relocated the offices to 220 Fourth Avenue (Park Avenue South) near Union Square. Alfred’s younger brother Louis started working at the company at about this time to handle sales.
An accordion virtuoso of the time by the name John Caruso had a local accordion studio where he employed 29 teachers for lessons. John would later move to New London Connecticut and open his own store: Caruso Music. Alfred and John were friends. John suggested the use of better quality and fuller sounding reeds for the Sonola Student accordions. The small added expense would make the imports sound like more expensive models. It worked beautifully and the new accordions were a hit. Dronge made a small fortune on accordions during the late 1940s and the early 1950’s.
Epimanondas (Epi) Strathopoulo died in 1943. Epiphone was taken over by his brothers Orpheus (Orphie) and Nicol (Frixo) Strathopoulo. They did not have the passion of their older brother and the business, under their new management, began to decline. Frixo left in 1947 and his position as Vice President and Secretary was filled by George Mann.
In 1950 the company emerged with a catalog of new offerings and many deletions. Unprofitable lines were dropped, and profitable lines were expanded. Things were looking up. Unfortunately, Orphie, not the kind of guy to be pressured, had not maintained good working relationships with his unions.
1951 was not a good year for Epiphone. A poorly handled union dispute closed down the factory for 4 months. Epiphone’s solution to the New York union problem was to get out of New York. They moved much of their operation to Philadelphia. Many of the highly skilled New York craftsmen had no desire to uproot their families and move to Pennsylvania. Most chose to stay in New York. George Mann had left the company.
George Mann contacted Alfred Dronge and the two of them worked out a plan to start a new guitar company. They could use the talent that Epiphone left behind and eliminate the lengthy and expensive process of training new luthiers.
The Guild Company was registered on October 24th, 1952. The name was drawn from the craft Guilds of the Middle Ages and implied tradition and quality. Technically, the name came from an amplifier plant that was closing in San Diego; owned by Gene Detgen. Detgen knew Dronge through common business dealings between Epiphone and Sonola distribution networks. In any event, there was a company but there was no factory.
The factory started at 536 Pearl Street near Foley Square, on the 2nd floor in about 1,500 square feet. Six months later, the first guitars emerged. The shop Forman was Enrico Cappiello, former 25-year veteran from Epiphone. There were 4 other Epiphone graduates. Dronge’s son, Mark, started work at the factory.
The partnership with George Mann lasted about a year before Dronge and Mann parted ways.
Dronge’s years in the music store and contacts on the music scene began to yield fruit. Guild needed some endorsements to be taken seriously. New York was one of the nation’s music, news and television centers. Alfred’s first love was jazz and he knew the players. Guild concentrated on full-depth jazz acoustic guitars and in 1955, began working with Johnny Smith to develop a signature model archtop guitar. Smith had been voted top guitarist by the Downbeat Readers Poll of 1954 and had just the type of credibility that Dronge was looking for.
Johnny Smith was not the first Guild endorser. By the time he signed on in 1955, Guild counted Carl Kress, Don Arnone, Billy Bauer, Barry Galbraith and Al Valenti as endorsers appearing in ads and catalogs. It was a remarkable showing for such a new company.
The story has it that Johnny Smith was not entirely happy with the Guild design, even though he had been intimately involved in the initial design work. He seemed to feel that Dronge had made too many changes. In 1961, Gibson, went to meet the retired Smith at his home in Colorado Springs. Smith worked with Gibson to design the guitar he wanted built. The design was accepted by Gibson. There were a few cosmetic changes but, in the end, they were acceptable to Smith. Gibson began production of the resulting Gibson Johnny Smith model that year. Guild continued to produce their Johnny Smith guitar under the model name: ‘Guild Artist Award’.
Hoboken, New Jersey
Guild was not a union shop and quickly came under pressure to unionize. The New York unions were strong and determined. To escape union interference, Guild moved over the river to Hoboken, New Jersey. The timing was good – they needed more space anyway. The new factory opened on November 1st, 1956 at 300 Observer Highway. Guild occupied approximately 6,000 square feet on the 6th floor of the old Neumann Leather Building.
With the new space came new challenges. The small production of the Pearl Street facility had to be drastically increased. Dronge had not been entirely satisfied with the quality of the Pearl Street instruments and wanted to produce an archtop for Johnny Smith that had no rivals. He sought to reorganize and grow in a way that the company quality would grow faster than production. Production, at the time of the move, was about 100 to 120 guitars a month being produced by about 15 employees.
Over the next few years the company expanded from a steadily growing demand from Jazz and the emerging folk boom. The ‘Artist Award’ developed for Johnny Smith was immediately accepted as an exceptionally fine instrument. Guild continued to refine its flattops and classical guitars as well as amps and accessories. Over the years Guild acquired employees from Martin, Gibson, Epiphone as well as luthiers like Carlo Greco from Italy and Argentina. Its sales force was headed by Herb Sunshine – veteran sales manager from Epiphone who had been in the music business since 1926. Guild expanded within the 6-story Neumann Leather Building. Times were good.
In 1960, Guild was registered as ‘Guild Musical Instrument Corporation’ and Dronge took the company public with a stock offering of 325,000 shares at $3 per share.
During the 1960’s major American corporations and holding companies were advised to diversify. The music business was lucrative and appeared to have a bright future. Suddenly, guitar manufacturing was a desirable addition to corporate portfolios. Fender was consumed by CBS, Gibson was bought by Norlin, LoPrinzi Guitars was purchased by AMF, the list went on and on. Guild was bought by Avnet for about $5,000,000 in July of 1966 and Dronge retained as president.
Mark Dronge recognized the influence of the folk boom and the Greenwich Village scene of the early 1960s. He became responsible for Artist Relations for Guild and spent a fair amount of time in nightclubs in and around Greenwich Village. He moved into the Village to better monitor the scene. He developed relationships with many of the artists and moving forces of the Folk scene and he introduced them to Guild.
Westerly, Rhode Island
In 1968 Mark Dronge left the company, wanting to strike out on his own. By the end of 1971, all factory operations had been transferred to Westerly Rhode Island. The future looked bright for Guild.
On May 3rd, 1972, at the end of a flight from New Jersey to Westerly, Al Dronge crashed and was pronounced dead at the scene.
Leon Tell became president and shortly after, Neil Lilien became Vice-president. Demand for Guild products was still rising and the primary problem became skilled labor. Guild had been hiring skilled people from Portugal and Italy and didn’t maintain as aggressive a pay scale as its competitors. In May of 1974, Gibson rehired Jim Deurloo and brought him back to Kalamazoo, MI. Jim had been Guild’s plant manager and the force that held Guild’s quality control together
Al Dronge’s death had changed the atmosphere within Guild. His relationship to his foremen, many of whom had been with him for 15 to 20 years, had shaped the working environment. Now it was changing. Carlo Greco left in 1977, wanting to be closer to his family in New York.
Guild Solid Bodies
For a short time Guild reissued some 1960s and 1970s designs of solidbodies. These instruments were manufactured in Korea under the DeArmond brand. Reissued models included the Starfire, Bluesbird and Pilot Bass Series. The headstock shows a DeArmond inlay but the truss rod cover shows the Guild name. In 2005, FMIC introduced the Guild GAD series acoustic guitars, built in China.
On March 5th, 1999, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation announced an agreement with master luthier Robert Benedetto to incorporate design changes to their Artist Award Model and Stuart archtop guitars. Under the agreement Benedetto helped Guild introduce a line of hand-made Benedetto guitars built at Guild’s Custom Shop in Nashville, Tennessee. This line included existing Benedetto designs (the Manhattan, the La Venezia and the Benny), as well as the possibility of new future Benedetto designs. The arrangement with Robert Benedetto ended in 2006.
Robert Benedetto had established a reputation as one of the world’s best archtop guitar designers and builders. Part of the deal with Guild included Bob working with and instructing Guild’s Custom Shop apprentices. It was a bold move to re-establish Guild as a premier archtop builder.
Fender Musical Instruments Corporation
In 1995 Guild was bought by the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC). Guild manufacturing, after almost 30 years in Westerly Rhode Island, moved to Corona, California.
In 2004, FMIC bought Washington-based Tacoma Guitar Company. Tacoma had established a manufacturing facility and trained a number of local craftsmen. This was a possible solution to ongoing staffing concerns in Corona. All American Guild acoustic production was moved to Tacoma, Washington. To deal with lagging sales in the Guild electric solidbody designs, production of American-made Guild electric guitars was simply discontinued.
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ⓒ 2008 Leonard Wyeth
Edited and expanded from Wikipedia and other sources including: “The Guild Guitar Book – The Company and Instruments, 1952-1977” by Hans Moust. Hal-Leonard press