A couple of years ago I acquired a guitar that is a source of controversy and acrimonious debate on guitar message boards across the whole wide Internet! Is it made from baby seals? Is it studded with conflict diamonds? Does it support Obamacare? None of the above! It is a RELIC. And just what does that mean if you’re not Indiana Jones? A relic guitar is a new or nearly new guitar which has been distressed so that it looks old. Mine is a beautiful sonic blue reproduction of a circa 1960 Fender Esquire.
“That ain’t blue! “
Well, it was. Fender guitars from the 50’s and 60’s were often painted with automotive colors. Aztec Gold, Inca Silver, and Sherwood Green were straight off the GM color chart and adorned many Telecasters and Stratocasters. Sonic Blue, the color my guitar began its short life as, was a rich sky blue used on some 1956 Cadillacs. Guitars were painted with their designated colors, and then sprayed with a clear coat of nitrocellulose lacquer. Over time, the clear coat of lacquer would both yellow and check with age, UV exposure, and temperature fluctuations. The yellowed lacquer would turn Sonic Blue into a delicate crackled celadon green, as you can see on my guitar. Some of the original blue can be seen peeking through on the guitar’s edge where some of the lacquer has worn through.
How is my brand-new guitar displaying yellowing and checking and other wear? The father-son team of Mark and Matt Jenny has been aging guitars for years now using a top secret set of formulae which may or may not involve UV lights, ovens, freezers, hurled sets of car keys, and dragging the guitars behind a truck. They are some of the best in the business as far as realistic aging goes and they finished the body and neck of my guitar. Brand new and very old.
So who cares?
Why is this controversial? Well, there are very serious camps in the guitar community that believe your instrument should only carry wear and scars that it has “earned” over the years. As far as they are concerned, relics are fakes that are pretending to be something they’re not. Why not just get a new guitar and play the living heck out of it? That sounds good, but modern guitars are rarely painted with lacquer anymore. Most new guitar finishes are a heavy coat of polyurethane. Short of a hammer and chisel, you aren’t going to get nicks or scratches into that kind of finish, and if you do, it will just come off in ugly flakes, producing the very sad “bad relic.” Polyurethane also doesn’t check into the beautiful delicate patterns that lacquer does.
There’s a Japanese concept called “Wabi-Sabi”- the aesthetic that values imperfection, incompleteness, and a little roughness around the edges. While there’s something lovely about a brand-new perfect guitar that looks like it’s been dipped in plastic, the guitar that looks and feels like an old friend has its own loveliness. The metaphor that gets thrown around a lot for reliced guitars is that of blue jeans. Sure, you can buy a stiff pair of brand new jeans and wear them for years to get them broken in, but you can also buy prewashed distressed jeans with wear and fading and even holes in them. I say get what you want, play what you want! It’s an open secret that many touring musicians don’t take their precious vintage instruments on tour with them, but rather relics they’ve had made as stand-ins. If you think you’ve seen Slash on stage with his $250,000 1959 Les Paul, I have news for you. If I want to play a guitar that looks and feels like my grandaddy left it in the barn behind the John Deere for fifty years, well, that’s just what I should do. The guitar plays like butter (guitar people always say that- honestly I don’t know what butter would play like), looks great, and sounds fantastic. I can’t think of anything else I could want.