Relic…..the buzzword that gets tossed around a lot here in the guitar community. I read and look at lots of info about relic guitars. People’s methods, their pics, projects, tips, etc. and I have to tell you I’ve had it up to here with the whole relic thang and here’s why.
What is a “relic” first of all? A relic by definition is 1. A surviving memorial of something past. 2. An object having interest by reason of its age or its association with the past: a museum of historic relics. In the guitar community the word “relic” has become to mean a beat up looking p.o.s. guitar that somehow fools the eye into making the brain think the guitar is a real vintage piece therefore increasing it’s value or “cool” equity. I have to say that I have bought into this on occasion.
I am however getting “reliced out” because of the looseness of the term and the lack of quality “relics”. Anyone but anyone can take a guitar or parts of a guitar and beat the living daylights out of them and make them look older, worn, beat, weathered and aged…..BUT do they look realistic? I cruise the internet including ebay and I see lots of guys selling either relic parts of guitars or entire relic guitars and a large percentage of them do not look realistic at all. I can say this because I was lucky enough to have owned many wondrous vintage instruments in the past before the prices went to the moon and have had the great fortune of working on tons of them over the years. One of my gigs was being the repair tech for Jim Pasch at Outlaw Guitars. Jim has a new business called The Parts Drawer. I used to stay late and take all those guitars apart (amps too). I’d look at the guitar as individual pieces and as a whole. Most of these relics I see just don’t represent! If you’ve never worked on vintage guitars you do not have a real reference point….but neither does the buyer! I hear someone saying “you can go by photos though”. I say rubbish! A two dimensional photo can vary drastically in color from printing or the computer screen and you have no idea how the actual photographed guitar looks in different light and at different angles. So there goes the photo theory. Don’t get me wrong photos are cool but are not to be used as the resource for building relic guitars.
Some of the relic guitars I see are actually production guitars that are finished with poly and not good ol’ nitro. You cannot get a guitar finished with poly to look like a guitar shot with nitro. You can however take a poly finished guitar and make it look like a relic poly guitar like the Fender’s of the 70’s. Some of them actually look pretty cool. The poly finished guitars that are trying to look like 50’s or 60’s models just do not look right at all. And speaking of not looking right one of my biggest pet peeves is the dreadful relic fingerboard wear on maple fretboards. It is rare in my opinion to get the maple fretboard looking really “right” when it comes to that type of wear. What makes it even more of a challenge is that some maple neck guitars from the 50’s have next to no finish while other have much more. This determines the amount of checking. I owned a really cool all original ’55 Esquire that had a super thin finish on the entire neck and there was no checking at all because there wasn’t enough lacquer for checking to occur.
Here is a converse situation: I have also seen on occasion some Olympic White Fender guitars with bodies that look stark white and the necks are very amber in color. Why is that? Because those particular bodies did not get any clear topcoats. It’s the clear coats that turn the amber color, not so much the color coats. This is true on vintage cars shot with nitro as well. Now if you saw a guy do a relic job like that you would think it was dead wrong but they do exist…!
So, for me it is getting tiresome to see these so called relic guitars that do not have a realistic look (never mind the feel and smell or whether they look right under a black light which is another level altogether). Having said all this there is a use for relic techniques. I remember one project I had to do on a ’52 Telecaster some years ago (btw- this was before the word relic or line of guitars was ever coined). This particular ’52 Tele had it all. It was light, had a great neck, beautiful blonde color, sounded awesome with its original case. I remember it distinctly. The only bad thing about it was that the first 5 frets were replaced and the finish was removed in between each fret….doh! My job was to pull the first 5 frets, replace them, refinish the missing lacquer on the fretboard and age the repair. I was smart (or lucky) enough to have saved some vintage frets over the years and found 5 that looked perfect for the repair. The next part was to shoot some nitro to match the rest of the fretboard and age it to match. It took me a lot of time to get the “repair” to blend into the rest of the guitar but the end result came out great if I do say so myself 🙂 This is where good relic or aging techniques can be very useful. Not to fool anyone but to preserve the integral look of the instrument.
There are a few guys in the biz who are great at it like Gord Miller and Mark Jenny who get some really positive results. Both of these guys put a lot of effort into making their relic jobs look realistic. I know Gord even has some lighting techniques that age lacquer rapidly and end up looking very realistic. I have a few of Mark’s bodies that I am very happy with. I’m sure that there are many others that have studied and perfected their techniques as well.
To wrap up this rant on relics it’s not the relic craze or wanting to own an affordable vintage looking guitar that kinda rubs me the wrong way. It’s the lack of quality and realism that I see with a portion of them. Now, some buyers may see relic guitars that do not look realistic that they like and buy them. I say awesome! No matter what the guitar looks like if it works for you then you should buy the guitar……that is first and foremost. But when it comes to an accurate relic reproduction type guitar then I think research is in order on both the builder’s and buyer’s part. The other option is to just build nice, new looking vintage type guitars that feel and sound great with superb quality. The guitars will age naturally the more you play them and will end up with a very realistic relic look that way.