Culture //

The allure of relics

Guitars are like people, each with their own strengths and limitations and quirks.

Art by Janina Osinsao

Relic guitars are an increasingly popular trend in the musical instrument market: guitar brands charge a premium price to make dents, scratches, and sanding off paints on new instruments, rendering them with a vintage look. Artificial ageing had become more prevalent and accepted since the historic brand Fender introduced its high-end ‘relic’ series guitars in 1995, which quickly became a cult status symbol. Some musicians also “relic” their own instruments in order to fulfil their desire for an ancient guitar for a lower price. Why do so many people love old and worn objects — to the extent of distressing new acquisitions?

I asked members of the “Guitar Players on Facebook” group for some insights. “Aesthetics is part of our love for the instrument,” one member commented. Another bought a ‘Roadworn’ Telecaster because “it sounds and plays awesome” and has “the right colour.” Hence, although aesthetics is important, it is often not the priority for many guitar buyers — playability and tone are often the most valued elements.

But many players are willing to pay a steep price for a look Relic’ed custom shop guitars are often double or triple the price of standard factory-made professional guitars. According to the official Australian Fender Custom Shop website, the Postmodern Stratocaster Journeyman Relic, one of the more affordable models, costs $6599. For those in the know, therefore, relic’ed guitars have become an exclusive status symbol for players to show off their wealth. It is important to note, though, the premium price is not charged for the relic finish alone, but for the expert craftsmanship as well.

Because of the prohibitive cost, many guitarists adapt a DIY ethic to age their instruments. Many YouTube and other online tutorials are available — owners could learn to distress the metal, strip off the finish, sand the neck, hammer some dents. Despite the abundance of instructional resources, relic’ing remains an art to master with patience. Go too far and make the vintage markings look too obvious, the instrument becomes ugly, too subtle and no one will notice. To relic a guitar, then, requires a developed sense of aesthetics that combines tasteful restraints with technical prowess.

Some argue an antique appearance could also improve an instrument’s sound. John Mayer, a blues guitarist and pop singer-songwriter, used his Black1 Fender Stratocaster to record and tour his 2006 album, Continuum. In a documentary about the guitar, Mayer said the stripped paint is not intended to make the guitar look old, but rather “allowing the wood to sort of breath,” thereby producing a purer tone through a more resonant body. Although a professional musician could sometimes tell the tonal difference, the improvement might be extremely subtle for the general audience. Mayer said the guitar sounds like it’s “from heaven” and has inspired songs such as Gravity. The Black1 was crafted by the famed guitar builder John Cruz in 2004. Its official limited-edition replica is currently priced at over $45000 AUD.

In the documentary, Mayer admits Black1’s design is partly influenced by his hero, Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, who had made famous another worn-looking Stratocaster: the Number One. The difference, though, is SRV’s instrument was made from authentic vintage parts actually crafted in the 1950s and 60s. The desire to capture the talents of famous musicians through their instruments seems to be the motivating reason for many relic’ers. For example, Eric Clapton, widely considered one of the greatest guitarists ever, has inspired quite a few relic’ed signature guitars. Prominent brands produced replicas of his famous instruments, such as a ‘Lucy’ Gibson Les Paul he used to record with the Beatles and a ‘Brownie’ Fender Stratocaster he played in the classic love song, Layla. People often prefer these replicas because it takes them a little closer to their heroes, to a golden age they had missed. 

Many guitarists argue that a sense of authenticity and history in a guitar could be more important to some than an artificially-crafted look. “It’s a personal preference to relic, but I would want to have memories with every paint chip and fade in my guitar,” one guitarist commented on Facebook.  “Vintage guitars that have been played and show honest wear look great, but modern relics… PASS… not the same as an old guitar,” another said. 

Although I would still gaze at those worn beauties in guitar shops, I guess for now I’ll just hang on to my well-cared, shiny electric guitar and focus on becoming a better performer. After all, ancient facades wouldn’t add more soul to songs. I know if I had John Mayer’s Stratocaster, I would still sound like me. The tens of thousands of dollars spent on a relic’ed guitar can never buy the ability to connect with the audience. While a beautifully worn axe could inspire you to practice more, it’s the player, not the instrument, that makes the music great. 

Guitars are like people, each with their own strengths and limitations and quirks. Their qualities, like people’s, could evolve with age—it’s often said that aged wood produces a warmer tone. Following this analogy, I wouldn’t understand why a young person would want to appear beyond their age. Because often, youth is as sublime as the trail of experience. For me, guitars are most attractive when they are true to themselves, just like us. I prefer embracing new guitars’ youth and then growing old with them.

I imagine one day, in my greying hair and thinning skin, I would graze my fingertips on this beautiful instrument sitting on my lap now, and caress its dents and faded paint with a tenderness reserved for old friends. True sentimentality, I think, could only be nurtured with years; and sincere tenderness, could only grow with thickening memories.