Guitar Relicing

Controversial?  Indeed!

If you browse online gear forums for any period of time, one thing you'll undoubtedly find is a debate over guitar relicing.  In all honesty, there may not be a more divisive topic among guitar players.  Love it or hate it, it definitely appears relicing is here to stay.  From our perspective, the practice seems like it has gained even more popularity in the last few years, with many more builders and even dedicated "relicers" popping up everywhere.  Being musicians ourselves, we are obviously going to have our own personal opinions on the topic and not even all of us here at the store agree completely.  In this article we wanted to look at relicing as a whole and maybe frame the debate in a bit different light.  We definitely don't think we're going to sway those players on either side who feel very strongly about their position, but hopefully we'll provide some food for thought.

It is probably pretty important that we start off by saying we definitely understand some player's extreme aversion to the practice of beating up a perfectly good guitar.  They really don't need to justify their feelings in any way.  By its very nature relicing just seems inherently destructive or dishonest in some way.  Ask anyone who does not play guitar and the practice must sound absolutely nuts to them.  If you are forking over the dough for a shiny new guitar, why on earth would you want one that looks like its been played for 50+ years and possibly drug through a parking lot?  The whole idea must make about as much sense as pre-stained carpet to some people and we definitely understand where they're coming from.  On the other hand, in order to understand what would convince someone to relic a perfectly good instrument, we should look at why they do it and what effect it has on the instrument as a whole not only from a visual standpoint but also functionally.   

Visual Relicing

Visual relicing is what comes to mind for most people when the topic of relicing is brought up. This is basically describing the many techniques used to distress a guitar's finish or hardware in order to make the instrument appear older than it really is.  This type of relicing is almost purely aesthetic and can include chipping or cracking the finish or adding rust or oxidation to the hardware just to name a few methods.  For the most part, visual relicing has very little effect on how the instrument plays.  With that in mind, some may ask, "So why do it at all?"  and that is certainly a valid question.  The visual side of relicing seems to be where many detractors take exception.  To them, the practice just seems pointless and somewhat destructive.  Proponents of relicing often argue though that this "synthetic aging" adds character to a guitar. Think of it as instant Mojo :).  In some cases, it also fits with the whole theme of a guitar being "period correct," right down to the aged finish.  Unfortunately, most of us do not have the scratch to drop on a real vintage guitar without taking out a second mortgage, so a "replica" may be a more realistic option.  There are a number of companies producing these vintage reproduction guitars that are built basically the same way they would have been in the 50's or early 60's. This phenomenon seems to be what really sparked the whole relicing idea to begin with.

There are also certain designs that some could argue look cooler when reliced. A great example of this is Fano Guitars.  Though the company hasn't been producing guitars since the 50's or 60's, relicing just seems to work with their aesthetic. It also doesn't hurt that the relicing is done in a very tasteful manner.  Although it is very subjective, we think the relicing is an important element in the whole "Fano Vibe."  Some of the designs may actually look a bit odd when the finish is perfectly pristine, but then again, that's for each player to decide.  

Fano Guitars have some great examples. You can check them out HERE.

Functional Relicing

Though the vast majority of relicing is done for aesthetic reasons, we've found that much of it is actually functional as well and has some benefits that many players find quite appealing. One of the reasons that vintage guitars are so sought after is that many have a feel to them that's very difficult to find in a new instrument.  Years of playing has worn sharper surfaces down to form rounder edges that many players find more pleasing to the touch.  The term "broken-in" is often used to describe this quality.  More often than not when a guitar is reliced, the edges of the neck in particular are softened a bit to give the guitar that "well-played" feel that many players find so appealing in vintage instruments.  Often times the finish is also removed in a simulated wear pattern, leaving a satin, "bare-wood" texture that many players prefer over the high gloss finishes that is common among many of today's instruments.

A builder that all of us here at the shop very much admire for the feel of their necks is Nash guitars. They build exclusively reliced guitars that pay homage to some iconic designs from the 50's and 60's and have built up a very sizable following over the years.  Though the guitars don't really break the mold from a design standpoint, where they do stand out is in their playability and great feel.  The way that the edges of the neck are carefully beveled and smoothed give each guitar that great "played-in" type of feel that we all love. The fret ends are also very precisely rounded to enhance this feel even further.  Nash guitars consistently play great right out of the box, though due to the heavy relicing on some instruments they do often look like the may have fallen off of the truck on the way to the shop :).

Check out Nash Guitars!

Another functional bonus of relicing that may sound a bit silly, but we think is worth noting is the freedom the scratches themselves provide.  Since the finish is already distressed, instantly you don't have to worry about scratches as much.  It's very much like when you buy a brand new car versus a slightly used one.   For the first couple of weeks, you're naturally uptight about protecting the perfect finish.  Anyone who has ever owned a new car we are sure can relate to this.  Eventually, it's inevitable that either an airborne pebble or a careless "door opener" in a parking lot will give your baby its first ding.  In some ways it is as liberating as it is awful.  Now you don't have to sweat it anymore; it is a sad fact but cars and guitars alike get dinged and scratched with normal use.  Think about a reliced guitar like buying a used car that already has a few dings on it :).  You can play/drive freely.  From our experience, this can be a very liberating thing.

Take a test drive

We definitely understand that guitar players are as diverse as just about any group you will find.  We know that relics are not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but we hope we may have swayed a few to at least take a closer look at one.  Even in our own shop we have had several employees that were initially completely against the idea of owning a reliced guitar, however after playing a few they were considerably more open to the idea.  There's definitely something special about an instrument with that "broken-in" feel.  Even if you don't necessarily dig the whole "ridden hard and put up wet" look, in our experience the feel alone is often enough to win some players over. Ultimately we know that relicing is always going to be a hotly debated topic, but we hope that players will at least take a relic for a test drive before completely swearing them off.