Relic Guitars: Blending Vintage Aesthetics with Modern Craftsmanship

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Last updatedLast updated: November 29, 2023
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When one dives into the vibrant world of guitars, they quickly find that more than just the sound makes these instruments a favorite among musicians. It’s their appearance, feel, and unique character acquired over time. One particular kind of guitar that embodies this harmony between sound and style is the ‘Relic Guitar.’

Unfolding the Enigma of Relic Guitars

Relic guitars are musical marvels that combine the visual aesthetic of a vintage, well-used instrument with the reliability and function of a new one. The attraction lies in the guitar’s aged and distressed appearance – chipped paint, worn edges, and rusty hardware – mimicking years of strumming, gigging, and touring, all achieved right off the luthier’s bench.

The manufacturing process of relic guitars is a testament to the artistry and craftsmanship of skilled luthiers. Unlike a typical, shiny new guitar, a relic guitar undergoes a specialized ‘relicing’ process to mimic the wear and tear that naturally occurs over years of use.

The Relic Creation Process

The difference lies in the subsequent finish applied while the ingredients remain the same – quality wood, fine electronics, and precise hardware. The relic guitars require a special protective coat, typically of nitrocellulose lacquer. The soft texture of this lacquer allows the finish to crack and peel more easily than modern polyester or polyurethane, lending the guitar an authentically worn look.

This distressing process is meticulously carried out by hand, with the level of ‘relicing’ varying according to customer preferences. It could be as subtle as light discoloration and a few paint nicks or as intense as stripped wood and rusty hardware. Therefore, Every relic guitar is a unique piece reflecting the luthier’s skill and the player’s personality.

The Allure of Relic Guitars

The paradox of relic guitars lies in the desire for a brand new instrument that looks like it’s seen better days. Scratches and wear patterns on a guitar are often seen as badges of honor, battle scars from countless performances, and an indication of the musician’s dedication.

A relic guitar offers the opportunity to own an instrument that possesses this history and character without subjecting a pristine instrument to the rigors of time and use.

Relic guitars are not just about the worn-out appearance. They also carry a unique look and feel, often mimicking the playing comfort and resonance that vintage guitars acquire over time. For many, this stylistic choice is reminiscent of the timelessness of music itself, capturing the spirit of rock ‘n roll in every groove and worn edge.

The Art and Cost of Relic Guitars

Crafting a relic guitar is a delicate and time-consuming process. The skill required to age a guitar convincingly and tastefully is immense. A relic guitar is not just about random scratches or dents. It’s about creating a narrative of use, telling a story that resonates with the player. Every wear mark, every rusty bit of hardware is deliberately placed, often based on historical patterns of guitar usage.

As such, a relic guitar usually carries a higher price tag than a standard new guitar. The cost reflects not only the craftsmanship involved but also the extensive knowledge of how guitars age and the precision required to replicate that process.

Who are the Makers of Relic Guitars?

While several guitar makers offer relic-ed instruments today, the Fender Custom Shop initially popularized this art form. First introduced at the 1995 NAMM music trade show, Fender’s Relic Series caught immediate attention. Today, you can find various models such as Stratocasters, Telecasters, Jazzmasters, and Jaguars available in relic finishes.

Fender offers six distinct levels of aging under their Custom Shop lineup:

  1. N.O.S (New Old Stock): These guitars are as if you were buying a ’50s or ’60s Fender brand new. They show no marks or aging on the lacquer coat.
  2. Closet Classic: These guitars look like they’ve been left in the case, untouched for decades, with mild plastic discoloration and slight metal oxidation.
  3. DLX Closet Classic: An owned-with-pride guitar, used but kept in immaculate condition. It has hardware oxidation and slight discoloration.
  4. Journeyman Relic: It seems like a guitar played around the house with occasional gigs or jam sessions. It has slight nicks and dents and wear in areas expected of a well-played guitar.
  5. Relic: These guitars are workhorses with significant mileage under their belt. They sport plenty of dents and scars across the body and neck.
  6. Heavy Relic: The most extreme finish offered by Fender. These guitars showcase heavy wear across every curve, emulating decades of heavy use.

Authenticity Debate of Relic Guitars

The world of relic guitars isn’t devoid of controversy. A significant part of the guitar-playing community advocates for the ‘natural’ process of aging, where a guitar earns its ‘scars’ through decades of usage, stage performances, and travel. The stories that a naturally aged guitar holds within each scratch and worn patch have been a long-revered aspect of the guitar community.

Critics of the relic process often point to this authenticity of age and use as an element that can’t be genuinely replicated, equating relic guitars to faking a piece of history or creating a masquerade of a bygone era. They argue that the essence of each worn-out patch, nick, and dent comes from the memories they represent, and artificially aging a guitar takes away from the reality and originality of these stories.

However, while this perspective holds true for many, it’s essential to remember that relic guitars do not aim to deceive by claiming to be authentic vintage instruments. Instead, they provide a unique stylistic and sensory choice for guitarists who deeply appreciate the vintage aesthetics and the unique ‘feel’ of an aged instrument yet need the reliability and comfort of new guitars. Therefore, relic guitars are not merely about imitating a look but creating a tactile experience that melds the old-world charm with contemporary craftsmanship.

The Understated Importance of Care and Maintenance for Relic Guitars

While the relic guitars are designed to replicate a heavily used instrument’s worn-out, aged look, it doesn’t negate the need for appropriate care and maintenance. Despite their vintage appearance, relic guitars are new instruments that need consistent upkeep to preserve their functionality and longevity.

Even though relic guitars boast a pre-worn finish, they are not immune to the wear and tear that comes from use and environmental factors. Cleaning your guitar after each use is crucial to avoid the buildup of sweat, dust, and grime, which can seep into the harder-to-reach areas and possibly compromise the guitar’s performance over time.

Frequent restringing is another key aspect of maintaining the sound quality of your guitar. Old, worn-out strings can result in a dull, lifeless tone that robs your performance of its vitality. A regular change of strings ensures your relic guitar produces the best sound it’s capable of.

Moreover, adjusting the neck for any warping and calibrating the bridge for optimal action is critical to the playability of the instrument. Though seemingly minor, these tasks significantly affect your guitar’s sound and playability. Hence, even though relic guitars are artificially aged, they should not be exposed to extreme environmental conditions. Too much heat, cold, or humidity can cause irreparable damage, affecting the guitar’s longevity and performance.

Venturing into the Customization of Your Relic Guitar

Though the market offers a broad range of relic guitars from established manufacturers, a growing trend among guitar enthusiasts and professional musicians alike is to create their own relic guitars. The ‘do-it-yourself’ (DIY) approach allows guitarists to exert greater control over the aging process, ensuring each artificially-induced wear mark or faded spot accurately represents their vision of a perfect relic guitar.

Yet, the process of relicing a guitar at home isn’t something to be undertaken lightly. It’s a meticulous process that demands a thorough understanding of how guitars age naturally over time and the necessary skills to convincingly replicate this process. The art of relicing involves much more than merely scratching and denting the guitar. It is about understanding the unique manner in which different finishes and woods age and being able to reproduce these effects authentically.

While the DIY approach to relicing provides a personalized outcome, most guitarists prefer to leave this intricate task to professional luthiers. These experts have honed their relicing skills and deeply understand the factors affecting a guitar’s aging process.

Summing Up the Unique World of Relic Guitars

Relic guitars present an intriguing dimension within the guitar universe, combining artistic expression, historical aesthetics, and personal preference in a unique manner. They embody the nostalgia and allure associated with vintage guitars while offering modern instruments’ performance benefits and reliability.

Whether you’re a seasoned musician desiring an instrument that looks and feels like it has countless gigs to its credit or a collector who appreciates the aesthetic value of a well-used instrument, relic guitars offer a compelling blend of past and present that is sure to captivate.

A relic guitar is more than a musical instrument with an aged look. It represents a tactile experience, a distinctive character, and a compelling story that unfolds with each strum of its strings. It provides an opportunity to own a work of art that resonates with the spirit and history of music. As you play a relic guitar, you engage with a piece of ‘history’ crafted by a skilled luthier, providing a profound connection between you and the music that is truly magical. The unique appeal of relic guitars lies in this fascinating fusion of history, artistry, and music.

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