If you can’t tell the difference between a relic and a genuine road-worn guitar, it’s a job well done on behalf of the builder. Relic guitars are made to look worn, scratched, chipped and tattered even though they’re brand new.
A relic finish, otherwise known as an ageing or distressing process, varies in outcome like any other hand-designed guitar feature. They can range from light discolouration and a couple of paint nicks to full-on stripped woods and rusty hardware – and anything in between. All components used to make relic guitars are fresh off the workshop bench despite their antiquated appearances.
Relic guitars require a nitrocellulose lacquer coat of protection in order to get the desired distressed effect. Its soft texture allows the finish to crack and peel far easier than modern polyester or polyurethane.
A lot of relic guitars are built in custom shops, meaning the buyer gets to choose the degree of the wear and tear on top of all other required specs such as woods, hardware and electronics.
Why would you want a relic guitar?
Scratches are the battle scars of a used guitar. But most players wouldn’t dare submit their shiny, pristine instrument to that kind of inconsistent damage. Especially when there’s such a fine line between a classy job and a clumsy mess.
Just like any other finish, relic guitars have a unique look many a musician would love to own – be it a fancy figured top wood, bold solid colour or transparent coat. It’s a stylistic choice resembling the result of years of playing.
Why are relic guitars so expensive?
Ageing a guitar takes lots of time and skill. Don’t try it at home on your own guitar unless you know exactly what you’re doing as such a process has irreversible implications.
To guarantee a good outcome, you’ll either have to buy a new guitar from a manufacturer willing to do you a relic finish, or send your instrument off to someone with plenty of expertise. Both options cost a large sum of money for the know-how involved.
It’s rare to find an aged production guitar because of the time-consuming work, but they do exist. In order to get the exact level of deterioration you want, you might have to opt for a custom shop model.
Who makes relic guitars?
Fender’s Custom Shop were some of the first builders to pioneer the distressed look as a legitimate style. They presented the Relic Series at the 1995 NAMM music trade show. Naturally, the extreme aesthetic caught a lot of attention and it kicked on from there.
Fast forward to present day and you can buy a Strat, Tele, Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Jazz bass or P bass in a relic finish. Fender offer six levels of Custom Shop ageing:
N.O.S (New Old Stock)
As if you were buying a ’50s or ’60s Fender brand new. No marks or ageing to the lacquer coat.
Left in the case and never used, this guitar might not have seen the light of day for decades. Mild plastic discolouration, slight metal oxidization and duller colour.
DLX Closet Classic
A guitar owned with pride. Used and kept in pristine condition to this present day. Hardware oxidation, slight discolouration and finish checking.
Played around the house with the occasional gig or jam session. Might have even changed owners a couple of times. Slight nicks and dents, dull hardware and wear to the areas you’d expect of a well-played guitar.
The workhorse effect. A guitar with plenty of mileage under its belt, it’s been bashed against walls and amps in a lot of sweaty club gigs. Lots dents and scars all across the body and neck.
The most extreme Fender finish. This guitar has seen decades of service at the hands of players who just need it to work. Heavy hardware oxidization with dings and wear across every body, neck and headstock curve.