Aged or relic’d guitars have been around for long enough now that they’re simply a part of the guitar vernacular. There was a time when the very idea of intentionally bashing up a guitar seemed like absolute madness. For a while I agreed: I babied my guitars to the point that 15 years after I got my first good electric guitar, it still looked virtually brand new (aside from a lot of fret wear). And why wouldn’t it? I watched over that thing like a hawk, kept it carefully stashed in its case, never let anybody else play it, and never tried to do that cool Steve Vai ‘throw the guitar around your body’ trick. Although I kinda wanted to.
I had a few other guitars before that good one: beaten up, scratched, rusty, abused axes which I didn’t really look after very well at all. These were the guitars that were leaned up against the wall, maybe had a coat draped over them once or twice, were tapped on with drumsticks during especially creative jams, and were generally treated like dirt.
Guess which ones I felt more of an attachment to.
A common analogy is that an aged guitar – whether it got that way by natural or assisted means – is like a comfortable pair of jeans. I totally get that. Of the two beater guitars I had back in the day (actually I still have them), one saw so much combat during its first few years that the glossy finish wore clear off the back of the neck behind the first few frets, behind the twelfth to fifteenth, and along the entire back of the treble string side. The other one has an oiled neck so there was no finish to wear off, but the fretboard looks …kinda gross, actually. It’s covered in grit and stains where I spent hour upon hour playing Jeff Beck licks, Jeff Buckley songs, Tea Party riffs (the Canadian ‘Moroccan Roll’ band) and Mike Keneally solos. Every year it acquires a few more scratches, a few more character marks and a few more signs of wear. But that’s okay because I do too. And every year it feels more and more comfortable, compared to that pointy shred axe, which still feels glossy and slick,
And that’s what I dig about relic’d guitars. It’s not the aesthetics – although a carefully aged instrument can have plenty of visual vibe. It’s that a guitar with the hallmarks of the aging process just feels more playable. It’s like it invites you to pick it up and create with it. For me this is particularly important on the back of the neck, because there’s a certain lived-in feel that seems to invite a closer emotional connection to the instrument. And I’ve found over the years that any aged guitar that gets this right immediately feels like a serious instrument to me. A carefully aged instrument will also usually have the fretboard edges subtly rolled to replicate the way the wood is gradually rounded over due to decades of regular play. Again it makes the neck physically easier to hold, which makes for a more natural playing experience.
Personally, when it comes to aging of the guitar’s cosmetics, I’m not really fussed. I like the look of a checked and scratched finish, and I dig the idea of a guitar which is aged in a specific way to look exactly like that of an established artist. But for me what I like most about these instruments is that they take away that fear of the first scratch. Once you’re forced to accept the first chip or ding in your guitar, you stop worrying about the next one.
A while back I bought a Les Paul Traditional. The folks at Sky Music here in Melbourne let me play every Trad in the store until I found the one that felt like ‘my’ Les Paul. And the one that spoke to me the most had a weird visual feature: the top appeared slightly mismatched (even though on close inspection it wasn’t). One half of the bookmatch had much more flame than the other. I like this because it shows that guitars really are pieces of wood and works of art. I also like that it’s reminiscent of the distinctive and sometimes imperfect grains that you find on vintage Les Pauls. And while I take care of this guitar to the extent that I don’t use it to play cricket with in the back yard, I’m not scared of my own guitar, and I’m not terrified of that first ding: it’s already got a few light marks in the finish that I could probably buff out if I wanted to, but as far as I’m concerned they give the guitar more character. These little marks, and the much more visible ones that are sure to appear as the guitar and I spend the next however many decades together, are going to tell the story of our shared history. Just as with other guitars in my collection (“That’s where the strap chipped the paint when I put it down on the stand too quickly to go answer the phone,” “That’s where the I discovered that the cool belt buckle I wanted to wear onstage was a bit too rough for the guitar’s finish”), this one is going to have definite memories to attach to it, and it also means I can direct my energy towards playing the thing instead of babying it.