What I Like About Relic’d Guitars

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.

The Fine Art Of The Sequel Album

In a lot of ways, a good album is like a movie: it should have a beginning, a middle and an end. It should take you on a journey. You should learn something about the main character that you didn’t know before you started. The main character should learn something about themselves too. And it should leave you wanting more. And much like in the film world, occasionally a successful album will prompt a sequel. Sometimes this is a very, very good idea – such as when Star Wars was followed up with The Empire Strikes Back. Other times, well …you end up up with that unpleasant business that happened to The Matrix series. Here are a few sequel albums worth checking out.

Queensryche – Operation: Mindcrime II

Okay, this one could well be seen as a controversial inclusion, especially amid claims that most of the band wasn’t terribly involved in the final product. But whatever internal turmoil was going on within Queensryche at the time they made this, the sequel to their multiplatinum 1988 album Operation: Mindcrime, you’ve gotta admit that a few of these songs stand up pretty well when held up against the Queensryche catalog. Most of the great tracks are skewed to the first half of the album – the fast metal of “I’m American,” the proggish “Hostage,” the driving “The Hands” – but this album also contains a great guest appearance by the late great Ronnie James Dio on the song “The Chase,” playing the role of Dr. X, the mysterious antagonist of the series. And if you happened to catch the band performing it live together with the original album, it worked pretty well.

Neil Young – Harvest Moon

Neil Young’s Harvest was a landmark album, topping the Billboard charts for two weeks and racking up the honour of being the highest-selling album of 1972. Twenty years later Young reunited with many of the same musicians (such as Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor) to record Harvest Moon, not technically acknowledged as a sequel but c’mon!!! Harvest Moon came about because Young was recovering from a bout of tinnitus after spending a lot of time playing really, really loud recording and touring the Ragged Glory album. Harvest Moon was critically acclaimed, scoring a Juno Award for Album of the Year.

The Smashing Pumpkins – Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music

The Smashing Pumpkins released Machina/The Machines of God to stores in 2000, but the band always planned for Machina to be a double album. Virgin Records weren’t into that idea, so Billy Corgan released a second Machina album on his own label, Constantinople Records, in an extremely limited edition of 25 copies in the form of a double LP plus three EPs featuring B-sides and alternate takes. Some of those 25 copies were given to friends of the band, but a handful were given to fans from the band’s online community with an invitation to get the music out there free of charge. So Machina II became one of the first examples of an artist fully exploiting the viral nature of online music, back in the days when Napster was still a thing. A remastered version of the album is planned for release later this year alongside a remaster of Machina/The Machines of God, making Machina II commercially available for the first time ever.

KISS – Alive II

Yeah, we have to include this (and to a lesser extent subsequent sequels, but definitely Alive II). The original Alive was a landmark, star-making effort for KISS, and this sequel benefited from three whole studio albums’ worth of intervening material (Destroyer, Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun). Sure, some tracks were recorded at sound checks and the last five cuts are studio tracks, but Alive II was still huge, thanks in no small part to Ace Frehley’s incendiary (literally, wink) showcase “Shock Me.” 

Alice Cooper – Welcome 2 My Nightmare

Alice Cooper’s 1975 album Welcome To My Nightmare is a classic of the shock rock genre, but Alice eventually moved away from that sound as the years progressed, often incorporating strains of whichever heavy music forms were dominant at the time, such as the glam rock of Trash in 1989, or the dark Brutal Planet in 2000. 2011’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare reflected an intentional effort to recapture big chunks of Cooper’s mid-70s sound, and to that end he reunited with Bob Ezrin – the producer of the original album – as well as previous members of the Alice Cooper band, including Dennis Dunaway, Neal Smith and Michael Bruce, Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter. The album is also full of guest musicians like Vince Gill, Rob Zombie, Chuck Garric, Kip Winger, Damon Johnson, John 5 and even Ke$ha, who performs guest vocals on “What Baby Wants.” What some folks forget, though, is that Cooper’s 1976 album Alice Cooper Goes To Hell was also a sequel to Welcome To My Nightmare, continuing the story of Steven, that album’s main character. I guess Welcome 3 My Nightmare wouldn’t have really worked for the 2011 album.

Steve Vai – The Story Of Light

Steve Vai conceived his Real Illusions: Reflections album as the first of a trilogy of records. It’s kind of a bummer that it took seven years for its follow-up, The Story Of Light, but Vai came through with the goods in characteristically unpredictable fashion. Who could have imagined Vai finally really laying into some angry blues (“John The Revelator”) or orchestrating a vocal chorus right out of Broadway (“Book Of The Seven Seals”), or composing a 7-string epic based on the placement of flowers blooming on a fence outside his studio window (“Weeping China Doll”), or duet with Aimee Mann (“No More Amsterdam”)? Or that he would break with his own convention by recording one of his most straightforward instrumental guitar songs ever (“Racing The World”)? Well, Vai fans, I guess! 

Sequel Albums That Aren’t Sequel Albums

Of course there’s a whole category of albums that look like sequels if you glance at their titles, but aren’t really, at least not in a particularly thematic or over way. Albums such as Van Halen, Van Halen II and Van Halen III (the last of which sort of works because it represents the third line-up of Van Halen to release an album); Led Zeppelin I, II, III and IV (the last one not technically having a name); and many, many more. 

What are your favorite sequel albums?