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“Relic” guitars have become an ever-growing popular trend in gear culture lately, and with any trend, there’s always a division of people who love or hate it and all things between. For those wondering, a Relic is an instrument (the term applies to more than just guitars) that is intentionally beaten up, scratched, chipped, dented and made dirty to simulate extensive use and abuse on the road for decades. There are varying ranges, from barely noticeable light wear to full-on beat to death, where some extreme cases look like they tied the guitar to the back of a truck and proceeded to drag it down a gravel road for a dozen miles or so. There are very well-known companies that have sprung up over the past few years that their business model is making a brand-new guitar look like it’s 50 years old and seen some sh*t.
The interesting side of it is that it’s a very divided line of people that either loves them or despise them. I’m on the like/love side of relicing, but my motto is always that everything is great in moderation (more on that later). Nothing truly beats the feeling of a brand-new guitar. Pristine paint, smooth neck in flawless condition, hardware that is still shiny with no fingerprints on it…. even the smell of a new guitar is fantastic. There’s nothing like finding that blank canvas, ready for hundreds of hours of blood, sweat, and tears to be poured into it during its journey with whatever player acquires it. There’s also something to be said about preserving that majesty. There are a plethora of waxes and polishes and lemon oil for the rosewood fretboards… all steps to try to keep the cherished instrument in the top quality that it can be in.
After some time though, despite our best efforts inevitably you’ll encounter that first dreaded ding. It’s a truly sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach, where you can feel all your nerves firing in your body as you brace yourself to check what awful fate befell the spot that just took the brunt of the impact. If you’re lucky, it’s a surface ding or scratch where it’s nearly invisible to the naked eye, and it requires odd light angles to be able to truly see it. In the bad scenarios, you’re looking at potentially evasive maneuvers to attempt to fix whatever happened. Therein lies the problem: it’s something that is gut-wrenching and makes you just feel like crap as soon as it happens. It’s the curse of a gorgeous guitar: it’s pristine and amazing, but if you ding it up then it detracts from the overall look (and the feel if something happens to the neck), and it also affects resale value in the end. I know, I know… the person with the most guitars wins, right? But sometimes a fit of GAS strikes, or just life, in general, brings up the need to move some gear, and the condition it’s in plays a huge role in that sale.
Then there are the old favorites. Some of them earned their badges along the way in smoky bars, gig after gig every weekend. The road warriors, the guitars that have some love… dents, dings, paint missing, dirty fretboard…the opposite of pristine. You can see a lot of famous guitar players with guitars that they’ve obviously played the life out of to the point where they are barely recognizable from the original: SRV’s Strat comes to mind, same with John Mayer’s Strat. Keith Richards tele, Muddy Waters tele, Rory Gallagher’s Strat, Brad Paisley’s ’68 tele, Willie Nelson’s “Trigger” … the list just goes on and on and it’s impossible to list all of them. These guitars have had hundreds of hours of playing and thousands of gigs to get them to look like that, and they have become signatures for each of those artists to where they’re instantly identifiable (because those beat up guitars ooze vibe and look incredibly cool).
The reality of the situation is that not everyone can put that much time into their instrument, and subsequently personalize it to its full road worn glory through their own personal musical escapades. I’m not going to get into details of poly vs. nitro, but that plays a huge factor when it comes to the natural wear of the finish on a guitar. I’ll use myself as an example of why I love relics, and I think that a few people may be in the same boat. I’m a 31-year-old IT desk jockey that enjoys jamming on the weekends. Rarely gig anymore due to work and family obligations, but playing guitar is still my outlet that provides stress relief more than anything in this world. I love the look of a well-done relic, but I literally will never be able to do that naturally to a guitar. There are a lot of my friends in the industry that has been playing for a very long time, and despite them gigging all the time their guitars haven’t worn very much at all after a decade or more of heavy use. The reason being that many builders/manufacturers have improved the processes and quality of the finishes they’re applying, and subsequently they’re less likely to fade/chip/etc. compared to the materials used 30, 40, and 50+ years ago.
The number one thing that we see people say that are anti-relicing is “just play the crap out of it and let it wear naturally. It looks fake, etc.” If you refer to my scenario above, that’s just not an option for me or many others. Relic’s provide the ability to experience the feel of a worn-in instrument in a scenario where it couldn’t happen naturally. Again, I work a desk job and personally can’t guarantee that I’ll get another 20-30 years to attempt to relic something myself naturally. We live in one of the greatest technological times ever, and if the craftsmanship and skill are there, why wait 30 years when you can have the guitar that you’ve wanted, often immediately available (or whatever build time some shops may take, which is 9/10 times always less than 20-30 years)? If a relic is not someone’s favorite thing, then there are a plethora of builders that can create a pristine, immaculate work of art to suit those tastes as well. There are people that wouldn’t like those guitars just as much as there are people who don’t like relics. That’s the beauty of guitar gear, is that everything is subjective, and I can guarantee that not everyone will agree with each person’s gear habits. That’s completely cool, and that’s what makes us unique!
Back to why I like relics: I’m a bit clumsy. There, I admitted it. I’ve made my fair share of “oops” moments that sometimes ended up with no issues at all, but I’ve also had some doozies (spinning a PRS and the strap coming undone, with it subsequently hitting the floor and beating up the back… I’m particularly not proud of that). I’ve been playing my Crook Custom paisley telecaster and bumped up against a desk and put a ding in it that made me sick to the stomach. However, with a relic guitar, it's already beaten up! That dreaded first ding mentioned above is nothing but a beauty mark to personalize it and add its own story to the life of the guitar. I’ll never forget my Jason Wilding saying that the moment he gets a new guitar, he drops it on the floor to get that first ding out of the way. I was appalled at the notion of that, but the more I thought about it that’s one of the most liberating feelings imaginable. Not having to worry about whether you bump into things and what aesthetic damage will occur is such a free feeling. Guitars are tools and should be treated as such I suppose.
I mentioned earlier about “everything is good in moderation”. This is where I’m sitting with the whole relic thing: If it’s done tastefully and in a realistic fashion, then a relic can be a gorgeous thing. I’m not a huge fan of the heavy relics, but that’s just a personal thing. I can respect that people like those and would never put anyone down for liking those. The key thing that sets these custom builders apart is the attention to detail. Doing your research and seeing what builder fits best to your end goal is the key to a great finished product you're happy with. The other option is DIY relicing which would save some money, but there’s a learning curve and it may take a few trials and errors to get the technique down to fit what you’re going for. If you want to get into relicing your own gear, I highly suggest perusing the catacombs of Google and TheGearPage.net and other forums like that to see what has worked and what hasn’t for others before diving head first into banging up your favorite instrument. Buy a couple of cheapo guitars and see what kind of trouble you can get into, what methods work and what doesn’t. It can get expensive, but the feeling of completing a DIY project successfully is unparalleled.
To summarize, yes, I’m looking at it a lot aesthetically. That’s not necessarily the main thing with relics, but that’s a large part and the first thing that people comment on is the visual aspects of it. I didn’t even touch on the ways that the neck can feel even better when it’s bare wood, or how having some of the finish off of the body can let the wood breathe a bit and add some sustain…etc. That may seem like voodoo to some people, but if others think it makes a difference, then why argue? I guess my main goal with this entire article that I’ve rambled on about is that whether you like relics or not when you see one that you don’t like, don’t automatically bash it. If it’s not your thing, then it’s easier to skip over the thread and ignore it than to just openly bash someone’s happiness. I've got guitars that I try to keep in pristine condition, and I've got guitars that I really don't care if they get dinged up or bumped into things. There doesn't have to be a clear line drawn in the sand on the subject, you can like or not like any of what I just wrote and there's no problem with that. Tone and gear preferences are purely subjective in every sense of the word, so have some fun with it!