If you’ve been down to your local blues bar recently and seen some young gun playing a beat-up 1959 Stratocaster, your eyes may have been fooling you.
What looks like a vintage Strat is probably a “relic,” a modern-day copy that’s been artificially aged by master artisans: carefully worn, tarnished, rubbed, beaten and otherwise altered to look like it’s seen 50 years of sweat, smoke and back-room jam sessions.
Relic guitars first became popular in the 1990s when Keith Richards encouraged two guys from the Fender Custom Shop — John Page and Jay Black — to build a couple of custom guitars and artificially age them. To actually “de-evolve” the instruments, they hired their friend Vince Cunetto, a guitar maker who had developed a few techniques for realistically aging wood, paint and metal.
The first Fender Relics, a blonde ’50s Mary Kaye Stratocaster and a ’50s Nocaster, arrived in retail stores a few months later. Page purposely chose the Relic brand name for its pious connotations. “Guitar playing is a religious experience to people,” he says.
The guitars were a huge hit. For one thing, they were easy on the wallet. Serious players dream of owning a vintage Stratocaster, but a guitar actually built in the 1950s or ’60s could set you back between $15,000 and $25,000. Fender Relic guitars, which the company still produces, start at $2,000.
But the mojo resonates deeper than the price point.
“It’s like buying pre-worn jeans,” Page says. “What’s the appeal of a worn pair of jeans? They’re more comfortable — not only do they look cooler, they feel better.”
Vince Cunetto (left) and John Page recall kick-starting the relic guitar market when they began producing
"pre-aged" instruments for Fender in the 1990s.
At first, there was some backlash from collectors who were afraid Fender was polluting the vintage market. The team put those worries to rest by stamping the Fender Custom Shop logo onto each guitar so it wouldn’t be confused with the real deal.
Besides, they never set out to create exact replicas.
“We were trying to imitate them, not nail them,” says Page. “We made modernized versions that were very close to the old designs. They had the same vibe, but they played better.”
The guitars were recognized for their superior build quality and became collectors’ pieces anyway. A decade later, the first Fender Relics — especially the guitars bearing Cunetto’s name and Page’s signature — sell for more than twice their original value.
Neither of the guys work for Fender anymore (Page builds guitars and furniture in his rural Oregon shop, and Cunetto builds both new-looking and old-looking instruments in his shop in Missouri). But their two heads together created what is now commonplace in guitar-building. Gibson, the other industry biggie, has a line of aged guitars. Smaller shops like Bill Nash Guitars, Big Tex Guitars and RS Guitarworks are producing superb artificial artifacts. Check out photos from SMK Music Works’ factory, where they do custom-order aging.
The concept has also seeped into other areas of music nerdery — you can find relic amplifiers, cases and guitar straps.
Cunetto says musicians feel an instant connection to a well-weathered guitar.
“You pick one up and it felt much better and more familiar much faster than a shiny new guitar,” he says. “Players tell us they sounded better, but it was probably because they felt better.”
Cunetto has spent countless hours doing R&D to find the right techniques.
To make the finger-wear marks on the fret board, he uses a architect’s powered drafting eraser. A few select screwdrivers and metal tools put chips in the guitar’s paint and dings in the wood.
“Every guy has his own little toolbox,” Cunetto says. “It’s like two painters using different brushes for the same thing.”
The colorful finishes on the guitars are done with old-school lacquers. Page says he always uses nitrocellulose instead of modern polyurethane. He says nitro is “more spiritual” to him.
To accelerate the aging of the finish, you speed up the cycles of hot and cold the instrument would naturally go through. Cunetto keeps freezers in the shop, and after a few rounds of cooling and warming, the nitrocellulose lacquer begins to disintegrate. The effect is a beautiful spider web of tiny checkered cracks in the finish that make a new guitar look like it’s 50 years old.
But there’s more to making a relic than screwdrivers, ovens, erasers and sandpaper. It has as much to do with art as it does with science.
“It’s not just about making it look beat-up,” says Page. “The thing I always admired about Vince is that he aged it in the right way, in the right wear patterns. If this was a country player or a blues player, what specific parts of the neck would be more worn? Where would the chips be?”
Cunetto says he tells his aging apprentices to dream up a back story for every guitar they work on, and to apply that story to the instrument. Every guitar ends up with its own personality, its own emotional resonance.
“Was this guy a country player? He’s going to have a lot of wear in the first position on the neck,” Cunetto says. “There’s probably a burn mark between the pegs from where he always sticks his cigarette. And he’s going to have a lot of buckle wear, because he’s wearing a big rodeo buckle.”
Both men readily admit that the relic thing has gotten out of hand. What used to be a niche product is now part of the mainstream marketplace, and the quality and mystique have faded. Both Nash and Cunetto have started to move away from making aged guitars.
After all, it doesn’t matter what your guitar looks like. What matters most is how it feels in your hands.
“It’s about creating the right guitarma,” Cunetto says. “The more humanity you put into it, the more comes out of it.”