What's in a Guitar Finish | Midwood Guitar Studio
A group of butterflies is called a “kaleidoscope”, and given the amount of finishes available, that would be an appropriate term for a group of guitars as well. In a sense, guitarists can be classified based on their chromatic (pun intended) leanings. That said, it may also reflect one’s maturity and self-confidence. Case-in-point, my first electric guitar was a “wine-red” Fender stratocaster that I unburdened myself of after deciding that it looked too “purple”. Clearly, my 10-year old self had not yet discovered the music of Prince. I traded it towards a black on black HSS strat with the jumbo 70s headstock, and my fragile, burgeoning masculinity was spared ridicule. I wish I still had that wine-red one, but these days I’d just as well play a pink paisley tele. People change, and so do the times.
The most basic dichotomy in my mind would be “safe” or “bold” finish. The safe colors would be black (goes with everything except dandruff), sunburst (lends a little western flare, but not quite tassels and rhinestones), and natural/butterscotch (wood colored wood). Every other finish option embraces the fact that electric guitars, like muscle cars, have never been for the overly orthodox. Incidentally, show an acoustic player anything other than the three aforementioned options (with 90% leaning towards natural) and watch them gasp in disapproval.
Indeed, many of the first “bold” finishes borrowed from the world of classic cars. Shades like Daphne Blue, Inca Silver, and Fiesta Red can be found on vintage Cadillacs, Corvettes, and Thunderbirds, respectively. My personal dream guitar/car combo would be a Sherwood Green (I’ve always had a thing for Robin Hood and forests) Collings I-35 with a matching Imperial Crown convertible. Perhaps with a Swart Mod-84 built into the dashboard? This is how to dream.
One of my favorite finishes from a historical standpoint is TV yellow. In the days of black and white television, an actual white guitar would appear too bright, so this muted yellow shade was chosen to soften its on-screen appearance. The concept of a white guitar finish is another story altogether. A traditional symbol of celestial purity, white guitars are very easy to tarnish. Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins loves them, however. He even inspired a lively debate when he suggested that they naturally sound better.
Then you’ve got the “modern” guitar finishes, the ones that look like alien landscapes. I’ll admit, some of these are just staggeringly beautiful, but they make a certain statement, too. Aficionados of said finishes are more likely to own a really expensive razor-blade that may or may not resemble their car. That said, the amount of truly virtuosic guitar players who rock finishes like this is worth noting. Perhaps Trans Bursts just look best on kings, and suspicious on peasants.
Like vibrato and phrasing, the guitar finish has the potential to reflect the player's personality. How and what it reflects, however, is still very subjective. Some folks like simple, some folks like flashy, but between Eric Clapton and Prince (I’m a fan now), there’s someone like Bo Diddley, who definitely didn’t think within the box that his homemade rectangular instruments would imply.
As I’ve grown as a guitar player, I’ve noticed that I occasionally gravitate towards guitars that make my peers say, “really? It just doesn’t seem like you”. Perhaps that’s because I haven’t fully defined who I am yet, at least musically. I never want to stop growing, and like Miles Davis and his wah-wah pedal, sometimes you just need a change. Embracing a new finish may seem superficial on one hand, but if it leads you into new, exciting territory within yourself, then go with what works. Trust your instincts, and commit to the fail-proof plan of buying another guitar :)