Saturday, August 7, 2010

Simulating The Effects Of Age On A Guitar

My friend Bill Kirchen playing his 1953 Telecaster
ToneRite: Aging the guitar with vibration technology The back of the ToneRite showing the grooves for the six strings

ToneRite affixed on a guitar
Road-Worn Fender '50's Telecaster: Cosmetic aging for the cool look

Close-up of the Telecaster
We all know how old violins especially those made by the Master luthiers of Cremona, Italy are treasured for their glorious tone. Virtuoso musicians always insist on violins such as a Stradivarius, and because the supply is limited, these old violins are worth millions of dollars. Most musicians are loaned vintage violins by rich patrons of the Arts, who fund the purchase of such instruments. Nobody has yet been able to determine why Stradivarius, Amati and Guanarius sound so great. Some say it could be the resins used by the Master luthiers. But one fact is undeniable: the more you play a stringed wooden musical instrument, the better it sounds. Maybe its because of the millions of vibrations imparted on it by the player, which somehow re-aligns the molecules of the wood. The more mystical say that the instrument has been infused by the soul of the player (in which case a bad player will make an instrument sound worse?)
Whatever it is, the respect for old violins and guitars has spawned an industry where guitars are being artificially aged- both to look cool, and to sound better. In the case of the electric guitar, Fender Inc has a line of 'Relic' and 'Road-Worn' guitars to appeal to those who yearn for an old guitar, but cannot afford one. [My friend Bill Kirchen's 1953 Fender Telecaster above would have been worth $US20000- except that from the latest news I heard, it has been retired. It is so battered, and the neck and frets are in such condition that it is beyond repair] * Bill plays a genre of music called Dieselbilly , something like Country and Western with lots of twangy guitar, but meant for the long distance truck drivers of the USA. He sings about life on the road, missing the family, one-nite stands, Diners and Diner waitresses, the highway police patrol, running out of money etc.
Fender chooses lighter, dried-out pieces of wood for their aged guitars since old guitars are usually lighter as the moisture of the wood has dried out. Old-type Nitrocellulose lacquers are also used for the surface coating as modern polyesters although glossier and longer-lasting just don't cut it when it comes to tone. It seems Nitrocellulose enables a guitar to breathe better and sound better. As for the rest of the aged look, the guitar is deliberately made to look used and abused as if it has undergone years of hard playing by talented but hard luck musicians who have no time for pretty guitars. Just imagine a Mississippi Blues player's guitar with beer stains and cigarette burns on its body, and the paintwork peeled of to reveal the naked wood. My new Road-Worn Fender Telecaster shown above isn't that used and abused but sounds great. Weighing it at only 6.8 lbs versus a normal Telecaster's weight of 7.5 to 8.0 lbs, it is really a piece of art to me, for me to infuse with my musical soul.
Well, recently Brendon of also showed me the ToneRite- a piece of electronic equipment that when attached to the guitar body emits vibrations in a simulation of the aging process when the guitar is played. So now it seems that we don't have to wait years for the guitar to mature (like old
wine). The whole process can be speeded up to yield results in a month or so.
But Brendon tells me that ToneRite is more effective for acoustic and archtop hollow body guitars rather than electric guitars.
Great guitars are meant to be played. Not meant to be stored in a bank vault. Many 50's and 60's Gibson Les Pauls each worth more than US$100000 are languishing in bank vaults. Bought by investment banker and hedge fund manager types who can't play a note but know the investment value of such guitars. To me this is a cardinal sin. Better to play a guitar hard and then retire it like Bill's beloved Tele and Clapton's 'Blackie ' Stratocaster.


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  2. This just shows how superb the quality of work before. Today, guitars are being artificially aged both to look cool, and to sound better.

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