Close your eyes and picture your dream guitar. Perhaps you are thinking about a bright, shiny Fender Stratocaster, its solid color gleaming under bright stage lights? Or maybe a vintage Les Paul with stories to tell. In addition, its nitro finish has checked and is worn unevenly from decades of passionate play.
No matter what type of guitar you like. Most guitars have some thin coating around the body and the neck, known as a finish. It helps protect the guitar and dramatically enhances the instrument’s look and how it feels and sounds.
Beautiful acoustic guitar.
Now, you may be thinking that the type of finish on a guitar is a minuscule element in the grand scheme of things. And to be honest, you’re right. Countless other factors contribute more to a guitarist’s sound and the music-making process.
But for the actual guitar nerds out there, every piece matters. Let’s compare the two most common electric guitar finishes, Nitrocellulose and Polyurethane. Let’s try to answer the question: which is better?
Nitrocellulose vs Nitrocellulose
So, which is the better finish, Poly or Nitro? We’ll first need to understand what a guitar finish is by design. To answer this question, let’s start at the start and work our way through.
What is a guitar finish?
A guitar finish is a synthetic material applied to the body of a guitar. It is used toward the end of the manufacturing process after carving and staining the wood. It’s applied to the body, back of the neck, and headstock on some models. All finishes are relatively thin, adding a negligible thickness to the instrument.
What is the purpose of guitar finishes?
The primary purpose of finishes is to protect and beautify the guitar. Our beautiful yet powerful instruments are quite sensitive!
Humidity and guitars
Guitar humidity hygrometer and humidifier
When we speak about guitars and humidity, we talk to all guitars. However, we highlight humidity and acoustic guitars mainly. Electric guitars are far less prone to varying humidity levels unless those levels are extreme.
Most guitars are made of wood; therefore, wood will react with varying humidity. One of the most concerning issues is low humidity. Low humidity can potentially cause severe cracking issues over time.
The wood that makes up the body and neck of a guitar will absorb moisture if its environment is too humid. This can cause it to swell and change shape.
Conversely, not enough humidity can leave the wood brittle and dry, which can cause it to crack. Coating the guitar in a finish seals the wood and resists humidity changes. However, in the case of a standard acoustic, the internal wood components are unfinished. Allowing the raw timber to remain unfinished may absorb too much moisture.
Humidity controlled rooms
Many guitar shops or collectors will keep their instruments in humidity-controlled rooms for this exact reason. Learn more about guitars and humidity.
Guitar finishes help protect the guitar.
Finishes also serve as protection from physical damage. Think about how much of a beating our guitars need to be able to withstand on a gig. Spilled drinks, unstable guitar stands, and overexposure to harsh lighting threaten a guitar if not for its protective finish.
“I call myself a blues singer, but you ain’t never heard me call myself a blues guitar man.” B. B King.
Guitar manufacturers need to make sure their craftsmanship and quality pieces of wood survive all the various conditions that musicians play them in.
Guitars are made to be played, so over time, normal wear and tear must be expected, as potential damage to the guitar. Even difficult picking (digging in) can leave scratches or even chips in the wood of a guitar over time.
Furthermore, the oils and sweat from players’ hands would have a much easier time permeating the wood if not for a guitar’s finish offering a protective coating.
Types of guitar finishes
Most guitars are finished with either Nitrocellulose (Nitro) or Polyurethane (Poly). Although very similar, they each have a few defining characteristics to help you tell them apart and decide which you might prefer for your next guitar.
Nitrocellulose guitar finishes
Notable features of nitrocellulose:
Guitar with nitro finish
- Nitrocellulose (Nitro) is a lacquered finish composed of cellulose treated with nitric and sulfuric acid.
- Nitro is much revered among vintage guitar enthusiasts for its said ability to breathe.
- The material is highly flammable and was once used in explosives.
- Softer and not as durable as polyurethane finishes.
- The finish will “check” when subjected to rapid changes in temperature, warm to cold.
- The finish will often turn to light yellow as it ages; it is another trait that vintage guitar enthusiasts love.
A popular process called relicing is where the guitar is artificially aged by subjecting the guitar to nicks, scratches, and wear in the finish to give the guitar an appearance of a road-worn look.
History of Nitrocellulose
Nitro was first used as a finish by the Dupont Chemical Company in 1921. Dupont found the material especially suitable for painting cars and furniture. It could be easily sprayed onto materials and dried quickly.
Fender and Nitro
With the growing popularity of rock and roll and electric guitar during the 1950s. Guitar makers like Fender wanted to capitalize on the booming automotive industry to help sell more instruments. Finishes such as “Fiesta Red,” “Surf Green,” and “Daphne Blue” were all just new names for the Nitro finishes being applied to cars of the day.
Gibson and Nitro
Gibson, Fender’s biggest competitor, also used Nitro finishes on its early electric guitars. The iconic “Gold Top” Les Pauls left the factory with several layers of Nitro finish. Workers would then hand buff the guitar to make the instruments shine.
Both companies used Nitro finishes on their guitars for decades. However, eventually, Polyurethane finishes would replace Nitro as the most common finish.
Nitro finish can be described as soft, smooth, and almost slippery to the touch. Due to the nature of the material. However, Nitro is susceptible to physical wear and tear that leaves visible cosmetic damage. Scratches and dings from regular use will leave lasting marks on the guitar’s body.
Nitro finish checking
Nitrocellulose lacquer checking
In addition, one of the most distinctive features of Nitro finishes is checking. It often occurs when the guitar is subjected to rapid changes in temperature—for example, bringing a guitar inside the house from a freezing car.
Checking refers to the small hairline cracks that form on the surface and spread throughout the body. In addition, Nito finish is also prone to yellowing over time, evident on white guitars.
A guitar with a Nitro finish will experience a visible aging and natural relicing process for the owner. Although these instruments would leave a factory with a smooth and glossy shine, they would take on a worn and discolored look once played for a few years.
Nitro finishes are found on most Fender, and Gibson Guitars produced during the 1950s through the 1960s. This includes the iconic Dupont-colored Fender models like the Stratocaster, Telecaster, and Jazzmaster. Many Fender guitars and basses of this period also came with a two-tone or three-tone sunburst finish with a clear coat of Nitro on top.
Nitro was also widely used on the now highly sought-after Gibson Les Paul models from this era. Gibson’s iconic Bursts and “Gold Tops” are the most famous examples; however, Nitro can also be found on other models, including the SG and Les Paul JR.
Although it is no longer the most common finishing method for guitars, you can still buy modern guitars with a Nitro finish. The Fender Custom Shop and Gibson Custom Shop will happily make you a guitar to fit your specifications.
Guitar strat custom shop relicing
Many players choose these custom shop guitars to get a high-quality instrument that is often identical to the coveted instruments made decades ago without spending tens of thousands of dollars.
Many guitar manufacturers and luthiers will also build guitars with the relicing treatment.
This is where the guitars are artificially worn down. The process involves scratches and nicks and other signs of wear to the guitar to make it look like a vintage instrument was played a lot and is decades old.
Iconic guitars and players with Nitro
Mark Knopfler with a Les Paul
Some of the most iconic players used guitars with Nitro finishes.
Many of these guitars became known for their reputation and how they looked and sounded. Check out some of the more memorable examples.
- Mark Knofler and his 1961 Fiesta Red Fender Stratocaster
- Jimmy Page’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul
- Stevie Ray Vaughn and his very worn 1963 Fender Stratocaster
Advantages of Nitro
The most significant feature of Nitro finish is that your guitar will visibly age. For many players, this is very desirable. Your guitar will forever wear every scratch, scuff, and chip as a battle scar and a sign of your love and dedication to the instrument.
This aging process helps many players feel more connected to their instruments and gives them a certain charm that Poly finish guitars can’t match.
Nitro tonal qualities
Because Nitro finishes are thinner, they also let a little more of the tonal qualities of the wood ring out. Some players will say it improves the overall sound and resonance of the guitar. Similarly, the guitars are said to have more sustain and an airier tone. However, it’s tough to quantify and ultimately comes down to how a player feels about the instrument.
Disadvantages of Nitro
The most significant disadvantage to having a Nitro finish guitar is that the instrument is not as well protected. This means you must be more careful with the guitar and keep it safe from extreme temperatures, lighting, and regular wear.
If you have a Nitro guitar and are not a fan of the reliced look, it is still possible to keep it looking factory new, but it would need to be very well preserved and not played very much.
In looking for a guitar with a Nitro finish, the other main disadvantage is the cost. Because it is no longer the norm, most guitars with Nitro finishes will be significantly more expensive and often have to come from a custom shop or vintage shop.
Polyurethane guitar finish
John Mayer with a PRS Silversky[/caption]
Despite the rich history of players with Nitro finish guitars.
Plenty of modern players choose Poly-finished instruments.
- John Mayer with a PRS Silversky
- Steve Vai with his white Ibanez Jem
- H.E.R with her signature Fender Startocaster
Which finish should you choose?
Now that we’ve covered the basics of Nitro and Poly finishes. Let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages to see which one might be right for you and your next guitar!
Advantages of Poly
Guitars with a Poly finish are indeed very durable. The finish is very thick and robust. You should never need to worry about it cracking or chipping. They also remain pretty shiny for their life, which is another look many players like.
For guitars that include a neck finish, the Poly’s glossiness makes it easier for the hand to move up and down quickly. Lastly, the wide use of Poly finishes means there will be more options within any given budget than those in the market for a Nitro finish guitar.
Disadvantages of Poly
The most significant disadvantage to Poly is that those who want their guitar to show cosmetic damage and have an aged look. Unfortunately, the guitar will not look any different than the day you bought it, no matter how much you play.
“When all the original blues guys are gone, you start to realize that someone has to tend to the tradition.” Eric Clapton.
While some players prefer the shiny look, others may see it as cheap and plastic-like. That would be a disadvantage for them. Lastly, because of the thickness of the poly finish, less of the wood’s natural tones will be heard. Instead, the guitar will have a less resonant sound and more representative of its pickups.
Other guitar finishes
Polyester guitar finishes
Polyester was very popular with Fender in the seventies. It’s a plastic-based finish is that is applied as a thick layer. It is a very durable finish and ages well. The common belief is that Polyester will not affect the guitar’s tone appreciably.
Lacquer guitar finishes
Lacquer was commonly used on vintage model guitars. A lacquer finish is now often used because of its aging quality. A guitar finished with lacquer is expected to show wear and a similar patina to that seen on vintage instruments.
Guitar finishes maintenance
Guitar maintenance kit
Regardless of the type of finish you have on your guitar. You can take specific steps to help maintain and protect your guitar. As mentioned before, the biggest issue threatening the guitar’s well-being is humidity.
Ideally, the guitar would be kept humidity-controlled. However, we get that it’s not always easy.
This varies depending on the type of guitar. But generally, 70°F and 50% humidity are ideal. This can be achieved by keeping your instruments in a room with a consistent temperature. If you live in a dry area, consider using humidifiers to keep the room from drying out. Storing a guitar in a case with a small humidifying pack is a more compact alternative.
Cleaning and polishing guitar finishes are easy to keep looking nice and gig-ready. Many guitar cleaning kits have specially formulated sprays and creams that work great. A microfiber cloth to clean and apply these products will yield the best results.
Ultimately, the best type of finish will depend on who you are as a player. It’s all about what you like and what you can afford. If you find a modern guitar you want, don’t let anyone convince you that it’s not as good because it has a Poly finish.
If you must have a vintage guitar with cracked Nitro running up the body, and you can afford it, go for it! As guitar players, we take pride in our instrument’s look, sound, and feel.
These elements help stir up our passion for playing and sharing music with others. Sure, it can be fun and exciting to get down to the nitty-gritty details of our instruments. It’s important to remember that music comes from us, the players.
The guitar is merely the tool used to express ourselves. Respect others’ choices, have fun, and rock on!