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Flame top guitars are overrated

Fender Select Stratocaster, Dark Cherry Burst

Above is a guitar that's so flamed it's ugly, the Fender Select Stratocaster in Dark Cherry Burst. Both the body and neck are flamed on it. Flame, flame, flame and more flame.

And, of course, Gibson is just as guilty of the flame crapola with their Gibson Les Paul in Tea Burst:

Gibson Les Paul Standard Plus Tea Burst

That flame is just so wrong. It makes the guitar look like a cheesy zoo exhibit brochure.

The worst of the worst is Paul Reed Smith with this abomination:

PRS SE Paul Allender - Purple Burst

24 frets! Bats for inlays! Burst! Flame top! And... mother-friggin' PURPLE!

Just. Plain. Disgusting.

Guitars that look like furniture are seriously dopey

The flame top guitar is the visual equivalent of wearing leopard-print pants.

No matter how smokin' hot a girl is who wears leopard print, wearing that makes her look like a total dork.

Similarly, anyone who plays a guitar with a flame top looks equally dorky.

Why is the flame top so kitschy? Because it makes a guitar look like furniture. Guitars are not furniture; they're instruments.

Even Squier offers a flame maple top guitar these days:

Squier by Fender Stratocaster, FMT, Amber

Saying "I have a guitar with a FMT, so it's expensive" doesn't work anymore, as the Squier can be had for well south of $300. Whether the FMT is real or a print, it doesn't matter because anyone who isn't a guitar player doesn't give a crap. Flame is flame whether real or not since it's all about appearance and nothing more.

Why are there so many expensive guitars with flame tops on them?

A flame top is an attempt to make a guitar look more expensive than it is actually worth.

Even using the Squier example above, the regular version without the flame is $20 less. Same guitar? Yes. The only difference is the finish.

With upscale guitars, the same applies, except the cost goes up much higher.

The general rule of thumb with flame tops is that the more the guitar looks like furniture, the more expensive the price point.

More expensive: Flame top.

Even more expensive: Flame top with highly figured maple.

Ridiculously expensive: Flame top with highly figured maple and a really, really shiny clear coat that makes it look like you're staring into a mirror.

Does the flame or how shiny the guitar is do anything at all for sound? No; it's all visual.

Most famous rock guitar players never used a guitar with a flame top

Eric Clapton's most famous Strat was black.

Ritchie Blackmore used olympic white and black Strats.

Tony Iommi played red, black and natural SGs.

Neil Young played black Les Paul guitars.

David Gilmour played black Strats (mostly).

Eddie Van Halen mostly played red guitars with custom white and black stripes.

Keith Richards played mostly natural-color Telecasters.

You'll find it's common that the three guitar colors your guitar heroes used most often were either black, red or white.

It's not that the flame top wasn't available as it was always available. Famous players simply chose to go with solid colors instead. And bear in mind they could have any color or finish style they wanted.

This was (and for many still is) the go-to guitar for many players:

Fender American Standard Stratocaster, Maple Fretboard - Black

A plain-jane Fender American Standard Stratocaster in black.

Believe me, if this guitar didn't sell, Fender wouldn't still be offering the color.

Why don't you ever see black American Strats in guitar stores? Because they're not eye-popping enough. Guitar stores like to put guitars on display that catch your attention, usually the kind with dopey flame tops...

...but I'd be willing to bet if guitar stores started stocking black American Strats, they'd fly off the racks quick. Why? Because the guitar is the total opposite of a look-at-me axe. It's plain, simple and totally works. The guitar is made to play and not stared at like an idiot. And dare I say, it's a more comfortable purchase. A black Strat can't hide anything. What you see is what you get, and that's a genuinely good feeling.

I'm not even into black guitars. But I totally respect the black Strat.

I once saw some moron state in internet commentary - and this is no joke - that he wouldn't buy an American black Strat because it "looked too much like a Squier". Oh, so you'd rather have kitschy-looking flamed woods everywhere and a more-than-double price tag? I wouldn't. I'd take the black Strat over the dopey flame top any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Published 2014 Apr 1

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