Everything you ever wanted to know about nitro guitar finishes
Yep, it's time to talk about this. At length.
This is a subject I've been avoiding because you can't talk about nitrocellulose lacquer finish without talking about "relic'ing", so I'm going to cover both those topics.
Nitro vs. Polyurethane vs. Polyester
The toughest, most durable finish on modern mass-produced electric guitars is polyester, as that finish can basically handle almost anything you can throw at it. The Fender Standard Stratocaster does use a polyester finish on the guitar body.
Polyurethane (often known as just urethane) is what originally replaced nitro. The best advantage of it is that is requires fewer coats than nitro to seal properly and is more glossy in look. You can truly get an amazing mirror-like shine out of polyurethane. This finish is what's used on the Fender American Standard Stratocaster body. There is also satin urethane which I'll talk about in a moment.
Nitrocellulose lacquer is the oldest finish of the three and also the worst. It wears out the quickest, feels the worst when touched and it's difficult to clean. But it does have a few special things about it that some consider very desirable, and I'll get to that in a minute.
You mostly see satin urethane used as a neck coating. In that application, it feels the best but looks the worst. And by worst I mean plain and boring. In the hand, you can play a satin urethane coated neck for hours easily and feel little to no skin irritation, but the drawback is the "milky" appearance of the finish. You're just not going to get a super-glossy look out of satin urethane no matter what. Even if the neck is painted, you're always going to have that milky/dulled look and that's just the way it is.
Satin urethane coatings when used as a body finish (Fender/Squier doesn't do this but Gibson/Epiphone does on lower-cost models) has the same result as when applied to a neck. You get a look that is duller than gloss urethane. If I were to pick one word to accurately describe the sheen of a satin urethane finished body, it would be diffused.
A real-world example where you can easily see the difference in satin urethane vs. gloss urethane is to look at any new Fender Standard or Fender American Standard Stratocaster back of the neck, then examine the back of the Squier Classic Vibe Stratocaster neck. The Squier will be much different because it has gloss and a color tint for a "butterscotchy" or slightly-orange-like look.
What you will notice is that the Fender neck feels better, but the Squier neck looks better. Why? The color tint with the clear gloss finish will always look better than the diffused look of satin urethane.
Interestingly enough, a gloss urethane coated neck with color tint is the closest you can get to a nitro look without the guitar being actually nitro coated. And it just so happens that a Squier Vintage Modified or Squier Classic Vibe series guitar is the cheapest way to get it.
Now let's talk about nitro and what's so special about it.
Nitro on the body
Given the fact that nitro is the worst possible finish you could put on a guitar as it can be so temperamental during the curing process (which does take a long time compared to other finishing methods), why are there so many players that specifically want it as a body finish?
There are two main reasons.
First, when new, nitro just has a certain look to it that polyurethane and polyester just can't match.
The problem with polyurethane and polyester finishes from an appearance point of view is that they both look too much like plastic. Nitro doesn't have that problem, and there is no other finish that brings out such rich, vibrant, almost liquid-like color. When you want color that really pops, nitro is amazing for that sort of thing.
Second, when old, nitro unquestionably looks best - if the guitar was played often.
Nitro does a thing called finish checking where little cracks in the finish start appearing. As for where they'll appear on the body first, you never know for sure. All you do know is that it will happen. And as for when the checking will start, that all depends how often you play the guitar. The more the guitar is played, the sooner the finish checking starts.
Nitro on the neck
Looks great, feels terrible (at first).
If you are the type that wants "all-nitro" where both the body and the neck are nitro coated, it's going to take some time before the neck starts feeling right from regular play. How long the break-in period lasts depends on how often you play, of course.
These are some of the models Fender makes that are all-nitro (both body and neck):
- '60s Jazzmaster Lacquer
- '60s Jaguar Lacquer
- Classic Series '50s Stratocaster Lacquer
- Classic Series Telecaster Lacquer
- Classic Series '60s Stratocaster Lacquer
- American Vintage '52 Telecaster
- American Vintage '58 Telecaster
- American Vintage '64 Telecaster
- American Vintage '56 Stratocaster
- American Vintage '59 Stratocaster
- American Vintage '65 Stratocaster
- American Vintage '65 Jaguar
- American Vintage '65 Jazzmaster
For you bargain hunters out there that want the most bang for the buck, the Mexico made Classic Series '60s Stratocaster Lacquer is your best option. It has a sunburst finish that really pops and is already wired with the 5-way Strat switch instead of the traditional-but-annoying 3-way switch. Also bear in mind the purchase does come with a tweed case.
As for which of the American Vintage series is the best deal, that would be the '52 or the '58 Tele.
The best deals for both the Jag and the Jazz are the Mexico-made '60s models. The American Vintage models have nicer options, but cost more than double that of the Mexico versions.
Now as for the allure of "relic'd" guitars, part of the reason they sell well is because they have nitro coated necks where a significant amount of the nitro has been worn off by the builder, like this:
(This is the same guitar shown at top.)
The worn-off lighter colored areas of neck nearer to the nut is not just for appearance. That is nitro coating which has been strategically rubbed away by the luthier who built the guitar in an attempt to get that well-used feel to it. Lighter color areas are a simulation of where a player's fret hand would have been the most when using the instrument.
Why does new nitro feel terrible on the neck at first?
A brand new coat of nitro on a neck feels similar to gloss urethane and also slightly sticky. Yes, the coating is dry and cured, but to your fingers it will have a bit of a stick to it and may also cause mild skin irritation.
What ends the stickiness and skin irritation? Playing the guitar regularly. You've just got to play the thing and wear in that neck. Trust me, the neck will start feeling better eventually. It will happen.
And no, spraying the neck with Fingerease won't help with fret hand irritation because that's for strings, but I can tell you something that will help. Dove soap and/or moisturizer. Dry hands on a nitro coated neck is a bad combo. If you wash your hands with regular hand sanitizer before playing on a nitro neck, oh yeah, you're going to feel skin irritation. Why? Because most hand sanitizer contains alcohol which dries the skin, and that's exactly what you don't want.
Wash your hands before play with plain water and Dove soap instead, as Dove has moisturizer in it. Using additional moisturizer may also help. I suggest Aveeno. True, it's not manly stuff at all, but it will make your fret hand feel better while breaking in your nitro coated neck.
Until your nitro neck breaks in, I suggest keeping a second guitar that has a satin urethane neck finish nearby for when your fret hand starts feeling irritated. Again, guitars which have satin urethane coating on the neck are the Mexico made Fender Standard Stratocaster and the Fender American Standard Stratocaster. It doesn't matter whether you get a one-piece maple neck or maple neck with rosewood fingerboard. The back of the neck is always maple and it will have a satin urethane coating on it for maximum comfort and absolutely zero sticky feel.
Is there a Gibson model with a satin urethane finished neck?
There is the Les Paul Studio Faded T, a very nicely priced USA model I just talked about. It is stated to have a satin finish which should include the neck. The SG Faded T and SG Special T (also USA models) are 2 more options, also nicely priced, and serve very well as comfortable satin-finished guitars that are very easy on the hands.
Is nitro worth getting at all?
For appearance both when new and when old, yes, nitro is worth it.
For neck feel specifically, no it's not worth it being that satin urethane feels so much better.
Will a nitro coated neck ever feel right? Yes. A well-used guitar with the nitro almost rubbed all the way off is a very desirable feel that many guitar players chase after. To get that feel the correct way, you have to buy the guitar new and play the hell out of it. For how long? That depends on you. Maybe it will take a few months. Maybe a few years. Maybe a few decades.
If you are the type of player who does not have that kind of patience, is nitro still worth getting? Yes, as long as you realize your guitar can only be played in short bursts before fret hand irritation sets in.
The best advice I can give before buying a guitar where both the body and neck are nitro coated is this: Also own a non-nitro guitar. Whether it's a guitar with a gloss or satin urethane finish on the neck, it doesn't matter as long as it's comfortable.
If you're wondering if a guitar exists that has a nitro coated body and a urethane coated neck, the answer is yes. Fender Road Worn. All 5 models have nitro coated bodies and urethane coated necks...
...and now you know why some sing such high praises about these guitars. The worn down nitro coated body will check properly as time goes on, and the neck will always feel right.
I do have a suggestion as to which Road Worn to get, but first, the these are the 5 models:
- Fender Road Worn '50s Stratocaster
- Fender Road Worn '60s Stratocaster
- Fender Road Worn '50s Telecaster
- Fender Road Worn '60s Jaguar
- Fender Road Worn '60s Jazzmaster
The best of the lot here is the '60s Strat and I'll tell you exactly why.
Since the neck is urethane coated, it will get slightly darker in color over time but will not check. That being true, on the '50s all-maple neck Strat, the body and neck will become mismatched over time and there's no way around that. The '60s Strat however has a rosewood fingerboard which will look proper when the body starts to check more as time goes on.
If you're a regular reader of my site, you know I'm a Jazzmaster guy, so why am I recommending the Strat over the Jag or the Jazz? Price. The Strat is $100 less.
And why do I recommend the Strat over the Tele? The Tele has an all-maple neck meaning body and neck appearance mismatching will occur later on similar to the all-maple neck Strat.
Concentrate on rosewood fretboards only with Road Worn models, and yes you will get a great nitro coated guitar out of it. Yes, the fact it's artificially aged is a bit on the cheesy side and I don't deny that, but consider that it absolutely is the "safest" way to get a nitro coated guitar. Both the body and the neck will feel right.