Sunday, August 26, 2007

CHRONICLES OF THE ANNOYING (Continued): More goofs and the fetish for insanely priced guitars

In uncanny timing with last week's LA Times piece on quarter-million-dollar vintage Les Pauls and hoarders of them, Ethan Smith (no relation) at the Wall Street Journal gives that hallowed newspaper its "me too" article, "The Easy Way to Hard Rock: Distressed Guitars."

For the lay reader, distressed guitars are like distressed fashion jeans, beaten up at the factory to make them look old, goosing up the asking price for a variety of saps who share two things: common sense in inverse proportion to what's in the bank account or credit line and not much desire to play an instrument in stark contrast with the yen to brag about it.

"For most people who buy relics, the idea is simply to own a cool-looking guitar," reports the Journal. DD notes that "cool-looking" more often applies to new instruments.

Distressed guitars are whacked with belt buckles and bolts, their finish cracked by sudden cooling with refrigerant. Most startling is the soaking of tuning keys and other pieces of metal hardware in nitric acid.

"They're too new to say whether they retain value," says Hawley Waldman, a New York guitar builder, to the newspaper.

DD can inform that soaking a guitar's metal hardware in nitric acid is a truly common-sense defying idea, ensuring that the guitar will have a long-term problem of corrosion beyond the simple and usual oxidation of metal. How much is a relic guitar worth when the tuning keys don't work two years from the point of sale and have to be replaced? Since it probably isn't an instrument to play, does it even matter?

"There is great debate within the guitar-collecting community about the faux-vintage instruments' worth over the long term," adds the Journal.

Next up, a "professional martial-arts fighter and amateur blues musician" -- Shai Mizrahi, who has a collection of twenty-six "vintage guitars." In buying a relic Stratocaster for $4,000, Mizrahi "struggled with [the] concept" of shelling out for a factory beaten-up guitar.

This guitar, it is said, is played more frequently than "his 1962 Stratocaster that cost $60,000."

Mizrahi claims, somewhat nonsensically, that a factory beaten guitar looks better than a guitar weatherbeaten by use and Father Time. Is there a metric beauty scale upon which such instruments can be graded?

However, it would seem to be potentially hazardous to argue such a point vigorously with a man who could kick your jaw off.

Fender's relics make up "more than 12 percent of its $5 million annual sales," adds the Journal. A guitar store merchant says the people buying them "[are] never going to put in the wear and tear to make it look like a real one."

As has been said, in most cases, highly priced artificially-scarred guitars are to be seen and heard of but not heard. Onlookers hearing how awful you really sound would spoil the alleged snob appeal of such instruments.

There are a noticeable number of old celebrity guitarists who play custom shop made battle-scarred instruments designed to look exactly like their most well-known and photographed vintage guitars.

"Fender is producing copies of Police guitarist Andy Summers's 1961 Telecaster -- which he bought used in 1972 for $200 -- which are authentic right down to the broken bridge and quirky custom electronics. The 250 replicas are being offered at $15,000 each; dealers have already sold most of them, sight unseen, according to Fender and dealers," continues the newspaper. (See DD's earlier story about Eddie van Halen's relic.)

This, too, is about money, name recognition and endorsement. The market is prepared by interesting a celebrity in the priming of it, in this case, Andy Summers.

"Selling duplicates to potentially any hobbyist with a five-figure budget, then, spawned 'a peculiar feeling,'" Summers told Smith.

Of course, Summers does not actually pay for his relic. Or if he does, it is offset by the "reasonably substantial fee" he is paid to be seen endorsing it. "It's like found money," says the wealthy rocker, educating us all that should you also someday become rich and famous, others will throw substantial amounts of cash at our feet from time to time -- "found money" -- for advertising beneficence and other small favors.

No one answers the most obvious question -- to guitarists, anyway -- about the nature of artificially aged guitars. It's the elephant standing ignored in the center of the room.

How do you duplicate the gallons of sweat and salt poured into the wood over the course of, hmmmm, a decade?

It is not an insubstantial question. Peter Frampton gave up taking his famous black three-pickup Les Paul onstage when the finish wouldn't come up on it anymore because of nightly sweat soakings.

As per usual, save the hate mail. It won't get published.

(Thanks to SA for the head's up.)

Guitar Center Platinum Customer catalog blurb for John Lennon relic guitar. Only $5,000 and comes with a certificate of authenticity made from "cloth like John used to wear." Blow your nose with it or wipe the sweat from your aging pate. Not nearly as dear as Andy Summers' factory-beaten Fender, perhaps because Gibson can't get Mr. Lennon to go on tour with it.


The So-called Easy Way to Hard Rock.

Slave labor guitar versus Eddie van Halen relic.

Chronicles of the annoying. Part I.

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