In the world of guitars, there are a number of features that separate the higher end of the spectrum from the typical electric guitar. For my own purposes, I’ll classify high end guitars as those that have a street price of greater than $2000. For some that may not be an expensive guitar, but only a few percent of the market is above $1500 dollars, so at least in dollar terms it’s high end.
Many guitars in this price range still use the traditional process of finishing their guitars in Nitrocellulose Lacquer. This type of finish chemistry has been in use since the 1920’s and for decades was the preferred method for finishing all types of musical instruments. Nitro remained the dominant process up through the early 70’s when the faster and easier polyurethane catalyzed finished grew in popularity. Today probably 99% of all guitar production is some form of a poly finish.
Like many things that have become revered as the “best,” nitrocellulose lacquer was the available chemistry at the time, and one of the first commercial processes for producing colorful finishes. Until then, it was no coincidence that many commercial products — like cars — came in just black. It was not just economical, but a practical necessity.
But there are certain advantages that make nitro finishes attractive for musical instruments. The finish is quite flexible, which is a good property to let the base materials of the instrument resonate properly. The solvent-based nature of the finish means that you can both remove it, and patch it, which makes is repairable. Lastly is can be buffed and polished to a high gloss.
The drawbacks of nitro is that it uses toxic and highly flammable solvents — xylene and toluene for starters — which means specific handling precautions and ventilation. It’s also built up of many thin coats, so it’s also a slower process as compared to poly finishes. In contrast the modern poly finish is much quicker to apply, and requires fewer handling and safety precautions. Poly finishes have come a long way, and some manufacturers have developed thin environmentally-friendly finishes for their instruments, especially for acoustics. But to many players, poly finishes just don’t “sound” the same.
G&L toyed with nitro finishes on their now-discontinued “Rustic” line of guitars. This was during the relic boom a few years back when just about every manufacturer was beating up their guitars. But the finishing process was subcontracted, and lead times were often many many months. And it was an aged process.
Quite by surprise, G&L introduced their own in-house lacquer process in the spring of 2016. The process is still gaining momentum, and G&L tends to spray a single color in batches of twenty guitars at a time. The colors are pretty traditional and run the range of vintage and 60’s-inspired colors: Sunburst, Butterscotch, Sonic Blue, Fiesta Red, Surf Green, Shell Pink, and Vintage White are all colors that we currently have in stock. The nitro process also includes the neck finish, and all guitars at this point have glossy neck finishes with rosewood or maple fretboards. At this time there are no special orders being taken for nitro guitars.
The nitro finishes have a decidedly “non-plastic” look to them, and this is especially noticeable on the necks, and transparent finishes like Butterscotch and Sunburst. The thinner nature of the finish will also show a little grain texture in the finish. We see this the most on the mahogany bodied guitars. The finish is glossy and smooth, but you can just see the texture of the mahogany in the finish. On some of the guitars there is also the occasional small sink in the finish where the filler did not totally block the pores in the grain. This is not seen as a defect, but a positive sign that the finish is thin, and that the body is not excessively encased in potentially tone-deadening fillers.
Naturally, there is a price increase for the nitrocellulose lacquer finish, but G&L has done a great job in keeping the price in check. Most MAP prices are in the $1600 range for solid bodies, and $1799 for semi-hollow models. When you figure that all models have gloss necks — around $150 MAP in poly — the up-charge is very reasonable indeed.
Does nitrocellulose lacquer sound better? It’s hard to quantify, as every guitar is different in its own respect. But nitro is what I’d like to term as “directionally correct.” In other words the benefits of a thinner, more flexible finish is in theory always beneficial to improving the acoustic properties of a guitar. Or you could ascribe to the idea that no company would apply an expensive nitro finish to a poorly assembled guitar, or one with low quality materials. Either way, there should be no sonic downside to a properly applied lacquer finish, and plenty of potential for upside.
Kudos to G&L for bringing a type of finish generally reserved for the upper stratosphere into the “everyman” range.