Gibson Guitar Finishes


The coveted Gibson guitar, boasting a remarkable legacy rooted in history, exhibits quite an exquisite range of finishes. These finishes are etched into the annals of music history, having graced the hands of countless musical maestros and invoking the air of the dazzling runway of rock ‘n’ roll.

This exploration delves deep into the vibrant world of Gibson guitar finishes, from their birth and evolution to their underlying effect on tone and texture. We’ll traverse the legend of icons like the Sunburst finish and Cherry Red crown and demystify the intricacies of their application process.

Furthermore, there’s a fundamental understanding to be gained about maintaining the luster of these beauties, ensuring they echo sweet melodies for generations to come.

History of Gibson Guitar Finishes

Gibson Guitar Finishes: A Brief History

Gibson, a renowned American guitar manufacturer, has produced guitars since 1894. Their first instruments had a natural finish without any color, but by the 1920s, they introduced sunburst finishes, particularly on their archtop models like the L-5 and the Super 400. These sunburst finishes, also known as tobacco sunburst due to their resemblance to the color of cured tobacco, were a standard feature for decades.

Introduction of Color

1937 marked a significant turning point in Gibson’s history of guitar finishes. They unveiled their first colored finish, called ‘Spanish Red,’ for the ES-150 model, which was pioneering because this finish version became indelibly associated with the early evolution of electric guitars.

The ‘Goldtop’ Revolution

In 1952, Gibson debuted the iconic ‘Goldtop’ finish on the Les Paul Model. This finish was a unique bronze powder and clear lacquer concoction, giving the guitars a sublime, sleek gold sheen. The Goldtop finish quickly became popular due to its distinctive look and was used extensively until 1958.

Switch to Sunburst Finish

In mid-1958, Gibson replaced the Goldtop finish with the ‘Sunburst’ finish on the Les Paul Standard. Named for its gradient shading that resembled the sun’s rays, this change was primarily due to consumers’ increasing popularity of the sunburst finish.

Introduction of Cherry Red Finish

The late 1950s also saw the arrival of the cherry red finish, inspired by the booming automotive culture of the era. The SG design, introduced in 1961, prominently featured this vibrant red, further popularizing the color.

From Nitrocellulose Lacquer to Polyurethane Finish

Initially, Gibson’s preferred material for a finish was Nitrocellulose lacquer, prized for its thin coats that allowed the wood to resonate freely. However, it chips and checks quickly. By the late 1960s, Gibson started experimenting with more durable materials, such as polyester and polyurethane finishes, which later became a standard in guitar manufacturing.

BurstBucker Humbuckers and Modern Finishes

In the 1990s, Gibson returned to their traditional finishes to satisfy the demand from a new generation of guitarists seeking vintage aesthetics. They reintroduced the ‘burst’ finishes on their new BurstBucker humbuckers and several reissue models.

In guitar manufacturing, Gibson’s finishes have evolved significantly, resulting in various custom options that exemplify the unique Gibson aesthetic. Each finish, from the timeless appeal of vintage sunbursts to the cutting-edge allure of contemporary metallics, is a testament to Gibson’s unwavering commitment to superior guitar craftsmanship, consistently reflecting the brand’s deep-rooted legacy.

Gibson Guitar Finishes: A Brief History - Collection of Gibson guitars with various finishes from vintage sunbursts to sleek modern metallics.

Types of Gibson Guitar Finishes

Diving Deeper into Gibson Guitar Finishes: Spotlight on Sunburst Finish

Among the myriad of finishes developed by Gibson, the Sunburst finish, initially launched in the 1950s, holds a particularly iconic status. This captivative finish is synonymous with a radiant, sundrenched center, often rendered in hues of amber or honey, which progressively transitions to a darker shade at the edges, hence the term ‘Sunburst.’ This finish transcends the realm of simple aesthetics, employing a spray process involving two or even three tones to imbue the guitar with depth and vibrancy.

Within the Sunburst palette, numerous subtypes like Honeyburst, Vintage Sunburst, Iced Tea Burst, and Heritage Cherry Sunburst are available, each with its unique stylistic imprint. The Sunburst finish is not just about ornamental appeal – it’s a process that respects the wood’s natural grain, allowing it to be a visible contributor to the guitar’s overall character. Known for its visual depth and warmth, the Sunburst finish is also recognized for its lasting durability.

Gibson’s Cherry Red Finish

Another popular Gibson finish is the Cherry Red finish, as seen on models such as the SG and 335. This finish exudes a vibrant, fiery personality that inevitably draws the audience’s attention. It’s daring, bold, and energetic and has been a favorite for rockers and blues musicians for its standout hue.

Besides the aesthetics, the Cherry Red lacquer finish also carries tonal implications. It’s believed to refine the guitar’s tone, producing a sharper, brighter sound. Since the late ’50s, Gibson’s Cherry Red finish has gained popularity and remains an eye-catching choice for many passionate guitar players.

Price and Durability of Gibson Finishes

When it comes to price, the cost of Gibson guitars can vary significantly depending on the finish. Some finishes are more labor-intensive than others, and those added steps can increase the final price of the guitar. For instance, the Sunburst finish calls for more detailed and precise work, reflecting the cost.

Regarding durability, Gibson uses Nitrocellulose lacquer, an industry-standard finish that creates an attractive appearance and contributes to the guitar’s overall tone. Nitrocellulose lacquer finishes are known for their durability, aging gracefully over time and enhancing the wood’s natural resonance. This makes these finishes a fantastic investment, boasting longevity and allowing the instrument’s tone to shine.

Aesthetic Appeal and Functionality of Gibson Guitar Finishes

While the aesthetic appeal of a finish is subjective and varies between musicians, Gibson guitar finishes cater to various tastes with their broad range. Whether it’s the gently fading Sunburst, the energetic Cherry Red, or even the classic Natural finish that brings out the natural beauty of the wood, each finish offers its unique charm.

Gibson guitar finishes also have distinctive functionalities. For instance, the Sunburst finish enhances the wood’s natural grain and hides minor cosmetic damages and wear and tear over the years. Similarly, solid finishes like Cherry Red offer additional protection to the wood, making the guitar more resistant to deterioration and scratches.

An Introduction to the Popularity of Gibson Guitar Finishes

From functionality and durability to aesthetic appeal, the popularity of Gibson finishes largely hinges on these factors. The legendary Sunburst, often associated with iconic Gibson models like the Les Paul Standard, is a top choice among renowned musicians because of its exceptional beauty and longevity. Meanwhile, the Cherry Red finish is loved for its striking and vivid color, allowing guitarists to leave a strong impression. Ultimately, the appeal of each Gibson finish lies in its incredible blend of beauty, durability, tone, and functionality.

Various Gibson guitar finishes including Sunburst and Cherry Red.

Understanding the Finish Application Process

Digging Deeper: The Essentials of Gibson Guitar Finishes

Recognized as some of the finest musical instruments globally, Gibson guitars are renowned for the finish they employ on their guitars. This finish is more than just a pretty face – it dramatically impacts the instrument’s acoustic properties. Gibson’s repertoire of finishes centers mostly around three types – Nitrocellulose Lacquer, Polyurethane, and Polyester. Each type carries its unique flavor, adding to the allure and versatility of Gibson guitars.

Nitrocellulose Lacquer Finish

The Nitrocellulose Lacquer finish is the longest-standing and most traditional finish Gibson utilizes. This finishing involves applying numerous thin coats of nitrocellulose lacquer on the guitar body, allowing air drying. The drying procedure is multi-day, allowing each skin to harden before applying the subsequent layer. Notably, nitrocellulose lacquer continues to cure even after setting, ensuring the evolution of the guitar’s tone over time.

Polyurethane and Polyester Finishes

Polyurethane and Polyester finishes are a modernized approach to guitar finishing. Polyester, in particular, is a significantly more robust substance that forms a thicker coat than nitrocellulose. Similarly, Polyurethane is resistant to wear, making it a suitable choice for guitars that undergo heavy use.

Preparation of the Guitar Body

A prime determinant of the finish’s success lies in the meticulous preparation of the guitar body. The most crucial step in preparing the guitar body is Sanding. It involves removing the machine marks from the manufacturing process, focusing mainly on the sharper contours of the body to ensure the finish coats adhere well.

After the removal of machine marks, the guitar is then sealed. This sealing process stops the absorption of finish into the wood and promotes a smoother application. Proper sealer application is essential to evade sinking, which occurs when the wood absorbs an excessive amount of the finish, causing an uneven surface.

Process of Applying the Finish

Applying the finish starts with a base coat on the sealed guitar. The base coat is an intermediate layer between the sealer and the final finish. After the base coat, the color stage begins. This stage involves several processes, such as sunburst effects, shading, and vintage finishes.

The color applied is then accompanied by clear coatings of lacquer or polyester, which protect the paint and contribute to the final look. The last step involves sanding the hardened finish to a smooth, mirror-like sleekness before buffing it to a high gloss. This process allows the guitar to achieve a perfect, glossy finish, enhancing its visual appeal and ensuring its long-lasting durability.

Notable Differences

Among the differences between the types of finishes is the speed of application. With its lengthy air-drying time, nitrocellulose lacquer generally takes longer to apply than the modern Polyester and Polyurethane. On the other hand, many musicians and luthiers argue that nitrocellulose presents a richer and more resonant tone than its alternatives.

For hobbyists and professional musicians, understanding Gibson guitar finishes can significantly enhance the experience of playing, owning, or even customizing these incredible instruments. The distinct finishes used by Gibson contribute heavily to the visual appeal and durability of the guitars and play a significant role in shaping their unique tones. Each Gibson guitar features thoughtful craftsmanship, every detail fine-tuned to serve musicians of all levels, styles, and preferences around the globe.

An image showing the different types of Gibson guitar finishes including Nitrocellulose Lacquer, Polyurethane, and Polyester.

Photo by bhurnal on Unsplash

Caring for Your Gibson Guitar Finish

Delving into the Realm of Gibson Guitar Finishes

Famed for their unparalleled dedication to sound and craftsmanship, Gibson guitars come in various finishes, such as nitrocellulose lacquer, Polyurethane, polyester, and French polish. Each has a unique feel, appearance, and impact on the guitar’s tone and particular care requirements.

Nitrocellulose lacquer, primarily employed on Gibson’s vintage models, is an organic compound that lets the guitar’s wood resonate freely and breathe. Over the years, this finish naturally wears, adding further to the guitar’s old-school charm. Despite its desirable appeal, this finish is prone to markings from scratches, dings, and cabinet rashes due to its softer texture.

In contrast, polyurethane and polyester finishes are synthetic and lauded for their endurance and resistance to everyday wear and tear. While they are durable, these finishes can be somewhat thicker, potentially impeding the natural resonance of the guitar’s wood.

The French polish, a traditional finish achieved by hand-rubbing shellac, is esteemed for its attractive allure and positive influence on the guitar’s acoustic characteristics. Nonetheless, this finish requires careful, meticulous maintenance to preserve its beauty.

Maintaining Gibson Guitar Finishes

For all finishes, regular cleaning is vital. Use a soft, lint-free cloth to gently remove fingerprints, dust, and other particulates after each use. Avoid using abrasive cleaners or polishing compounds, which can damage the finish. Instead, use gentle guitar polish specifically designed for guitar finishes.

When cleaning a nitrocellulose lacquer finish, take extra caution as this finish can be easily damaged by alcohol- or acetone-based cleaners. Even certain rubber or plastic materials, like guitar stands, can cause chemical reactions leading to discoloration or stickiness.

When it comes to Polyurethane and polyester finishes, they are much easier to clean due to their durability. While they can still be damaged by extreme temperatures or chemicals, generally, a mild, alcohol-free cleaner or a slightly damp cloth is enough to keep them in good condition.

For a French-polished Gibson guitar, refrain from using any liquid cleaners. The moisture will enter the finish and cause it to cloud or crack. Instead, dust off the guitar using a soft brush or wipe it gently with a clean, dry cloth.

Protecting Gibson Guitar Finishes

Beyond cleaning, the finishes on your Gibson guitar should be protected from extreme conditions. Regardless of the finish, all guitars are sensitive to extreme temperatures and humidity, which can cause cracking, warping, and other structural damage. Endeavor to store your guitar in an environment with stable, modest temperatures and 40-50% relative humidity.

Restoring Gibson Guitar Finishes

Sometimes, despite best maintenance practices, a guitar’s finish may require repair or restoration. For minor scratches on a nitrocellulose lacquer finish, consider using a marketed scratch remover and a gentle buffing technique to restore the surface’s shine.

Minor dings can often be fixed at home with touch-up paint or pens for Polyurethane or polyester finishes. Your local guitar shop can provide the specific color you need. Remember to apply thin layers and allow proper drying time between each coat.

Restoration of a French-polished finish should only be done by a professional due to the finish’s fragile nature and the technique’s complication.

Caring for Different Guitar Finishes

Distinct finishes on Gibson guitars require unique care routines due to their varying chemical composition and physical characteristics. To maintain your instrument’s aesthetic appeal and sound quality, you must know your guitar’s finish.

Whether it’s carefully avoiding abrasive chemicals on a nitrocellulose lacquer finish, gently using a damp cloth on a polyurethane or polyester finish, or strictly avoiding liquid cleaners for French polished guitars, understanding and implementing the correct treatment methods has a profound influence on the longevity and preservation of your Gibson guitar finish.

Image depicting different Gibson guitar finishes displayed on a guitar body.

Impact of Guitar Finish on Tone

Understanding the Impact of Finish on Tone

It’s critical to highlight a vital point in the context of Gibson guitar finishes—the type of finish doesn’t directly influence the tone. Instead, the finish impacts the style based on how it affects the wood’s natural resonance.

The primary role of a finish on a Gibson guitar is to act as a barrier, protecting the wood from external elements like moisture and air, thus enabling it to function optimally. However, the extent to which different finishes affect the wood’s capacity for vibration and resonance varies—a fundamental aspect that influences your guitar’s rich character and tonal quality.

Nitrocellulose Lacquer Finish

Gibson guitars are known for their beautiful, high-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish. A nitro finish allows the guitar to “breathe,” letting the wood resonate fully. This finish tends to be thinner, meaning the wood can vibrate more freely, producing a more prosperous, resonant sound.

It’s also worth noting that nitro finishes tend to improve tonal quality over time. The finish will thin out as the guitar ages, enhancing the resonance and creating a vintage tonal character.

How to Maintain and Care For Your Guitar

Polyurethane and Polyester Finish

Other Gibson models use Polyurethane or polyester finishes, which are thicker and more durable than nitrocellulose. The durability of these finishes makes them excellent for protecting guitars from weathering, but the trade-off is that they don’t resonate as well. Some players believe that these finishes’ thicker and less porous nature can reduce the wood’s resonance, effectively “choking” the sound and producing a less rich tone.

Anecdotes from Professionals

Legendary guitarist Les Paul was known for his preference for Gibson guitars with nitrocellulose finishes. He claimed that the thinness of the finish allowed for a more vibrant, expansive sound – creating the tone he was famous for. Many professional guitar players share Les Paul’s sentiment, attributing a portion of their distinctive sound to the type of finish on their Gibson guitars.

In contrast, other professional guitar players prefer the durability of the polyurethane finish, even if it might marginally affect the tone. They argue that the difference in manner between a nitro and poly finish is negligible and that factors like the type of wood, method of construction, and the player’s technique play a more significant role in the ultimate sound of the instrument.

How to Check Gibson Guitars Serial Numbers

In Conclusion

There has been an ongoing debate among musicians and guitar luthiers regarding how much guitar finishes influence the sound. While the argument is far from settled, a consensus has emerged that while guitar finish impacts the tone, it’s not the decisive factor in a guitar’s sound.

Other elements, such as the type of wood used, guitar design, and the player’s skill level, also play significant roles. Hence, although an appreciation for different Gibson guitar finishes is essential to becoming skilled at these instruments, it’s also important to consider and recognize these other influential elements.

This odyssey through the visual and sonic palette of Gibson guitar finishes is a testament to the bond between the craftsmanship and the player. Much like an artist’s final brushstroke, the finish is an understated yet vital element of the guitar’s personality and potency.

It ranges from the hypnotic Sunburst to the fiery Cherry Red, each finish holding its tale and tone. Yet, they all share a common refrain – the absolute necessity for proper care and maintenance. Ultimately, understanding how these ornamental aspects resonate beyond their aesthetic appeal and play a significant part in the guitar’s performance illuminates the essence of Gibson’s enduring artistry.

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