the plain truth about Nitrocellulose finishes.

Discussion in 'Glues, Fillers & Painting' started by bruce bennett, Jun 2, 2013.

  1. bruce bennett

    bruce bennett Active Member

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    There are several myths flying around about nitrocellulose lacquer guitar finishes. Many are simply inaccurate, others are outright false. let me start with the worst ones.

    1)"Nitro is made from wood so it allows the wood to breathe and resonate naturally, improving the tone."

    This statement is generally false. Nitrocellulose is made from cellulose, which is also what all plant cells are made of.
    BUT, The manufacture of nitrocellulose rarely uses cellulose, or plant cell material, from trees, but rather cotton.. which is much more easily nitrated.
    But that's not the worst part of this statement. Saying Nitrocellulose allows wood to "breathe" because it's manufactured from similar raw material, is about like saying you should be able to breathe water because it's 80% oxygen by weight and you breathe oxygen.
    Nitrocellulose lacquer paints were in fact developed by DuPont in the 1920's specifically NOT to breathe, but to be a sealant against the forces of nature for automotive applications.

    I'm not saying Nitrocellulose Lacquer finishes aren't good finishes, and aren't good for a guitar's tone, but they DON'T allow the wood to "breathe". In fact, the wood in your guitar's body stopped "breathing" within hours of the tree being cut down; it's dead now. the part of the tree we use to make guitars, was mainly the water storage and distribution system of the tree. so it NEVER breathed. it moved water up the root system through the trunk and into the leaves where the exchange of all gases actually occurred.. so it was the leaves that breathed, NEVER the wood.

    2)"Nitro takes weeks or even months to properly cure."

    This statement is utterly false. Nitrocellulose lacquers do not "cure", Curing is a chemical induced reaction (caused by a "catalyst") with a set beginning, an open time and an end ... "Cured" finishes can ever be redissolved in their original solvents.
    Nitrocellulose finishes are evaporative finishes, and CAN be redissolved in their original solvents.
    if you wish to test this, splash some lacquer thinner on your friend's mint 1957 Stratocaster. ( NO! DO NOT TRY THIS)
    Lacquers dry to the touch relatively quickly, but then it can take weeks, or even months to dry completely, leading to the misconception that they "cure".

    3)"Nitro will improve the tone of your guitar."

    This statement is misleading. If you were to take that 80's polyester finished electric guitar and spray nitrocellulose lacquer on top of it, nothing will improve whatsoever. If you were to remove the Poly finish, then yes you should hear a "change".. now is that change an "improvement"??.. only your ears can decide that.

    What makes nitro a good finish is that it is very thin, even when sprayed in multiple coats.. so it does less to get in the way of the natural vibrations of the wood, which imparts a more full tone than a thick polyester finish. BUT, make no mistake, ANY FINISH that sits on top of the wood, will alter the overall tone of the instrument.

    The simple fact is, Nitrocellulose is a good finish, and it's what was used back in the 50's and 60's.
    From the early 70's into the early 90's. thick polyester finishes were the norm, which do sound somewhat "dead" and "lifeless" when compared to older nitro finishes.
    but this is mainly due to the way these new finishes were applied.
    See the painters of that time were very familiar with Nitrocellulose and how it was normally applied.. So when their bosses told them to change over to this new poly stuff. they were most often left to their own devises to figure out how to get the same level of quality finish as the old stuff they were used to..
    and since they were used to spraying 8-12 coats of nitrocellulose.. they simply started there with the new polys, never fully understanding that the new polys were all about higher solid builds and less solvent evaporation as compared to the Nitros.

    as a general rule, Nitro has a build of 30% solids.. that's the stuff we see as the shiny finish when its all done.. and approximately 70% solvents that's the toxic stuff that evaporates into the air around us.... Polys on the other hand are almost the reserve of that.. with nearly a 70% solid build and 30% solvents.. so you can see easily how the thick finishes associated with the early polys came about.

    The other advantage that the polys had, was that they were very durable and shiny. they were also impervious to the plasticizers in your hand oils, so they were much less sticky feeling to the touch, and they didn't yellow, weather check or chip as easily as Nitrocellulose.

    Most of today's better instruments use a very thin polyurethane finish that sounds much closer to an older nitro finish than the thick polyester finishes, while still being very durable and can attain a very high gloss.

    The real truth is that the finish on an electric guitar will only play a very small role in the overall tone. The pickups, bridge, neck wood, neck thickness, nut material, body wood, body shape, string gauge and the player himself will each have at least as much to do with the tone as the finish, if not considerably more.

    What's bad about nitrocellulose lacquers is that they are very toxic, and have in fact been outlawed for use as an automotive finish throughout most, if not all, of the United States even by auto refinishers for that reason.
    They are still legal as a furniture finish, and can be bought in many states for that purpose. BUT they have been altered drastically from the original formulas. so the nitro your spraying now is not the nitro of the 1950s because that stuff was banned in 1974 by the EPA.

    There was nothing magical about Nitrocellulose finishes.

    A thin acrylic lacquer finish will be basically indistinguishable from nitro, except that it won't yellow and crack over time. and you can add up to 7% nitro back to acrylic and still get that yellowing/cracking "effect". which is what Gibson does currently, and they pay a monthly fee to do so because the EPA regs state that the current maximum allowed nitro component is only 5%

    Oil finishes such as linseed or tung oil will resonate just as much, if not more, because they don't sit "on top of the wood" like most other finishes. instead, they penetrate into the wood and mostly fill the grain up to the surface level of the wood. so in the end what you see is mostly highly polished wood, not a highly polished plastic coating.

    Thin modern polyurethane finishes do not hinder tone nearly as much as the older polyester finishes and are much, much more resistant to chipping and scratching than nitrocellulose, and in fact, when used on a guitar with a high quality neck and bridge, high quality pickups, etc ... will have a superior tone to a guitar with a nitro finish and a cheap neck, bridge and pickups.

    So all these myths about NitroCellulose finishes should be re-considered.

    Most of it is just Mystery Vibe and VooDoo generated by salemen to sell you an old "vintage" guitar verses a brand new one.

    because in the end, a 3-4 mil thick finish of Nitro doesn't sound any better than a 3-4 mil finish of poly.
    I can make this statement because I know for fact that most of the factories switched to poly based finishes years ago and never said a word..
    because ALL OF THEM use this mantra in their shops..

    "Manufacturing specifications are subject to change without notice."
     
  2. Heretic

    Heretic Well-Known Member

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    Thanks, chief. I've been thinking about experimenting with nitro for a while...but I see now that most of what I have seen about it is snake oil. I'll stick with thin poly.
     
  3. emoney

    emoney New Member

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    So, what then is "Acrylic Lacquer"? Sure does spray easy, that much I know.

    As to the "breathing water" thing....ummmm...don't we do that kinda as babies in the womb?
     
  4. bruce bennett

    bruce bennett Active Member

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    one of the issues that I've always had with folks and the way they talk about Guitar finishes is that they mis use terms all the time.. Heck even I'm guilty of it, simply because I can get drawn into guitar speak with someone.

    Lacquer is a TYPE of finish. and it has SEVERAL different forms.. and its a VERY OLD type of finish.. but its NOT just the name of some magical chemical Solid used in the finish. it a finish that has evolved over a very long time and it present form is nothing like its original form.

    if you wish to begin to understand "Lacquer" then go here. Lacquer - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Acrylic resin is a synthetic, colorless, transparent thermoplastic, obtained by the polymerization of derivatives of acrylic acid

    Polyurethane (PUR and PU) is a polymer composed of a chain of organic units joined by carbamate (urethane) links. While most polyurethanes are thermosetting polymers that do not melt when heated, thermoplastic polyurethanes are also available


    so by just doing a little bit of digging, you can see how people mis-use these "finishing" terms all the time.

    the chemistry behind finish coatings is VERY tricky especially once you starting getting into the new hybrid coatings where Nitro and other chemicals are added to acrylic and polys to achieve unique effects.

    the average guitar player really isn't interested in going that deep into the subject.. so they inevitably get it incorrect.
     
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  5. bruce bennett

    bruce bennett Active Member

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    yes, but it's not for oxygen.. its mostly for diaphragm development.

    now you may not believe it.. but I know it true. ( my wife is an R.N).
    there is a medical treatment, where a person IS submerged into a liquid with a super high concentration of oxygen and they can breathe the liquid into the lungs for quite a while and be perfectly fine.. they often medicate the liquid in order to treat the lungs directly. its super expensive and a sort of last ditch effort. not many folks wish to undergo it.

    and I believe they use t his same liquid for extremely deep undersea diving as well.
     
  6. Blue Belly Guitars

    Blue Belly Guitars New Member

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    I think a number of these misconceptions are tied to terms we use to describe something we don't have a better word to describe it with.
    I personally know builders who have made the switch from Nitro to some form of Poly coating. You are correct in saying, the customer generally doesn't seem to know the difference. I say this because, they are still selling the same amount of instruments. I personally have a love/hate relationship with Nitro. I'd love to use a process that was quicker, easier & less dangerous but, the finished results are never the same. Nothing feels like a buffed up lacquer finish. It just feels "right" & ages so perfectly.
    I recently was able to see a white guitar I had built a few years back. It spends a lot if time on the road. The finish is yellowing up so nice. I would hate to forgo that aging process of a guitar. Something so classic about it.
     
  7. bruce bennett

    bruce bennett Active Member

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    now, you don't have to.. its possible to age these new Poly based lacquers.
     
  8. jcsimons

    jcsimons New Member

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    Bruce - thanks for the comments on finishes - do any of these other finishes share lacquer's repairability?
     
  9. bruce bennett

    bruce bennett Active Member

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    due to the fact that the newer polys WON'T "melt back" much..

    no. they will likely never be as repairable as Acrylic or Nitro lacquers.
    but they are tougher and need less repair and are pretty quick and easy to buff out.
    they have a higher abrasion resistance than Nitro or acrylic once they are fully cured.

    and some new pre-catalysed nitro based lacquers can be pretty tough as well. but again .. not as repairable.
     
  10. bruce bennett

    bruce bennett Active Member

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    it shoudl be noted that while I have done my own finsihing in the past.. I stopped due to health reasons..
    But one of my good friends is a chemist for multiple paint companies and its his job to design "coatings" for specific applications from the ground up.

    if there is a chemical question about modern or vintage paint coatings.. He will know the answer.

    3 years ago he helped Gibson revamp their entire paint shop line and bring their automation and staff, up to their current production speeds.
    needless to say I trust his info.
     
  11. jcsimons

    jcsimons New Member

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    For me, its not so much a lack of toughness on the lacquer's part as it my simple minded errors like sand throughs. I've never had a finish that I didn't have repairs, in fact, I'm pretty happy if I don't have to sand the whole thing back and start anew - as in sanding through color after you've run out of the stain/color.

    But you say that acrylic is as repairable as lacquer?
     
  12. Blue Belly Guitars

    Blue Belly Guitars New Member

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    That would be a good friend to keep happy!
     
  13. bruce bennett

    bruce bennett Active Member

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    its the same stuff Gibson uses today. So yep.

    indeed I do. he gets free sets up all the time.
     
  14. GuitarBuilder

    GuitarBuilder Member

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    Very interesting read, Bruce! Thanks for sharing!

    I wonder if you could comment on the occasional new Gibson LP that is reported to have a very "sticky" neck. I have an R5 that is like that, while my other LPs are fine.

    Could that have something to do with the nitro/acrylic ratio gone haywire?
     
  15. bruce bennett

    bruce bennett Active Member

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    I'll make a few basic generalizations about Gibsons current finishing issues..

    but first its needs to be stated that Gibson was revamping ther paint line for the two years prior to the flood. after which they REALLY revamped the paint line.. So as you might guess any finishing issues are going to be HIGHLY Date sensitive..

    that stated.. this is what My friend, the paint chemist told me.

    They called him in to start work in 2008 and the goal he was given was to speed the painting process up and to reduce the amount of "resprays" that were needing to be done.

    Gibson had spent bunch of money on a fully automated painting process which was only supposed to require a "touch up" spry at the end of the automated line.. but instead the guy doing these "touch ups" was respraying the entire guitar.. because they were having whats known as a "wrapping" problem.. this is where the electro-statically charged paint doesn't "wrap" around the guitar like it should and coat the sides.. it ends up just spraying into the air and not settling on the guitar.

    So my friends fixes this by boosting the electrostatic voltage changing the way they applied the charge to the guitar ( by hooking a wire to the truss rod nut) and adding extra saline to their paint formula, this solved the wrapping problem.. he then spent some time teaching the touch up guy to only spray the bottom inside the horn and the very top of the headstocks.

    the next batch of guitars I've been told, supposedly had a very uniform paint thickness and the over spray was cut down to almost zero.

    but for whatever reason Gibson replaced the newly trained guy with someone else only a few weeks after the fix was implemented. and within a month they ended up with the same problem again.

    my friend was called back, but this time they were upset that the "fix" didn't "stay fixed". So he went back in, evaluated the problem.. discovered that the conditions had reverted to their previous state.. and he attempted to re-fix them. again he got the situation back under control and within another 2 weeks ha the paint shop running smoothly again..

    within another 3 months they changed painters again...
    and so you can see how this cycle tends to repeat itself.

    in 2010 Gibson was flooded out completely and they spent 6-7 months rebuilding the entire factory.
    now they have a completely new system and completely new people running it.. My friend has not been called back since early 2010

    but you can bet that whatever "system" they use.. the specs of it will become "lost" with each and every employee turnover.
    so the basic answer to you question about the acrylic /nitro formula.. Is,

    yeah, probably.
     
  16. Adam

    Adam Well-Known Member

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    Good read. I went to the Dallas International Guitar Show this year and looked at all the Gibsons in their booth... Not a one of them would have made it out of Collings. Was pretty surprising, mainly due to the prices.
     
  17. evolved_insanity

    evolved_insanity Active Member

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    Most oil finishes now such as Danish oil (tung based), Tung Oil (not pure) and other oils are filled with either urethane solids or waxes now so they do in fact build on the top of wood. It is pretty hard to find 100% pure oils on the retail market in North America.

    In Canada where our specific laws pertaining to VOC's is governed by the federal government rather than state/provincial governments like the U.S., even nitro and poly's are, or have, undergone a major overhaul. Companies like Deft (now owned by PPG group) changed most of their product line years ago to deal with the laws or they pay to have more time to change things and get them right. Their water borne poly is the closest thing I have seen to a nitro that is not nitro.

    That being said, thank you for your sharing of the info. A lot of people use terms because of a lack of education and reads like this go a long way in educating. Thanks again.:dude:
     
  18. Jim_E

    Jim_E Active Member

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    A couple of proviso's, nitrocellulose lacquer is available in different formulations so the whole drying vs curing isn't quite that straight up, neither is the use of these two terms as the don't really have a solid scientific definition, and we use them rather loosely.

    "Regular" nitro (in other words no catalyst) is a drying or evaporation finish, however pre-catalyzed and catalyzed nitro lacquers both meet your definition for a "cure" as a catalyst has been added, however once cured some can be re-dissolved...

    So this whole dry vs cure is a little hard to nail down.

    I just spoke to the tech rep at one of our suppliers here in Toronto, a manufacturer of lacquer for a very long time. He tells me that the main difference between today's pre-cat and catalyzed lacquers, and the stuff (still available) I used to buy 30 years ago are relatively small and go mostly toward non-yellowing and non-checking agents.

    At least with this supplier if it says nitro there is no acrylic or urethane components and no (what guitar guys love to call) "plasticizers".

    At the end of the day lacquer to me is the easiest to apply and touch-up, and it feels the best under my hands, that's why I use it.
     
  19. The Guitar Surgeon

    The Guitar Surgeon New Member

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    Bruce,

    Nice thread. I agree with most of that. I don't refinish guitars. I never have and probably never will. I did one of my own guitars and unless I get a real spray booth and the proper tools, I won't do it again. But after almost 30 years of playing, repairing, and simply checking out gear (which is one of my big hobbies, I hit all the shops everywhere I go and play many, many guitars from vintage (even some holy grails I've worked on or played) to brand new high end and old and new "cheapos," I have never believed nitrocellulose allows wood to breath. Grain filler of all types seals a lot of the wood grain for an even finish. This "clogs" the pores. Nitro wears nicely, but a lot of what people think makes old guitars sound better is mostly an educated guess that can't be scientifically proven. It's just conjecture. I've played many, many, many vintage guitars, and some sound great, some don't. Old does not equal better. There are great guitars and dogs from all eras, all manufacturers. I gave up trying to discuss it with people b/c many who are convinced it makes a difference have no clue what they are talking about, when I dig deep. Yet, they argue with me and think I have no clue. Ok, I can live with it.

    As for babies "breathing" O2 in the womb, they get their nutrition and O2 from mom's blood supply. Prior to implantation, it is absorbed by the blood that engorges the uterine lining. Once the embryo implants and becomes a fetus, it is connected to mom's blood supply via the umbilical cord. The amniotic fluid does not supply the O2 for the baby. So that argument is moot. If you cut off the blood supply from the umbilical cord, the baby would die in the womb for lack of oxygen and nutrients. O2 is soluble in water, but not as much as carbon dioxide, which is exhaled. The fluids would build up CO2 and the fetus would not survive. I know. I teach anatomy and physiology to nurses, and have taught it to graduate courses and given lectures to medical students when I taught at a university. I am now an Associate Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at a college and have taught this stuff for about 18 years total. My master's is in biochemistry, my doctoral research is in neurophysiology. I know my biology.

    Bruce, thanks for posting. It's nice to see an educated discussion on the topic.

    I often argue this: For centuries people believed Aristotle's logic that two objects of the same shape but different masses would fall from a height at different rates, the heavier falling faster. Then a guy named Galileo Galilee disproved it by dropping two objects of different mass and found they accelerated towards the earth at the same rate, 32 feet per second per second. He disproved the prevailing "logic" with science.

    So, all the logic in the world that nitrocellulose lacquer sounds better b/c it allows the wood to breath is not truly testable. First of all, what sounds better depends on the ear of the beholder. So better is subjective. If you could take two identical guitars (which do not exist) and test them with the proper equipment, then maybe we could conclude something. You are never going to get two identical pieces of wood, cut identically, finished identically, and put together identically, even with the identical hardware (which don't exist b/c every piece will have some variances), so it's not testable. I once played identical looking 3-color sunburst 1965 strats with very close serial #'s that had been owned by the same owner who bought two, one to gig (which was very worn) and the second to put away for good keeping and was in mint condition b/c it was hardly ever played. It was about as close as you could get to two identical guitars. One sounded and played great, the other SUCKED! according to myself and everyone else who played them the same day when the owner of the music store brought them in to finally sell. We even spent time cutting nut slots and adjusting them to as close as we could get them. One was great, the other was a dog. I learned that day that old does not equal good. Maybe the second one was finished in poly? Just kidding. But it opened my eyes as a young man who was obsessed with vintage instruments being superior. I've never believed it since. I've played two 1956 Les Paul Jr.'s owned by the same owner. Both all original except the butter bean tuners had been replaces with correct vintage replacements at a great cost to the owner. I set both of them up (they are owned by a collector whose collection I take care of). One was far superior to the other, although both were nice guitars. One sounded just better than the other. We checked pup height, nut slot height, (I had alread leveled and crowned the frets on both), action, just about everything. Both played through my Rivera Rake. One is great, the other is really good, but very distinguishable tonally. It's just some guitars are greater than the sum of their parts, some are worse, and some guitars are just a sum of their parts. I once played an all original 1959 tele owned by a local shop owner (who still owns the guitar) and we both thought it sounded not very good at all. He still owns it to tell people he has one, but it did not sound very good to us. It had been played and signed by Ian Moore. It was a crap guitar, and the owner said when Ian Moore played it he was unimpressed and as disappointed as we were that a grand ol' tele sounded so bad. It's just not that great a guitar.

    I conclude this, though. If a person thinks something sounds better, then it does to them. It may not, to me. It's all in the ear of the beholder. That ear can be affected by psychoacoustic effects.

    I recently played 5 teles at a guitar shop and we were doing an A/B test through the 1969 Pro Reverb I was purchasing. The guitars included a Classic Vibe 50's tele ($350), a Fender FSR with vintage noiseless pups that was made in Mexico ($599), an American Special tele with Texas Special pups (about $800), an American Standard tele (abut 1100), and an American Deluxe tele (about $1600+). I asked the guys to tell me which sounded better. I had 5 dudes in a music store that had just closed listen with their backs while I did A/B/C/D/E tests playing the same licks. All agreed on a few things. The FSR tele sounded the best through that amp (much to our surprise) with the most spank and fattest tone, the American Special sounded the nastiest as far as tele skronk, the Classic Vibe faired second best overall with the most spank and twang, and the two high-end teles sounded good, were more balanaced tonally, but did not have that extra something that each of the others had. Everyone was shocked to find the results b/c they guessed which was which based on the tones they heard. None got it right except the American Special, by two people. It goes to show, a blind test can be done. Now, through a different amp the choices may have changed. I wish we had filmed it or recorded it. There was some discussion as to whether we should do so b/c all the equipment was there to do it. We didn't have the time as we all needed to get home at some point. But, it informed all of our opinions on letting our ears decide, and not what we thought would sound best. Of course, some would have their mind made up in advance and would then blame the computer speakers or something to disprove their preconceived notions must be correct.

    Sorry to be so long winded, but I've often tried to be objective in my decisions. I do own some nice old guitars, some nice new ones, and some that people think are crap til they play 'em (my made in Indonesia Squier is a great guitar, but I did have to replace the pups til I found two that sounded good in it, a Tex-Mex tele bridge pup and a GFS Fatbody neck pup, which is just great). That little tele gets a lot of compliments and it's all stock except the pups. The pots suck as far as taper, but it sounds too good to mess with. If it ain't broke, I don't fix it.

    Well, I appreciate your post, Bruce. I'm happy to know there are people with objective and informed opinions that back up the opinions I've formed after years of playing and working on probably hundreds and hundred of guitars. Some are just fantastic, some aren't. I don't get hung up on the internet mythology or let my eyes determine what sounds good. I let my ears be the judge.

    Bob
     
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  20. The Guitar Surgeon

    The Guitar Surgeon New Member

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    By the way, I will add this:

    About a year ago a client dropped off a 74 strat that was all original except a tone pot (replaced b/c the old one died), and refret, and a new nut. I work on quite a few of this guy's guitars and we are old friends, about 20 or so years. He bought a set of some Klein pups (can't remember which model) for me to drop in. He stopped by one day to check out a new amp I had gotten and to play a few guitars and shoot the breeze. He picked up his guitar, plugged it in, and raved about how great the new pups sounded, and that it was so much better than the stock pups. I proceeded to tell him, "You can return these or sell 'em to get your money back." I then handed him the uninstalled Klein pups. He was embarrassed, to say the least. I hadn't gotten to his guitar yet, but he had pulled it out of the case when I went to grab a couple of drinks for us. When I returned he was playing the guitar. It was uncomfortable for a minute or two, but he was really shocked that he thought the guitar sounded better b/c he thought it had the new pups. The psychoacoustic effect is real.

    Just thought I'd share that to demonstrate, again, that people often hear what they want to hear. A good guitar is a good guitar. Some sound better with upgrades, some don't. I just can't buy the idea that an old guitar sounds better b/c of nitro, handwinding of pups, old pups wire, old wood, or any other mythology. I do believe some acoustics sound better as they have aged, but who knows why. Some old acoustics sound like crap, despite being pre-war Martins. If they are well-maintained, they can sound good. But not all are properly cared-for. Old does not equal better, nitro is not superior. Just about everything Bruce Bennett said I concur with, based on my experience.

    Bob

    Bob
     

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