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FDP Forum / Fender Custom Shop / If a nitro finish sounds better, why do so many expensive gutars use a urethane finish?

Previous 20 Messages  

Fairfax, VA USA

Nov 3rd, 2010 07:40 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

All you need to do is compare the tone of a 70's Fender Strat w a heavy coating of polyurethane against a 60's Fender Strat with a thin hard lacquer finish and you will instantly hear the difference. Sure the wood was a lot heavier in the 70's, but the thick coat of polyurethane effectively acts like a blanket over the guitar, all but smothering the tone and resonance of the guitar. I think that is one of the main reasons Gibson lovers avoid PRS guitars.


the world

Nov 4th, 2010 11:31 AM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

I play fender guitars every day here at the factory and nothing (in my humble opinion) sounds better than a custom shop relic nocaster. Having said that I don't think guitars finished in urethane sound bad it's just that the thin nitro seems to sound more "up front" while the urethane guitars seem to sound more like they are more in the back. That could also be because my 60 year old ears don't have the high end response they once did. It is hard to describe but I have the chance to play many guitars side by side through the same amp under the same conditions but I agree that much of that is perception and since there is no scientific way to measure "better" it is a matter of personal choice. I also agree with mike eldred that more of the sound comes from the person playing than the guitar. I used to work with Bruce Bolen who is one of the best guitarists I have ever heard and he could make any guitar sound wonderful. So I have typed a lot without really saying anything so i will shut up now. Buy the guitar that sounds best to you cause yours is the only opinion that really counts.

Contributing Member

South Carolina

I kicked cancer's ass!
Nov 4th, 2010 04:17 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

Mike Eldred,

In your previous post, you said in your opinion, the type of finish does make a difference in a guitars tone. Please give us your opinion as to what these tone differences are?

Danny Nader


Nov 5th, 2010 08:51 AM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic


I agree w/ you on Bruce. He's a longtime friend & a wonderful player!


E.C. Strat


Woke up this mornin.....
Mar 21st, 2011 12:12 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

Listen Me - you above, who the hell are you anyway ;) No seriously I have a Nitro partocaster & a Clapton Strat. To me there is no difference in the quality of sound over one finish or other. For every Nitro jem there will be a dog and the same goes with poly. Nitro for me ages better - if you like the relic look whilst poly is soooo much tougher. If it does dink it can look pretty ugly though which is why I prefer Nitro.
My Clapton Strat still looks brand new & I got it in about 97. My relic partocaster is based on Blackie & it ages really nice. But sound wise they have very different qualities (even unplugged) and that is down to way more than the paint job.
The end tone of your sound has so much to do with amp, string, cables, playing style etc I don't think it makes much sense to get bogged down on the paint choice for tone argument.

Contributing Member

Chicago, IL USA

Mar 21st, 2011 10:32 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

Wow, Mike. I seriously doubted that before you said it.

But now that you mention it, all my keepers are Custom Shops with nitro. All this time I had honestly thought that I was just fooling myself so it feels good to know I made the right decision.

Once you consider the use one gets from a guitar (some of mine are well over 20 years) the cost of enjoyment has been quite reasonable.

uncle stack-knob
Contributing Member

united kingdom

Mar 29th, 2011 04:33 AM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

An opportunity to talk with/discuss with Mike Eldred should not be wasted,and respect is due.

Now,I have worked on instruments and built them for a long time now.
This tone/finish debate has been around a few years as well.
I think to a degree a lot of it comes from peoples' reading and hearing about the art of classical guitar construction,and also influenced by aspects of classical string instrument construction.
It creates a "vibe" thing to talk about it.

A true test,or one that may approximate fairly,would be to strip all the finish off a pre-CBS guitar or bass, and refinish it with a similar thickness coat of urethane.
I would like to see someone prove to me that there would be a degradation in sound.

I have experienced plenty of poly coated seventies Fenders that were "good ones" as well as those that were not.
That doesn't mean it's all down to the poly finish does it?
Many periods in the seventies were associated with poor pickups in Fender guitars,notably Strats with weak trble response in the high register.Yet acoustically that was not determinable particularly.
Also some components in the hardware left a huge amount to be desired.
The inception of the Standard American Stratocaster,and the changes it evolved,removed all that and gave a fine guitar.

It is not a given that ALL "vintage Fenders" had a micro-thin finish.
Even taking in to account the time evolved settling of the finish into the grain,there are plenty of examples that disprove the belief.

The most obvious is the practice utilised at the factory "not to waste anything" and "use it up".
Which is good business practice.
Hence all should be familiar with the practice of taking a sub-standard sunburst,flatting it back,priming it,then spraying a good obliterating coat of a custom colour over it,which in some cases went wrong,so another coat of a similar or same colour was applied.
There are more than a few examples.

Then it is necessary to consider the introduction of "Fullerplast".
So much nonsense is spoken about this today.
In its' very earliest form,and I mean earliest,Fullerplast was a pre-cat cellulose lacquer,for those who know what that is.
It quickly became a CHEMICALLY curing finish,with rapid setting qualities.
Ideal for guitar production,as it solved the issues of grain filling,sealing,and set-off times;also it provided an excellent substrate for subsequent s/bursts and colours.

Fullerplast can be identified in its' chemical cure form as early as late 1963.
As the seventies happened,Fullerplast could be found as a single application for clear-coat finishes,with the proviso that for a while in the early period a couple of coats of cellulose would be applied over the finish as well to achieve the "high gloss" finish,(which when it wears with use and age leaves "witness marks or lines" at the edge of the wear pattern,due to the fact that cellulose does not melt into fullerplast,it sits on it).

I see today a good finish on Fender instruments that is modern,and yet has a connection with the wants of the "thin-ness brigade".
Many of these instruments sound good,very good.

To conclude: Fender are good enough to oblige those who desire a thin cellulose finish.
The need for it is highly debatable;there may be a "different tone" to the ears of some,but that does not mean it is "a better tone".

feel better for that.
Oh yes,thanks Mike for doing what you guys do.

Uncle Stack-Knob. :O)

(This message was last edited by uncle stack-knob at 04:46 AM, Mar 29th, 2011)

Contributing Member


Apr 13th, 2011 10:58 AM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

It comes down to whether one cares for history or not. If you like old guitars, I suspect you like all the classic music made on them by great players. All the greats had guitars that showed their age and playing wear and that has definitely influenced a lot of people. Those guitars were finished in nitro.

If your guitar is simply a tool of the trade, and that history means nothing, then I suspect you wouldn't care about nitro vs. poly. In fact, you may want your guitar to look new forever, especially an expensive one.

To me, guitars are equal parts tool, art and history. I'll never own Clapton's brownie, but I can own something really close. And for that it needs to be nitro. Perrsonally, I love the way nitro sinks into the wood over time. That's part of the allure of old guitars. I'd never be able to objectively argue that nitro sounds better, but I still prefer it. I suppose that makes it purley cosmetic, but it matters to me.

I have to admit, I detect that all of my guitars have "seasoned" somewhat with age, and half are nitro, half are poly.


the world

May 9th, 2011 10:02 AM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

better is not the word we should be using. They do sound different and "better" has to be the sound you prefer. I prefer the sound of the thin nitro finish and to me that is "better" but sound is a personal preference. I like the sound of a tele better than a strat but once again it is personal. Each type of finish has it's own set of good and bad characteristics and the only way to decide is to try different guitars side by side. there is no correct answer on a subject that is so subjective.

Contributing Member

Medford, NY

"It's all in your mind."
May 13th, 2011 05:45 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

"An opportunity to talk with/discuss with Mike Eldred should not be wasted,and respect is due."

Kudos, Uncle Stack. These people in the custom shop are master craftsmen who obviously take great pride in their livlihood. Of course we should be respectful of them, as much as we expect others to be respectful of our own life's work.
I've read through many of Fenders' own descriptions of their custom shop instruments. I haven't found one instance yet where the Custom Shop claims that nitro finishes sound better. Or that certain pickups, such as Abby hand wounds, sound better. What they are offering is the opportunity to purchase a product that offers many features that we, as players over the years, have come to define as having qualities of vintage instruments that have become desirable for many of us, and valuable to collectors. You, as a player and purchaser, get to decide whether the instrument offers what you want, or does not. I think Mike Eldred is right- we, the players, seem to have come up with the "better" concept. And what Fender may claim in their advertising about their "production" models is not what the Custom Shop is claiming in theirs.

Contributing Member


RonHalen Jokingly He Says
May 27th, 2011 03:15 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

I think this has been a vary successful makrketing campaign by the Hype Market. Nitro wears faster and looks like the period pieces much quicker. Poly may never wear.

Contributing Member


May 28th, 2011 09:56 AM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

Interesting that some high-end acoustic guitar builders (Like Dana Bourgeois) use thin catalyzed finishes rather than nitro. Pretty sure the type and quality of finish is more critical on an acoustic than on an electric "plank"!

What it comes down to is vibe, and how it wears. I want my acoustic guitars to look pristine (thin poly is ok). I want my Fenders to show their battle scars - gimme some nitro finish, please.

Contributing Member

That chicken

is WRONG, baby.
Jun 27th, 2011 09:53 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

If a thinner finish sounds better, why don't the real tone hounds use bare bodies on their guitars? Nitro being "better" falls into the realm of oxygen-free copper guitar cables and Q-Ray bracelets improving your golf game.

Contributing Member

USA / Virginia

Jun 29th, 2011 07:25 AM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

"It seems like everyone says that nitro finishes sound better."

NO, just some people say that.

Contributing Member


Jun 29th, 2011 09:49 AM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

Ya know, a relatively miniscule dimensional/cosmetic difference on a woman can take most dudes from indifference to tongue sagging stupidity.

Should we really treat our guitars any different?


Mr Kite


Being for the benefit of...
Jul 31st, 2011 12:54 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

I think with the Highway 1, perhaps it's the 'thin' part rather than the nitro part that Fender are claiming 'allows the wood tone through'...

I, for one, have just bought a 2011 Pro Tele, which is my first Nitro finished electric (I traded a poly Baja as part of the deal) and, my personal opinion, is that there are so many things that are different about this guitar to my previous ones, that the finish is probably the last thing that makes it sound so good...

However, the feel of nitro is a little nicer, you don't get that slightly greasy feel under your bare arm like I find with poly (I still have a poly CP Jazzmaster) and there is definitely an aesthetic difference - nitro tends to have a 'dull shine' rather than a real glassy one...

Truth be told, I don't think two guitars exactly the same, one poly, one nitro would sound different - but I do think the thickness of the finish makes a difference so maybe a really thick nitro would sound 'worse' than a really thin poly?

Contributing Member


RonHalen Jokingly He Says
Sep 25th, 2011 06:43 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

Thanks Mike! I like the way Nitro wears, but like the durability of the poly finsh for protecting from dings and chips.

Contributing Member


We had the hit but Van got the money
Sep 25th, 2011 09:07 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

Much of this comes from the vintage guitar dealers, and we all know they've never created any urban legends. Old guitars were finished in nitro and acquire a certain patina over time. Their tone "advantage" (if it exists) seems to be more the result of aging of all components and perhaps superior wood. However, the real issue seems to be the thickness of any type of finish and the corresponding dampening effect. Very early Fenders had very thin finishes and that imparts a certain "old", resonant feel.

(This message was last edited by SoK66 at 07:52 AM, Sep 26th, 2011)

Contributing Member

the joisey flats

livin' day to day
Sep 28th, 2011 06:32 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

I think it is a bunch of bull. I have 2 strats without any finish on them and a hendrix tribute strat which has a poly under coat and laquer top. the tribute sounds better and is more resonant than either of the bare guitars.

Contributing Member


RonHalen Jokingly He Says
Dec 15th, 2011 07:32 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

My bare guitar is nice, but mypoly guitar sounds just as good.

Previous 20 Messages  

FDP Forum / Fender Custom Shop / If a nitro finish sounds better, why do so many expensive gutars use a urethane finish?

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