Wear and tear – it's like a display of character, isn't it? Which is why it can seem somewhat suspect.
Maybe we should blame Eddie Van Halen a bit for making spare parts guitars into worn-down monsters and feeding a deep-seated need for something vintage, authentic and well-worn?
I noticed in a Jan Akkerman YouTube clip the other day, where he was playing an old black Les Paul Custom 3-pickup, the back of the neck was worn right down to the bare mahogany wood; it looked like it had been sanded because it was so uniform, all the way up and down the back of the neck.
The wear and tear on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s axe sure looked like it had simply been played so much and so recklessly for so long that it was worn down (but not out!).
Willie Nelson's acoustic is surely worn from years of play. Same thing for Monte Montgomery's guitar and the face of Tommy Emmanuel’s favourite acoustic, I think. People see this and I think they want a bit of that mojo, even if it doesn’t come from wear and tear.
When I first joined Triumph, Mike Levine had a vintage bass. It had a horrible green (amateur) re-finish, and it had a huge divot (like a golf sandtrap) scraped out of its face above the plane of the four strings. As I watched him play, I noticed that he used huge triangular heavy picks, and his picking motion had a lot of full forearm “sawing” going on. He was chewing into that face on every up-stroke. Well, in the very early days of the band, he took the guitar into the repair shop and had the divot filled in with a new piece of wood. He also refinished the guitar in white. Within a year or so he had started carving himself a lovely brand new divot right through the finish and into the wood. Again.
Plus, Mike used to have (still does, actually, although not as much) all kinds of silver jewellery, and that kind of heavy-metal approach around guitars can put little dings and chips in finishes over time so that they eventually start to look pretty beat up. Rings, belt-buckles, chains. I'm surprised Zakk Wylde hasn't turned some of his guitars into toothpicks.
Now that some custom shops do a brisk trade in “relic” models that look like they have years of wear on them – right down to the cigarette burn marks and the worn fretboard finish in certain places – it makes me sceptical of some distressed guitars.
I once had a Pete Townshend quote in a Guitar Player magazine article I wrote: "I don't polish the [expletive] thing: I just play it."
I also once had the lead singer from 54-40, Neil Osborne, say to me (with a fair bit of disdain after I had asked him where the knobs and switch head had gone from his guitar, and why the guitar was so battered and mangled): "Well, I don't care how it looks. For me, it's just a [expletive] tool."
Fair enough. Some people take care of their tools, and others are less concerned. For my part, I always felt that my guitar was a musical instrument, and an instrument required a certain amount of respect and care if it was going to function at a high level. But some people sure do seem to be able to get high-level performance from some beat-up gear, so that probably feeds the vibe.
I've worn the finish off my old 12-string acoustic's face in a few places (mostly around the soundhole), and the lacquer on my Gibsons usually gets thin and foggy in the area down around the treble side of the rear pickup ring and the bridge. I usually go through the gold hardware plating finish at contact points or start to see some wear through the nickel plating on the treble side of bridges. But I'm not a very sweaty or oily-handed kind of guy, so the finishes usually remain pretty good elsewhere. Plus, I've always owned a stable of guitars and changed out and rotated my tires frequently, so to speak, so they don't wear out.
But I'd maybe like to get down to the bare wood in a few places on my black Les Paul in this lifetime. We'll see.