When and Why Fender Commercialised the Guitar Relic

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday 2 June 2020
Fender Relic Stratocaster Foam Grern

You don't have to browse far down Fender's Twitter timeline before you're met with a tweet proudly showing off some brand new but considerably distressed vintage replica. A Relic. And another. And another. But let's be fair. Fender commercialised the Relic concept, and they're entitled to bathe in its glory. So, "when, how and why did it all start?", you ask. Let's hop into the time machine, destination 1990s...

In the world of guitars, a Relic is a new instrument, intended to look and feel like a weathered vintage piece whose hard life on the road has left it full of character and personality. The word "Relic" was Fender's product designation from the word go, but it's since become a more widely-used term of reference for any guitar that's been through a serious artificial ageing process. The fast ageing process itself became known as relicking - or, to quote the more common spelling that makes me cringe, relicing. Relics are also commonly associated with very high quality materials and exemplary build. The best of them are works of art.

The commercialisation and branding were unarguably Fender's, but as is almost always the case with successful business concepts, the template for guitar Relics came from the underground, rather than the company that put the idea into the mainstream.

Admittedly, as early as 1992, Fender had acknowledged and met demand for artifical ageing with their Made in Japan Aged Parts '62 Strat. But that guitar did not have a distressed finish, or any kind of weathering. It merely featured a fast-impact, low-cost, cosmetic replacement of the usual white plastic parts with deliberately discoloured plastics. The guitar was in continuous production until 1995, at which point it was (temporarily - although that was not known at the time) de-listed.

But by '95, an altogether bigger drive to convincingly age Fender and Fender copy guitars was fighting its way out of the shadows. This drive was not about making new guitars look reminiscent of vintage Fenders. It was, without mincing words, about turning them into vintage guitar forgeries - accurate enough to fool experts. Which some did.

This underground scene could be traced back to the early days of the vintage guitar boom itself. Once the prices of vintage guitars escalated beyond the value of the labour required to fake them, people with the skills to convincingly fake a vintage guitar, did. But the point at which the fake scene really took off, was when a wide range of old Fenders began to skyrocket in price. And that was the second half of the 1980s.

As essentially kit-form guitars with relatively cheap and simple manufacture, Fenders had become the ultimate target for forgers. Forging a '50s Strat was not like forging a high-end '50s D'Angelico where you'd have to craft an entire masterpiece from scratch. There was a vast pre-existing stock of component parts for the Strat. All the forger had to do was refinish with the right neck date and ID markings, mock the weathering and screw everything together. Still a lot of highly skilled work, but nothing like actually building a luxury instrument from the ground up.

By the mid 1990s, the vintage market was extremely concerned about Fender forgeries. Or, the greater problem at the time - semi-forgeries. Semi-forgeries were original Fender guitars of the correct period, but with two or three replacement parts and a refinish - and importantly, passed off as all-original.

For dealers, it made financial sense (if not ethical/reputational sense) to pay a forger to fake an authentic vintage finish and "legitimise" the replacement parts. Because of the huge premium which the market had by that time placed on an original finish, paying a forger to simulate the aged original paintwork and then selling as "all-original" would make more money than selling the instrument as doctored. That was something new. The late '80s was the first time that kind of thing had been commercially viable on a really significant scale. Simply, before that, even many of the pre-CBS Fenders had not been worth enough to absorb the cost of the skilled labour. Once paying a forger did become widely cost-effective, not all dealers could resist the temptation.

This situation would have persisted unrestrained had it not been for craftspeople like Dan Erlewine, who released a VHS video revealing the kind of tricks forgers were using to age guitar finishes. Although Erlewine was criticised for potentially "teaching forgers how to forge", what his video had really done was to bring something no one had been talking about, right out into the open. Now the industry had to face reality. And suddenly, there was sufficient doubt in the vintage market to change the game.

With buyers now able to actually visualise the reality of guitar forgery, some instantly realised it might make more sense to KNOWINGLY pay for a forgery, than pay two or three times as much for a supposed original and end up with the exact same guitar.

In the wake of this epiphany, craftspeople who candidly marketed aged refinishes to the end user (as opposed to offering off-the-record services to dodgy dealers), mounted a bid to size up their operations. UK finish-ageing expert Clive Brown presented some of his work for the March 1996 issue of The Guitar Magazine, and the resulting article, by Paul Trynka, became one of the great historical landmarks of its decade. When you re-read it, you can still feel the STOP sign going up. Brown's super-convincing '50s Tele body was just too good for me, personally, to discern from the real thing. Many other formerly regular buyers of vintage guitars must have seen that same STOP sign, I'm sure.

Meanwhile, the quest for artifically aged guitars had also shown signs of coming out of the shadows in Japan. Both ESP and Vester had produced prototype sample guitars with a degree of what we now call "relicking". But it would be Fender who finally took the Relic out of the tentative field of bespoke order or experimental demo, and catalogued it, as a listed product...

And behind this groundbreaking decision to put pre-battered guitars on a retail price list?... The Custom Shop - a wing of the Fender operation that epitomised the spirit of guitar enthusiasm, whilst openly loathing the effect corporate practices had had on guitars. They weren't even afraid to criticise their own company's historical policies. Back in 1990, Fender Custom Shop Manager John Page had publicly described CBS Fender as...

"A stepping stone for career-minded executives with their own shortsighted agenda - make a profit this year and move up to another branch of the corporation."

To see a manager exposing the history of his own brand in that way was quite remarkable. But it gave some idea of how far removed the Custom Shop was from the corporate culture which had nearly consigned Fender to history. This was a new era, all about the customer, and it was time to "build some dreams", as the Custom Shop put it.

The inaugural round of Fender Custom Shop Relic samples got their first UK reviews in the May 1996 magazines, hitting the shops early in April that year. At least two of the UK guitar mags received the same model of "Mary Kaye" style late '50s Strat Relic in Blonde with gold parts. For the first time, it was clear that whilst both mags had recieved the same model for review, the individual guitars were different. Obviously, the weathering was NOT done on a computer-controlled machine!

Priced at between £2,300 and £2,600, the standard options in the initial Fender Relic range were limited to the '50s Strat, an early '60s Strat, a '51 Nocaster, and an early '60s Jazz bass.

Why no Jaguar or Jazzmaster? Simple: the Custom Shop couldn't compete with the vintage originals on price. In '96 you could still get a real pre-CBS Jag or Jazzmaster in a custom colour for way, way under two grand, and there was very little concern about fakes, because when a forger can forge something that's worth £5,000 - £6.000, he's unlikely to spend his time forging something that's worth £1,400 - £1,700. Hence, no one was going to pay the Custom Shop two and a half grand for a pretend vintage Jag/Jazzmaster.

By nature of the Custom Shop ethos, each of the listed models was subject to a series of sub-options on parts. And most notably, a specified grade of relicking numbered from 1 (light) to 10 (heavy). "Heavy" circa spring 1996 was not heavy at all as compared with some of the specimens we see emerging from the Custom Shop today. Additionally, a buyer could go true custom and simply specify what they wanted. That would, however, inevitably escalate the cost to some order.

The guitars were permanently marked in multiple ways to show their Custom Shop parentage, and given R-prefixed serial numbers.

The consensus at that very early stage was that Fender's Relics were not as convincing as some of the known fakes doing the rounds. That was in part deliberate, and in part inexperience in an emerging field, I suspect.

But Fender clearly loved this format, and not just because it was an opportunity to cash in on the vintage market's skyrocketing prices and crash in buyer confidence. It also allowed Fender to celebrate their history in a way most of their main rivals simply couldn't, and it was a way for a builder of very functional, non-luxury instruments to demonstrate their craftsmanship. The art of carving, purfling and elaborate inlay may not have been sought after by the average Fender buyer, but the art of road-weathering definitely reduced those Fender fans to goggle-eyed goo.

I imagine Fender were pretty sorely disappointed with the reaction to their first Blonde Strats. Not that the reaction was bad. The general tide was actually very positive. But there were just too many reservations and little quibbles for a guitar that expected to fetch two and a half grand. And TGM's comment "[the aged finish is] not up to the standard of some 'fakes' that I've seen" must have hurt. I mean, that's tantamount to saying "Fender's professional finishing process is inferior to the work of little guys in sheds".

But Fender knew this was going to be big, and they persisted. Later that same year they submitted a much more convincing Nocaster to Guitarist magazine for review. The verdict at second attempt - "Sounds absolutely fantastic and looks amazingly genuine" - would have gone down rather better.

There's a tendency for people to either love or hate the Relic idea. But I think it should be seen like any other kind of art. You wouldn't say: "I love paintings" or "I hate paintings". You'd say "I really like that painting but I'm not so keen on this other one". We should assess Relics in the same way.

If we could all go back to 1982 and pick up a well-throttled '64 Strat for a few hundred quid, knowing beyond all doubt that the guitar was genuine, there would be no need for Relics, and it would not be commercially viable to produce such a thing.

But we can't. In the 1990s we reached a point where vintage originals hit a new and highly adverse ratio of price versus risk, and that opened up a market for controlled production of lifelike vintage simulations of 100% known, reputable and respected origin. The advantages were many. You got the model you actually wanted, rather than just the one you could afford. You had a say in the final spec. You didn't have to worry about the odd knock affecting the resale value. You didn't have to take the guitar straight in for a refret. And you avoided noisy switches and pots, bent or near-unsalvageable tuners, damaged pickups, seized-up bridge saddle adjusters, lost screws, etc.

There will always be those who think it's madness to pay £thousands for something that looks more like thirteenth-hand than secondhand. But that overlooks so much about the Relic concept. It's not just about bashing new guitars about. It's about making and finishing guitars the way they used to be made and finished, in the days when manufacture was much more hands-on and expensive. It's about understanding that without that old style manufacture, the relicking process wouldn't even work. Then it's about understanding the grace of the ageing process and convincingly reproducing it. But most of all, it's about making a new purchase feel like an old friend.

If you want to collect mint condition Squiers, that's great. But the Relic is for someone with a completely different mindset. Someone who wants one guitar to be part of them. Their image. Their on-stage identity. Someone who wants a guitar they can really let loose and play, with fire, and without worrying they might chip the polyurethane. Relics can be very expensive, but you only live once, as they say.