The striking image of a well-worn guitar has long been a symbol of popular music. It elicits an array of emotions, embodies hopes and dreams, and rekindles old memories of seeing (or being in) a band that positively owned the stage at some smokey dive years ago. The sight of such an instrument—Joe Strummer’s beaten Telecaster, Neil Young’s tattered Les Paul, Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” Stratocaster, or the epitome of a well-worn instrument, Willie Nelson’s Martin, “Trigger”—makes musicians and non-musicians alike wish they could have been there to see the damage inflicted, or dream about being the ones who dished it out. They can inspire a sense of witnessing history, set in rusted steel and well-used wood.
This admiration for beaten and bruised guitars has even created a trend in new guitars, but the phenomenon is fairly recent, when put into context. Fender and Gibson have been producing beaten-up versions of their instruments for several years now. In the late 90s, the Fender Custom Shop introduced the Relic series, which were highly accurate reproductions of their vintage designs, but purposefully worn to replicate the feel of an actual guitar from the ‘50s or ‘60s. The idea was apparently inspired by Keith Richards, who told Fender that the replica instruments he’d received “looked too new” and that he wanted them to be worn out before he’d play them, so that he couldn’t feel or see the difference. Going even further, guitarists can now buy instruments that actually replicate the exact scratches, dings, and worn finishes of some of their favorite artists’ guitars.
New, old-looking guitars can fetch thousands of dollars due to the comfortable feel of the neck, worn edges on the hardware, and of course, the look of cigarette smoke stains and finish dings from rowdy gigs and deflected beer bottles. Now that the demand for vintage-inspired, worn guitars has reached a peak, Fender is introducing an affordable line of their flagship models, complete with all the tarnished hardware, finish checking, and corrosion-encrusted vibe of those instruments.
[Read our '60s Strat review
The Road Worn Tele is based on a ‘50s model. Removing the Telecaster from the gig bag, we discovered quite a visually arresting guitar. I chalked this up partly to the fact that the fingerboard is maple, instead of rosewood, and the body sports a blonde finish—both of those traits really set off the worn treatment. The body exhibits a great attention to detail, such as small ganks on the rear edge of the guitar and an area worn down to the white primer on the back, where belt buckles would normally rest against it. Also instantly noticeable were the worn areas on the fingerboard. After sitting down and plugging it in to test out said fingerboard, another thing became instantly evident: the neck felt different in certain areas, noticeably different, in fact. The worn areas had a smooth satin finish, but the fretting hand was slowed as soon as it met the clearcoat. This neck felt much more like a vintage, worn-in neck than the Strat’s did, and it was a blast to play. Both the Strat and Tele were run through a 1967 Marshall Superbass head into a Bogner 4x12 cabinet. While the Strat had excellent sustain and punch, the Tele, of course, had its own voice… and unexpectedly more.
Once in a while, you come across a particular guitar that exemplifies a model you’ve played what seems like a few million times—one that rises above the others of its kind and truly enchants you. This Telecaster was one of those instruments. The tone was true to the Tele twang and honk, but had an impressive sting to it that was very easy on the ears. The low end was quick and tight, and the midrange was surprisingly smooth for a stock bridge pickup. The fat neck combined with the well-worn areas made it a dream to play. Even the large 6105 jumbo frets weren’t a bother, although the guitar could perhaps have been improved by sporting a smaller set that really belongs on a Telecaster. This Tele just had it all, hands down. The thing simply rocked.
The Final Mojo
It’s an obvious fact that pre-worn guitars are highly controversial among musicians. Some love the idea of an affordable, worn replica that’s great feeling great sounding right out of the box—and one that won’t take years getting it to feel the way they want it to. Others think the whole thing is as pointless as buying a pair of distressed jeans, and are offended that anybody would think that those battle scars didn’t have to be earned. After all, that’s one of the reasons why guitarists love worn guitars in the first place. They speak to the history between instrument and player. In the end, each player has to be the one to judge, but you ought to at least play one first before deciding.
Some aspects of a well-made, worn vintage replica can be a blessing in disguise: aged pickup magnets, thin nitro finishes and extremely comfortable necks. If the look turns players away, hopefully the allure of a great sounding and feeling instrument can bring them back. In the end, that’s all that should matter anyway, whether or not it’s achieved by a player over time or by a craftsman in another part of the world.
The Road Worn Series shows that Fender is on to something good here. The relic jobs are very good, and the sound and playability are a step above the Mexican Standard line. Some small changes might be nice, as well. This reviewer is old school and still believes that any guitar approaching the $1000 mark should come with a hardshell case instead of a gig bag. As for the Stratocaster, the worn areas on the neck could use a greater correspondence to the Tele, and more color options would be interesting, too. A worn, surf green or Buddy Holly blue would look really cool with this treatment. If the thought of new relics is a turn-off, then the Fender Classic Player line might be worth looking at. The Road Worn Series guitars are definitely in that league. If the goal is pure rock ‘n’ roll vibe though, the new Fender Road Worn guitars undoubtedly merit a good play.
a stripped-down Tele with a great sound and a great feel is just your thing.
you dig glossy-as-new Teles and prefer smaller frets.