Does painting a guitar change the sound?

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For guitar players, guitar maintenance goes beyond the fact that it makes the instrument look presentable and even new. It also prolongs the life of the strings and preserves the original sound and tone the guitar produces among other things.

Such a notion, as a result, has then prompted guitarists to refinish or repaint their instruments as a way to take care of them. At one glance, painting or refinishing a guitar seems unproblematic. For how does mere paint can negatively affect a guitar music-wise?

It might sound silly for non-musicians—in fact, even for musicians too—but groups of amateur and professional guitar players seem to believe that paint and its color come with a negative on the guitar’s sound.

However, surprisingly, there’s a little science behind it.

Julio Cedano, Senior Chemist at Fender Custom Shop explained that paint colours have different tint loads and are applied differently, citing that some colors require larger amounts compared to others. And, thus, in essence, it is more of the paint’s thickness rather than the color itself.

Still confused? Read on.

Paint and Its Effects on Guitar’s Sound

Also known as the guitar’s finish, paint indeed affects the instrument. To what extent, however, is what experts are unsure about. In fact, it is quite difficult to quantify how much its impact is on the instrument, specifically on the sound and tone. 

That being said, for you to understand how things further, I made a separate explanation for each factor that explains the paint’s effects.

The Billy Corgan’s Claim

The idea that paint and its color have negative effects on a guitar’s sound started when Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins unveiled his signature model brand called Reverend. Based on his account, he confessed that throughout his career as a guitarist, a certain shade of paint sounds different. And that his “white” Reverend, he believes, sounds better. 

“I’ve found through the years that certain paints sound different, so the white Reverend, I think, sounds better,” he said.

As to why such a result could take place, there is little to zero rational explanation. 

On the flip side, the senior chemist at Fender custom shop Julio Cedano offered a little insight on how a paint color could possibly affect the sound a guitar produces. In his explanation, he talked about color correcting.

Color Correcting

In essence, paint color has varying chemical properties. These distinct differences then, according to Cedano, affects the amount of tint load needed to achieve the right shade wherein some colors require larger amounts compared to others. 

“Different colors have different tint loads and need to be applied differently, some in greater amounts than others—so it would be more about a thin vs. thin finish rather than the color itself.”

As a result, the amount of tint load or how thick the finish is could possibly hold back the richness and fullness of the sound the guitar produces. Unlike paint color with lesser tint application. Cedano also added that depending on the paint’s color, the finish’s pigment, resin, and other coalescing agents settle differently.

And, thus, affects the hardness, porosity, and density of the guitar’s body.

“The rationale behind the paint additives as dispersion, flow, viscosity control—these dispersion properties have a great impact on the mechanical properties as hardness and flexibility,” Cedano explained.

Guitar Finishes

Apart from Billy Corgan’s claim, there is a more rational explanation of how paint can alter the tone and overall sound of both an electric and acoustic guitar. However, rather than the color, it is the finishing product’s material. In fact, folks who believe paint have adverse effects on guitars says that it is all about the type of finish used in guitars.

That said, there are three popular types of finish manufacturers use to paint on guitars—the nitrocellulose, polyurethane, and polyester. Here’s how they differ from one another:

  • Nitrocellulose finish. Also called nitro, nitrocellulose is the original electric guitar finish manufacturers in the U.S. used. Essentially, nitro as a guitar finish is popular among guitarists because it is best at preserving the natural resonance of the instrument compared to polyester and polyurethane. Durability-wise, it is superior as well as brands like Fender utilized the same nitrocellulose lacquer as those that are used in automobiles. In return, this protects the guitar from scratches and weathering. The only drawback about nitro is that, over time, it chips off and gets dull. The color develops a yellowish shade too as it contains no UV protection at that time.
  • Polyurethane and polyester finishes. Due to nitrocellulose drawbacks, manufacturers eventually replaced it with polyester and polyurethane finishes. And the thing about these finishes is that, compared to nitro, they don’t fade even as time passes by. The finishes do not get easily scratched and chipped either. On the other hand, it did not match the nitrocellulose ability to preserve the natural resonance of a guitar. Hence, many tone purists do not prefer it. A lot of guitar players shunned away from using electric guitars with the said type of finishes too. On a good note, manufacturers developed more refined poly finishes in order to cover its drawbacks.

Final Thoughts

Keeping an instrument properly maintained is one of the many important things that musicians do and prioritize. It is because, music-wise, an unkept instrument often results in an altered tone, intonation, and even playability.

And a good example is guitars.

On the other hand, it is also crucial to learn the correct methods of cleaning and maintaining—from restringing to refinishing—a guitar. It is particularly true when repainting or refinishing an electric or acoustic guitar because, as mentioned, it could alter the original sound and resonance of the instrument.

That said, if you are a beginner—in fact, even if you are already a pro— it is still best and is highly recommended to consult a professional guitar maintenance person and let them do the job. It is wiser and better rather than putting your guitar at risk of losing its original tone and resonance.