What do color and pattern design have to do with playing a guitar. A lot. Not functionally of course but esthetically. Think of the other colorful things in life. A pink house would be just as strong as a blue house but we gravitate to one over the other (depending on the hues selected).
Color is associated with how we historically use them. We know that purple is generally preferred for indicating royalty, brown for stability, black for energy or strength as though holding the energy of all the others colors combined, white for purity and so on.
Popular guitar colors are the tints we choose which bests suits our personalities or mood. Guitar companies continue to produce colorful and patterned guitars to suit every taste. While such may have been custom ordered colors, many popular guitar colors came from the automobile industry especially during the late 1950s to 1960s.
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Color Matching Personalities and Moods
Names for guitar colors came from the cars we loved to drive. Fender for instance used Dakota Red, Lake Placid Blue Metallic, Burgundy Mist among others colors which were GM car colors. Fiesta Red was Ford’s T-Bird, and Shell Pink was from Chrysler.
Today we find more color variations. The color white includes Vintage White, Arctic White, Aged White, Olympic White and more. Patterns too and not just the natural texture of the wood but designs such as the popular flame adds a sense of energy, boldness, sophistication or other feel to the already lively-looking acoustic or electric guitar. Custom colors are available as well if we don’t see our favorite guitar brand already clothed in it. Coloring our guitars started further back though.
Guitar Colors Don’t Mess with Design
The guitar spans hundreds of years and is largely the history of sounds, styles, and techniques. It is also the history of guitar-makers, builders, manufacturers, and luthiers. That means it is also the history of design.
From the perspective of design, there are features of the guitar that are nailed down—not up for re-consideration. Every guitar needs to have strings, and generally there are six of them. That means that every guitar needs to have ways of anchoring and tuning those strings. If the guitar is electric, there needs to be a place for pickups. If the guitar is acoustic, there needs to be a hollow area with some kind of amplifying sound-hole. Beyond that, there is much to be decided.
Every guitar has a neck. But, not every guitar has frets, and even those that do, don’t mark their frets in the same way. This opens the door for, among other things, fretboard inlays and the question of why most guitar fretboards are not color tinted, painted or stained. Generally, we like the natural wood color which in most cases is ebony, maple or rosewood.
of consideration given to esthetics. The bodies were shaped so as to maximize output at just the right frequencies and to allow them to be easily held on the
player’s lap or hang from a guitar strap. The wood is selected based both on the sonorous qualities of the type of tree and also the location of the guitar-maker. The bodies were largely unadorned—no paint, no designs—as were their fretboards.
However, with the invention of steel-string (as opposed to gut-string) guitars, and with the use of guitars in the blues and jazz (as opposed to only European classical and Spanish Flamenco music), designers began to modify the instrument.
Manufacturers began using stains and paints. The Sunburst was then developed and used on many early Epiphone and Gibson archtop guitars. They used fretboard markers which opened up a whole world of materials and designs. The shape of the body began to change—at first with one cutaway, and then with further alterations. Bindings, sound-hole and f-hole designs, pickgaurd designs: all of these things flourished.
Why No Color on the Guitar Fretboard
But, no matter how colorful the electric guitar became, the fretboard was generally untouched with those colors. It is likely that no one wanted to risk compromising the sound and the feel of the string by possibly having paint or stain touch them. And as mentioned before, the look of wood is eternally appealing.
When the solidbody electric guitar was invented by Les Paul, guitar design became a science and an art. When this happened, guitar makers suddenly had the freedom to shape their guitars however they wanted to (within reason) and to use whatever paints they wanted to, and still not mess with the fretboard much.
As new shapes and new colors were used, companies release an ever-growing catalog of new guitars. Fender and Gibson were among the most prominent companies to release many different guitars with different designs, and to feature various colors for each model.
It took only another decade or two before new companies emerged, boasted new and more radical designs. The shape of the guitar was changing, and changing quickly, and some companies were even making guitars using entirely new materials. These new material allowed the
variation in a color such as for example, white, here the stain reacted slightly differently on each guitar wood resulting in various color hues.
Since then and into the late 70s and beyond, guitar manufacturers continue to respond to an increased demand for flashy instruments by releasing guitars with wild, wholly non-traditional paint jobs. We still see some today such as the painted scull image design available on
Impact of Guitar Colors on Performance
It may seem odd to spend significant time designing and producing guitars with different designs. Different colors
and shapes can actually make a difference in your playing.
When I pick up a Martin D35, I am wanting to play bluegrass, country, or the blues. I am likely not to play
classical music. Why is this? It is in part because of the sound and feel of the instrument. But it is more than that.
A D35 has a history—Johnny Cash, bluegrass flatpickers. And, that history is associated with it’s Martin
Dreadnought shape and size, with its color, with the wood that is chosen for its top and back, with its ebony fretboard. These elements matter—they alter the way I see that instrument and therefore alter the way I play it.
This is also true of iconic electric guitars—Les Pauls, Strats, Teles, SGs. All of them feel, emotionally different.
I play differently on each of them. And, the same is true of shredder guitars—Jacksons, Ibanezes, etc. This fact extends to the design of that particular guitar as well. I am likely to play and feel different things on a guitar that is bright red, on a guitar with a skull on it, on a guitar with an odd shape. I will feel different sorts of music on an exotically shaped Parker than I will on a
Stratocaster. This is just how it works.
The function of design can instigate certain feelings and moods in a player. One of the reasons some players collect
so many guitars is that each guitar makes them play a little differently. They all sound and feel different; because they look different, which matters.
Guitar colors and shapes also matter because of how they speak to an audience. If I play jazz on a 175, the audience
is not surprised. If I play jazz on a Charvel, they may look at me funny. If I play metal on an L-5, I may not be invited back!
The way a guitar makes me as a guitarist feel is transferred to my audience. My guitar is part of my appearance and an extension of my persona.
Through versatile guitar design, including the use of color, manufacturers have been calling different kinds of players to their vast collection. In turn, guitarists are free to give their best selves to their audience. When a company successfully markets a new design, countless players flock to that guitar which is differentiated mostly by its coloring. The telecaster is one example, available
in dozens of colors.
Written by Anthony Ferrizzi & T. Beaston
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“Instrument Finish Color Chart.” Fender, 2017,
Duchossoir, Andre R. “Fender Custom Colors in the 1960s.” Vintage Guitar® Magazine, 11 Jan. 2017,
“2018 Limited Edition ’72 Telecaster® Custom w/Bigsby®.” Fender, 2017, shop.fender.com/en-US/electric-guitars/telecaster/.