Guitar Finish Types: An Overview

A guitar’s finish, whether on an acoustic or electric guitar, serves two main purposes. The first is to protect the wood from moisture, dirt, sweat, and other potential contaminants. This ensures that the instrument’s lifespan is extended and that its tonal qualities remain consistent. The second purpose is aesthetic; the finish contributes significantly to the guitar’s visual appeal. Yet, when it comes to electric guitars, the finish can also influence the tonal quality of the instrument.

Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Nitrocellulose lacquer, often referred to simply as ‘nitro,’ has been used on guitars since the early 20th century. Derived from cellulose, this finish was once prevalent in car manufacturing and furniture before finding its way onto musical instruments.

Characteristics and Tone Influence

Nitrocellulose is known for its thinner application and its organic aging process. Over time, nitro finishes will yellow, check (develop fine cracks), and wear, giving guitars a unique vintage look. Some players argue that a thinner finish, like nitro, allows the guitar’s wood to resonate more freely, possibly offering a more “organic” or “open” tone. Though, it’s worth noting that this is a topic of debate.


This finish is more delicate and susceptible to scratches, chemicals, and temperature changes. Therefore, owners need to ensure they use polish and cleaners specifically designed for nitro finishes to avoid potential damage.

Polyurethane and Polyester

Emerging in the mid-20th century, polyurethane and polyester finishes are often grouped together because of their similarities, though they are chemically distinct. They both belong to a category of finishes known as “poly” finishes.

Characteristics and Tone Influence

Poly finishes are harder and more resistant to damage than nitrocellulose lacquer. They’re more resilient to scratches, moisture, and general wear and tear. This robust nature results in a more prolonged and consistent appearance. However, this strength comes with increased thickness, which some argue may dampen the guitar’s resonance and result in a slightly less vibrant tone.


Given their durability, poly-finished guitars are easier to maintain. Regular cleaning with a soft cloth is usually enough. The occasional polish can restore the guitar’s shine if it starts to appear dull.

Oil Finish

An oil finish, as the name suggests, consists of oil (often tung or linseed) that’s applied directly to the wood. This finish is less common on electric guitars but is still noteworthy.

Characteristics and Tone Influence

Oil finishes are minimalistic. They don’t offer as much protection against moisture or contaminants as the other finishes. However, they provide the most natural feel and look since they seep into the wood rather than forming a layer on top. Some musicians prefer this finish because it can provide the most wood resonance, leading to a very dynamic and responsive tone.


Maintaining an oil finish requires regular re-oiling to ensure the wood remains protected. If neglected, the wood can dry out and lose some of its tonal qualities.

Satin vs. Gloss

Apart from the chemical composition of guitar finishes, they can also be categorized based on their appearance: satin or gloss. A gloss finish is shiny and reflective, achieved by polishing the finish to a high shine. Satin, on the other hand, is more matte and lacks the mirror-like qualities of gloss. Tonally, there isn’t a universally agreed-upon difference between the two, but the choice often comes down to aesthetic preference.


Finish TypeDurabilityTone InfluenceMaintenance NeedsAppearance Options
NitrocelluloseDelicatePossibly more “organic”/”open”Specialized polish & cleanersAges with character
PolyurethaneHighly durableSlightly less vibrant (arguable)Regular cleaning with soft clothConsistent shine
PolyesterHighly durableSlightly less vibrant (arguable)Regular cleaning with soft clothConsistent shine
Oil FinishMinimal protectionDynamic & responsiveRegular re-oilingNatural look & feel
Satin (appearance)Depends on compositionDepends on compositionDepends on compositionMatte
Gloss (appearance)Depends on compositionDepends on compositionDepends on compositionShiny & reflective


The type of finish on an electric guitar plays a multifaceted role, balancing between protection, aesthetics, and potentially influencing tonal characteristics. While there’s no definitive answer regarding which finish is “best,” understanding the properties and benefits of each allows players to make an informed decision that best suits their needs. Whether you prefer the vintage wear of nitro, the robustness of poly, or the natural feel of an oil finish, recognizing their distinct qualities ensures your guitar remains both a visual and sonic testament to your musical journey.

Similar Posts

One Comment

Comments are closed.