Buying a guitar should be an enjoyable experience, but some of the decisions you have to make can be quite stressful. Especially because a guitar is something that you will (hopefully!) own for a long time.
The choices you make regarding its build and appearance are things you will have to live with as long as you have the instrument.
How the guitar looks may not be as important as how it sounds, but it is still vital when it comes to how you feel about your instrument.
And one of the most important factors in your guitar’s look is how it is finished. What kind of lacquer do you want? Gloss or satin?
The answer you settle on is largely to do with personal preference, what kind of guitar you’re playing, and what your overall style is.
In this article, I’ll take a deep dive into both gloss and satin finishes and how they look on both acoustic and electric guitars. So if you’re struggling to make that final decision, read on for some enlightening information.
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Satin vs Gloss – An Overview
So what exactly are the satin and gloss finish? How do they differ, and what kind of effects can they have on the playability, upkeep, and overall look of a guitar?
A satin or matte finish on a guitar is a thin layer of lacquer that doesn’t reflect much light. It’s less shiny and generally doesn’t allow as much of the natural look of the wood to show through. It affords guitars a more old-school style.
Here’s a satin-finished electric guitar for your reference.
Many players like it for the way it naturally disguises bumps, scratches, and fingerprints, although, over time, the finish can ‘smooth out’ somewhat and become shiny in areas where constant wear has rubbed away the matte effect.
Satin finishes are applied in thin layers, which generally allows for better resonance from the guitar body, and less sound dampening.
This effect is more pronounced on acoustic guitars, but the difference in sound between a satin and gloss finish is going to be very hard for even the most discerning audiophile to detect.
A gloss finish is applied to the guitar in thicker layers than satin and has a much more prominent and stand-out look. Gloss reflects light a lot more and gives the guitar a shiny, modern style.
This Strat is an example of a guitar with a gloss finish.
Unlike a satin finish, gloss generally marks and stains a bit more, and fingerprints show up on the finish quite easily, although this can be removed with a quick wipe. Dents, chips, and scratches to the finish, however, are equally as noticeable with both kinds of finish.
Depending on how many layers of colored paint are applied to the guitar underneath the finish, a gloss coat on top can really bring out the natural patterning of the wood of the guitar body. Many players like it for this aspect – it almost acts as a magnifying glass on the body, amplifying the swirls and knots of the wood grain.
As I mentioned, gloss is applied to the guitar in more layers than satin, and this is one of the main downsides to the finishing style. The theory goes that the more layers of lacquer applied to the guitar, the more dampened the sound will be from the instrument.
Satin vs Gloss on Guitar Neck
The type of finish isn’t only important on the body of the guitar, as the neck will be lacquered as well. Both satin and gloss have different benefits when it comes to playing style, and again, what you choose will ultimately come down to personal preference.
A satin gloss on a guitar neck can be great for those who play fast, as the non-shiny surface allows the player’s hand to move with ease up and down the fretboard.
Aside from playability, there’s not really much else to consider apart from appearances. Of course, a satin finish on the neck of the guitar, as on the body, will be smooth, matte, and reflect less light.
Although it’s worth noting that over time, and the more the guitar is played, the matte effect can wear down and start to appear shiny.
And while this shouldn’t affect the playability of the instrument, it will lose some of that aesthetic appeal.
Like on the body of the guitar, a gloss finish on the neck will afford the player a smooth and slick surface, making the bending of strings easier and other flourishes easier.
On the downside, gloss is known to get a little sticky, especially in humid conditions, which not only rules out the string-bending benefit but also lessens overall playability.
Appearance-wise, a gloss finish on the neck will look loud, professional, and modern, and it should retain these qualities over time.
Which Finish is Best for an Acoustic Guitar?
Sonically speaking, any differences the finish will have on the sound of the guitar will be more apparent on acoustic models rather than electrics. This is simply because an electric guitar signal goes through a lot more processes before it is heard, unlike an acoustic.
Though again this will largely be down to opinion, many players prefer a satin finish on an acoustic guitar.
This is mainly because it is applied in thinner layers, meaning the instrument doesn’t lose any resonance, and the natural reverberations of the strings through the wood are not dampened in any way.
The smooth, non-sticky qualities of a satin finish on the neck are also prized by acoustic players, as it makes switching between complex chord patterns easier, and intricate fingerpicking runs are smoother to execute.
A possible downside of satin on an acoustic becomes apparent when trying to record, as the finish can generate quite a bit of ambient noise when rubbing against clothes/skin.
Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue at all, but when it comes to sitting in front of that mic and recording, every sound is amplified.
Gloss finishes on an acoustic, however, will still work well, and the dampening of the resonance shouldn’t be too noticeable to the average player.
Satin vs. Gloss – How to Clean
Cleaning your guitar is an essential part of its upkeep, especially if you want to retain its value. But the processes for satin and gloss finishes are quite different.
Cleaning a Satin Finished Guitar
Firstly, never polish a satin finish! Applying polish to a matte lacquer will leave a shiny mark on the surface, which will take a long time to fade. It will ruin the whole look of the guitar.
Polish can be applied to the neck, if you like, as the finish on the fretboard will be gradually eroded anyway due to the natural oils in your skin.
Cleaning the body can be done using a microfiber cloth or a t-shirt. There are various satin-friendly polishes you can buy, but you don’t really need them – fingerprints and light blemishes should rub out easily without it.
Cleaning a Gloss Finished Guitar
When it comes to gloss, you definitely can apply polish, and you will want to. Either apply it directly to the guitar’s body and/or neck, let it dry, and then wipe it clean with a microfiber cloth or t-shirt.
You don’t necessarily need to use polish to clean a gloss finish, but it will help you get the best results and make the most of the shiny lacquer. A dry wipe-down will remove most fingerprints and light markings, but a polish will really bring out the gloss finish.
As you can see, there are definite pros and cons to both styles of finish, and it also depends on what kind of guitar you’re thinking of buying.
As is so often the case with matters of aesthetics, what it really boils down to is a personal preference. So, take all the factors into consideration: think about your playing style, your overall cosmetic style, and of course, which finish you personally like the most.