WATERFORD, Michigan – Not everybody wants a shiny new guitar these days. A few connoisseurs want one that looks like it’s taken more abuse than Keith Richards.

Nailing the look and feel of a vintage guitar takes time. Guys like Vince Cunetto and Bill Nash, both known for their high-end “aged to perfection” instruments, make it look easy. It isn’t. Not everyone can craft a relic. Not a convincing one, anyway, that looks like it’s been played hard every night for 40 years.

See also: Shopworn ‘Relics’ Put Vintage Soul in Guitarists’ Hands

There’s more to the instant aging process than going after a shiny finish with a bicycle chain and belt sander. Proper distressing requires a deep understanding of how a guitar is played: Knowing where a sweaty palm wears the finish from the neck, a belt buckle scrapes paint from the body, a cigarette tucked into the low E string burns the headstock. It also means knowing how time changes the tone and feel of a guitar.

“There’s an art to it,” says Scott Kenerson, the proprietor and sole employee of SMK Music Works in this suburb of Detroit. “Everybody’s got their own way. But I’ve worked on enough vintage guitars to know how they wear, where they wear and how they should feel.”

Top photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

Bottom photo: Scotty Iulianelli draws some sweet, sweet tone out of an SMK Music Works S-60 artfully aged classic instrument at Motor City Guitar in Waterford, Michigan. It can be yours for just $1,500.
Jon Snyder/Wired.com

Kenerson was 9 years old when he picked up his first guitar. It wasn’t much, just a Teisco he got from the JC Penney catalog. That was 40 years ago, and he’s been playing and building guitars ever since. He made his first ax in high school shop class.

“It looked great but didn’t play well at all,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve still got it around here somewhere.”

His guitars got better as Kenerson honed his craft, building one guitar after another “because I’m too cheap to buy them.” He built wooden models for automakers for 15 years and did a stint as a guitar tech for Lionel Richie’s band, then became a full-time luthier a decade ago. He launched SMK Music Works in 2003.

He’s spent most of the time since then repairing guitars and building guitars to customers’ specs. Kenerson isn’t big on relics, but demand for them got so big he knew he had to get in on the act.

“They’re flying out of the door at guitar shops and everybody’s building them, so I figure, why not?” he says. “If I can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

Kenerson works in the cramped and cluttered basement of his home. He designs his own custom guitars, but the relics are licensed copies of two particularly well-known guitars assembled from Allparts Music bodies and necks.

Tools of the trade are straightforward. Bandsaw, spindle sander, belt sander. A couple of scrapers. Some screwdrivers. A soldering iron for assembling the electronics and mimicking cigarette burns.

In keeping with his low-tech, DIY ethos, Kenerson’s handiest tool is a straightened coat hanger.

“It’s perfect for putting a jack in a hollow-body,” he says.

Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

As nice as his relics are, Kenerson’s customs are even better. He chooses all the wood – there’s a lot of gorgeously grained ash and maple in his shop – and makes the necks himself.

“My guitars are entirely hand-built,” he says proudly. “The only things I buy are the fingerboards.”

Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

There’s nothing fancy about Kenerson’s operation. This is a jig he made for routing the cavities for the pickups, electronics and tremolo block on a guitar. Kenerson can build a new guitar that looks old and plays like butter in about 10 hours. It’ll run you about $1,500.

“It shows what you can do without a badass shop,” he says with a laugh.

Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

There are two finishes a particular type of guitar looks best in – seafoam green and sunburst. These guitars won’t stay this gorgeous for long: Kenerson will scuff them up nicely to add a few decades to their look.

Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

Kenerson’s relics only look old. The guitar featured in the first three pics had been finished a few days before the pics were taken, but it looks like something Buddy Guy‘s been playing since he recorded Stone Crazy.

The headstock on the lower right is the design Kenerson uses on his custom guitars. It looks a bit like the headstock on some of the big-name big-ticket guitars you’ve seen because that’s what most people like.

Even when they can get something built to their exact specs for $2,500.

Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

Although he builds a lot of guitars, most of Kenerson’s time is spent repairing instruments. He figures he gets 50 to 70 a month, needing everything from headstock repairs and re-frets to replacement pickups.

So far, SMK Music Works guitars are available only online and at Motor City Guitar, a fantastic shop not far from Kenerson’s house. But he hopes to see his axes hanging in shops throughout Michigan, and perhaps beyond, one day.

Even if it never comes to that, you’ll probably always find Kenerson on a stage somewhere with his bands, Klyde Pilgrim Project and Emerson Biggins (say it a few times out loud). And when he isn’t there, you’ll find him in his basement, building an ax.

“I’ll do this until the day I die,” he says. “When I finally keel over, I hope to have a guitar in my hands.”

UPDATE: 7:20 p.m. July 22: We’ve removed the names of two major guitar manufacturers and their products because they are trademarked. The two companies in question are very protective of those trademarks. We also want to make it clear that Kenerson’s artfully aged guitars are licensed copies of the instruments they resemble. And Motor City Guitar is a licensed retailer of guitars made by those two major manufacturers.

Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

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