From George Harrison’s Rocky, to Jimi Hendrix’s Monterrey Strat and Eric Clapton’s The Fool, some of the most iconic electric guitars in history have had homemade paint jobs. Painting your electric guitar can be a great way to customize it to your look, or even just to refinish it if you’re not into the road-worn vibe.
Fortunately, electric guitars are much easier to refinish than their acoustic counterparts, especially those with bolt-on necks. Because electric guitars mostly rely on their pickups for their tonal properties, you don’t need to be quite so delicate with the finish.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide, we’ll be covering the process from start to finish for painting an electric guitar, including all the supplies and equipment you’ll need, as well as all of the steps to completing the job.
If you’re planning to paint your electric guitar, you won’t want to miss this guide!
- Can I Paint an Electric Guitar?
- Do I Need to Remove the Old Paint before Painting My Electric Guitar?
- How to Paint an Electric Guitar
- Final Thoughts on Painting Your Electric Guitar
Can I Paint an Electric Guitar?
Yes, you can paint an electric guitar. Not only is it possible to paint your electric guitar, but the process is extremely simple and rewarding. Painting your electric guitar will make it a truly custom, one-of-a-kind instrument and might even strengthen your connection with it.
Do I Need to Remove the Old Paint before Painting My Electric Guitar?
Yes, you’ll need to take your electric guitar back to bare wood before painting it if you want truly professional results. If you paint on top of the existing finish, the new paint won’t adhere properly and if it even dries at all, it will peel off very quickly.
How to Paint an Electric Guitar
As with any project, it’s important to have all the equipment and supplies you’ll need before you even think about getting started. Having everything on hand will prevent incidents down the line caused by not having the right gear at the exact right time.
Painting a guitar requires a certain level of precision. If your timing is off, it can ruin the entire finish and may even cause you to have to start over!
These are the items you’ll need to add to your shopping list before painting your electric guitar.
Tools and Supplies
- Orbital Sanding Tool
- Dremel or other Rotary Tool
- Compressed Air Paint Gun (Optional)
- Spray Paint
- Clear Coat
- Grain Filler
- Shielding Tape
- Tack Cloths
- Painter’s Tape
- Wax Paper
- Electric Buffer
- Synthetic Wire Wool
Step 1: Gather Your Tools and Equipment
Before getting started, take stock of all your supplies and equipment. Be sure you have everything in place or in a known location. If you need additional supplies, get them before starting. If you already have paint or any other consumable, ask yourself if you have enough. Is there a possibility you’ll need more? It’s always better to have something and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
Step 2: Break Down the Guitar
The first thing you’ll need to do is disassemble your guitar. This involves removing the strings (for guitars with bolt-on necks, you’ll need to remove the whole neck), taking off the pickguard, and removing the electronics and any hardware attached to the body.
Step 3: Remove the Old Finish
Once your guitar is all broken down, with the neck off (or protected in the case of set-neck models), you can start to remove the original finish. This is messy work, so be sure you’re in a well-ventilated space and that you’re wearing your eye and respiratory protection.
Before you start sanding, be aware that the aim is to get back to bare wood and no further. Too much pressure will result in the loss of body material. You want to avoid altering the shape of the guitar, particularly since there are carves and cutaways involved.
Using a low grit on your electric sander, methodically remove the top coat and the paint from the body until you’re back at bare wood. When all of the flat surfaces are bare, use your rotary tool to remove any remaining finish from nooks and crevices, like the electronics routing.
If any areas can’t be easily sanded using the tool, go over those areas by hand with sandpaper.
When the whole body is bare, go back over it with a finer sandpaper grit, between 800 and 1000 should be fine. The aim is to leave a slightly rough surface on which the paint can properly adhere.
When you’re happy that the guitar is fully stripped, you can move to the next step.
Step 4: Get Ready to Paint
If you deem it necessary, use your wood grain filler at this stage. You’ll need to sand one more time afterwards to ensure a flat surface.
As mentioned, the prep stage is extremely messy. If you’re not painting in a different location entirely, be sure that all, or as much as is possible, of the dust and debris from the old finish is removed from the work space. This dust can give you a lumpy, amateur-looking finish.
Cleaning the wood surface is another important step. Oils from your hands may have contaminated the wood and these oils can interfere with the curing of the paint, or even leave dark spots. Give the entire body a thorough rub down with mineral spirits.
If possible, hang your guitar body for easy access to every angle. This will speed up the process significantly and result in a more even finish, as you won’t need to wait for one side to dry so you can flip it.
Step 5: Time to Paint
If you’re looking for a translucent finish, you can skip the primer stage, but if you’re looking for a perfect solid finish, you’ll need to start with primer.
Using short, purposeful strokes, spray your primer in a horizontal left-to-right, right-to-left pattern. Keep the spray nozzle around 8 to 10 inches from the body to ensure a wide, but dense coverage. Ensure that you perform a double pass across the entire surface.
Allow the primer to dry and lightly sand the body with 1000+ grit sandpaper. You should be aiming to roughen the surface and not strip through the layer you just applied. Add a second layer of primer, sand, and assess. If the wood grain still shows through, you may need to add a third coat. After your last primer coating, sand the surface one last time and clean up with your tack cloth.
Before starting with the paint, you’ll need to decide what kind of finish you’re looking for. If you’re looking for translucent, how see-through do you want it to be? With each coat of paint, you’ll lose more of the wood grain.
Paint is applied in a similar manner to the primer. Use short quick strokes, and look for a 50% overlap on each pass for best results. Let each coat dry fully before lightly sanding, tacking, and moving on to the next coat. When you’re satisfied with how the paint is looking, using a minimum of 1200 grit sandpaper, lightly sand the surface, clear away the dust and get ready for your clear coat.
Apply the Clear Coat
The protective clear coat layer is actually the most critical step. This is the stage that takes the longest, so patience is definitely a virtue here. Before applying the clear coat, you’ll want to let the paint properly cure first. We recommend allowing for about 2 weeks of curing time.
Once the paint is cured, you can start the clear-coat application. You’ll need to apply around 12 to 15 coats to get the best results. If you’re using a poly finish, you can apply a new coat around every 3 hours. Between each coat, gently rough the surface with your synthetic wire wool and apply the next coat. Once you have your final coat applied, do not rough the surface and allow it to cure for a minimum of 2 weeks.
If you’re using nitro, you’ll be able to apply a maximum of 2 coats a day, although sticking to 1 coat a day will result in a better final finish. With nitro there’s no need to brush up the surface after each coat, as the lacquer is able to bind to the previous layer on its own.
The bare minimum time you should allow for curing after the final coat is 4 weeks, but for the very best results (if you have the patience) you’ll want to leave it for about 6 months.
Regardless of which finish you used, the final step will be to polish the top layer to a glassy shine. The first thing to do here is to use an extremely high grit sandpaper (approx 3000 grit) to level sand the surface.
Once the entire surface is flat and level, dab it with the tack cloth. Take your preferred polish and apply a small amount onto the surface of the guitar. Then buff it in with your orbital buffer. It will look cloudy at first, but after a few rounds of polishing, it will return to a clear, swirl-free finish.
When you’re happy with the level of polish you’ve achieved, you can start to reassemble the guitar. Be sure to use painters tape to avoid scratches from errant screwdrivers if necessary!
Final Thoughts on Painting Your Electric Guitar
Painting an electric guitar is always a ton of fun, and is a project just about anybody can take on by themselves. The most important thing to note is that it takes patience. Don’t rush the steps, and more importantly don’t skip any.
Getting professional results is surprisingly easy if you’re methodical about the way you work, and you use the right tools and equipment. If your guitar is valuable sentimentally or otherwise, we recommend perhaps buying a cheap beater guitar to practice on first.