Nitro vs. Poly....Does It Matter?


Ask any two bass players about nitrocellulose versus polyurethane finishes and you'll often get a heated argument.

The debate over which finish is better has been raging for over 40 years now.

In one camp the feeling is that nitro finishes are better because they let the wood "breathe" and give the bass a more open, natural sound.

In the other camp they'll tell you that there's absolutely no difference between the two except that poly protects better.

I've owned basses with both finishes and currently my two main axes have the nitrocellulose lacquer finish. So, do I notice any difference between nitro and poly? When I got my first nitro finished bass I thought I did hear a slightly more open and clearer tone. The question is, was I really hearing a difference or was I imagining it?

Over the past few years I'm starting to think that this was all sort of a placebo effect. When you want to hear a difference you will. I have played several poly finished basses lately and to be honest they sound the same to me as my nitro finished ones. Now maybe my ears aren't as good as some other people or maybe I'm just not listening hard enough but I really can't tell any discernible tone difference between the two finishes and I will bet that most others can't either.

The Ugly Truth

The final "nail in the coffin" though is that since 1960 all Fender basses have been sealed with an undercoat known as Fullerplast. This sealer is essentially a urethane finish under the nitrocellulose top coat. So to my mind only a Fender bass made eariler than 1959 could possible have any sonic difference in tone regarding finish.

Today Fender uses poly to seal all their wood bodies that get a nitrocellulose top finish. So basically when you buy a nitro finished bass, your playing a poly/nitro bass. I know there are many bass players out there that swear that a nitrocellulose finish will sound better, especially when recorded.

I don't know about that but one thing I do really like about nitro finishes is that they age faster than poly finishes. The older a nitro finish gets, the more beautiful it looks in my opinion. For some people this is a reason to avoid nitro as it is much more fragile than polyurethane. I happen to love basses that show natural wear and tear so the more delicate nitro finish is a bonus for me.

My overall and final view on nitro vs. poly is that sound-wise it doesn't matter. If you want to change your sound think about new strings, new pickups or last resort a new bass....nitro or poly.

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