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Nickel or Chrome. Metallurgy 101

Well this is nice and shiny, must be chrome right? Nope. This near mint 62 has nickel parts but they spent the last 50 years or so in the case so they never tarnished. Without a chrome item in the same photo, it’s hard to tell the difference.

OK, I’m a fraud. I know nothing about metallurgy but if you look at enough pickup covers and bridges, you get pretty good at telling nickel from chrome. I’ve covered this in an earlier post but I keep getting emails asking about this, so I’ll do another. And it lets me show a photo of this incredible 62 I just got with shiny nickel hardware.

Nothing gives away a changed part like being the wrong metal. Any time somebody wants to sell you a 64 with chrome pickup covers, walk away. There weren’t any. But, how the heck do you tell the difference, especially from a photo?

First, there’s nothing wrong with chrome. It’s a very nice looking metal and it doesn’t tarnish or discolor over time. It’s a great choice for bathroom fixtures and the kitchen faucet. It isn’t bad looking on guitars either but it’s a little boring (I could have said a little dull but chrome never gets dull). Gibson switched from nickel plated parts on 335’s to chrome plated parts in 1965, phasing it in slowly over the course of the year. They weren’t being subtle, they were simply using up the parts they had in stock. Gibson didn’t think anybody could tell the difference between nickel and chrome because they mixed the parts in 65 with no regard whatever for how they would age. They generally made both pickup covers out of the same metal, so at least they had an inkling that it might be noticed by some astute metallurgist, like me. But they mixed bridges, tailpieces, pickguard brackets-everything metal except the tuners which stayed nickel through the 60’s. I’m told by guys who worked at Gibson that there were complaints from customers about the metal tarnishing and that’s why they made the change. I wonder if one was cheaper than the other?

So, how does one tell the difference. Well, there’s the easy way and the hard way and it has nothing to do with how good you are at telling the difference. The easy way is if it’s dull and tarnished, it’s nickel. Chrome can get pretty crapped up with dirt and sweat but a wipe with a damp cloth will bring it back to its factory shine. You can bring back nickel too but it will take some elbow grease and metal polish which, by the way, I don’t recommend. Results are pretty variable and it ends up looking like somebody tried to clean the nickel. Ever try to clean an old coin? It never looks right. Don’t clean the nickel. Then there’s the hard way. supposing the nickel is brand new and as shiny as a new dime? Then you need to call on a bit of very old technology-your brain. Your brain can determine the difference between the reflected color of chrome and the reflected color of nickel. It takes a little practice and it’s not so easy without having both metals in the same photo. A photograph is as variable color wise as the two metals. I should know, my job for about a million years was a a film and video colorist. That’s the guy who makes sure all the shots in a film match. It’s really annoying when Scarlett Johannssen’s sweater is red in the wide shot and maroon in the close up. Yes, somebody actually has to fix that. It’s a real job.

It’s hard but it’s simple. Huh? Chrome reflects blue and shiny nickel reflects green. If you see them next to each other, it should be sort of clear unless you are even the slightest bit color blind in which case, ask somebody. It’s not a true blue or a true green-it’s a bluish cast on the chrome and a greenish cast on the nickel. See if you can get your hands on a nickel pickup cover and a chrome one. Then stare at them side by side. You’ll get it. It doesn’t take an expert in metallurgy, just a working brain.

One of these is nickel. The other is chrome. They look totally different to me and should to you. If they don’t, they have handy labels to help you.

10 Responses to “Nickel or Chrome. Metallurgy 101”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, very interesting! I like to think of and describe the look of chrome as “cold” and nickel as “warm!” To your point I did have a problem once years ago when buying a an ABR-1 tuneomatic bridge from a local dealer. It sure looked chrome but was just mint nickel! However I insisted he dig thru his parts bin and find me a more tarnished nickel bridge that’d match my other parts better!

  2. okguitars says:

    Yes, that works as well. It’s still tricky when you have only a photo though because digital cameras don’t always have the correct color balance.

  3. James says:

    Love the look of brushed nickel pickup covers. PRS used this on some of his guitars. Although having a nickel allergy puts a damper on this love affair.

  4. Jose SG says:

    Season greetings Mr Gelber! In your experience, is it true that there’s a nickel finish underneath every chrome finish? Meaning, if one was so inclined (and patient – or perhaps Father Time?) would removing the chrome layer expose a nickel layer? Ever run into any late 60s so beat to hell that the chrome is actually gone (or almost)? Thank you and here’s to another year of spectacular posts as always.

  5. okguitars says:

    There is not nickel under the chrome as far as I know. And chrome pretty durable stuff. I’ve tried to remove it with no luck. There is nickel under the gold covers though and gold is pretty easy to remove. I’ve seen some fairly worn chrome covers but usually, they hold up very well. There is some other metal under there (the metal the cover is actually made of) but I don’t think its nickel. And nickel isn’t even nickel-it’s some alloy of copper zinc and nickel. Usually 60% copper, 20% zinc and 20% nickel.

  6. Ollie says:

    Interesting post as always, did they always use nickel for the gold plates covers? I wonder if less reputable people might strip later gold pups of the gold and pass them off as early nickel covers?

  7. chuckNC says:

    Chrome is to hardware what poly is to guitar finishes. I understand why makers use both — they’re bulletproof. That said, I’ll take nickel and nitro — and the wear that goes with them.

  8. Jose Sg says:

    (A year later) hi again Charlie. I’d love to hear your take on this rare one. Luckily, the owner posted nice detailed pics which should help your diagnosis.
    https://www.lespaulforum.com/forum/showthread.php?206948-Double-NVGD-Christmas-Special-Left-Handed-1963-Gibson-ES335-amp-1962-ES330T

  9. okguitars says:

    Every gold cover I’ve seen has nickel under the gold. But I don’t see a lot of post 65 guitars.

  10. okguitars says:

    I’m pretty sure I commented on the forum. I thought the Bigsby B5 was original.

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