Buying a new guitar is one of the most exciting investments you’ll ever make. Whether you’re a complete beginner or a pro player, you’ll probably choose from one of the most well-known brands on the market, such as Fender or Gibson.
After all, these are some of the best in the game, so why wouldn’t you? A genuine, branded guitar can last you years. However, in a bid to make a quick buck, some shady sellers are flooding the market with cheap knock-off brands disguised as the real thing.
If you don’t want to fall victim to the snake-oil salesman, you should ALWAYS check your guitar’s authenticity.
If you’re not sure what this means or where to look – stick with us. We’ve compiled this handy, comprehensive guide on guitar authenticity so you’ll know how to keep your eyes peeled for counterfeit models and shady sellers. Let’s get started.
Identifying A Fake Guitar
If you don’t know how to check for authenticity, you may end up with a knock-off. Whether you’re perusing in your local music store or the pages of an eBay seller, look out for the following indicators of a fake guitar.
Often, a cheap imitation is much lighter (sometimes heavier) than a genuine model. Electric guitars, in particular, can vary significantly in weight, coming in anywhere between 6 to 10lbs.
The average electric guitar weighs around 3lbs (3.6kg). However, this can vary depending on the type of wood used and the shape of the body.
It’s even possible for the same model of guitar to vary in weight. Gibson Les Pauls, for example, may differ in weight if one model is chambered and the other isn’t.
Chambering is when the solid parts of a guitar have been ‘hollowed’ or rooted out to create empty spaces (sometimes for weight relief) or to change the sound.
If you want to buy a specific model, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with its average weight and the type of wood used for the body. When you make a purchase, a reputable dealer will tell you the weight or even let you weigh the guitar in-store.
If you’re buying an acoustic or electro-acoustic model, look in the soundhole to assess the woodwork.
Your research may help you identify whether the model you’re looking at is using the wrong wood, like plywood, for example, which is commonly used on counterfeits.
Another tell-tale sign is the guitar’s logo. Download a picture of the model you want directly from the manufacturer’s website. Compare this with the logo on the guitar you want to buy.
If the model you’re looking at is a counterfeit, the logo may be the wrong size, shape, or be in the wrong position. In some cases, it could even be in the wrong font, and the wood around the logo may look stained.
This is an indicator that someone has tampered with the logo and attempted to fit a fake one.
Components And Hardware
This one can be a little trickier to identify. However, the construction and components of a guitar can be one of the main giveaways that what you’re looking at is fake. There are many indicators to look for, but here are the most common.
- An inaccurately positioned neck
- Poorly fitted tuning pegs
- Poor quality bridge or bridge pins
- Faulty electronics or inaccurately positioned electronics
- Wrong number of frets
To identify mistakes with these components, you’ll often need an eagle-eye and more in-depth knowledge of your model. There are two main ways to do this: research and visit a reputable seller.
You should reference pictures from the manufacturer, learn the specific placements and materials used on your model, and, if possible, see a genuine one for yourself.
Visit a reputable shop that stocks the model you want, and ask to inspect it thoroughly. You can then see the material, hardware, and component placement for yourself and compare it with any other models you see in the future.
Your guitar’s serial number is the holy grail. Although it’s possible to forge a serial number, researching the serial number in a database will give you a rough indication of when the guitar was manufactured.
If you find yourself staring at a modern, brand-new guitar with a 70’s serial number, you’ll know something’s not right.
Some specific models, like Fender, have their own databases, so you can decode the serial code pattern on your Fender model and find out more information.
Chinese Replicas And Counterfeits
Arming yourself to the teeth with knowledge is the best way to prevent buying a counterfeit guitar.
Although there are ALWAYS some key giveaways that a guitar is fake, some counterfeits are becoming so good that even experienced players and sellers have a hard time telling the difference.
Replicas and counterfeits from China are becoming increasingly advanced, and the U.S market has been flooded with them for years. These guitars are often branded as ‘made in the USA.’
Their appearance is so convincing that younger or more inexperienced players risk committing a felony by buying one.
It’s not always easy to identify a Chinese counterfeit, but if there’s one thing that’ll get those eyebrows raised, it’s their jaw-droppingly low prices.
Some reputable models, such as Les Pauls, can start selling for as little as ten cents on auction websites, going up to a maximum of $100. If there’s one thing your research will tell you, it’s that NO Les Paul will EVER sell for that low!
The moral of the story? If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Sorry guys.
Although auction sites like eBay have their own systems in place to verify sellers and eliminate dodgy sellers, there’s always a few that slip through the net. If you’re looking to buy a Gibson, make sure you take extra precautions.
Gibson is one of the most popular brands faked by Chinese fraudsters. When the legendary guitar makers filed for bankruptcy protection in 2018, there was even some talk that the rise in fake guitars was one of the leading causes.
Generally, the indicators of a Chinese replica or counterfeit are similar to most others. There will be notable differences in tone, construction, logo placement, and weight – so it’s good to do your research into your chosen model before making a purchase.
However, Chinese replicas are incredibly advanced, and their pricing is usually their biggest giveaway. Remember: if you’re bidding on a $100 Les Paul, you’re probably being scammed.
Verify By Serial Number
Now, let’s go back to serial numbers. A guitar’s serial number is arguably THE best way to verify authenticity. However, there are so many big-brand names on the market, and not all serial numbers are the same.
To give yourself the best chance of spotting a phony guitar, you’ll need a crash course in finding serial numbers on the most popular guitar brands.
Fender Serial Numbers
When you think of big-brand guitar names, Fender is probably at the top of your list. Finding a Fender serial number can be a little tricky. Over the years, the serial numbers have been placed in all sorts of places, including:
- The top of the neck plate
- The front or back of the headstock
- Between the pick-up and the saddles
- Back of the vibrato cover plate
- The end of the heel of the neck
Placement may vary depending on the age and model of your Fender. Here are some general rules and conventions that apply to the majority of Fender serial numbers. Any deviations to these rules may be an indication of a fake model.
- If the serial number begins with the ‘L’ prefix, it’s a guitar made in the early 1960s
- If the prefix has an ‘S’ at the beginning of the serial number, your guitar is from the 1970s
- If you spot an ‘E’ at the beginning of the serial number, your model was made in the 1980s
- An ‘N’ at the beginning of a serial number means it was made in the 1990s
- The ‘Z’ prefix means it was made in the noughties (anytime between 2000-2010)
- If your Fender has a ‘V’ as the prefix, it means it’s a part of the U.S. Vintage Series, first launched in 1982
If your model is a lot older, you may need to check the heel or the potentiometers. Fenders made before 1976 were branded with random serial numbers, so you may need to look a little harder to find them.
All models made after 1976 have a serial number that starts with a letter and a seven-digit code. Here are some general rules for identifying a pre-76 model:
- 1950-54 models will have a four-digit serial number on the bridge
- 1954-63 models will have four to five digits on the neck plate
- 1963-63 models begin with an ‘L’ on the neck plate
- 1965-76 models will have a six-digit number on the neck plate
Gibson Serial Numbers
If you’re in the market for an electric guitar, you’ve probably considered a Gibson. Thankfully, finding the serial number on a Gibson is a lot more straightforward – on electrics, they’re usually always on the back of the headstock.
If you want to buy an acoustic Gibson, you’ll find the serial number inside the soundhole.
Between 1977 and 2013, all Gibson guitars have included an eight or nine-digit serial number on the back of the headstock. From 2014, Gibson altered the format to a simpler, nine-digit format.
Gibson has usually used two different formats to identify and catalog its instruments. These are serial numbers and Factory Order Numbers (FONS). Some earlier models don’t have serial numbers, making their Factory Order Number their key identifier.
If you want to check for a FON, look for a 3,4, or 5 digit batch number. In some cases, this is followed by one or two other numbers. From 1935-42, the Factory Order Number included a letter suffix.
However, this stopped during WW2 and began again in the early 1950s.
The 1977-2013 format serial pattern follows this order: YDDDYRRR.YY. D stands for the day of the year, RRR represents the factory ranking of the plant designation number, and YY represents the year of production.
With this pattern, identifying the exact year your Gibson was made is much easier, and in most cases, you won’t even have to look it up in a database.
Yamaha Serial Numbers
Now, let’s look at another big name: Yamaha. Unfortunately, finding the serial number on a Yamaha model is much more complicated than a Gibson or Fender.
Their system has often been branded as one of the most illogical and confusing of any guitar manufacturer – one of the biggest reasons being that some parts of their serial numbers can repeat with each decade.
However, the placement of a serial number is similar to Gibson. If you have an electric Yamaha, you’ll usually find the serial number on the headstock. With an acoustic model, it’s located somewhere in the soundhole.
Since the year 2000, Yamaha has used a ‘year and month’ coding system. Let’s take a closer look at what this means.
- Between 1999 and 2000, the first letter indicates the year, and the second indicates the month. The three digits in the serial number are the number of the unit.
- Between 2000 and 2001, the system changed to 3 letters, 3 digits, and 1 letter. The first two letters represent the month, the three numbers are the number of the unit, and the last letter represents the internal factory code.
- Between 1971 and 2001, guitars manufactured in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, used an eight-digit system. The first digit represents the year, the second and third are the month, and the fourth and fifth are the day of the month. At the end of 2001, this turned into a six number system.
The coding system has changed numerous other times between 1997 and 2021. To guarantee you get the most accurate information from your serial number, make sure you consult the Yamaha database for more information.
Martin Serial Numbers
On Martin acoustic guitars, the serial number can be found at the end of the neck block inside the guitar. You’ll usually need to look through the soundhole to find it.
Since 1898, Martin has used a relatively straightforward system to keep track of their serial numbers.
The Martin serial number uses the year, and the serial numbers represent the last serial number used in that given year.
Martin has their very own serial number lookup system, so if you don’t understand the system, you can find out the year of your model online. Most serial numbers are included in this database.
Gretsch Serial Numbers
Finding a Gretsch serial number is relatively easy. Most Gretsch serial numbers are placed on the back of the guitar’s headstock, and they begin with a two-letter code that indicates the country of origin.
The numbers that follow indicate the year and month of manufacture. This has been the system used by Gretsch since 2003.
Between 1939 to 1965, the placement of the serial number varied quite dramatically. At first, Gretsch serial numbers were penciled onto the back of the guitar’s body.
In 1945, Gretsch began to print serial numbers onto the guitar’s headstock. Over time, labels were added, colors changed, and different wording was added to the serial number.
Like Martin guitars, Gretsch also has its own serial number database, so you can type in your number, and find out the exact year and location where your guitar was made.
Taylor is one of the biggest brand names in the guitar world. Since 1975, they’ve been through four different serial number systems, each representing four different time periods. These periods are:
- 2009 to Present
Between 1975 and 1992, each year featured a unique five-digit serial number. In mid-1977, these numbers switched from five to three digits. Over the years, this eventually evolved to include digits that represented the year and month the guitar was built.
The number of digits also increased to 11, going back down to ten for guitars manufactured between 2009 and the present day.
With the modern system, the first digit represents where the guitar was built, and the second and seventh digits indicate the year of manufacture.
The third and fourth represent the month, the fifth and sixth represent the day of the month, and the last three digits represent the order that the guitar was built on the day.
The last big name you’ll want to familiarize yourself with is Ibanez. Ibanez guitars are manufactured all over the world, and because of this, their serial numbers don’t follow a specific pattern.
Although most of their serial numbers are located on the headstock, this can vary depending on the location of the manufacturer.
Aside from the headstock, some Ibanez guitars have their serial numbers printed on the last fret, the soundhole, the neck block, and the neck plate. Ibanez has been using serial numbers to identify their guitars since the mid-1970s.
Before the mid-70s, guitars were simply stamped with ‘Japan’ on the neck plate. The only way to identify these guitars is to look for unique details like inlay differences and contours and consult a professional.
Most collectors can identify these by their electronics.
On most Ibanez guitars, the first two digits of the serial number will represent the year of manufacture. In some cases, the first digit represents the last digit in the year of manufacture, and occasionally, these digits indicate no year at all.
Most models made after 1975 have a serial number that begins with a letter between A-L, followed by a six-digit number. The letter will represent a month, and the first two digits represent the year.
Some models will have the serial number placed directly on the neck plate or on a sticker on the back of the headstock.
Serial Number Databases and Guides
Now you know how to read the serial numbers of most big-brand guitars, here’s a list of databases and guides that you can use to search your model’s number.
- Fender Database
- Gibson Database
- Yamaha Database
- Martin Database
- Gretsch Database
- Taylor Database
- Ibanez Database
Other Ways To Verify Authenticity
Now you know how to identify a fake guitar, find your model’s serial number and find the year of manufacture, here are a few other markers of authenticity you should keep your eyes peeled for.
Tone And Sound
If in doubt, plugin, and play! You can often tell if a guitar is a counterfeit by its tone. If you have a specific model in mind, head over to Youtube and listen carefully to your model’s tone.
Many specific models, such as Fender Stratocasters, have a very distinctive sound (make sure the players aren’t using any pedals or distortion, though). Once you get used to the tone of your desired model, you can identify a phony in an instant.
The Number Of Screws
A counterfeit guitar often uses the incorrect number of screws, specifically on the truss rod cover. For example, a genuine Les Paul guitar will only ever use two screws on the truss rod cover.
These will sit vertically, with one at the top and one at the bottom. If you encounter a Les Paul with three screws, you can pretty much guarantee it’s a fake model.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Counterfeit Guitars Illegal?
Counterfeit goods like guitars are illegal and potentially harmful. Often, counterfeit goods are made in unregulated conditions, so faulty and hazardous parts, particularly electronic components, are common.
What Is A Chibson USA?
A ‘Chibson’ is a counterfeit guitar, usually made in China or Asia, that’s made to look exactly like a Gibson guitar. They even include the Gibson logo. They are illegal to sell or distribute, but they’re not illegal to buy.
Is It Illegal To Sell Fake Guitars?
Selling or distributing fake guitars is illegal. Even if you advertise the guitar as a counterfeit, it’s still illegal to sell it.