Almost All Vintage Guitars are Fake

This is a subject I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, but I feel like I have too much to say about it, and I may organize my thoughts badly. Tonight on Instagram, I saw a vintage guitar collector describe how he was scammed by a guitar dealer, but the collector still didn’t seem to understand that he was scammed. I find it very frustrating that nobody ever talks about this subject, and it got me wound up enough to rattle some stuff off.

In the early ’90s, I got really into guitars, especially Jazzmasters and Jaguars, which Fender (the world’s biggest guitar company for decades) introduced in 1958 and 1962, respectively. Both styles were associated with surf-rock in the ’60s, but were never anywhere close to as popular as Fender’s biggest selling models (the Stratocaster and Telecaster), and their popularity waned as the ’70s began. The Jaguar wound up being discontinued from 1975 until 1999. The Jazzmaster was discontinued in 1980 (some people believe they stopped making them in 1976 and it took four years to clear out the old product), however only for 4 years, they made some more in 1984.

When I started playing guitar, I read a bunch of articles saying how these were “pawn shop guitars” and you could find them really cheap at yard sales and whatnot. Unfortunately, these articles were a bit behind the curve, because Sonic Youth had been playing them for a while, and the secret was out that they were cheap. Nirvana and similar bands came along just after that, and the Jaguars and Jazzmasters had a sudden burst of popularity again.

I bought a Jazzmaster around that time, but it was a brand new one, made in Japan (where surf-rock had stayed much more popular than in America). I loved that style of guitar and I was always on the lookout for another, especially a Jaguar, which were even harder to find than Jazzmasters – after all, they had just been out of production for 24 years.

I looked all over for more Jaguars and Jazzmasters, but they were extremely hard to find. I wrote to every guitar dealer who advertised in any guitar magazine, and got on their mailing lists, so I’d have catalogs come in from all over the place, and I’d have my eye out for anything. One really vivid memory involves getting a price list from Mojo Guitar Shop, which was a guitar shop on St. Marks Place in NYC (where I’d never been, but I’d read enough to know St. Marks Place seemed really cool). They had a mid-1970s Stratocaster listed and the description said “Some idiot painted his bands name on this so it says WHITE ZOMBIE”. I remember the guitar was quite cheap because of the paintjob, and I thought “man I could actually afford this one” – it would have probably been an amazing deal once the band got big later. Oh well.

Anyhow, my point being, I would go around to every guitar store I could find in Ontario, get all these mailings, just phone random stores in the U.S. now and then, and check every ad in every guitar magazine (they’d quite often list what they had in stock which seems nuts now). And let me assure you, vintage guitars were few and far between. The fact was, while people were of course collecting vintage guitars to some degree, for a long time, it was just really old stuff, like 1950s Les Pauls, and ’50s/early ’60s Stratocasters that were really getting a lot of interest. The old Jags and Jazzmasters were getting used hard, ripped up/deconstructed, and thrown around onstage by people like Sonic Youth, Kurt Cobain, and thousands of other people.

So of course in the late ’90s, the Internet took off like crazy, and one of the first things I did when I got online was to start searching for guitar information. I’ve always found the music people sort of are split between being very into new technology and hating it, and honestly, the guitar people can be the worst for this, but once they (along with everyone else) finally warmed up to the web, one thing I noticed was that it became really easy to find articles on how to verify that you’re not buying a fake vintage guitar.

These articles revealed all the known ways to spot a fake, which for the most part involved removing the neck and the pickguard from the body, and then looking for date stamps and maybe initials of specific guitar factory employees. The problem of course, was that as soon as anyone would publish a guide to spotting fakes, anyone who wanted to create a forgery had a guide to work with.

For a long time, Fender has manufactured extremely faithful reissues of old models (the Jazzmaster I bought in the late ’80s was a 1962 reissue I believe), and this only makes counterfeiting them that much easier. It’s not just Fender either, the general guitar supply is much wider than it used to be (it’s a million times easier now to find anything – rare odd guitar styles, guitars for kids, unique one-off designs), and there are so many companies making really high quality guitars that can be modified. You can just buy a relatively cheap reissue (or clone), put some old parts on it, copy some old date stamps, artificially wear the paint and hardware, and then sell it on for a decent profit. Even if you don’t do the most amazing job, people just seem to be so eager to believe whatever a seller tells them, and ignore any red flags.

About 10 years ago, I was looking at guitars on Ebay, and I saw a really nice vintage Telecaster, I think it was a 1972 Tele Custom (I could be wrong on the year). I clicked through to the seller’s other listings, and he also had a vintage Fender Jazz Bass (1975 I thiiiink), and a third vintage Fender (Strat maybe?), and they were all in pretty darn good condition, considering their age, and all three were “all original” (which brings a higher price since a huge percentage of guitar players change out various parts in all their instruments).

The weird thing, though, was that all three were year/model combinations that Fender was currently reissuing. So a 1975 Jazz Bass, 1972 Telecaster Custom and whatever the third was. So just as I was thinking how odd that was, I saw that all his other auctions were for brand new parts from those reissues. I’m not sure if I’m explaining that right, but the guy just soooo blatantly bought three new reissue models, took off their hardware, put on some other hardware (possibly authentic from the ’70s), then listed all the guitars and the leftover hardware at the same time, under the same Ebay username. Not the world’s biggest genius, but all three wound up selling.

This is getting to be a long post, but suffice it to say, I’ve had my eye on vintage guitars this whole time, and the last 10-15 years especially, the supply of supposedly vintage guitars has gone off the charts. Just in Toronto alone, I used to go around to every guitar store, all the time, and I don’t think I even saw a Fender Jaguar in person for like 15 years, but guess what, I just googled the first store I thought of here, and they have three listed on their site right now.

All of them are in amazing condition, just insanely nice pieces. Two of them also just happen to have the more rare options that can really vault an old Jaguar up in price (matching headstock, bound fingerboard, block inlays). They’re also listed as being “all original” which is hilarious, because really, just go find 10 guitar players and ask them “do you own a single guitar that’s all original, you haven’t changed a pickup, knob, tuners, etc?”, and email me if more than a couple say yes.

I was in this store a few years ago and I asked the guy there if he was worried about counterfeits coming in and he gave me a really confident speech about “Oh no buddy, trust me, I can tell. There are ways to tell. I can tell”, but some honest experts will admit that the real problem is that there just is not a really good way to tell – it’s basically impossible to know with 100% certainty that a guitar is genuine, unless you have some really convincing evidence apart from the guitar, like paperwork, photos, etc.

Unfortunately, unlike in the art world, providing any sort of provenance with a vintage guitar is extremely rare, and nobody cares about it. This is especially discouraging to me personally, because as much as I’d like to one day buy a nice vintage guitar, I think that even if I became incredibly rich, I couldn’t do it now, because I just don’t believe I’d have any chance of getting a legitimate piece.

I’ve spoken to a couple of people who have told me that they don’t think anyone would bother forging a guitar. They have said things like “Come on, you’d have to spend $1000, put work into it, then what are you going to get back, a small profit?”

My first thought is that these people don’t actually understand the profit potential. The guitar store I mentioned currently has four guitars listed at prices higher than $10,000, and five listed at higher than $20,000. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg – the oldest Fenders they have listed are from the ’60s, but they have a lot of guitars marked as sold and have removed the price, and a full five of those are 1950’s Stratocasters and Telecasters, which go for astronomical prices.

Four of them were in unbelievable condition, and it actually reminds me of something: Last year, I went to Nashville, and I visited the fantastic Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, which is a fairly new museum that is meant to honour the sidemen of music history, not the big name performers. Unlike many Nashville attractions, it covers all genres of music, and has exhibits on Stax guys, LA session musicians, all sorts of sidemen. These are the guys who played their instruments for years on some of the biggest recordings out there, and a lot of their actual instruments are on display.

One thing that really struck me there, is that when you look at all these legitimately old guitars that these guys used through the years (often donated by their families), the wear patterns are way different than you usually see on most supposed “road worn” guitars at music stores or on Ebay. Without getting into too much detail (or giving any forgers any bright ideas), the patterns on the sidemen’s instruments are much more natural, and logical, than you find in the guitar market most of the time.

There are 7 billion people on Earth, and one thing I believe deeply is that any opportunity that’s exploitable for monetary gain has many, many people working on it, no matter how dishonest they need to be. How big or small an opportunity makes no difference, that just dictates which believe will be working on it, not if someone will.

There’s a great book I’ve actually read twice, a few years apart, called Provenance, by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, which talks about the case of John Drewe, a con artist in England who, beginning in 1985, enlisted a talented artist named John Myatt to forge a large number of paintings, in the styles of various established artists. He sold many of these for large prices, but was eventually caught and convicted.

The forgery, though, was not the most interesting part. The lengths he went to create fake paperwork to make the paintings look like originals was incredible. It’s a fascinating book and I don’t want to summarize everything, but the guy actually created fake programmes for non-existent historical art exhibits just so he could insert photos of his fake art into them. Then, he actually donated money and paintings (fake of course) to get himself access to well guarded historical art archives in London, and he inserted all sorts fake documents in with the real ones, so that he could point to them later on.

There was also some arson involved that Drewe has never been tried for (despite someone dying in the fire), but after serving 2 years for the forgery, he was convicted of stealing the £700,000 life savings of a 71 year old retiree.

It’s a great book, and a wild story, but to me it also reinforces the idea that if someone would go to the lengths that Drew went to, actually sneaking forged material into historical archives at great risk, then it’s not even remotely unlikely that someone would create a fake guitar. Artificially aging a new guitar is not rocket science, and it’s impossible to actually be caught red-handed – the worst thing that could really happen would be someone would go “whoa there’s no way this is real” and the forger could just go “I dunno man, I think it’s real, and the guy I bought it off said it was, but okay whatever, I’ll sell it to someone else”.

It’s too bad there’s no system of provenance for guitars, but there’s really nothing to be done about it at this point. I actually think it might just wind up being hilarious if people keep creating forgeries at the rate they are now – in 10 years every guitar store on Earth will have a dozen 1954 Telecasters, all near-mint with one original owner who kept it under his bed for his whole life.

Until then, next time I get a guitar it’ll just be a non-vintage one – there are still tons of nice reissues around and they sell for a lot less than the ones that are probably mostly fakes.

Hell, even the music store I was mentioning earlier has a whole line of their own reissues – they make them custom to look exactly like old Fenders. They’re amazing replicas, and cheaper than the vintage ones, and the only visible difference is a small sticker (which, obviously, someone could just replace if they wanted to – but hey, nobody would do that.)