There's been a marked increase in the number of counterfeit guitars we've been seeing at Backstage Music in recent years. One recent one looked pretty valid at 20 feet, but the closer it got, the more apparent it was that this Gibson Les Paul was neither a Gibson, nor a Les Paul.
Spotting fakes takes a bit detective work, and a bit of construction detail knowledge. There's no definitive guide to spotting what form a fake will take, so what we have to do in order to spot fakes is have a high degree of familiarity with the details of the genuine article, and then the fakes will stand out like a sore thumb.
Gibsons, regardless of their decade of manufacture, have certain qualities that are consistent. We're not talking about Baldwins or Maestros here, we're talking about set-neck, USA-made Gibsons. (The process is the same for every manufacturer, but the details differ from maker to maker.)
What follows here is not the end-all, be-all guide to spotting real vs. fake Gibsons, but it's a laundry list of issues we found on one not-so-accurate counterfeit Gibson. The corner-cutting done on this particular counterfeit is representative of the approach most counterfeiters take, which is to lower the cost enough (i.e., cut corners enough) to make the counterfeit's price attractive to the US market. Counterfeiters are a creative and imaginative bunch, so there's no way to list every possible method they might use to fake a major name brand guitar. But, here are some of the common methods we've seen at Backstage Music.
A real Gibson Les Paul has only two screws holding on the truss rod cover. An inexpensive LP copy will have three screws. The reason is quite simple. On the inexpensive guitar, the truss rod channel is routed into the neck, and the fretboard in glued over the routed channel. This leaves no wood block at the bottom of the truss rod cover for the bottom screw. A Gibson Les Paul neck is bored through the center, not routed. This leaves a small wood block for the bottom truss rod screw. The fake shown below had a wad of putty squeezed into the top of the truss rod route so the screw would have something to grab. You'll notice two extra screw holes that were filled, those were for the original two bottom screws used on the routed neck truss rod cover.
Pretty crummy effort, hard to disguise, and definitely not a real Gibson.
While we're at the headstock, let's look at the trademark open-book headstock design. On a real Gibson, the binding is neatly applied, the lettering is neatly done, and all binding joints match perfectly. Here are a Gibson headstock and a fake Gibson headstock. The center dip is very sharp, the ends turn up sharply. The shape of the open-book design is very exact on the real headstock. Check out the finer detail points and the differences will be obvious. The fake Gibson lacks these details.
The control cavity of a Gibson is neatly routed, wires neatly soldered, and large CTS or Gibson branded pots are used. On fakes, the control cavity is roughly routed, small, Asian pots are used, and the soldering looks like it was done by hungover monkeys.
The top photo is an untouched 1958 Gibson Les Paul control cavity, and the bottom (fake) is the newer production counterfeit. The counterfeit had a bogus serial number that dated it to 1995, but more on that later.
If the guitar you are thinking about buying was made in or after 2008, be aware that Gibson switched to circuit board mounted controls in 2008. The routing cavity is still neatly routed, and the circuit board is clearly branded "Gibson". Here's what the 2008 and up control cavity looks like on a genuine Gibson Les Paul. Note the branded board the the large, CTS-style pots which are also branded "Gibson". If you find a guitar claiming to be 2008 or later, and it doesn't have the setup below, check close before assuming it's real. (Just as a note: Some Gibson owners ditched their 2008-up circuit board controls and went back to hand-wired controls, so the lack of a circuit board doesn't have to be a deal breaker. Look at how clean and neat the route is in the example below. If you see that, look for other signs of fakery, as the controls may have been changed.)
By now, you should be seeing some common threads. The real Gibsons are neatly made, with great attention given to the details. The fake Gibsons are put together with great attention to saving costs, so a lot of corners are cut. Here are a few more aspects that a fake Gibson may have.
Here's a badly made, poor-fitting nut.
Wrong pole screws on the pickups. Real Gibson pickups have screw heads that fit neatly in the pickup cover holes. Cheaply made copies may have screw heads that cover up the holes.
Gibson necks don't have separate heels.
When Gibson pushes a tailpiece stud into the top of a guitar, it's flush with the top. On the fakes, you may see stud splines showing. Gibson would never let that leave the factory.
Basically, here's the deal. All the attention to detail that Gibson (and G&L, Gretsch, Music Man, and any other major name brand) uses costs money. Precision manufacturing and tight quality control require well-paid professionals, and there's no way to produce Gibson-level quality in a fake Gibson that sells for a fraction of the real Gibson. It just can't be done. If the counterfeiters put as much time, effort, and quality into their guitars as the big-brand makers, their guitars would cost just as much, and they'd still be fakes.
Keep in mind there also other ways of counterfeiting a Gibson. Epiphone built some legitimate Epiphone Les Pauls that were pretty much spot-on copies of Gibson Les Pauls, right down to the correct open book headstock design. These were intended for the Japanese market, not the US market. Some unscrupulous individuals have been known to ship these Japanese production Epiphones to the US, carefully replace the headstock logo with a Gibson logo, and have a very convincing non-Gibson Gibson.
In this article, we're justing showing the highlights (or lowlights) of shoddy production on a fake Gibson. We see just as many counterfeit Martins.
If you're looking at buying a used guitar, and you're not sure it's the real deal, bring it by Backstage Music. We'll be glad to give it a once-over, and tell you what we see, and then you can make an informed buying decision, rather than shelling our your bucks and hoping for the best.