FEATURE: Faked out

Picture it: You surf eBay for months looking for the Gibson Les Paul of your dreams. Finally one comes up in just the right colour, and it’s cheap – almost too cheap. You win the auction, and a little while later your guitar arrives. But it’s not quite right. It sounds a bit hollow. The pickups are thin and noisy. The tuning machines creak. The toggle switch feels loose. You’ve been stooged.

The problem of unauthorised copies of guitars has been around for decades, with many big companies sued by bigger companies for infringing on copyrights. In the 70s Ibanez copies of Gibson and Fender designs were so close to the real thing that the lawyers pounced, prompting Ibanez to change its designs and begin to focus on more original shapes and features. Today those copy guitars are nicknamed “lawsuit models” and are collectible in their own right.

But going after a company like Ibanez is easy compared to tackling the issue of counterfeit guitars. The rise of eBay seems to have triggered a flood of new copies which claim to be the real thing. Relaxed intellectual property laws in parts of Asia have long been credited for the illegal trade of bootleg DVDs, CDs, shoes, perfumes and sporting goods. As a result, it’s hard for companies to track down the manufacturers stamping out these poor quality imitations.

Recently I saw what purported to be a Gibson Custom Shop Zakk Wylde Les Paul signature model with Zakk’s distinctive camouflage bullseye graphic. It only took a passing familiarity with Gibson to know this guitar wasn’t right, even though it seemed to have an authentic serial number and Zakk’s signature. The tuners, which on the real model are supposed to be gold, had a kind of bubbly matte texture which certainly didn’t look or feel like the real thing. The pickup selector switch was flimsy, the binding was messy, and the pickups were labelled as passive EMG-HZs, not the active EMGs Zakk is so identified with. Popping open the electronics cavity I realised the EMGs were not only the wrong model, they were also fake. The owner didn’t pay anywhere near what a real Zakk axe would cost, and they had a sneaking suspicion they had been sold a forgery, but for the money they could have bought an official Epiphone version of the same guitar and it would have been much higher quality – with real pickups too.

Another example is the Ibanez Jem. This Steve Vai signature model has been in production for nearly 20 years now and there are collectors the world over who lust after particular rare variations, or just the standard white 7VWH model most identified with Vai. Asian Jem fakes are so prevalent on eBay they’ve begun to be referred to in the industry as “Chibanez” guitars. From a distance they may look authentic – they say Ibanez on the headstock, they have the characteristic handle cut into the body, and the creeping vine inlay on the fretboard, but on closer inspection these guitars never hold up. Some are more accurate than others in copying the design, but there are several giveaways. One is the handle – it’s usually just a little bit off in the copies. Spend some time at the picture galleries of Jemsite.com to see what the real deal should look like.

Another area is the bridge. Ibanez use their own brand of bridge in their guitars – an Edge model in early Jems, a Lo Pro Edge from the early 90s onward, then the Edge Pro from 2004 to the present, while the budget Jem Jr 555 model should have a Lo TRS II or, after 2004, an Edge Pro II. If you find a Jem that has a Floyd Rose brand tremolo, not only is the guitar a fake, but the trem probably is too. Once again, compare the bridge to the original, because it’s a hard part to fake.

Other areas to inspect for hints of a fake Jem are the pickups (they should be Dimarzios), the vine inlay, the cut of the neck pocket, and the body shape itself. Some fake guitar manufacturers can’t seem to 100% nail the outline of the Jem and its sister model, the RG. If you’re a serious buyer you owe it to yourself to do some serious research and know exactly what it is you’re shopping for, so a few quick clicks at Ibanez.com will help you figure out if you’re about to buy a premium guitar or a forgery. Ibanez even has all of their old catalogs online, so you can check a guitar’s authenticity even if it’s a discontinued model. If you have access to the guitar in person, take off the neck to see if the neck and the pocket it fits into on the body are stamped with the model name. Taking off the neck to check authenticity or to verify a model number is a reasonable request when looking to invest in a premium guitar.

Some builders of fake guitars drop little hints that you’re not getting the real deal. A lot of Ibanez Jem rip offs are labelled “Jem Jr,” a name stamped on the real 555 model but definitely not on the 7VWH. I’ve seen fake Gibson guitars where the opening at the top of the “O” in the brand name was widened just enough to read “Gibsun” from close up while still looking like Gibson from across the room.

Musical instrument building is a fine art, reflecting passion, research and craftsmanship. The old adage “You get what you pay for” is definitely true when it comes to guitar buying. If it sounds too cheap, it probably is. Nobody’s really going to sell you a guitar for $300 if it retails for $4,899. Don’t let the thrill of a bargain blind you to the sting of the rip off – you owe it to yourself and the companies whose designs you love to buy the real thing, not an imitation that may look the part but feel and sound nothing like the actual instrument.