The Fake Book: Looking Beyond the Instrument

February 7th, 2011

Chris Gill

When Fender introduced the first mass-produced solidbody electric guitar, most electric guitar manufacturers were hesitant to jump on the solidbody bandwagon. Ted McCarty, who was president of Gibson during the electric guitar’s golden age from 1950 through 1966 and who helped develop the Les Paul model, told guitar historian Tony Bacon, “Their attitude was ‘forget it,’ because anyone with a band saw and a router can make a solidbody guitar. It didn’t take a lot of skill to build a plank guitar.”

While the assembly-line process behind the Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster helped make those guitars a phenomenal success, Fender’s early detractors were right: it’s very easy for someone with basic, albeit competent, woodworking and finishing skills to duplicate a Fender solidbody. As a result, bogus vintage Telecasters and Stratocasters are plentiful today. A craftsman with better-than-average woodworking and finishing skills, access to original parts or accurate reproductions, and convincing relicing skills can make a counterfeit vintage Telecaster or Stratocaster that can fool most experts.

Because it’s also very easy to swap parts like necks, hardware, and pickup assemblies, “Frankenstein” instruments built with parts from various years are also abundant. It’s not always enough to check one detail, like the neck date or the potentiometer codes, because while that particular part may be authentic, other parts may have come from another guitar from a different era.

In fact, it’s so easy to build a counterfeit Fender solidbody these days that, even if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of vintage Tele and Strat construction and hardware, you can’t be sure of an instrument’s authenticity. The abundance of mint- or near-mint-condition “original owner” instruments that have recently landed in the hands of vintage dealers should only make you more suspicious. It’s possible that long-forgotten instruments are emerging now that the people who bought these guitars as teenagers are passing away, or because they’re motivated by the five- and six-figure estimates these guitars get on the Antiques Roadshow. But it’s equally likely that someone figured out that they could turn $1,000 worth of raw materials and parts and a few weekends of labor into a big payout.

When considering the purchase of a vintage Strat or Tele, especially one in mint condition that is alleged to have come from an original owner, I’ll sometimes start by examining the case. If the guitar is in pristine condition and the seller says it’s because the guitar was stowed under a bed for years, the case’s interior should also be in excellent shape. The exterior should show signs of aging, such as patina, worn spots, and possibly even stains, since it was still exposed to dust, light, and neglect. But beware if the interior shows signs of excessive wear, such as bald spots in the velour lining, especially along the seam where the case’s top pivots open, where the strap buttons touch the velour, and where the headstock rests against its support block. If the case shows a high degree of interior wear, it could be an original case paired with a counterfeit guitar. In short, the condition of the case’s interior should jibe with the guitar’s condition.

If you’re dealing directly with the guitar’s original owner, ask if he or she still has the original purchase receipt. Receipts can be easily faked as well, but you might spot revealing errors. For example, an immaculate mid-Fifties Strat was recently offered, along with its original case candy and original sales receipt, for six figures. There was one big problem, however—the amount on the receipt was well in excess of the Strat’s $274.50 list price for that era. Also, no sales tax was added, even though the state where the guitar was purchased imposed sales tax at that time. In such instances, a little research into a music dealer’s years of operation and a state’s historical tax rates can be more dependable than any data you might find on the guitar itself.

One of the most trustworthy items of evidence is an old photo of the original owner with the guitar. It’s not easy to duplicate vintage photo paper or fake the effects of age upon it. Even a fuzzy and faded photo can reveal enough details for you to match an instrument in a shot with the one you’re holding in your hands.

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