The Les Paul guitar, produced by Gibson, has been in continuous production since 1952. Because many of them are so valuable, counterfeits have been made for nearly the same amount of time.
Jimi Hendrix owned one; so did Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. The Gibson Les Paul guitar, in continuous production since 1952, is arguably one of the top electric guitars of the past 60 years. It has been favored by some of the premier guitar players in the rock, country, jazz and blues genres.
Because the Gibson Les Paul has been around for so long and is such an esteemed guitar, it is a highly-sought-after collectible. Rare Les Pauls have sold for close to half a million dollars at auction. Though such prices are uncommon, a vintage Les Paul regularly bring over five figures.
When prices get up into the stratosphere, con men come out of the woodwork. Les Paul knockoffs are now being made in China in a blatant attempt to deceive buyers. The Chinese “Les Paul” guitars try to match the instrument with visual precision, all the way down to Les Paul’s signature and “Made in the USA” stamped into the back of the headstock. Sometimes the sellers of a counterfeit Les Paul deliberately distress a new knockoff in order to sell it as a vintage guitar. Since a vintage Gibson Les Paul sometimes sells for more than new ones, the extra work is worth the effort to the con artist. There are subtle differences, though, that will help you to separate the real thing from the fakes. What we’ll explore here is how to unlock the secrets of the Les Paul guitar: how to determine if it is a genuine Gibson Les Paul, and if it is, where to find the information that will help you identify which model you have, when it was made and how to approximate its value.
Over the years, Gibson has manufactured more than a dozen Les Paul models and more than 20 signature models. Success breeds imitation; the look of the Les Paul guitar has been widely copied. The Les Paul has a very distinctive shape; it is a solid-body guitar with a single cutaway on the lower left side of the body. The cutaway allows the player to reach the higher register of notes. Every second-rate manufacturer in the world has copied the Les Paul in order to sell its look-alike guitars. We won’t be concerned with the look-alike Les Paul’s. Although they resemble a Les Paul, such guitars are clearly marked with the name of the manufacturer. What we are going to discuss are the counterfeits that are being represented as the real thing.
Tell-Tale Signs of a True Les Paul
The first question to ask when confronted with an alleged Les Paul is “was this guitar made by Gibson?” Fakes will have differences in the pickups, bridges and fret boards that only an experienced eye (or a serious researcher) can pick out. But here are four quick clues that are readily apparent even to novices:
The bell-shaped cover over the steel truss rod in the neck of a Les Paul is held in place by two screws and reads Les Paul on the cover.
1. The neck of a Les Paul is strengthened by a steel truss rod running the guitar’s neck. The purpose of the truss rod is to resist the tendency of guitar necks to warp. The adjustment opening for this rod is found on the headstock of the guitar; and it has a bell-shaped cover that is held in place by two screws and reads Les Paul on the cover. On all the Les Paul knockoffs that I’ve seen, this plate is held in place by three screws, not two, and the truss rod cover says Gibson, not Les Paul.
A real Les Paul signature decal has the appearance of having been written by a fountain pen, with the flowing lines of the letters alternating from thick to thin.
2. If Les Paul’s signature is on the headstock, have a close look at the signature itself. On a real Les Paul, the signature decal has the appearance of having been written by a fountain pen. For those who have never used a fountain pen, imagine writing your signature with a square-tipped paint brush: as the brush moves, the flowing lines of the letters will alternate from thick to thin. The decals on the fakes do not replicate the thick/thin calligraphy style of a genuine Les Paul logo. The lines on the fakes are all the same thickness.
On a counterfeit Les Paul, the two screws on either end of the adjustable tune-o-matic bridge are large-bore flathead screws like you would buy in a hardware store, unlike this small, original hardware.
3. The adjustable bridge. Gibson is famous for its adjustable tune-o-matic bridge, which has individually adjustable string saddles and bridge posts. On a counterfeit Les Paul, the two screws on either end of the bridge are large-bore flathead screws like you would buy in a hardware store.
The serial number on a Les Paul guitar is found on the back of the headstock.
4. Typically, the serial number on a Les Paul guitar is found on the back of the headstock. The serial number issue gets a little dicey with Gibson; in 110 years of manufacturing, Gibson has used several different numbering systems. In some years, it even re-used old serial numbers.
Gibson customer service manager Jason Davidson puts it like this: “Serial numbers can be extremely tricky; some can tell you a lot about a guitar, and some don’t really tell you anything… Gibson has had so many different schemes over the years… We get calls from pawn shops and used music stores every day, and a lot of the guitars that people ask us about end up being fake Gibsons,” he says. “A lot of the counterfeiters are using the standard eight-digit series. For the most part, it looks real. But there are some obvious indicators—if it starts with a five, for instance. We don’t start any eight-digit serial numbers with a five. Or it might be an eight-digit serial number that indicates it was built on the 700th day of the year. In a case like that, we’re clearly dealing with a fake guitar.”
Davidson is referring to Gibson’s new numbering system which includes a guitar’s build date within the serial number sequence. For example, the first and fifth number in the sequence signify the year a guitar was built, and the second, third and fourth number identify the day of the year.
The best place to find information on Gibson Les Paul serial numbers is directly from the Gibson website.
In spite of having 110 years of manufacturing and shipping records at his disposal, Davidson says that the best resource for identifying specific features on any Gibson guitar is “Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars.” Davidson supplies a copy to all of his customer service reps at Gibson. Serious guitar collectors should take Davidson’s advice as well. If, after observing the above clues, you’re still not sure if the guitar is real or fake, the Gruhn’s Guide will give you enough information to make an educated assessment.
Remember, con men are not stupid. The manufacturers of counterfeit Les Paul Guitars will, over time, change their counterfeiting techniques to adapt to the marketplace. If you suspect that a Les Paul is a fake, if the price is too good to be true or you simply have a bad feeling about the guitar, then trust your instincts and walk away. There will always be other guitars.
The master at work on one of his name-sake guitars.
Pricing Guidelines for Authentic Vintage Les Paul Guitars
Not all Les Paul guitars were created equal. Gibson itself has changed ownership several times since its founding in 1902, and with each change in ownership came changes in production standards (or lack of standards, depending on who you talk to). In order to zero-in on the value of any particular Les Paul, it’s necessary to know three things: 1. The manufacturing specifics (is it genuine and when it was made); 2. The condition (cosmetic, is it original equipment, or have there been modifications); 3. Rarity (how many were produced, which also relates to provenance—did it belong to anyone famous?).
As discussed above, the manufacturing specifics (production date/number produced) can be determined through a serial number search. Cosmetic condition (scratches, etc.) can be determined by simply looking the guitar over well, and the “original equipment” issue can be determined by referencing the Gruhn’s Guide.
Once you know what you have, I suggest that you refer to Guitar Magazine’s “Official Vintage Guitar Pricing Guide” for the current year to determine the value of the guitar. In the current edition (2012) there are 188 Les Paul guitars listed with prices ranging from around $2,000 to well into six figures. There are too many guitars and too wide a price range to generalize values here; that would be a disservice to you, the reader.
So, there is sufficient information above to help you determine if the Les Paul you are looking at is the real deal, and adequate references to help you determine the value of a specific guitar. Happy hunting!
Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.
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