Guitar aficionados are notorious for spending maybe a little too much of their paycheck on their guitar collection. Once they buy a new axe and tell themselves “that’s it, surely 10 guitars is enough”, another one comes along that they fall in love with.
And who can blame them? It’s a lifelong passion and once you’ve got it, there’s no going back. But when you spend a bunch of money on a top-end guitar, you need to know that what you’re getting is exactly what you think it is.
If you’re prone to buying second-hand guitars from pawnshops and websites like Craigslist, then you’ll know that this can be a great way to find rare, vintage guitars. Unfortunately though, using these means of buying a guitar can also be an easy way to get ripped off by purchasing counterfeits or knock-offs.
This is why it’s so important to know what to look for when buying second-hand guitars to make sure what you’re spending your hard-earned cash on is the real deal and not a fake.
It is a shame but there are a lot of counterfeit guitars on the second-hand market and it does create a real nuisance for guitar collectors and enthusiasts. They often are built poorly and don’t play even half as well as the real thing.
They also have no warranty or trade-in value, so if you don’t want to lose out on a lot of money, you need to learn the telltale signs of a phony guitar. This is where we come in to help.
Spotting a Fake Guitar
The key to being able to spot a fake guitar is to know and understand what the real thing should look like. There is a wealth of information available online about certain details about specific guitars, such as the building practices of the luthiers, and what years major changes happened in the materials used or building processes.
Another important thing to bear in mind is the differences in the real, authentic materials and their cheap substitutes that are commonly used in counterfeit guitars.
Reputable guitar luthiers and deals are also a great resource if you want to learn more about the intricacies of vintage guitars. They have a great insight into the sorts of materials authentic guitar makers used as opposed to the more inexpensive imitation parts and materials used by counterfeiters.
Fortunately, in this day and age, you can quickly and easily look up your guitar’s serial number online, provided it has one. Checking the serial number is the best way of validating a guitar.
Most manufacturers allow you to search their databases for serial numbers, and this should bring up a description including all the specifications of the guitar.
Let’s take a look into specific guitar manufacturers and how to validate them.
On a Gibson guitar such as a 335 or a Les Paul, the serial number is located on the rear of the headstock. Gibson uses a particular dating pattern for their serial numbers. Between 1975 and 1977, Gibson used an 8-digit dating code. The first two of these digits were the year.
- 99 = 1975
- 00 = 1976
- 06 = 1977
Following 1977, Gibson started using the serial number pattern of YDDDYRRR. YY is the year of production, DDD is the day of the year, and RRR is the plant designation number or factory ranking.
Prior to 1984, the RRR numbers ranging from 001 to 499 indicated that the guitar was manufactured in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Following the closure of the Kalamazoo factory, Gibson guitars were manufactured in Nashville, Tennessee. The RRR numbers 500 to 999 indicate that the guitar was manufactured in the Nashville factory until 1989.
The RRR serial numbers on the Gibson acoustic guitars from the Bozeman factory start at 001 each day. The RRR number on the electric guitars from Nashville or Memphis may start in the low 300s.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of serial numbers taken from the Gibson website:
As you can see, the numbers in bold represent the year the guitar was made. So, this guitar was built in 1978, on the 10th day of the year (January 10), and it was the 276th guitar that was stamped on that day. Because this guitar was built before 1984, we can say that it would have been built in the Kalamazoo factory.
Since this guitar was built in 1985, we can say that it was built in Nashville since the factory in Kalamazoo closed a year earlier. We can also say that the guitar was built on the 267th day of the year, which would be October 3.
Also, it was the first guitar that was stamped on that day. This is indicated by the RRR number of 501, and because the guitar was built before 1989.
In July of 2005, Gibson increased their serial numbers from 8 digits to 9. They added the extra digit in the middle of the sequence at the sixth number. This number indicated the batch number of the guitar, so the new sequence looks like this: YDDDYBRRR
The batch number was included before the plant designation or factory ranking number. The number would start at 0 at the beginning of each day. Once the RRR number reached 699, the batch number would change to 1.
There are a couple of exceptions to these serial number systems though.
The Les Paul Classic features either a five or six-digit serial number that’s stamped in ink. It does not feature the “MADE IN USA” stamp that’s seen in the original models from 1952 to 1960.
In 1989, Gibson started using a four-digit serial number on the Les Paul Classic always beginning with the number 9. Between 1990 and 1999, a five-digit serial number was used with the first number indicating the year. 0 was used for 1990, 1 for 1991, and so forth.
Between 2000 and 2005, a six-digit serial number was used. The first two of these digits represented the year. These serial numbers also differ from the four and five-digit serial numbers because they did not include a space between the year indicator and the rest of the digits.
During Gibson’s centennial year, they used a serial number beginning with 94. The other six digits were the factory ranking number.
Since 2014, Gibson USA has not used a serial number that indicates the exact day of manufacturing. Instead, they only include the year and the factory ranking number. The sequence they have used since 2014 is YYRRRRRRR.
Some new models are built for the following year in the fall, so it’s possible to have a 2015 Gibson guitar that was actually built in 2014, for example.
The nuances in Gibson’s serial numbers don’t stop there. There are even more differences when it comes to Gibson’s Custom range, their dobros, and their banjos. For information on the serial numbers of these instruments, you should refer to the support page on Gibson’s website.
The location of the serial number on Epiphone guitars depends on what type of guitar it is. On their acoustic guitars, the serial number is located in the soundhole. On their semi-hollow body guitars, it’s located inside the top F-hole. On their electric guitars, it is on the back of the headstock.
Since 1993, most models of Epiphone guitars use the serial number sequence FYYMMRRR. F in this case represents the factory code. Sometimes this can be two letters. YY is the year in which the guitar was built.
If the guitar was made in the 1990s then this will only consist of one digit. MM represents the month, and RRR is the factory ranking number. The ranking number may be fewer than three digits, and it is not necessarily indicative of the number of guitars made during that particular year.
Epiphone is owned by Gibson guitars, so information about Epiphone’s serial numbers can also be found on the Gibson website. Let’s take a look at an example of an Epiphone serial number from the website.
As you can see, the digits in bold represent the year and the month of manufacture. This example would be for a guitar built in February of 2002.
Another serial number sequence that is used in newer models of Epiphone is FYYMRRRR, where the month is indicated by a letter instead of a number. For example, S19D1234 would be for a guitar made in April of 2019.
Much like the serial numbers on Gibson guitars, Fender’s serial numbers vary depending on the age of the guitar and what model of Fender it is.
Fender guitars that have a four-digit serial number located on the bridge indicate that the guitar was built between 1950 and 1954. Four or five-digit serial numbers on the neckplate indicate that the guitar was built between 1954 and 1963. If the serial number on the backplate begins with an “L” then it was built between 1963 and 1965.
From 1965 to 1978, they used a six-digit serial number on the “big F” on the neckplate. From 1976 they located their serial numbers on the headstock. These serial numbers from 1976 onwards always started with a letter followed by 6 or 7 digits.
Japanese Fender guitars feature their serial numbers on either the back of the neck where the neck meets the body or on the headstock. These serial numbers, however, tend to be inconsistent and are subsequently more difficult to date accurately.
Fender guitars that were built in Mexico have their serial numbers on the back of the headstock. These serial numbers always start with the letter “M”.
The serial numbers for Fender guitars can be searched in the database on Fender’s website.
Paul Reed Smith (PRS) Guitars
On a PRS guitar, you can find the serial number either on the neck plate or on the headstock if the guitar is a set-neck model. At the start of the serial number, there is a number that represents the year in which the guitar was built.
Some numbers can represent multiple years though. For example, if the serial number begins with 1, the guitar could have been built in either 1991 or 2001.
Since 2008, PRS has used two digits to represent the year of manufacture instead of one. This makes the year of the guitar easier to distinguish. Set-neck models, however, have a more complex sequence in their serial numbers. A table of the serial numbers along with their corresponding years can be found on the PRS website.
Because of the fact that Ibanez guitars are outsourced at many stages in their production, they do not have a unified system for serialization. Serial numbers on Ibanez guitars vary depending on the model of the guitar.
On some models, the serial number is located on the back of the headstock in either printed form or a sticker. Other models have the serial number on the neckplate or stamped below the last fret. On their acoustic models, the serial number is either printed on the label inside the soundhole or stamped on the neck block on the inside of the body.
The sequences used in Ibanez serial numbers are dependant on the year of manufacture and the country of origin. Japanese Ibanez guitars from November 2004 onwards start with the letter F, and then a two-digit number representing the year of manufacture followed by five digits that are the factory ranking numbers. For example, F1412345 would indicate that the guitar was built by FujiGen Gakki in the year 2014.
Two letters at the start of the serial number indicate that it was made in Korea between 2000 and 2008. These serial numbers also feature the year with two digits, in addition to the month in which the guitar was built. Following this, there is a four-digit number that is the production number for that month. The first letter or two letters represent the factory code. For example, F141234 tells us that this Ibanez was built in July 2002 by Cort Guitars.
For more information about Ibanez serial numbers, visit the Ibanez wiki.
On both the classical and acoustic guitars made by Yamaha, the serial number can be found inside the soundhole. This can either be printed on the label inside the soundhole or stamped on the inside of the guitar.
Their serial numbers contain letters that indicate the year and month of manufacture. The letters for the month correspond to the number of the month, for instance, H – Z represents 1 – 12.
The sequence used for Yamaha’s serial numbers varies depending on when it was manufactured. There are 15 different systems used for their serial numbers dating back to 1941.
For Japanese custom shop models of Yamaha guitars made between 1991 and 1996 could feature a serial number such as HN701J, for example. The sequence used for this example is YM###J. Yamaha guitars from this time period always started each month with the number 700. In our example, we can say that this guitar was from July of 1991. H means 1 and N means 7, and 701 would be the first guitar made for that month. The final letter in the sequence is an internal code.
The serial number on Rickenbacker guitars can either be found on the neckplate, bridge, or output jack plate.
Between 1954 and 1960, Rickenbacker used a serial number system that could be used to date the guitars using a six-character sequence that indicated the model, the last digit of the year followed by a production number. For example, 4C7768 would be a Rickenbacker 400 series Combo that was built in 1957.
Between 1960 and 1986, Rickenbacker used a letter-to-number system to indicate the year and the month of manufacture. These serial numbers during this time were stamped on the jack plate.
Newer models of Rickenbacker guitars from 1998 onwards have the last two digits of the year stamped on the top of the jack plate. At the bottom of the jack plate, the rest of the serial number was stamped.
Depending on when the guitar was built, the serial number on a Gretsch can be found on the top edge of the headstock, on the inside back of the guitar, or a label inside the guitar.
Gretsch guitars that were built between 1939 and 1965 had sequential numbering for their serial numbers. From 1967 to the early 70s, the serial number’s first digit or two digits represented the month, and the following one or two digits represented the year. This started with 7 on guitars made in 1967.
Gretsch guitars that were built between 1973 and 1981 had a similar system. The first digit represented the month and then a digit to represent the year starting with 3 in 1973. Sometimes these serial numbers featured a hyphen between the month and the years.
Since 2003, they have used two digits for the year and two digits for the month, followed by a production number.
Gretsch’s website is a great resource for dating their guitars.
On ESP guitars, you can find the serial number either on the neckplate, on the back of the headstock, or underneath the pickups.
Before the year 2000, ESP guitars used the serial number sequence DDMMYNNN. The last three digits of this number are a production number. If the serial number is located underneath the pickups, the sequence used was #MMYNN.
From 2000 to 2015, ESP used the sequence FYYWWDNN. The first letter of this sequence is the factory code, followed by two digits for the year and two digits for the week. After this, there is a single digit for the day of the week, followed by a production number.
Since 2016, ESP has used the sequence BNNNNYYF for its serial numbers. The first letter in the sequence is the brand. This is either E for ESP or ES for E-II. This is followed by a production number, two digits for the year, and a factory code last.
Godin guitars have their serial number on the back of the headstock or inside the soundhole. The sequence used for their serial numbers is YYWWDRRR. This one has a two-digit year where the production begins in August, followed by a production week number, the day of the week, and finally a weekly rank.
Let’s take a look at an example of Godin’s serial numbers.
In the above example, we can say that this guitar was built in September of 2005. This is because it was in the fifth week of the start of the 2006 production year. We can also say that it was built on a Wednesday and that it was the 168th guitar that was built during that particular week.
Martin acoustic guitars always have the serial number stamped inside the guitar on the neck block. Martin’s website features a serial number chart that you can use in order to date your guitar accurately. The serial number 8348 was the last number used in the year 1898. Therefore, the guitar with the serial number 8349 was the first Martin guitar that was built in the year 1899. This is the most straightforward of the whole lot.
Taylor guitars have their serial number located on the label within the soundhole. This serial number can consist of either 9, 10, or 11 digits.
Between 1993 and 1999, Taylor used a 9-digit system with the sequence YYMMDDSPP. This sequence consists of the year, month, day, and series code followed by the production number.
From the year 2000 to 2009, Taylor guitars used an 11-digit sequence. The format of this sequence was YYYYMMDDSPP.
From November of 2009 onwards, Taylor has used a 10-digit sequence. The format of this sequence is FYMMDDYPPP. F is a factory code. This indicates which factory the guitar was manufactured from. 1 represents the El Cajon factory in California, whereas 2 represents the factory in Tecate, Mexico.
Taylor’s website has a support page where more information can be found on their serial numbers.