5 Tips to Help You Avoid Buying a Counterfeit Guitar by Mistake

By Andrew Magnotta

December 18, 2018

Lots of musicians have guitars on their Christmas lists this year, others like to use the holidays as an excuse to treat themselves.

But one thing everyone should be aware of when buying guitars online is the astounding prevalence of fakes in the secondary marketplace, as YouTube guitar tech Phillip McKnight discusses in a recent upload.  

While you can mostly shop worry free with reputable retailers — even if you don't have an expertise in a particular instrument — musicians looking for used or vintage gear, a great deal or a hidden gem are more likely to turn to secondary marketplace sites like eBay and Reverb or particularly fake-riddled discount shopping sites. 

Many boutique guitar brands do legitimate business on the secondary marketplace, and eBay and Reverb generally do good job of moderating and banning counterfeiters. But among the tens of thousands of earnest sellers lie a few snakes in the grass: counterfeiters, who are getting trickier with each passing year. 

These counterfeiters — who seems to mainly be based in China or southeast Asia, where intellectual property laws are lax or nonexistent — used to just rip off major guitar manufacturers, like Gibson, Fender, Epiphone, Ernie Ball Music Man, Ibanez, Paul Reed Smith and the like.

But now, as smaller guitar brands and custom builders are becoming more popular with musicians, counterfeiters are faking those designs too. In his video "Counterfeit Guitars Are Out of Control," McKnight exposes a fake guitar made to resemble a Mayones-brand Duvell series that was brought to him for a setup and repair.

"This is now the fifth fake guitar that has been brought into me for repair this year," McKnight says. "I have officially now seen a fake Gibson Les Paul this year, a [fake] Fender Custom Shop Strat this year, a[n] ... Ibanez JEM, a Suhr guitar and now this Mayones." 

Not only is this phenomenon tricking buyers all over the world, it's problematic for small brands trying to build a reputation in a competitive industry. 

While the fake in McKnight's video looks a bit dull for a guitar that costs upwards of $3,000 new, you could see how some good lighting and savvy photo editing could get it to look like a steal on the secondary market.

"[The real version of] this guitar is about $3,000 new, so that makes it valuable," he explains. "The second thing is, there's not a lot of people with experience with this, so if you give somebody the opportunity, they might think that they're getting a great buy because they don't know what to look for. It's not like a Gibson or a Fender, where so many people have seen them, they can start telling quickly what's wrong with them."

In his video McKnight dismantles the guitar piece-by-piece, pointing out the shoddy assembly, cheap components and everything the counterfeiters did to make the guitar appear legit — which in this case included painting the neck to make it look like five pieces of exotic wood!   

"The reality is there's something more psychological going on with fake guitars than you realize," he says. "The majority of people that I've met in my life that have bought fake guitars all have one thing in common: there was a good con attached to it."

You can check out McKnight's fascinating video above! After explaining the fake guitar, he refurbishes it to make it better than ever. He also makes some modifications so it can never be sold as the real thing again.

Check below for some online guitar shopping tips.

1. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

This is the oldest rule in the book when it comes to spotting bootleggers in any industry. Do your research — we know the counterfeiters have — if you can't think of a reason someone is selling a "like new" guitar for a fraction of the retail price, there probably isn't a good reason.

2. Look for a sense of urgency.

If someone is explaining an "unbelievable deal" with a sob story like they're getting a divorce or their house burned down or their mom got arrested and they need money for bail, chances are they're trying to instill in prospective buyers a sense of urgency — a sense that the good deal won't last. They don't want you to do your research and know what you're buying. And if you buy it, they'll disappear.

3. Consider the details.

Everyone has a camera in their pocket now, if a seller uploads only one photo of an item or all the photos are of bad quality or if you can't zoom in, run away. Generally when people have a good quality product to sell, they want to show it off.

4. Be wary of 'No Returns.'

Reputable sellers on the secondary marketplace generally plan to do a lot of business on those platforms for many years, they don't want to have disputes with buyers who will tell others to stay away. When a customer has a problem with an order, it's in their best interest to resolve it immediately. If a seller says up front that they won't process a return, ask yourself why that might be. 

5. Look for a serial number.

With guitars, the serial number typically appears on the back of the headstock, near its tuners, or on the body. Any guitar with no serial number is either a fake or it was built by a true hobbyist. Many companies have serial number lookups on their websites, or they will look up a serial number for you if you email their customer support.

Some fakes DO have serial numbers, however, but they're fake numbers! Anytime you're buying used gear, protect yourself: contact the builder, give them the serial number and they'll tell you if it's legit or not. 

And just so you know, here's what a real Mayones Duvell looks like.

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