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more... GearDecember 2009

The Growing Problem of Counterfeit Guitars


Duff McKagan plays a Burny Les Paul model while performing with Loaded at the third annual Rock on the Range music festival in Colombus, OH, on May 16, 2009. Since they first appeared in the ‘70s, these replicas have been found in the hands of many high-profile players. In a recent interview with UltimateGuitar.com, McKagan praised the craftsmanship of two Burny guitars he acquired in Japan, saying, “It’s a Les Paul, but in Japan they can copy this stuff like exactly ... you can’t get them here because they’re illegal.” McKagan contends that his Burnys achieve his sound better than any other guitar. Photo by Wayne Dennon.
It all started with a few threads posted on guitar forums, including one on rickresource.com, an outstanding forum and the place to go for all things Rickenbacker. The thread dealt with knockoff Rickenbacker guitars going by the brand name of “Rockinbetter,” an obvious distortion of the Rickenbacker name. It also mentioned Rick’s president John Hall and his aggressive manner of going after those who steal or appropriate his designs and trademarks.

Then the conversation turned to Chinese counterfeit Gibson guitars, and how they were coming into this country and fooling astute guitarists, famous rock stars and guitar dealers who should know better. I learned that counterfeit guitars have regularly shown up on eBay, where people have been—and continue to be—scammed out of their hard-earned money, thinking they were buying a real Les Paul, Stratocaster, Paul Reed Smith, or other well-known instrument.

As I investigated the counterfeit guitar racket, I began to notice ads on North Jersey Craigslist for “Gibson copies made overseas, $500.” I decided to call the seller. Here’s how it went down, word for word, when I finally got him on the phone.

“Hello, is this S****? I’m from Premier Guitar magazine and I called a few days ago and left a message. I’m doing an article on counterfeit guitars and wondered if I could ask you a few questions.”
“I think it’s ridiculous!”
“What’s ridiculous?”
“That you’re doing an article on these guitars.”
“I take it you don’t want to be interviewed?”
“No!”

With that, S**** of Garwood, New Jersey, slammed the phone down. Touchy, wasn’t he? Perhaps it was because he knew full well that he was selling an illegally bootlegged instrument. At least S**** honestly referred to the instruments as Asian replicas. He had that going in his favor. According to Ric Olsen, Gibson’s Manager of Brand Protection, “We know all about that guy. We shut S**** down right after you spoke with him. We have people scouring the Internet all the time looking for guys like him.” Several days later, S**** re-posted an ad for a fake Les Paul, and again, Gibson managed to have it removed.

Where they come from In March 2007, a North Carolina man, Steve F. Sexton, was arrested and charged with two felony counts of criminal use of a counterfeit trademark, after selling fake Gibson guitars to unsuspecting victims, including a 15-yearold boy who had saved money to buy his first Les Paul. Sexton plead guilty to two counts, was sentenced to 45 days in jail, 18 months of unsupervised probation, was fined $250 and ordered to pay his victims $2,700 in restitution.

In an article from the U.S. Federal News Service, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine F. Marshall remarked, “In this case involving Gibson guitars, one young musician even had his dream of owning what was to him the perfect guitar ruined by finding what he had bought was a fake.” In the Dec. 1, 2007 issue of Music Trades, it was reported that Bernard Musumeci, owner of Oakdale Music in Oakdale, N.Y., was arrested and charged by Suffolk County Police with second-degree trademark counterfeiting after he allegedly purchased $20,000 worth of bogus Gibsons from a dealer on eBay. Police confiscated 33 guitars from Musumeci’s home and store. Due to his obesity, Musumeci was arraigned outside the Suffolk County courthouse. The press and bloggers had a field day. Musumeci claimed he never knew the guitars were fakes.


Counterfeit Gibson guitars confiscated from Bernard Musumeci. Photo: Michael E. Ach/Newsday

Asian counterfeiting is a widespread and unquestionably illegal activity, and it’s not just guitars. Counterfeit Nike sneakers, Gucci handbags, name brand perfume, Rolex watches, all manner of designer clothing, DVDs, CDs and so much more, have permeated the European and American markets since the 1970s. The problem, however, has accelerated quickly since 1997. The largest producer of counterfeit goods is China, but South Korea is a close second, where so-called “super copies” are being made. Super copies are generally knockoffs of designer products whose quality is high enough to regularly fool employees of the companies they’re ripping off. It was just a matter of time before counterfeiters began bootlegging famous brand guitars. Lax government and customs rules and regulations allow counterfeiters to prosper overseas, leaving European, Japanese, and American companies little recourse in fighting the problem.

With all this in mind, and feeling bold enough to dive head first into the fray, I made contact with a Chinese distributor of counterfeit guitars, Bazaarguitar.com. They regularly sell knockoffs of Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, PRS and Ibanez guitars at very low prices. For instance, a fake Gibson VOS Custom Shop Les Paul TV Junior sells for $338, as does a VOS Les Paul ’59 Sunburst with flamed maple top in an Iced Tea sunburst. There are closeup photos of the Junior on Baazarguitar’s website, and having owned a vintage TV Junior years ago, the Chinese fake looked like a very convincing replica. I was sorely tempted to order one until I realized the photo was that of an actual Gibson VOS Junior. Playing the part of an interested consumer, I took advantage of their email help line and posed the following question: “If I buy one of your guitars and am dissatisfied with it, can I return it for another?”

Their response in broken but understandable English was, “You must decide first if you can afford guitar. You get good one first time. We hand pick best ones. If the guitar damaged by shipper, you can return only.” In other words, you cannot return it unless it’s broken by the shipping service. The individual who runs Bazarguitar.com posted a message to this effect on his home page: “I am a good person. You get no trouble from me. Best place to find your dreaming guitar at a cheap price. We sell Gibson, Fender, PRS, Ibanez and Gretsch guitars at cheapest prices.” There was more, but you get the drift. According to the law, he’s a criminal, a common counterfeiter. And they accept Paypal, by the way.

Another Chinese distributor/clearing house for all types of goods, including guitars, is TradeTang.com. They sell just about every sort of consumer product imaginable, including toys, cell phones, household items, computers, health and beauty products, video games, sporting goods, cameras, jewelry and watches, clothing, wedding items, and even motorcycle and auto parts. Are the products legitimate? Perhaps some of them are, but the guitars certainly aren’t.

A Bogus Boneyard
I decided to use the Gibson Joe Perry Boneyard Custom Shop Les Paul, a guitar I like, as a starting point. TradeTang listed many versions of this guitar from multiple sellers, starting at $187.28 and going up to $567.50 with free shipping and a hardshell case included. By the way, the prices seem to change on a fairly regular basis, but that’s most likely due to international currency fluctuation. Indeed, there were three full pages of Gibson and Epiphone Joe Perry Boneyard knockoffs, and many of them used the same photo repeatedly. I noticed names such as Guachao, Wanghongxia, Langping, Linglongshanghang, Full-Of-Romance, Jinshang58 and Eguitar58, as well as many others. These are online monikers for people selling counterfeit guitars. One can only imagine what you get for your money, but again, we have to assume that the more you spend, the better the guitar. Or can we? There’s no way of knowing. You order one; you take your chances.

Once again, I zeroed in on a Gibson LP Boneyard knockoff starting at $340.50 (there’s a discount if you order 10 or more), and emailed the distributor, one “hao-2010,” with the following query: “Do you have this guitar in stock? Is a hardshell case extra money? Can you ship it UPS or FedEx, and will you hand-pick a good one for me with a highly figured flame top? Please reply.”

Mr. “hao-2010” has this on his home page: “Welcome to my store. Worthy commodity, competitive price. Customer first. Your business with me will be a pleasant experience for you. I am dedicated to bring joy, safe and top-quality products for you. All the products I offer in my store come with fashion, style, superior quality but cheaper price all the time … First time, we do business, next time, we become friends.” Their come-on also states, “We use Japan technology. Our quality control team is responsible for all the guitar inspection from the selection of the wood to the guitar finish.” As of this writing, I have never gotten a response from hao-2010.