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Sightings: Fakes and Forgeries?
Enter Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, who owns what he believes and claims to be an original Moderne, purchased for “a little bit of nothing” in 1971. Although this guitar has been photographed, Gibbons, who has been described to me by someone who knows him well as a master of “smoke and mirrors,” has never allowed a single vintage guitar expert to examine his instrument, not even his friend George Gruhn. He has steadfastly refused to make the guitar public to any extent other than two questionable photos. Examining these images, it appears that Billy G’s Moderne looks very similar to the Japanese Ibanez “Futura” Moderne copy that surfaced in 1975. Moderne copies have also been made with the names Greco and Antoria on the headstock, and Gibson produced offshore Moderne copies in the year 2000 with the Epiphone name.
Speaking of replicas, luthier Glen Miller (no relation to the late swing bandleader) manufactures Moderne, Explorer, and Flying V replicas at Wrona’s House of Violins in Lewiston, NY. Miller began performing repairs shortly after getting his first guitar in 1970, and learned his trade in the shop of the late vintage guitar dealer Dan Hairfield. In 2003, Miller found a source for original Gibson parts.
“I had been searching for a Moderne and came across a listing for some supposed original Moderne parts,” he says. “I contacted the seller, who had been a Gibson subcontractor and was fortunate enough to have attended the auction [when they closed up] the Kalamazoo factory in 1984. He purchased many bodies, necks and other hardware, but then put the parts in his storage area and forgot about them. I made a deal for most of the stuff he had, including original ‘82 Moderne bodies and necks, plus ten Gibson logos.”
Miller has built three Modernes from Gibson parts, plus five from his own parts, in addition to four Explorers and two Flying Vs.
The Plot Thickens
Unlike some, Glen Miller believes the original Moderne never existed.
“I don’t think one was ever made in the ‘50s,” he comments. “It is clear from photos that Gibson rushed some prototype Vs and Explorers so they could display them at the ’57 NAMM show. The Moderne never made it into a single picture taken at the show. All the supposed sightings sound just like people who claim to have seen a UFO. The prototype Vs, Futuras, and Explorers with the Futura headstocks have all shown up. If there were any real ‘50s Modernes, at least one would have surfaced by now. A ‘50s Moderne does not exist.”
Luthier Dan Erlewine claims to have owned a re-necked Moderne, but no longer has the guitar and never photographed it when it was in his possession. According to Erlewine, “A guy brought it into my shop on the outskirts of Ann Arbor and wanted to sell it. He said his dad sent it to Kalamazoo to have a Melody Maker neck put on it, because he liked the feel of his buddy’s Melody Maker and wanted his guitar to have the same. I thought it was an Explorer, which I’d never seen, and I had never heard of the Moderne or the Futura. I paid $175, which was a lot of money at the time.”
“When I removed the pickguard,” he continues, “I found some routing had been done, and I believe different pickups had been installed—maybe someone started a third pickup and never finished. I filled the unwanted rout with plaster of Paris, of all things, and painted black over the hole. I sold the guitar immediately to Ann Arbor Music to get my money back. They sold it to Doug Green, who worked for George Gruhn. I think the parties got into some pretty good arguments over it.”
That guitar was supposedly sold to a Japanese businessman. George Gruhn claimed to have examined it and deemed it a fake.
“George knows more than I do about vintage guitars,” Erlewine states. “I’d say he didn’t see it. He bought it through his employee, Ranger Doug.”
Dan Erlewine has never seen Billy Gibbons’ Moderne, either: “Only recently did I see a glimpse of it in the photo of Billy in the convertible filled with guitars in the Ron Wood book. How would I know if it’s original? What does ‘original’ mean anymore, especially with a guitar that has never been proven to exist.”
“I have no idea why Billy has been so secretive about it,” he adds. “I’ve never met Billy. He’s a big star with lots of valuable guitars, and if it were me, I’d be protective about them, too. He hasn’t shown it to anyone because he doesn’t feel like it; he doesn’t have a need to. I don’t think Billy claims to be an expert on vintage guitars. He’s an expert at playing them!”