gruhn guitars

A short history of counterfeit vintage instruments.

Vintage guitars have proved to be a great investment over the years. Unfortunately as the value of these instruments has escalated, so has the incentive to make convincing forgeries.

When I first started collecting in the mid-1960s, copies of Fenders, Gibsons or Martins were virtually unheard of because the originals were readily available and relatively cheap. The first copies I encountered were Gibson Mastertone tenor banjos with “replica” five-string necks, which were due to the incredible rarity of original prewar five-strings. From renecking, it was only a short step to converting raised-head tone ring models to the more desirable flat-head configuration, and then onward to complete replicas of these instruments. Fortunately for me, it was not difficult to determine altered or fake instruments from originals since no one yet was doing workmanship that would truly pass for original.

By the mid to late-1960s there were also a few people altering Martin dreadnought guitars, particularly style D-28s, to resemble highergrade models such as the pre-World War II D-45. Some craftsmen went as far as altering the model number and serial number stamps on the neck block, occasionally even copying serial numbers of known genuine D-45 guitars. Still, to an experienced eye, the ornamental work differed from the genuine prewar D-45, and the overall dimensions and specifications of a 1950s or 1960s D model would not conform to the genuine 1930s original.

By the late-1960s Gibson F-5 mandolins, particularly those from 1922-24 signed by Lloyd Loar, were going up in value enough to attract forgers. In some cases they would build instruments entirely from scratch. The workmanship varied depending on who made them, but some were quite good and would require a discerning eye to identify them as fakes.

In the early-1970s, it was still very rare to encounter forgeries of Fenders, but during that period I did start to see forgeries of Gibson sunburst Les Pauls. Some of these were earlier Goldtops with added humbucking pickups and refinished sunburst tops. Others were 1970s Les Pauls that had been re-topped with a curly piece of maple and refinished cherry sunburst. By the mid- 1970s, as prices of 1958-59 Flying Vs and Explorers were rapidly escalating, copies of these instruments began appearing with some regularity.

During the 1970s, I knew most of the people who were doing this work. While a few of them were quite skilled, their workmanship clearly differed enough from the originals to such a degree that I had no difficulty in distinguishing them. Additionally, there was virtually no one doing a refinish job at that time that would fool an experienced eye.

The scene today is very different. Original examples of pre-war D-45s, sunburst Les Pauls, Explorers and Flying Vs can bring hundreds of thousands of dollars. Early Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, especially in custom colors, sell for tens of thousands (and some for over a hundred thousand).

Obviously, there is a great incentive to make copies or alter instruments to more closely resemble the more desirable and expensive models. In the case of Fenders, such an alteration may amount to nothing more than finding an old instrument with a very rough finish or one which has been previously refinished and doing a very professional refinish job to resemble an original. The best of today’s refinishers do work which can be fully equivalent in quality to anything done by the Fender factory. The art of the “relic” treatment is becoming more and more sophisticated, and old refinishes look more and more like old original finishes as the years go by, so determining originality is more and more challenging every day.

It is virtually impossible for even a very skilled builder to truly duplicate all of the distinctive workmanship of a factory-made instrument such as a Martin, Gibson or Fender. However, it takes years of experience and a keen eye to ferret out the originals from the forgeries and altered instruments being offered today.

While the proliferation of forgeries and altered instruments may seem frightening, the situation is not very much different from the art and antiquities world, which dealt with a similar problem for hundreds of years. It is absolutely critical for a buyer to be keenly aware of this situation and to act with proper caution. Just as an art collector would not buy a Van Gogh painting without a receipt and certificate of authenticity, one should not buy a vintage guitar at a high price without proper documentation and certification from the seller.

George Gruhn
has been dealing vintage guitars since the 1960s. Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars (co-written with Walter Carter) is the “bible” for vintage collectors. Visit or email

Each brand of guitars has its own "golden era." Read to learn how we break it down.

Older is not necessarily better. Typically, the most desirable instruments are from a maker’s accepted “Golden Age.”
As an appraiser as well as a dealer of vintage and used instruments, I constantly have to place dollar values on instruments. And I often hear back from owners who don’t understand why their instrument was appraised at a certain value.

While appraisals can be subjective, based on the appraiser’s feel for the market at that moment, there are certain factors that form the foundation of virtually all appraisals.

Instruments made by famous luthiers or manufacturers are typically more valuable than those by lesser-known makers. This makes sense; Martin, Fender, Gibson, D’Angelico, Stromberg, etc., became famous because their instruments were superior to those of the competition. A great guitar by an unknown maker will rarely sell for as much as a similar model by a famous maker.

Some models are far more sought after than others, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the cost of making the guitar. A smallbody Martin, for example, costs almost the same to manufacture as a dreadnought, but the demand for dreadnoughts makes them significantly more valuable than the smaller sizes. In the electric market, new Jazzmasters and Jaguars were more expensive in the early 1960s than Strats and Teles, but the market demand is much higher today for Strats and Teles, so they bring more money.

Older is not necessarily better. Typically, the most desirable instruments are from a maker’s accepted “Golden Age.” Martins made before the advent of steel-string bracing in the late 1920s are not as highly sought or as valuable as the newer (relatively speaking) examples from the 1930s.
With individual luthiers, the finest instruments by any hand-builder are likely to be the most recent ones, since a luthier almost certainly is a better builder now than he was when he was just starting out. That same pattern holds true through Gibson’s original production period for Les Paul Standards (1952-60), where the original goldtop is the least valuable and values increase with each newer version of the model up to 1959.

Generally, the cleaner the better, but structural condition is equally as important as cosmetic condition.

Collectors place a great premium on a fully original, pristine example of a prime collectible, but such pieces are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Repair and restoration is a controversial issue. An instrument that has been refretted will bring less than one with original frets, but if an instrument is good enough to be played with any regularity, a refret is inevitable. As pristine original instruments become scarcer, collectors are becoming more and more accepting of routine repairs. The better the repair and restoration work, the more valuable the instrument will be, although it will never regain the value of a pristine, unaltered original.

Supply and Demand
Rarity does not always equate with value. It usually does equate with low sales and lack of public interest at the time the model was new. Some of the most valuable instruments today, such as prewar Martin D-45s or 1958-59 Gibson Flying Vs, fall into that category. Numerous other instruments are rare simply because they were not good instruments, and they deservedly have little or no vintage appeal. On the other hand, some highly desirable instruments, such as pre-CBS Stratocasters and 1958-60 sunburst Les Pauls, are not nearly as rare as some other models, but demand is still greater than supply, and that translates to higher prices.

Planned rarity doesn’t count. Limited-run “instant collectibles” fall into the same category as limited-edition commemorative plates or coins. While many are exceptionally fine guitars, the majority never generate any higher level of demand – or value relative to the market – than when they were new.

Sound and Playability
In evaluating vintage instruments or setting prices, the sound of an individual instrument makes relatively little difference. A 1959 Les Paul with a highly figured top and average sound will bring more money than the bestsounding example with a plain top. A clean 1937 Martin D-28 with average sound will bring more than a beat or refinished one with a fantastic sound.

Prior Precedent
Just as a home appraiser uses “comps”– prices of comparable houses that have recently sold – I consider previous sale prices, gained from my own experience and from other dealers. Unfortunately, there is no database for comparable guitar prices as there is for homes. The price guides are not comps; they are asking prices. Just as in the housing market, asking is not getting, and the true market value may not be anywhere near asking prices.

Celebrity ownership can push the value of a guitar far beyond its collectible or utilitarian value. I take into account the importance of the celebrity owner, how extensively they used this particular instrument, how many instruments they had, and how frequently their pieces come on the market. Needless to say, documentation of celebrity ownership and use is critical.

The bottom line is that an instrument’s value is the amount someone will pay for it. It’s ultimately a guess, but if all of the above factors are considered, the guesswork is minimized.

George Gruhn
has been dealing vintage guitars since the 1960s. Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars (co-written with Walter Carter) is the “bible” for vintage collectors. Visit or email