Spotting a fake guitar

I’ve never really understood counterfeiters. Building a guitar takes a lot of work, and requires a ton of expensive tools – so if you’re going to build a guitar, why make a copy of somebody else’s work? I guess they think they’re going to fool a lot of people with their fake guitar, but surely there are better ways to make a living. The thing is, that most times I see a fake guitar it’s actually not that poorly made – it has to be somewhat decent, otherwise nobody would go for it. So why bother? I just don’t get it.

This week I had a counterfeit PRS Santana come in to the shop, which the new owner was rather suspicious of. He got a good deal on it, and he was cautiously optimistic about it’s value as a Private Stock instrument. He took it to a local music store that shall remain nameless, and they mistakenly identified it as authentic (to their credit, I think they must have been drummers). It wasn’t set up well, and had a nasty buzz on the 12th fret, so he brought it in to me to fix up. It only took me about two seconds to identify it as a fake. You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to sneak one past this guitar tech.

Since I’ve had several people ask about how I could tell, I thought I’d share a few tell-tale signs of how to identify a counterfeit guitar. Much of what I saw on this fake PRS can apply to any fake branded guitar (which are usually Gibsons and Rickenbackers). It’s a safe bet that if you’re in doubt, it’s probably a fake. Buyer beware!

The first and easiest sign that it’s a fake is the case it comes with. Gibson, PRS, Rickenbacker, et al., come with a nice case, that usually form fits to that specific guitar. They’re solidly built, are well padded, and use good hardware. This case had none of these things:


It even came with a really crappy cable in a ziplock bag, which is another give away. Here’s a real PRS case:


The headstock was all wrong, as well. The inlay was sloppy, the wooden faceplate looked cheap and discolored, the truss rod cover was misshapen and not flush with the nut, the headstock shape was incorrect and not artfully done, and the nut was ugly and super high. Most of these bigger companies use CNC machines to carve much of the instrument, and they are deadly accurate. If the shapes look a little wonky, it’s probably a fake:


For contrast, here’s a real PRS headstock (a different model, thus a different shape, but still artfully executed):


Another giveaway are the inlays. Pearl and abalone are expensive, and I assume that the entire modus operandi of a counterfeiter is to make the fakes cheaply. This one used fake abalone – you can see that it’s nothing but a thin layer of the fake stuff under a thick layer of clear plastic. Also the inlay doesn’t perfectly fit in it’s route, and so there’s a layer of filler around the edges. Plus, it’s just not quite artfully executed:


Here’s a real PRS bird inlay. Much nicer, and a better quality piece of rosewood for the fretboard:


PRS designs and manufactures their own bridges, which are quite elegant. This one was equipped with a blocky, clunky looking bridge:


And now a real PRS bridge:


Here’s where it gets all kinds of wrong. They actually had the gall to print “Private Stock”, a date, serial number, and a very sloppy fake signature of Paul Reed Smith himself. PRS has to my knowledge always hand written their serial numbers on the back of their headstocks, and this is clearly just printed. This just screams fake to me. They also used Grover tuners, and to my knowledge, all PRS guitars have their own brand tuners installed.


The real deal:


Sloppy routing is another sure sign that something’s up. The trem cavity lines weren’t clean and straight, and they didn’t even bother with a back plate (probably because PRS backplates are recessed, which take some skill to do properly)! They also used a cheap, thin trem block, and even the bridge ground wire screams cheap.


Clean routing lines, quality hardware, and recessed cover plate on the real McCoy:


Electronics and control cavity – need I say more? Yikes!


Lastly, the body shape is inelegant and all kinds of wrong. The curves aren’t clean, and the cutaways reveal that the maple cap is nothing more than a thin veneer. The knobs and switch are too deeply recessed, and the inlays look cheap. Plus, PRS has made much of a name for themselves largely based on the quality of woods used for their tops, and their excellent glossy finishes – and this guitar totally fails to impress on those fronts.


For contrast, here’s a real PRS. Just beautiful!


I could go on – there’s hundreds of details I could point out, but I think you get the picture. If you’re ever in doubt of an instrument you’re looking at, and if the price seems too good to be true, it’s probably safe to assume it’s not the real deal.

That said, it’s not the end of the world if you end up with a fake guitar. Most of the counterfeits I’ve seen have been good enough to fool people, and are therefore actually put together rather well. This particular PRS fake just needed a fret level and setup, and now it plays great. In fact, it sounds really good, and I really dig the overly thick neck. Not bad for only $400, and nobody will be able to tell if it’s real or not from the 5th row! Rawk on!

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