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Counterfeits, Tributes & Lawsuit Guitars

There has been a lot of talk about a certain large guitar company and their recent threats of lawsuits to, well, everyone. The conversation has gotten kind of out of control and the internet chatter is relentless. We have joked around about it so much on the weekly podcasts that a few other guitar channels thought that we were being sued!

This is nothing new. Ya see, the 70’s are not acknowledged as a banner decade for big American guitar companies, I won’t mention any names, but they know who they are. Some well-known Japanese companies made versions of both popular and unpopular American guitars that were so close to the originals that they are often referred to as “Lawsuit Guitars”. It’s a cool sounding name, but I’m not sure of the details or if any of these companies were ever sued, issued Cease & Desist orders, settled out of court or even contacted by lawyers. This was back before information was as widely available as it is today and you could get away with a giant confederate flag painted on the top of an orange Dodge Charger on prime time television . Now, there were well made versions of classic instruments but there were also crappy plywood knock offs. Y’all know what I’m talking about… there were boat loads of ingenuous imitations of dubious quality coming from Asia. Unfortunately, these things colored the public opinion of import guitars for many years. These, clearly, infringed on trademarks but would never be mistaken for the real thing.

One of my favorite stories about a classic guitar forgery did not come from overseas but rather a small guitar maker in California who would, quite unknowingly, help shape the sleazy rock music scene in the late 80’s. People were finally getting bored with bands known as much for copious use of AquaNet and iridescent spandex as they were for great songs. I remember exactly where I was the first time, I saw the Welcome To The Jungle music video. Back in those days, if you picked up a guitar magazine you could read a little bit about Slash’s 59 Les Paul. Little did we know that it was not a Gibson at all. Rather, it was a counterfeit built by a luthier named Kris Derrig. By all accounts it is an exact replica of a 59 Les Paul Standard. I’m sure there were lots of people who knew the real story back then but the rest of us didn’t get in on the gag until many years later. The Appetite For Destruction album proved that your guitar player didn’t have to have a Floyd Rose to sound cool. Classics are classics for a reason. “I didn’t fuckin’ reintroduce the Les Paul,” says Slash. “It’s been around. I just don’t think that anybody who was really popular and touring worldwide was using Les Pauls around the time Guns came out.” Guitar Shop Magazine (October 1996)

Yeah, okay there are Japanese built versions of retro American guitars… some of them good enough that the companies that made the originals take notice, and some, not so much. There are small builders making copies of vintage guitars convincing enough to fool the entire MTV generation. And then there are “Ghost Built Guitars”. Ghost building guitars is the same thing as ghostwriting a book (it happens in lots of creative fields). It is not unheard of for big time musicians to have super talented guitar builders, who don’t work in factories, make them instruments. Bolin Guitars is probably the best known for this sort of thing, they have been doing it since the 70’s. These guitars usually wear the logo of a company that said guitar slinger has an endorsement deal with.

So, what gives? Is there any reason to seek out one of these guitars?

Hell yeah there is… we do it all the time!

Now, let me clarify something before I tell you why you might want to do this. I am not talking about the seatainers filled with counterfeit garbage imitating something authentic, cool and, of course, vintage. You can spot one of these turds from across the room and they are nothing like a well-done guitar that bears a striking resemblance to your favorite shape. In 2019 we might even call it a tribute model.

The companies we all know, and love, don’t always listen to customers… they don’t make the models you want, with the features you demand, the Q.C. is lousy or, maybe, the CEOs are just jerks? The custom shops are not usually much better for people who have a day job. Unless you are a classic rock superstar, or just independently wealthy, it is unlikely that you can specify more than just paint colors and levels of a factory beat-up finish, a trend that I can only hope is on the decline. Finally, if you are a rebel, a high-quality custom-built guitar that mimics one you can’t get from a litigious corporation might make you feel like you are getting away with something or, at least, sticking it to the man. If you decide to go this route, I advise that you find a good guitar builder you trust and play some examples of their work. Be damn sure that this is something you really, REALLY, want because it should be yours forever.