Five Reasons Why Buying Counterfeit Guitars is Not Worth It
I know what you’re thinking – writing an article about the pitfalls of buying a counterfeit guitar for a store that deals in higher-end musical gear is just too convenient and a bit sanctimonious, right? Well, before you come to that conclusion, allow me to mention that throughout my years of buying, selling, and trading gear, I’ve purchased everything from expensive boutique-made guitars to the cheapest knockoffs on planet Earth. Accordingly, at various times in my life, my budgets for gear have run the gamut from moths flying out of my wallet to rolling up on a guitar store with a certain swagger that can only mean “I’m ready to spend some money.” In the interest of full disclosure, the vast majority of my financial situation falls somewhere in between those two situations. With that in mind, I want to share with you what I’ve learned from buying knockoff guitars.
It seems as though we are living in the golden age of everything when it comes to guitars. The golden age of: boutique manufacturing, pedals, period-correct reproductions, hand-wired amps, and so on. Similarly, we are living in the golden age of counterfeit guitars. They’re cheap, available, and can easily fool a relatively untrained eye. Although my lessons, experiences, and advice on counterfeits spread across knockoffs that emulate many brands, I am specifically addressing the most ubiquitous of these creations: the Chibson, or a Gibson counterfeit made in China.
To touch on the aforementioned availability, there are at least two very big sites that operate out of China that will allow you to buy these guitars and have them shipped right to your door. I won’t mention them, but finding them is not hard to find. It is advisable to keep your lust in check when browsing sites that permit the sale of Chibsons. Some of these guitars look downright mouth-watering, as you will find models in finishes and with certain appointments that are unavailable from Gibson, unless ordering through the Custom Shop for massive cash. And let’s be honest, some of them look great. To deny that is to deny a fact. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” While many of these guitars look gorgeous in pictures, what you get in the box (if it clears through U.S. Customs) may tell a different tale.
Why Are You Buying This in the First Place?
Before buying a Chibson, be honest with yourself about why you are doing so. Is it because you want to fool people into thinking that you have more money than you really do? Are you worried that an audience might not take your playing as seriously if you’re playing an Epiphone instead of (something that resembles) a Gibson? I reserve no judgment if these are your reasons, as they are really totally understandable. You might even just get the "gas" (gear acquisition syndrome) out by checking out one of these Chibsons. Whatever the reason, be in touch with what it is, and you may find that the reason is ill-advised or born out of some type of insecurity.
Most importantly, it can’t be that money is no object to you, otherwise you would buy a real Gibson. So if you’re not Trump-rich, then why roll the dice on a $200-300 purchase that may end up being a total flop? Instead, I would recommend taking that money and starting a fund for a guitar you really, really want. Say no to instant gratification. You’ll appreciate buying a real deal guitar that took you a year or two to save up for as opposed to spending not much money on a replica that will fool people so long as they are standing at least a few feet away from you.
Make No Mistake, Your Seller is Not Your Friend, and is Likely Trying to Deceive You
To be fair, many sellers of Chibsons post accurate photos of the guitars they are selling, but just as many post pictures of real Gibsons instead, and you have to be extremely vigilant and knowledgeable to discern the difference. The most common offenders will post pictures from legitimate retailers. If you are looking at a product page for a counterfeit and find yourself thinking “wow these photos are very professional” or “hey this looks just like the one I saw on my favorite music store’s web site,” your instincts are trying to tell you that the product is not being represented accurately. I once saw an ad for a Fender Custom Shop relic Stratocaster in shell pink and from the photos, it looked amazing – too amazing. I asked for some close-ups (which was my sly way of trying to see if this was the actual guitar for sale), and the pictures I received back were completely different and the relic job was embarrassing. It was hot neon pink with white paint smeared in spots to replicate the meticulous wear marks created by the Fender Custom Shop.
Sellers will also go out of their way to use hollow phrasing in broken English to sway you to their shop. “New Hot 2017 Model” or “Customers Love This Guitar” and so on will be plastered all over their ad to make you forget that you’re buying a knockoff. Your seller will be overly courteous during the transaction, as well. This is all an attempt to mitigate your inevitable disappointment with your purchase.
You’re Buying a Guitar That Has Undergone Absolutely No Quality Control and May be Unreturnable
One of the most pervasive questions/statements that you find on any given forum or YouTube comments section from prospective Chibson buyers is, “is it at least as good as an Epiphone?” or “as long as it is as good as an Epi, I’m down to spend the money.” I want to be as clear as I can be with this statement: comparing Chibsons and Epiphones is a dastardly false equivalence. Epiphone guitars undergo some type of quality control to ensure that the guitar is playable out of the box. Tweaks are always in order for personal preference, but the idea is that the guitar won’t need to go to the shop immediately upon seeing the light of day. In my days of purchasing Chibsons (of which I bought four), none of them were as good as any Epiphone that I’ve ever owned or played. The Chibsons all had their own problems: dead frets, poorly cut nuts, microphonic pickups, broken tuning machines, and poor quality hardware. All of these problems can be remedied, sure, but how much money are you willing to invest into an illegitimate piece of gear before instead opting to buy authentic? Not to mention that at least in my opinion, stocking a counterfeit guitar with choice pickups and hardware is like putting lipstick on a pig.
Aside from financial investment, you may also not have a recourse for returning a flop piece of gear. When buying counterfeits, you are buying from someone who is knowingly ripping off a reputable brand. Do you think they have a return policy or warranty comparable with the brand they’re knocking off? You may get lucky, but the odds are not in your favor. I attempted a return once, and the seller agreed, but I had to pay the shipping back, which was north of $200 (bear in mind that this guitar cost me $220 shipped to the U.S.). Which leads me to my next point…
Once You Buy One, You’re Stuck with It
Conventional interpretation of the law regarding counterfeit guitars suggests that it is not illegal to buy them, but it is illegal to sell them. Once you get your counterfeit from China, it is yours and you’re stuck with it. If you decide some months or years down the line that you don’t like it, it would be (a) illegal for you to sell it on Craigslist, (b) nearly impossible (and morally reprehensible) to attempt to fool an associate at your local music shop, into believing it is authentic and getting them to buy it off of you, (c) also impossible to sell on Reverb or eBay, as counterfeits get flagged almost immediately by shoppers or monitors. Bear in mind that even if you state clearly that it is counterfeit, the law still prohibits you from selling it.
You’re Hurting the Manufacturer and Their Employees
Sure, people love to hate on Gibson for a variety of reasons. Some (not all) have vocally criticized their current quality control, price inflation, and available offerings, but bear in mind that behind a company that some love to hate are real life American workers who may otherwise be unemployed if not for their job at Gibson. This extends well beyond CEO’s and others who have corner offices, but even down to janitors and receptionists who are able to feed and shelter themselves and loved ones thanks to their paychecks from the big G. Does Gibson have a ton of money? Of course. But when times get tight, as with most big companies, you won’t see cuts from the top, but rather, from the most vulnerable and the folks with the most to lose.
It is my hope that this pieces provides you with some real-life advice from someone who has experience with buying Chibsons – not from some cranky dude who is all bent out of shape because the Chibson you bought for $200 looks just like his $6,000 R9 Les Paul. In short, avoid the temptation of instant gratification, the fast food-level availability of counterfeits, and of supporting illegitimate industries. As Tammi Terrell once said, “ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby.”
-David Elliott, writing for Martel Music Store