As a guitar player, when I drop money on a Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, PRS or any other top-of-the-line axe, I want to know that I am getting exactly that. I don’t want some cheap knock-off or counterfeit like the infamous “Chibson” guitar.
If you love guitars as much as I do, the cost of collecting these instruments can take a toll on the checkbook, so one of my favorite pastimes is spelunking in the local pawn shops or perusing the local Craigslist ads.
It’s a great way to get a good deal on an otherwise hard-to-find-guitar. However, this is also one of the easiest ways to get ripped off. Knowing how to spot a fake versus the real thing is key if you are going to partake in this activity, particularly in this day in age where the counterfeit guitar problem worsens by the day almost.
A counterfeit guitar is a real nuisance. Not only are you paying a lot of money for a phony that sounds and plays poorly, but there is also no warranty, no trade-in value, and it’s usually illegal to resell. So before you get stuck with a fake guitar from a charlatan calling himself a guitar dealer, learn the telltale signs.
How To Spot A Fake Guitar
The United States Secret Service is responsible for policing crimes of counterfeiting money in the US. Their agents are highly trained in spotting a fake versus the real thing – and not because they know what a fake look likes. They know what the real thing looks like. They learn to spot a fake dollar bill by studying the real thing until each and every little detail is committed to memory.
This is how one should approach learning how to spot a fake guitar – by learning all about the real thing. Knowing the building practices of the luthiers behind the guitar, what years major changes in the building process or materials occurred, and knowing the difference between authentic materials and cheap, almost identical substitutes will equip you with the knowledge you need to steer clear of the fakes.
The best tool you can have at your disposal if going out to buy a vintage guitar is George Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars. This book is loaded with information to help you with a vintage guitar purchase, particularly in discerning manufacturer, model, date, and whether or not it’s in original condition.
Another great way to learn about the intricacies of an authentic high-end guitar is to follow reputable luthiers and dealers. Some of the best sources are Stew Mac and Crimson Guitars. With YouTube pages like these, you can learn about different materials that authentic guitars use as opposed to the cheap imitation parts used by counterfeiters. It actually ends up being a lot easier than it may sound.
Quick, easy research can be done on any guitar provided it has a serial number. Most do – at least, the vast majority of the authentic ones do. This can be a chore, so hopefully, this provides you with a bit of a guide when deciphering guitar serial numbers.
How Do I Find The Serial Number On My Guitar? What Does It Mean?
Checking a guitar’s serial number is a good and easy way to validate a guitar. You can look up a serial number either in Gruhn’s Guide or run the number in the manufacturer’s database. The serial number itself will give you date information and the database will have a description of the guitar so you can check the specs of the guitar in question.
Let’s look at a few examples, starting with the more complicated guitars – Gibson.
The serial number of Gibson guitars can be found on the back of the headstock with a particular dating pattern. From 1975-1977, Gibson used an 8-digit dating code where the first two digits were the year:
99 = 1975
00 = 1976
Then in 1977, Gibson introduced the serial pattern of YDDDYRRR. YY is the production year, DDD is the day of the year, and RRR is the factory ranking or plant designation number.
Before the 1984 closing of the Kalamazoo factory, RRR numbers 001-499 indicated the guitar was made in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The numbers from 500-999 were used up through 1989 for Gibson guitars made in Nashville.
Since 1989, Gibson acoustics have been made in Bozeman, Montana while the electrics have been made in Nashville or Memphis. RRR numbers for the Bozeman factory start each day at 001 while the electrics may start at the low 300s.
Here are a couple of examples of serial numbers from Gibson’s website:
70108276: The guitar was made in 1976, on the 10th day of the year (January 10) and was the 276th guitar stamped that day. Given the year is before 1984, this guitar would have been made in Kalamazoo.
82765501: This guitar was made in 1985, so right away we know that it was after the Kalamazoo factory closed. It was the 276th day of the year (October 3) and was the first guitar stamped that day. Since the year was prior to 1989, the RRR number of 501 was used to indicate the first guitar of the day.
It can be a little nuanced, right? Well, Gibson is not finished yet!
In early July of 2005, Gibson went to a nine-digit serial number. A number was added to the middle of the sequence at the sixth number. So the new sequence looks like this: YDDDYBRRR
A batch number was placed before the factory number, starting with “0” at the beginning of the day. Once the RRR number reached 699, the batch number changed to “1”.
There are some exceptions to these systems. Here are a couple of them:
- The Les Paul Classic has a five- or six-digit serial number stamped in ink without the “MADE IN USA” as seen in the originals from 1952-1960. In 1989, four digits were used beginning with the number 9. From 1990 to 1999, a five-digit number was used with the first number indicating the year (0 for 1990, 1 for 1991, and so on).
From 2000-2005, a six-digit number was used with the first two digits being the year. The six-digit numbers also differed from the four- and five-digit serial numbers in that there was no space between the year indicator and the other digits.
- Serial numbers beginning with “94” were used during Gibson’s centennial year with the other six digits being the ranking number.
- Gibson USA 2014 to present cannot be dated to a specific day of the year. The sequence is YYRRRRRRR. The new models for the next year usually begin in the Fall, so it’s possible to have a 2015 Gibson USA model that was actually made in late 2014.
Believe it or not, that’s not all when it comes to understanding the serial number of a Gibson. That was just for Gibson USA, Gibson Acoustic, and Gibson Memphis. There are different nuances for Gibson Custom, Gibson Banjos, and Gibson Dobros. For all of that information, you can visit Gibson’s support page on their website for serial number lookup.
You can see why something like Gruhn’s Guide would be good to have! Don’t worry – we can breeze through the rest of our list….
Epiphone serial numbers are located on the back of the headstock, the top F-hole for semi-hollow bodies, or inside the soundhole of an acoustic.
Most models since about 1993 use the sequence FYYMMRRR. F is the factory code (can be two letters), YY is the year of manufacture (can be just one digit for those made in the 90s), MM is the month, and RRR is the ranking number and may be more or fewer digits, and not necessarily indicative of number of guitars made that year.
In an example from the Gibson website, S02021234 was issued in Feb. 2002.
Another serial number sequence that is used on many newer models is FYYMRRRR, where the month is indicated by a letter. S19D1234, for example, would be April of 2019.
For other exceptions, see Gibson’s serial number support page.
Fender serial numbers, like Gibson, can get complex and will vary based on model and age. Locations and formats include:
- Four digits on the bridge for 1950-1954
- Four to five digits on the neckplate for 1954 to 1963
- On the neckplate beginning with “L” from 1963-1965
- Six digits on the “Big F” neckplate for 1965 to 1976
- Serial number on headstock starting with a letter followed by 6-7 digits following 1976
Fenders made in Japan have the serial number either on the back of the neck near where the neck meets the body or on the headstock. These, however, can be inconsistent making them hard to date.
Mexican Fenders have a serial number on the back of the headstock beginning with the letter “M”.
Fender serial numbers can be run against Fender’s database on their website.
Paul Reed Smith (PRS)
PRS guitars will either have the serial number on the neck plate or on the headstock for set-neck models. The serial number starts with a year prefix with some numbers overlapping years. For example, “1” is used for both the 1991 and 2001 models.
In 2008, PRS went to a two-digit system which made it a bit easier to distinguish. Set-neck models have a more complex sequence. The PRS website has a table with the range of serial numbers and their corresponding year.
Ibanez does not use a unified system for serialization since Ibanez guitars are outsourced to several different entities around the world. The serial number will vary in location based on the model. Locations include the back of the headstock (sticker or printed), neckplate, the label inside the soundhole, stamped below the last fret, or stamped on the neck block inside an acoustic.
There will be several different serial sequences based on country of origin and year range. For example, guitars made in Japan from November 2004 to present day will start with the letter F, followed by a two-digit year and five-digit number. “F1412345” indicates the guitar was made by FujiGen Gakki in 2014.
A Korean-made Ibanez guitar made between 2000 and 2008 will start with one or two letters, followed by a two-digit year, two-digit month, and a four-digit production number for that month. The first letter or set of letters will be the manufacturer or factory code. “C02071234” indicates the guitar was produced by Cort Guitars in July 2002.
A great source for Ibanez serial numbers is the Ibanez wiki.
Yamaha acoustic and classical guitar serial numbers can be found near the soundhole label or stamped inside the guitar. Yamaha uses a date code where letters will correspond with the year and month numbers. H-Z represents numbers 1-12.
These serial sequences, as with other guitar makers will vary based on year range. As of now, there are 15 different serial numbering systems starting from 1941 to the present day.
A custom shop Yamaha made in Japan between 1991 and 1996 might have a serial number like HN701J. The sequence used with these guitars was YM###J. From 1991-1996, Yamaha started each month with 700. So in our example, HN701J means 1991 (H=1), July (N=7), and 701 is the first guitar made that month. The last letter was an internal code.
For a full list of date codes and serial number info, Ibanez has a resource (PDF) for that.
Rickenbacker serial numbers can be located on either the neck plate, bridge, or output jack plate.
Beginning in 1954, they started a system by which their guitars could be dated using the serial number. Until 1960, the format used was a six-character sequence indicating model, type, last digit of year, and production number. 4C7768 meant a Rickenbacker 400 series Combo made in 1957.
In 1960 and up until 1986, Rickenbacker went to a letter-to-number system for year and month. The serial number was stamped on the jack plate.
Fast-forward to models made since 1998 and things get a little easier with dating. The last two digits of the year can be found at the top of the jack plate and the number will be at the bottom portion of the jack plate.
The Gretsch guitar serial number, depending on age, can be found on the inside back of the guitar, the top edge of the headstock, or on a label inside the guitar.
Those made from 1939 to 1965 simply had sequential numbering. From 1967 to the early 1970s, the number was date coded with the first one or two digits being the month, followed by a one or two-digit number for the year, starting with “7” for 1967.
1973 to 1981 saw a similar system with the first digit being month then a one-digit year beginning with “3” for 1973 and sometime having a hyphen between the month and year numbers. Since 2003, it’s been a simple two-digit year, two-digit month, and a production number.
Visit Gretsch’s website for all of the product dating info.
The serial number for an ESP guitar can found on the back of the headstock, on the neck plate, or under the pickups.
For the headstock and prior to 2000, the format is generally DDMMYNNN with the last three digits being the production number. Under the pickups, the sequence was #MMYNN.
Those punched into the neck plate don’t seem to have a particular pattern but is typically a five-digit number. A resource you can use for an approximate dating method can be found here.
2000-2015 used the sequence of FYYWWDNN. The first letter or two would be the factory code, followed by a two-digit year, two-digit week, day of the week, and a production number.
2016 to present uses the format of BNNNNYYF. There is the brand (either E for ESP or ES for E-II), followed by either a production or internal number, year, then factory code.
Godin serial numbers can be found either on the back of the headstock or in the soundhole. One of the formats used was YYWWDRRR. This was a two-digit year where the production year starts in August, followed by production week, day of the week, and weekly rank.
In this format 06053168 indicates September 2005 (fifth week of the start of the 2006 production year) on Wednesday, and it’s the 168th guitar made that week.
If the serial number is 7 digits, the guitar was made in the 1990s and the first digit indicates the year. 6 digits or less or just generally when in doubt, your best bet is to email Godin (firstname.lastname@example.org) and have them run it against their database.
Martin acoustic guitars have their serial number on the neck block inside the guitar.
These are very simple to date using the serial number chart on Martin’s website. In 1898, the very last number used was 8348. Therefore, 8349 was the first guitar made in 1899.
Easiest one of the bunch!
Taylor guitars will either have a 9, 10, or 11-digit number located on the label inside the soundhole.
1993 through 1999 used the 9-digit system and used the format YYMMDDSPP. This was the year, month, day, series code, and production number.
Jan 2000 until Oct 2009 used the 11-digit sequence of YYYYMMDDSPP.
Since November of ‘09, Taylor uses the 10-digit system of FYMMDDYPPP where F is a factory code. 1=El Cajon, California; 2=Tecate, Mexico.
For more info on Taylor serial numbers, check out Taylor’s support page.