Here’s an extract from my book Million Dollar Les Paul. It’s the front half of the chapter about fakes, a subject cloaked in secrecy and half-truths. Careful, now.
When is a Burst not a Burst? Answer: When it’s a fake. The accompanying joke goes like this: Gibson made 1,500 or so sunburst Les Pauls between 1958 and 1960. Now only 2,000 survive.
Fakes have always been with us, ever since the first cavewoman said yes, darling, that was fantastic. The art world is full of them (fakes, not cavewomen). The antique market, too, is crowded with fakes. Any business with large sums of money involved is bound to attract the attention of forgers. Jeans, handbags, perfume; everything seems to be a target these days. Vintage guitars in general and the Burst in particular are no exceptions.
“It’s amazing,” one collector told me, “that in a business that’s involved with so much money now, it can all still be so vague and seemingly underhand. Very expensive guitars are sold in parking lots. People pay with travellers cheques. Other stuff I can’t even tell you about. It’s all very weird.”
Kerry Keane at Christie’s auction house puts it bluntly. “Fakers poison the well of knowledge that specialists and collectors rely upon. I learned in the violin trade that the moment there is an opportunity to profit through deceit, they are there. They’re there in a moment, without batting an eye. Fakers are absolutely convinced that they are smarter than everyone else. And their pride rests in being able to pull the wool over someone’s eyes.”
Let’s get our terminology straight before we swim out into these evidently murky waters. There are fakes, there are replicas, there are conversions, and there are restorations. Each one is a slightly different take on the same general idea, but, more importantly, some are entirely legitimate and a few quite definitely not.
A fake can be many things, including a guitar built entirely from scratch to pass off as a genuine old Burst, or a guitar that has some original parts and some newer parts but that is offered as entirely original.
A replica may be legitimate – although Gibson and many of the rest of us wouldn’t view it that way if the guitar had ‘Gibson’ on the head but had not been made in their Kalamazoo or Nashville or Memphis factories. A replica is precisely what the name implies: a guitar made to have the precise look and playability of an original Burst. Sold as a replica rather than the real thing, it has legitimacy. Sold as the real thing, it is a fake.
A conversion is another legitimate offering, and we’ve already come across the idea earlier in the book. It’s a Les Paul ‘converted’ from one specific (genuine) model to look and play like another, most commonly a mid-50s Goldtop to a Burst lookalike. The level of work varies depending on precisely which period the Goldtop is, but the idea is the same: you get very close to a real Burst at a lower cost.
A restoration is a real guitar that has been in the wars and is repaired and cleaned up and generally taken back to get as close to its original look and feel as the skill of the person doing the job allows. In essence, entirely legitimate.
These last three categories – replica, conversion, restoration – can all ‘become’ the first, a fake. They should all begin life as legitimate instruments. Perhaps different levels of legitimacy, depending on who’s doing the work and what their intention is, but the potential, at least, is for these to start as honourable workarounds. And they often do. The danger comes when they move on to a second, third, or later owner. Especially if that owner is inclined to deception or, to be more charitable, simply isn’t sure of exactly what he has.
When I asked around about replicas, one name kept coming back: Max. This is Peter ‘Max’ Baranet, whom I spoke to at his home in California. In the late 70s he found himself working at Image Guitars in Los Angeles, a small shop in a good position that got regular high-level customers. “We had a lot of celebrities coming through that tiny place,” says Baranet.
He did a good deal of custom work, building mostly Strat, Tele, and Les Paul-style guitars to customers’ requirements. Those requirements mostly being: make them look and play like old ones. Nothing unusual in that: it’s what a lot of guitar-makers do. “I could build a Les Paul with a whole set of original parts for I think under $2,000. Having the repair shop in the same place, I had access to a lot of original parts,” he says, “because people would bring guitars in and pull the original stuff out. Everybody wanted DiMarzio Super Distortion pickups back then, for example.”
He enjoyed doing this work and is proud of the guitars he made when he was active between about 1974 and 1996, after which he was mostly working on conversions. “But I have to tell you, I think people have the idea I was mass-producing replicas all my life. They’re actually very scarce. I can tell you there are less than a hundred. Way less than a hundred – and that includes Flying Vs, Explorers, Strats, and Teles as well as Les Pauls. The reputation that I’ve got is out of proportion.”
What sort of reputation? Among the unprintable descriptions I heard was the suggestion that “this guy is the biggest scammer in the world” and, positively polite this time, “he’s a scoundrel”. Well, are you, Max?
“I did a lot of vintage repairs and restoration,” he laughs, “but people are probably not going to want to hear that. They’d rather think I just did replicas. But I did a lot of restoration work – and the point is that nobody really wants you showing that work around. No one wants to admit that they had restoration work done, so that pretty much stayed low-key – and replicas got all the attention. I kind of let it go like that, because it kept the restoration under cover.”
The replicas that he did make, he argues, were unmistakably brand new guitars. “Twenty-some years later, I’ve seen a few come back, looked at them, and thought oh my god. It was all the right materials, and they have aged the same as the older ones. It was like wow, yes, that thing looks real.”
There are no intentional marks on his guitars to identify them as made-by-Max. “But if you’re in the business of buying $500,000 guitars and you can’t tell that one of mine is not the real thing, you’re in the wrong business,” he insists. “They were great guitars, but they were never built to pass as real.”
His website has a simple message saying: “I will verify the authenticity of guitars I have built.” He can do that by serial number and his collection of pictures. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have had a website at all. I don’t get any business that way and, as it says, I don’t build guitars. I’m not looking for any replica business. I figured I had to stick that up there: number one, so they don’t get lost in the shuffle, because they are nice guitars, and secondly, so they didn’t get passed as real.” Baranet’s next project, he tells me, is some kind of journey, at present unspecified. “I’ve shut everything down and I’m selling my house. It’s a personal thing. I’m looking for some new challenge.”
Conversions come in different categories, based on the idea of Goldtop into Burst. The earlier the Goldtop used as the source, the more work there is to do. The earliest will require pickup routs to be recut, humbuckers fitted, and the neck reset, for example; the later ones only need ‘bursting’. But as Baranet points out, with prices for Goldtops too taking a hike (and, at the time of writing , something of a plunge in the other direction), the equation is not quite so clear. Plus you never know exactly how good the top is lurking under the gold paint until you strip it.
“I was never a conversion guy,” collector Vic DaPra tells me. And that’s quite understandable: collectors who’ve been into Bursts for some time, like DaPra, and who have a number of examples of the real thing, have little evident need of a conversion. Conversions also have to compete now with the generally well regarded reissues that Gibson has been making for some years.
Restored guitars come next on our list, and our guide here is the British restoration specialist Clive Brown, whose work is widely praised. “I don’t like mint vintage guitars,” he tells me, “because you might as well buy a new one. I think a worn vintage guitar has an element of history. There’s something there that a lot of people like about it.” And that gives you your business? “All of my business, yes: recreating it for folks.”
He restores all kinds of guitars, recreating a finish here, patching up previous poor repairs and making good there, generally bringing the guitar to a state that it may not have enjoyed since a time much closer to its creation. He’s worked on a number of Bursts in recent years. “Normally that means complete restoration,” Brown explains, “in other words back to the correct type of finish, and then I age it up so it looks like it never lost its original finish. I had one where a guy had decided he’d convert a real ’59 to left-handed, by drilling five eighth-inch holes through the front as guide holes for where the new pots and switch were going to be. Then he stopped and change his mind.” He laughs heartily at the memory and proceeds to give me a blow-by-blow account of how he brought it back to life.
Is it still a one hundred percent Les Paul Burst if it’s had restoration done to it? “It’s still a Les Paul: it just has a different coat of paint on it. What are you going to do? Throw it away? If you get an old vintage car, you restore that and nobody would say a thing. You don’t go down the road on original tyres, do you? Or with original brakes.
“There has got to be a variation in price, but in the car industry the price would go the opposite way. If it was unrestored and rusty, with holes in it, it would be worth less. The restored version would be worth a lot more.” In the peculiar world of the vintage guitar, however, everyone seems to want an instrument that is exactly as it was when it left the factory. Brown points out the absurdity of that idea. “Say the volume pot doesn’t work in your vintage guitar and you put a new one in it. Well, you’ve just devalued it. Devalued it from what? It wouldn’t work! So is it worth less now, when it works? If you want it just to look at, fair enough. But for playing?”
It’s an unrealistic expectation to desire an old guitar to be factory-fresh, he adds. “Unless it’s never been played, of course, in which case it probably wasn’t a good one in the first place. Yes, there are guitars that have escaped the rigours of normal guitar life. But that’s more by luck than anything else.”
The question mark against restoration is that, further on in the guitar’s life, say a few owners from now, somebody might not know that the restoration was done. And, as people who have sold things have done since the dawn of time, they might well exploit that to their advantage. Brown says he normally stamps his guitars to identify them. “I’ve had to start doing that, especially on Fenders, because you take them apart. But if anybody thinks they’ve got a restored guitar and they think I might have done it, I’ll tell them. I won’t lie for anybody.” That’s all very well, but the craftsman is not usually the source of the problem. As we’ve said, it’s the second or third or however many owners down the line. And if you collect vintage guitars, there’s nothing much you can do to protect yourself, other than to learn as much as you can about what makes an original guitar original.
I asked a number of insiders to tell me how they would look over this Burst I have just put in front of them to determine if it is indeed what I say it is. I regret to say this is an imaginary exercise. Kerry Keane at Christie’s was sent some beautiful pictures of a ’60 flame-top two years ago and then had the guitar shipped to him for closer investigation. “I pulled the pickups off and we had one PAF decal on there, which looks a little dodgy, and the other one without a PAF decal. OK, that might happen in 1960. Pull the back cover off and I see a lot of resoldering. Your antennae go up. Something about the guitar wasn’t right.”
And there we have the recurring phrase among those who know. “Something isn’t right.” You get to have a feel for this once you’ve seen a few and looked them over closely and taken them apart. The other common phrase is: “It doesn’t smell right.” That’s not a joke: they do have a smell. It might be the guitar’s case as much as the instrument itself, actually, but a good nose is still a valuable asset for any guitar hound.