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Scavengers II

The stop tail on the right is correct for 1958 to 1964. The one on the left is from the late 60’s. Look at the seam. The one on the right has a seam that is thicker in the middle and thinner everywhere else. The one on the left has a thick seam from end to end. Some repros have gotten this seam correct so you have to look for other features. The stud on the left is correct for the same years. Note the length.

In 2015, I wrote a post called “Scavengers” which is why this post is called “Scavengers II”. In 2015, the market was rising, as it is now and the cost of vintage parts came along for the ride. Changed parts have always been an issue on vintage items. Cars, furniture, virtually anything collectible that is made of components, is subject to changed parts both by unscrupulous sellers and by folks who simply can’t tell the difference between authentic parts and reproductions. What is different now, five short years later, is that the quality of the reproduction parts has gotten so good that it has become hard, even for experts, to tell the real from the fake.

Consider this: A vintage stop tailpiece for a 1958 to 1964 ES-335 will cost you around $1800. A really good reproduction will cost you about $100. You might spend $40,000 on your collector grade ’59 and never know that someone along the way has swapped out the vintage tailpiece for a good repro (or a bad repro for that matter). The likelihood is that you either won’t check to see if it’s real or you won’t know even if you do check. You’ll likely find out at the worst possible time-when you bring it to me or another knowledgable dealer to sell or trade. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had to be the bearer of bad news of this kind. If the owner isn’t right there when I go through the guitar, it calls my honesty into question, especially if the guitar was bought from another reputable dealer. Fortunately, I make a point of checking the parts before the owner leaves the shop. If you’re buying or trading online, then it can be a real dilemma.

It’s not just the tailpiece either. Amber switch tips don’t cost $1800 but they get swapped out a lot. But even a $250 part can be a deal breaker. Certain parts have gotten really good. Stop tails, ABR-1 bridges, catalin switch tips, knobs, truss rod covers, pick guards, pickup surrounds even PAF stickers. I have mentioned in many previous posts that early 95% of the guitars I buy from individual sellers have an undisclosed issue. Fortunately, it’s usually something minor that I can address from my parts stash but sometimes I have to return a guitar due to something expensive like a repro stop tail and that’s going to be trouble in almost every case because somebody got cheated. “It was right when I sent it” is a pretty common response and I look like the bad guy. The hard part is figuring out who the criminal is if there is one. Usually, I’ll simply return the guitar to the seller if I can. The seller will obviously know if he is the culprit but if he isn’t, he has to consider the person he bought it from or he has to consider me. This is why reputation in this business is everything.

How do we, as dealers, minimize the problem? The best way is to ask for extensive photos. That means pulling the pickups, removing the tailpiece and bridge to show the underside and finding out where the seller acquired the guitar. I know which dealers are meticulous when they check out the guitars they sell and which ones don’t dig too deeply. Those who buy and sell without going through every part aren’t necessarily dishonest, they are simply lazy and that can have the consequences that are being discussed here. “I was too busy…” is a poor excuse. As a dealer, you should be busy authenticating the guitars you’re going to sell. But extensive photos won’t do you any good unless you know what to look for. I can tell a repro part from a real one from a clear photo with very few exceptions. Truss rod covers are tough as are switch tips. Knobs and pick guards can be tricky in a photo but are easy to tell in person.

My advice to sellers is to document every part with the same good photos you are supplying to your buyer. That way if a guitar comes back because of wrong parts you can compare what came back with what you sent out. Easy with metal parts, not so easy with plastic but the photos give you a fighting chance. Wear patterns are like fingerprints. Better yet, when you buy a “new” vintage guitar (and you aren’t an expert) use the approval period to take it to someone who knows what they are looking at to get a second opinion. At current market prices, you deserve to get exactly what you are paying for. Don’t immediately assume someone is trying to cheat you if a part is wrong. Everybody, even the experts, can get it wrong. But a dealer should go out of his way to make it right if that occurs. An individual seller should do that as well but if you aren’t buying from a dealer, go back and read the line about what percentage of guitars I get from individual sellers have an undisclosed issue.

Note the size of the “ears” on these two tailpieces. Both are correct but you’ll only see the shallow one on the left in very early 335’s. I’ve never seen one after 58. I see them on 50’s Les Pauls. But they are real-none of the repros are doing the shallow ears. Another feature that gives away a repro is hard to photograph but easy to feel. The top of the tailpiece should have a very slight hump or ridge. You can’t see it but you can feel it. It’s the first thing I check for when I get a guitar. No hump, no deal.

6 Responses to “Scavengers II”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, excellent advice as always. Yes, taking detailed photos of all the parts is very important. And, also to your point, buying from a reputable and knowledgeable dealer. There are, unfortunately, several well-known dealers I’ve had bad experiences with including incorrect parts as well as undisclosed finish issues. Those included crude touch ups with a Magic Marker on a ‘61 P-Bass. That dealer DID know better but figured/hoped I wouldn’t…There is no excuse for that. As a result I won’t buy from those folks again no matter their offerings. I can happily say I’ve been 100% satisfied with all our dealings and recommend OK Guitars without reservation! The best products AND customer service! RAB

  2. okguitars says:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence. I’m not perfect either-I recently missed a 1970 harness in a 64 so now I pull the harness on every guitar to check the pot codes. It’s a huge pain to do that but it’s my job to make sure a guitar is everything I say it is.
    Also, black lighting every guitar is important but sometimes the black light lies, especially regarding the finish. Worn clear coat can look like touch up. I use my eyes first and the black light second. The black light is a really valuable tool for the plastic parts and PAF stickers. I should do a post about what glows and what doesn’t.

  3. Nelson Checkoway says:

    I echo what RAB says about finding and sticking with a trusted and trustworthy dealer. But buyers who venture out into the eBay/Reverb.com/craigslist jungle, should keep in mind the adage “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.” And listen to your gut.

    Malcolm Gladwell has a great story in “Blink” about experts appraising an ancient statue for the Getty Museum who WANTED to believe that the antiquity was genuine even though their gut feelings kept screaming”fake.” The Getty paid millions and, yup, it was a forgery? Caveat emptor.

    One final note: it’s too bad that some fine but less desireable vintage guitars are often stripped for parts–like the early 60’s P90 equipped Epiphone Wilshire that were equipped with both a nickel tune-a-matic bridge and stop tailpiece. Maybe the biggest find (dollar wise) is the 1957-58 Gibson Ultratone lap steel that had not only a PAF but also the Les Paul Standard cream-colored pickup ring. I’ve seen one intact model for sale over the past few years asking $9,500. (That’s roughly $1,000 for the guitar, $8,500 for the ‘Burst replacement kit!)

  4. Mike says:

    Regarding the black lighting of plastic parts…
    I’ve purchased some higher end “relic” bonnet knobs that black light identical to original 59s and look very close in normal light as well. Makes you wonder where all these sets of “original” 59 knobs are coming from on ebay and reverb.

  5. okguitars says:

    It’s gotten harder to tell the best fakes from the real thing. Plastic is the hardest. 59-64 truss covers are trouble. The earlier ones are hard to fake with the roll marks. If somebody comes up with a convincing way to warp a repro guard, they would be difficult to determine. For “burst” knobs, I look for the little “dimple” in the top. If it black lights correctly but doesn’t have the dimple, I consider it a fake. I make a point of buying one of each good fake that is on the market so that I can identify the “tells”. This has been very valuable with stop tails. The Japanese “Area 59” tailpiece is really close but they are impossible to find now.

  6. RAB says:

    Who would’ve thunk these little bits of pot metal and plastic would be worth so much! I remember going to Stars Guitars in San Francisco back in the late 70’s and digging through their parts box for old Gibson hardware. Stars was famous (or infamous!) for putting their own brass hardware (bridges, tailpieces and nuts) on old Gibsons when many players had the misguided belief that “heavier was better!” They also swapped out original wiring harnesses putting in “audio quality” pots. Stars was tangentially associated with Alembic who made some of the heaviest (and ugliest!) guitars and basses ever made! :>(

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