By Gabriel J. Hernandez

Let’s face it; as much as we all want to be experts in all things “guitar,” the majority of us don’t really qualify. Don’t get me wrong … we all probably fall under the category of a well-versed “guitar enthusiast.” And for those that play guitar for a living … well, you’re an entirely different animal.

Nevertheless, many try very hard and their efforts are certainly commendable. But there’s a lot of knowledge out there to digest regarding all the different guitars, and if you’re not careful you can easily end up with a guitar that looks, smells and plays like the real thing, when in fact it’s not. Every day more and more non-assuming consumers (and dealers, too) are falling victims to the many counterfeits that have flooded the market these last few years.

The main reason? Many countries (like China) don’t recognize and/or enforce the trademark laws of the United States and allow these products to be manufactured and sold freely over the Internet. So while companies and law enforcement authorities in the United States work diligently with these countries to stop the flow of counterfeit instruments into the U.S., their efforts are almost fruitless because of the lack of urgency on the part of the countries that allow this to happen in the first place. In China, for example, the country’s trademark laws are on a “first come, first served” system, and many of the guitar manufacturers failed to trademark their brand in China before someone else inside the country trademarked the same name and brand. The result? Today’s counterfeit guitar market is more prevalent than ever before, and more of them are showing up in the hands of both unassuming consumers, as well as people with not-so-nice intentions.

Take the recent arrest this past March of Wade Massey by the Murfreesboro, Tenn., police department for allegedly selling counterfeit Gibson guitars to seven different pawn shops in and around the Nashville area. His case is still pending, but according to police reports Massey allegedly sold or pawned guitars he assumed were authentic Gibson instruments worth thousands of dollars. Massey told police he didn’t know they were fakes, and the pawn shops thought they were real until one of them took a guitar to be appraised, only to find out it wasn’t real.

On a much larger scale, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents this past April seized nearly 200 counterfeit guitars worth more than $1 million at a mail facility in New Jersey. In that case, the load of counterfeits included Gibsons, as well as other brands like Fender, Martin, Taylor, Paul Reed Smith, Ernie Ball and Epiphone. Authorities reported finding business cards inside each package with the name of a website that offered the guitars from China for $200-to-$500 each. The agency reported that authentic guitars just like the ones seized have suggested retail prices ranging from $2,000 to as much as $54,000. Every guitar seized was also allegedly stamped “Made in U.S.A.”

Personally, I’ve been playing guitar since the age of six. I’m now 51, and have been buying and selling guitars for the better part of the last 15 years – six of those as a bona fide business that feeds my family. And just when I think I know everything there is to know about spotting fake guitars, along comes another one (not necessarily fake) that offers me yet another valuable lesson in figuring out what’s real and what’s not.

Anyone that wants to build a personal guitar collection, or simply own a few different models for different styles of music, should know how to tell an authentic from a fake. And if you’re just getting into vintage guitars you may also consider learning how to spot guitars that have been altered, because the ones that have been altered usually have been to hopefully increase their value in the “eyes” of the buyer … because in the “eyes” of the market, any altered vintage guitar in most cases is worth less money than one that isn’t.

So, let’s start with the popular Gibson Les Paul Standard. Pick any year from 1954 thru today, and I guarantee you there’s a fake Gibson Les Paul out there from that year. Some are poorly made and easy to spot. But some of these overseas companies are getting pretty good at replicating the characteristics of an authentic Gibson Les Paul.

Here are a few tips that should help you figure out if you’re looking at a fake or authentic Gibson Les Paul Standard:

  • Look at the serial number. For the most part, every Gibson guitar made prior to 1953 has a serial number or “factory-order number” (FON) located on either the neck block (inside the guitar), or a label (also inside the guitar). From 1953 to today, most Gibson solidbody guitars have the serial number either “inked” (1953 to 1961) or stamped into the back of the headstock (1961 to today). The serial numbers on fake Gibsons almost NEVER match the font of the serial number of a real Gibson guitar, though some have come close in recent years. On stamped Gibson headstocks, the company has for years used the same stamping machine, so if you’re looking at a stamped serial number you should be able to tell pretty quickly. Additionally, if you have any doubts simply call the Gibson Customer Service Department and give them the serial number. They can instantly check any serial number after 1993, and if you send them a picture via email they are very good at getting back to you with their findings.

Real Gibson serial number

Fake Gibson serial number

Fake Gibson serial number

  • Look at the shape of the headstock and the Gibson logo on the headstock. A fake Les Paul headstock has a more severe, less sweeping flow, and a deeper notch. Also, the logo on a fake Les Paul is usually not Mother of Pearl with a rather “plastic” quality to it, and most look rather “bloated.”
Fake Gibson headstock & logo

Fake Gibson headstock & logo

Real Gibson headstock & logo

Real Gibson headstock & logo

  • A real Gibson Les Paul has a low profile Corian nut with very shallow slots that allow the player to adjust to taste. The nut on a fake is usually made of generic, cheap, deep cut plastic. Another great way to tell a fake is to look at how the neck binding meets the nut … on a real Gibson the binding stays the same width and ends neatly at the nut. On a fake the binding is much wider at the nut, and pretty obvious. This is also a characteristic of many other name brand fakes.
Fake Gibson nut and truss rod adjustment

Fake Gibson nut and truss rod adjustment

  • Over the years Gibson has manufactured a number of different Tune-o-Matic bridge styles. However, NEVER have they made one with large bore slotted head screws on each end. They all sit on top of a pole piece that can be adjusted up or down by simply turning it in the direction desired. The top of that pole piece is smooth, with no slot for a screwdriver of any type. Additionally, the saddles are not as low-profile.
Fake Gibson bridge with flat head screws holding it down

Fake Gibson bridge with flat head screws holding it down

  • The binding on all Gibson Les Pauls have very crisp clean lines, especially the multi-layered bindings found on Gibson Les Paul Customs. The bindings on most fakes are almost always wavy and usually look very sloppy. Additionally, the fingerboard binding on any Les Paul prior to 2014 goes over the ends of each fret (Gibson changed this feature in mid-2014). On a fake, the fret wire is usually very poorly installed, and usually goes all the way over the side of the fingerboard and over the binding. A simple test is to run your fingers up and down each side of the fingerboard … if it’s a fake you’ll probably cut your finger on the end of the frets. This is the the second best way to spot a fake Les Paul (serial numbers being the first).
Real Gibson with binding over the ends of the fret wire

Real Gibson with binding over the ends of the fret wire

Fakes Gibson with fret wire installed over the binding

Fakes Gibson with fret wire installed over the binding

And two more things to note: First, authentic Gibson Les Pauls have two screws holding the truss rod cover onto the peghead, while many fakes have three. If you find one with two screws and you’re still not sure, remove the truss rod cover and look at the truss rod adjuster. On a real Les Paul it should be a brass nut that requires a small socket to make an adjustment (Gibson usually provides this tool), while a fake will have a much deeper cavity with an adjuster that needs an Allen wrench or Hex key to make the adjustment. Second, if you turn the guitar around the electronics cavity on a fake Les Paul is usually not the correct shape of one found on a real Les Paul, and the potentiometers and capacitors are the small ones made in China. Also, the wiring coming from the pickups usually has colored insulation on the fakes, whereas a real Les Paul has braided insulated wiring and expensive pots and capacitors.

Fake Gibson electronics cavity with cheap electronics and wiring

Fake Gibson electronics cavity with cheap electronics and wiring

Real Gibson electronics cavity with upgraded electronics and braided wiring

Real Gibson electronics cavity with upgraded electronics and braided wiring

Here are some notes that should help you spot other major name brand fakes:

Fender: Stratocasters typically feature vintage Kluson-style or American-series tuners, while fake Fender guitar tuners are usually cheap looking chrome. The bridge on a real Fender Stratocaster is brushed stainless steel. Also, fake Fender Strats will often have wider-than-normal spacing between the dot inlays on the 12th fret. Somewhat conversely, the screw spacing on an authentic Strat tremolo cover is somewhat scattered, so if the six screws are lined up with each other you’re probably looking at a knock-off Strat.

Martin: If the guitar is brand new, a Martin fake can be the hardest to spot. However, Martin is in the process of implementing some pretty forward-thinking technology: they’re making plans to use DNA to ensure that customers are getting the real deal when purchasing a Martin guitar. After a wave of Chinese-made fakes hit the market earlier this year, the company employed New York-based Applied DNA Sciences to “tag” each genuine instrument with a DNA signature. Eventually, the company plans to use real plant DNA with a particular sequence as a tag of authenticity. The DNA can be infused at any point of the guitar manufacturing, from the lacquer finish to the ink in the “C.F. Martin Guitar Co.” engraving. In the meantime, however, the flaws of any counterfeit Martin is still the easiest way to spot a fake. While the designs are stolen directly from Martin’s finest guitars, the materials used to build them are not. These fakes can sound and feel great for a very short time, but they will almost immediately begin to fall apart, i.e., develop cracks, seam separations, or they can also sport uneven rosettes and headstock shapes, and variances on the backstripe. Another common feature on a fake Martin is the appearance of a paper label inside the guitar, which is something Martin rarely uses (it does occasionally, but only on rare limited edition models).

To end on a positive note, here’s the story of a 1958 Gibson Country Western that recently came into my office. The acoustic was in immaculate shape, with no lacquer checking, cracks, breaks, etc. It was, as they say, “too good to be true.” Being the ever pessimist that I am, I automatically began to discount it as a probable fake, or one that had had some significant work done to it. To make matters worse, as soon as I looked at the back of the headstock I was nearly convinced it was fake because the factory-order number – or FON – was also stamped on the back of the headstock, and in a much larger font than usual for Gibson. I had never seen this before.

"Real" 1958 Gibson Country Western with Factory Order Number on the back of its headstock

“Real” 1958 Gibson Country Western with Factory Order Number on the back of its headstock

The Country Western's same FON on the neck block inside the guitar

The Country Western’s same FON on the neck block inside the guitar

Before I sent the guy on this way with this supposed “fake”, however, my gut told me to call someone for a second opinion, so I did. First, I called the Gibson Customer Service Department, but they didn’t give me a clear explanation as to why it might have the FON on the back of the headstock and wanted me to send in pictures via email, which I didn’t have time to do. So I made a second call, this one to my good friend and former long-time Gibson banjo and mandolin maker Scott Holyfield, who is now employed by Nashville’s best luthier, Joe Glaser. I asked Scott about the FON being on the back the headstock and he immediately knew why it was there. He told that the guitar had most likely gone back to Gibson at some point during the early to mid-1960s for some repair work, probably a neck reset or new truss rod installation. When Gibson removed the neck from the body, they stamped the back of the headstock with the guitar’s FON (the same one on the neckblock inside the guitar) so they would know that that particular neck belonged to that particular body. I had never seen this before, and Scott told me he hadn’t seen that many either, but that he had seen “a few here and there.” The explanation was good enough for me, and I eventually ended up buying one very sweet 1958 Gibson Country Western in NEAR MINT condition!

The moral of the story is “DO YOUR HOMEWORK!” If you’re not sure, ask questions, do some research, use Google or any other search engine. In today’s computerized society there are literally millions of sources at your fingertipsl to make sure you’re buying the real deal. Use them all, or you could end up spending thousands of dollars for something worth only a few hundred … or worse, nothing at all.

You could also end up like me … with a beautiful 1958 Gibson Country Western acoustic that’s so nice it may never see the inside of my showroom! (I hope my wife doesn’t read this.)

Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s web site at, or Facebook page at

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The Real Story Behind The Guitar Auction That Wasn’t

By Gabriel J. Hernandez


It was supposed to be the mother of all guitar auctions. One of the world’s most respected auction houses assembled 265 of the most desirable guitars ever offered for sale. They hyped it with a public relations’ campaign that rivaled that of any presidential candidate’s, all of which bolstered both anticipation and expectations for the “shot-in-the-arm” the guitar market had waited so long for.

Remarkably, and considering all variables, from the very first guitar offered for sale – an elaborately decorated 1928 Gibson Nick Lucas Special, with a pre-auction estimate of $35,000-to-$45,000, that didn’t garner one bid – those lofty expectations very quickly turned into harsh realities for Guernsey’s Auctioneers & Brokers and its founder and president Arlan Ettinger, who hosted the company’s first guitar-only auction this past April at New York City’s Bohemian National Hall.



Appropriately dubbed “Artistry Of The Guitar,” the auction featured hand-picked instruments from one of the world’s most extraordinary collections of stringed instruments. Well-known – and somewhat notorious – guitar collector and business executive Hank Risan consigned 265 of his most prized guitars (not including his most desirable: an 1835 Martin 2½-17 model owned by Mark Twain) to Ettinger and his team of experts for an auction anticipated to break all previous guitar auction records. In fact, Ettinger in several national interviews prior to the start of the auction told the world he expected at least one or possibly two of the guitars to eclipse the seven-figure mark, which is considered rarefied air for any guitar. And with Guernsey’s – and Ettinger’s – solid reputation for having conducted numerous honorable and highly successful auctions over the company’s 40-year history, there wasn’t any clear reason to doubt whether him or the company could pull it off.


Unfortunately, that’s not how it played out. Not even close. And though many guitar industry gurus and watchers alike have speculated and held numerous water cooler discussions about why the auction didn’t live up to expectations, Ettinger himself has never addressed the issue on the record … until now.

But before we get to Ettinger, let’s first take a look at some actual auction results. According to Guernsey’s, 179 of the 265 guitars “officially” sold for $2.14 million. The highest price paid for any one guitar was $366,000 for a very rare 1930 Martin OM-45 Deluxe (only 11 ever made). It was purchased by the C.F. Martin guitar company for its museum at the company’s headquarters in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Pre-auction hype pegged this guitar as the most likely to exceed the highly coveted $1 million mark, with an overly ambitious sales estimate of $1.75-to-$2 million.

Other guitars with equally bold estimates met the same fate. Among them, a 1941 Gibson SJ-200 formerly owned by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Stephen Stills sold for $50,000 (pre-auction estimate was $500,000-to-$600,000); a 1936 Gibson Advanced Jumbo sold for $48,800 (pre-auction estimate was $135,000-to-$150,000); a stunningly rare 1935 Gibson Super 400 Flattop Custom sold for $46,875 (pre-auction estimate was $525,000-to-$575,000); an exceptionally rare and desirable 1934 D’Angelico Excel – possibly the very first Excel model made by the legendary luthier – sold for just $43,750 (pre-auction estimate was $450,000-to-$475,000); and another very rare and desirable 1928 Martin 00-45 sold for $42,700 (pre-auction estimate was $240,000-to-$270,000).

So what happened? Were the estimates and expectations too high? Were there issues with the authenticity and condition of some of the guitars? And probably the most important question: was the auction an accurate reflection of the current vintage guitar market?

Representing Martin at the auction was Dick Boak, the company’s long-time director of museum, archives and special projects. In addition to the 1935 OM-45 Deluxe, Martin and Boak also took home a 1969 D-45 with Brazilian Rosewood ($30,500), a 1904 0-42 ($12,200), and an absolutely stunning 1914 000-28 with a 20-fret neck and Brazilian Rosewood ($14,640). Overall, Boak was quite pleased with Martin’s new additions to its museum, and the prices paid for the guitars.

Martin Guernsey 4 Martin Guernsey 3 Martin Guernsey 2 Martin Guernsey 1

“We honestly didn’t think we were going to get the OM-45 Deluxe,” Boak said. “We were willing to go as high as $400,000 to $450,000 for it, but obviously we didn’t have to. We’d been looking for one of these guitars for a long time, and now it hangs in our museum. I’ve played it a few times and it’s truly a magnificent instrument.”

Martin Guernsey 5

Martin’s seemingly “cheap” acquisition of the OM-45 was typical of the bidding that occurred for many of the auction’s 265 guitars. When the OM-45 took center stage, the auctioneer announced the bidding would start at $850,000. When no one raised their hand the opening bid was lowered to $750,000, and then to $650,000, and so on, etc. Not until the opening bid was lowered all the way to $300,000 did Boak finally raise his hand to start the bidding. Fortunately for Boak and Martin, theirs’ was the only bid on the guitar (the additional $66,000 was Guernsey’s 22 percent hammer fee).

So again, why wasn’t there a bidding war on such a rare, coveted Martin? And why did this scenario play out again and again during what was supposed to be the guitar auction of the new millennium? The answers are somewhat complicated, but Boak offered perhaps the most diplomatic response of all.

“The collection really was a truly remarkable collection, especially in the huge number of amazing guitars available for purchase,” Boak said. “But I think one of the problems that just about everyone interested in these guitars had was that the initial estimates were extremely high. And second, there was the thought that such a huge influx of guitars into the marketplace at one time would actually devalue the prices for the guitars. Letting go of so many vintage pieces at one time was not seen as a good thing. If they would have come out one or two at a time then maybe it would have been a different story. But the sheer number of guitars available I think hurt the auction.”

So why would Risan offer up so many guitars at one time? We tried to reach Risan several times to get an answer to this and other important questions, and left numerous messages for him at his California office. Unfortunately, he never returned our calls. However, Guernsey spokesperson Lindsay Heller, who handled most of the sales and bidding that took place after the “official” end of the auction, shed some light on the subject. According to Heller, there was a little, lesser known fact about the auction that Guernsey’s, or Risan, did not publicize – that the auction was supposed to raise money for Risan’s alleged tax debt to the Internal Revenue Service. And since the initial auction didn’t quite raise enough money to satisfy Risan’s alleged debt to the IRS, post-auction sales were on-going for at least two weeks after the final gavel fell on April 3.

“Yes, the IRS is involved and that’s the main reason that the timeline for this auction is somewhat blurry at this moment,” Heller said when first contacted back in April. “I’ve been told that we’re allowed to be frank about this whole situation, so the reality is that the consignor owes a debt to the IRS, and that this auction was supposed to fulfill his obligation to the IRS. Although [Hank Risan] does have a ruling voice on what offers to accept or decline, I think at some point – because the IRS is involved – the IRS can physically come in and seize any lots that are unsold and sell it themselves, and they can then decide whether or not to sell it to the people that have previously placed bids or made offers on any of the unsold guitars.”

Heller also mentioned that Guernsey’s 22 percent buyer’s premium was still in effect for any post-auction sales, but added that depending on how antsy the IRS agents got, there may have actually come a time when the IRS simply stepped in to take over the entire auction altogether, thus ending Guernsey’s association with it.

“The IRS has been very good to us throughout this whole process, and they know how much work we put into this auction, with the printing of the catalog and the hosting of the auction itself,” Heller said. “But if [Hank Risan] doesn’t act in due time then the IRS will, in fact, become the defacto consignor for all of these unsold guitars, and they would then decide when and to whom they will be sold.”

Risan’s allege debt to the IRS was at least one of the reasons behind the sale of so many of his prized guitars. But what about the other lingering questions regarding the auction? Were there issues with the authenticity and condition of the guitars? And – most importantly – was the auction an accurate assessment of the current vintage guitar market? According to a few experts, the answers to those questions are a bit more interesting than the IRS’s involvement.

“My business partner and I were hired by Guernsey’s as a consultant for this auction, and to inspect and tune the instruments. So we got a pretty good look at all of them and it was definitely a very nice collection of acoustics and archtops,” said Alex Whitman, one of the owners of New York City’s famed TR Crandall Guitars. “But there was also a lot of discussion about the consignor’s reputation in general, and rumors of some shady dealings, though let me also say there was nothing that we or anyone else could verify. Personally, I think the biggest issue was that no one really knew the motivation behind his selling of so many guitars. I heard it was an IRS auction to pay off some debt, so the initial price estimates were high. In some cases the estimates were three to four times above reasonable prices for these guitars, and some were even higher than that.”

Whitman continued, “And then there were the questions about the originality of some of the pieces. We had people asking our opinion on many of the guitars; whether they had been refinished, or whether some had had work done to them, etc. There were many people that flew in for this auction from faraway places and they were very frustrated when they got to the preview. I think a lot of people were turned off by everything that was going on around it.”

As Whitman pointed out, many people assumed Guernsey’s – and Ettinger – had done their due diligence prior to signing on to host the auction. After all, alongside Sotheby’s and Christie’s, Guernsey’s Auction House is considered one of the most respected names in the auction business. So what, if anything, went wrong?

“When Mr. Risan first contacted us, I immediately flew out to California to see his instruments,” Ettinger said. “Now, I’m not a guitar expert and I certainly don’t try to pass myself off as one. But I have sold some very nice guitars over the years, including the two guitars most used by the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. And you didn’t need to be a genius to see that [Hank Risan’s] collection was a great collection. So he consigned his collection to us, and once the word got out that we were going to sell his guitars, that’s when people started to call us and tell us about their own personal experiences with Hank.

“But as our consignor, we worked with him as best we could. However it soon became clear that his expectations were very high and not in line with those of other notable guitar experts and independent appraisers,” Ettinger said. “Basically we were dealing with an overly optimistic consignor, and that’s something I have experienced in the past. For [Hank Risan], having to sell these guitars was like having to sell his own children. And how do you put a price on your own children? Bottom line is that we were told by many people that his expectations were very unrealistic.”

Nonetheless, Ettinger – being the ultimate professional that he is – kept a very positive face and continued to encourage anyone that would listen to participate in the auction, “…because you never know what will happen in any auction,” he said.

So did the auction satisfy Risan’s alleged debt to the IRS? I guess we’ll never know for sure because Risan isn’t talking. But one thing we do know is that Guernsey’s is not deterred by one bad guitar auction. In fact, a recent email blast from the auction house received just prior to deadline revealed Guernsey’s is currently taking consignments for its next guitar auction, though no definitive date has been set. Ettinger’s company has held several prominent auctions over its 40-plus-year history, including the sale of rare items belonging to John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Princess Diana, Elvis Presley, Mickey Mantle, and a host of other very notable historical figures. He’s quite confident he can add historical and rare guitars to his company’s impressive resume, and probably won’t stop until he does.


“It would be somewhat inappropriate to talk about the sales of our consignors, because ultimately we do have to be respectful,” Ettinger said rather politely when asked what lessons – if any – he took away from this past guitar auction. “It’s not that I ‘learned’ something, or that I never encountered this situation before. But in our enthusiasm to be accommodating to this consignor, will I maybe be tougher in some areas in the future? I guess you can read between the lines, if you want.”

Ettinger continued, “When it was all said and done, I had many people call me and tell me they wish they would have participated, and that overall it was a great event and that we should be very proud of what we did for this auction. And ultimately I am. There were many independent collectors of high-end guitars and even dealers that came up to me and said they would love to see us do more guitar auctions. Bottom line is we shoot to do things that people have never done before, and I would encourage anyone that’s reading this to give us a call and give us a chance. This past auction was OK. It definitely could have been better, but overall it as OK. I’m still very delighted with the event itself and with the beautiful catalog we produced for it. From here, we’re moving forward with our heads held very high.”


As for the current state of the guitar market and possible success – or failure – of any future guitar auctions, the consensus of opinion among industry experts seems to suggest that everyone should sit back and take a big deep breath and exhale … slowly. Because as Bob Marley so eloquently professes in arguably his most enduring song, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, ‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright!”

“Considering the state of our current economy, there certainly have been some price adjustments within the industry,” said longtime New York City guitar guru and industry expert Laurence Wexer, who attended both nights of the Guernsey’s guitar auction. “However, I see a moderate state of recovery as well. The desirable models and rare models are still bringing top dollar, and overall I believe there is still very strong interest in this market if the guitars are priced fairly.”

And regarding any future guitar auctions hosted by Guernsey’s, Ettinger can probably take a deep breath and exhale as well.

“We did very well on the guitars we purchased from [Guernsey’s],” said Whitman of TR Crandall Guitars. “I know for a fact we’ll be paying attention to any of their future auctions, and would be happy to assist them again, if asked. Mr. Ettinger and everybody that works there are really great people, and they tried very hard to make this last auction a success. Personally, I believe they’re going to hit a homerun with their next one.”

Let’s all hope they hit it out of the park.

Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s Facebook page at

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To Be (A Luthier), or Not To Be (A Lawyer)

By Gabriel J. Hernandez


Deciding on a college major is a life-defining moment. Personally (some 30 years ago), I didn’t have a clue what my major was going to be until I walked by the open front door of the campus newspaper’s office. Hung on it was a piece of paper that read, “Wanted: Sports Reporter.”

From that point my choices were pretty clear: continue trying to figure out the Pythagorean Theorem and how it was going to fit into my life, while also seeking the right words and moment to tell my parents I’d just dropped Calculus … for the third time; or write about sports.

It wasn’t even close. I loved sports. Plus, I liked to read, I enjoyed my English classes, and at the time I was keeping a journal (of sorts) so I knew how to construct a basic sentence. And – of course – I assumed (incorrectly) that being a sports writer would allow me FREE access to sporting events. So, into the campus newspaper office I walked with sign in tow and applied for the job.

It wasn’t much of an interview:

Editor (I can’t remember his name): “Can you write?”

Me: “Yes.”

Editor: “Can you cover the baseball game this afternoon?”

Me: “Sure.”

Editor: “Ok … you’re hired.”

And just like that, my journey to a degree in Journalism began rather unceremoniously … a journey that still continues to this day, on a course that still involves (to some extent) my training as a writer, investigator, etc., etc., etc.

But then there are people like Elizabeth Jayne Henderson, who currently resides in Asheville, N.C. She had it all planned out. Raised to be conscience of environmental issues, she didn’t think twice about pursuing a Master’s Degree in Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School in South Royalton, which she earned in 2009. She then sharpened her passion for all things environmental by working for an Asheville-based nonprofit, before heading back to Vermont for a brief stint in government work with the United States Forest Service’s Eastern Region office in Rutland.

In a nutshell, Henderson’s future was set … written in stone … signed, sealed and delivered (you get the point).

“The degree I earned is very similar to having a law degree,” Henderson said recently from her home in Asheville. “It deals with environmental law and working as an environmental advocate, which is more like working alongside lawyers as opposed to actually being a lawyer. But what mattered most to me was that the focus was on the environment and making it better. My ultimate goal was to work in some capacity within the Federal Government, and helping to better the environment.”

To that end, Henderson vigorously pursued a handful of positions within the Federal government, including several with the Environmental Protection Agency. Her dreams, however, were somewhat stymied by the weak economies of 2010 and 2011, and the resulting Federal Government cutbacks – some of which eliminated positions she had applied for at the EPA.

In 2011, faced with the possibility of not landing a Federal job – though still “very thankfully” employed by the small environmental nonprofit in Asheville – Henderson began to worry about her looming student loan payments. And that’s when she turned to her dad for help. Her dad – by the way – happens to be none other than world renowned luthier, guitar player, and guitar festival organizer Wayne Henderson of Rugby, VA. If you don’t know who Wayne Henderson is, all you have to know is that he’s played guitar all over the world (including Carnegie Hall), and built mandolins and guitars for the likes of Eric Clapton, Tommy Emmanuel and the late Doc Watson (among many, many others). He’s even been awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the White House (1995) in recognition of his extraordinary instrument-making skills.

“I went to my dad and asked him to make me a guitar or two so I could sell them to help pay off my school loans,” Henderson said. “He told me he’d definitely help me out, but that I’d have to build them myself.”

At first, the idea appealed to Henderson because it meant she’d be spending time with her dad. Her parents, you see, divorced when she was very young, so growing up Henderson would spend only weekends with her dad … competing for time with her father with all the visiting guests from around the world that would come to play and buy the elder Henderson’s instruments.

“I wasn’t necessarily driven by the need to make a guitar,” Henderson said. “Hanging out with him was very important to me, and it’s the main reason I started doing this. Now, I’ve come to find out that I’m pretty good at making guitars. Working with my hands comes very natural to me, and that’s why I started making more guitars.”

So, today – and for the last three years – Henderson is now the sole proprietor of EJ Henderson Guitars and Ukuleles in Asheville, NC. There she makes a handful of completely handcrafted instruments using some of most unique combination of woods of any other luthier in the country. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that she does so under the guidance and watchful eye of her famous father. But don’t be fooled … Henderson has made it a point to carve her own niche, and has fast become one of the most talked about instrument makers in the business.


“I really want my guitars and how I build them to stand out on their own merits, and not behind the accomplishments of my dad and what he’s doing,” Henderson said. “Don’t get me wrong, he does check things out for me from time to time, but I do all the work.”

Henderson continued, “I really like experimenting with different types of woods. I like to find woods that no one else is using, so I’ve made guitars and ukuleles out of woods like white ash, sassafras, red and white oak, and of course maple and walnut. I also really love using Hawaiian Koa, and I kinda wish I could go there one day and see and find it for myself.”

Don’t we all?

Henderson 1


Many of the tops for Henderson’s guitars are constructed from Carpathian Spruce, which she says, “…has a very uniform and beautiful grain, and some very tight grains because it comes from very cold climates. I also love using it because it’s a very sustainable wood, which means there’s lots of it. My dad has been using it for a while as well.”

So, Henderson does – in fact – use her environmental background when building instruments, just not in the way she envisioned it. In just three short years she’s almost completely paid off her school loans, plus managed to get her guitars into some pretty famous hands, including the late Doc Watson, Vince Gill, Zac Brown (he’s on her waiting list), and a few others. She’s also amassed a waiting list approaching the two-year mark. What other luthier/guitar makers do you know that just started out and have a two-year waiting list for their guitars?


But in the eyes of her father (and many others) Henderson’s most important accomplishments and innovations to date involve the new level of creativity and unconventional vision she’s brought to some of the industry’s most time-tested and centuries-old traditions.


“I don’t have to show her much anymore because she understands wood vibrations better than most other people I know,” the elder Henderson said. “She’s come up with some very innovative ways to properly tune a top, and make and form the bracings. She’s learned to make adjustments to the tops until they’re all are in near-perfect tune, so all of her tops sound very consistent. I used to do all of this stuff by ear, but I’m getting older now and it’s a lot easier to do things the way she does it. And it makes sense. She’s very good at what she does and I’m very proud of her.”

Judging by the names on her nearly two-year waiting list, apparently others are, too!

For more information on Jayne Henderson and her instruments, visit her web site at You can also visit her father’s web site at

Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s Facebook page at

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By Gabriel J. Hernandez


Perspective is everything. And sometimes something as trivial as a simple kind act by some anonymous individual can knock your perspective back to reality. Other times it can take getting hit upside the head with a rock to whack your perspective back into place. Hopefully the following story helps you avoid the latter.

Being able to own, play and collect guitars is a great thing. Some consider it a privilege, and rightfully so. Everybody that reads this magazine surely knows this, and the people that do play guitar for a living (we think) are some of the luckiest people in the world. Think about it … there’s not one guitar player out there – novice or professional – that hasn’t at least once in his or her life said, “One day, I want to be a rock and roll star.” The reality is that the odds are about one-in-a-million it ever happens, if not more. But it’s a nice fantasy world, for sure. How many of us haven’t drooled over old pictures of Led Zeppelin boarding their private, chartered and totally decked out airplane … you know, the one with the fur couches, fully stocked bars, velvet-lined covered beds, and – of course – the long-legged blonde and brunette bartenders and waitresses standing at attention waiting for their next whim-satisfying command.

But then there IS the reality of the guitar players that actually make somewhat of a living playing music. And for the majority it’s a job just like any other … they wake up at 6:30 AM, eat breakfast, kiss the wife and kids goodbye, battle rush hour traffic, work eight or more hours in a recording studio, return home to the wife and kids, have dinner, watch a little TV and go to bed, then wake up and do it all over again the next day. Some of these folks even work overtime in the bars at night, with most of them playing for mere tips and hoping to be “seen” or “heard” by that right person that can change their lives forever. Living in Nashville, I see it firsthand. Hundreds, if not thousands, of guitar players – most of them good enough to take Eric Clapton’s place without missing a beat – come to Music City USA to “chase the dream.” And while many give it a good try, a lot more of them end up going back home with broken dreams and empty bank accounts … some even minus the instruments and gear they came with because they had to sell everything to get back home.

But back in the 1970s life was different. If you were in the right place at the right time, those dreams of a rock and roll life came true for some. Jimmy Nalls was one of the lucky ones. In the 1970s, Nalls moved from his home in the Virginia suburbs to New York City to play guitar with Australian folk singer and Warner Brother artist Gary Shearston. Shearston’s producer was Noel Paul Stookey, who just happened to be the “Paul” in the band Peter, Paul and Mary. Nalls’ relationship with Stookey blossomed into a friendship and soon he found himself a pretty in-demand session guitarist at New York’s famed Record Plant recording studio. Over the next couple of years, Nalls played guitar alongside such notables as Chuck Leavell, Alex Taylor, Dr. John, Gary St. Clair, Mike Zack, and scores of other musicians who had “made it” in the music business as either sessions players, or players in well-known touring acts.

In 1976, however, Nalls got his biggest “break” when he teamed up with three musicians from the Allman Brothers Band – keyboardist Chuck Leavell, bassist Lamar Williams, and drummer Jai Johanny Johanson (better known as Jaimoe). Together they formed the legendary ensemble known simply as Sea Level. Though the band only lasted from 1976 to 1981, they managed to cement their place in rock and roll lore by recording five albums of some of the most innovative jazz, rock and rhythm and blues-blended music ever recorded. During their time they toured the world, lived the lived of rock stars, and Nalls became one of the most acclaimed and sought-after session guitarists in the business. When Sea Level disbanded in 1981 Nalls continued to play professionally, most notably in another highly-acclaimed band called The Nighthawks, which also toured the world relentlessly and released several albums of music still sought out today as some of the best in its genre.

Sea Level Promo Picture

Nalls continued to play professionally with The Nighthawks and several other projects until late 1994, when he started to experience the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease – the progressive and irreversible brain disorder that causes tremors, poor balance, and other muscle- and movement-related symptoms. Unfortunately, the disease affected Nalls’ ability to perform the quick, voluntary muscle movements necessary for him to continue to play professionally. In a nutshell, his dream life was over. No more tours. No more recording sessions. No more guest appearances with some of the biggest names in the music business. Nothing. It all changed in the span of just a few short months, and his life hasn’t been the same since.

With Sea Level in 1978

Since being diagnosed in late 1994, however, and with the help of several friends – most notably Leavell, Jack Pearson, Lee Roy Parnell, and his ever-present and devoted family – Nalls has managed to release a solo CD called Ain’t No Stranger, which he co-produced with Phil Dillon for MRL Records. He’s also written a book titled Wood and Wire, which he co-wrote with Bill Rust, and which details his life as a “Guitar Slinger” and his fight against Parkinson’s.

“When you’re as active as I used to be, this condition is really hard to accept,” Nalls said from his Nashville home. “But I had to accept it or else I would have gone crazy a long time ago. As much as it hurts sometimes, this is something that I have accepted and it’s now a part of my life. So as much as it does hurt, yes I have come to terms with it.”

As for playing the guitar, Nalls said, “I can’t play for a long time anymore, but I do still get enjoyment out of it. With the brain stimulators I had recently put in, they do cut down on the shakes a lot and they do take away some of the immobility that’s associated with Parkinson’s. But if it wasn’t for the brain stimulators I’d probably be in a nursing home or some other type of assisted living facility right now.”

Nalls has played several guitars throughout his career, but the one he’s always gone back to time and time again is the 1961 Fender Stratocaster he purchased in New York City in 1974 for just $300.


“I got it just the way you see it [natural with no finish on it whatsoever], but it used to be [fiesta] red at one point,” Nalls said. “If you look inside the cavities you’ll see the original [fiesta] red finish that was once on it. The pickups are a set of hand-wound pickups that Joe Barden did for me back in 1984.”

Probably the coolest aspect of the guitar, however (other than the fact that it belongs to Nalls), is a very faint signature on the back of the guitar. Nalls explains:

“There’s a signature on the back of it that you can barely read anymore, but it’s the signature of Bill Carson, who was the guy that Leo Fender designed the Fender Stratocaster for. I met him on an airplane out in California one day and I had the guitar with me so I had him sign it for me.”

Carson told Nalls that his personal Stratocaster was a 1959 model, also with a Fiesta Red finish with matching headstock. The neck was personally shaped by Carson to suit his own playing preference (1 7/16″ nut width, shallow depth), and also had a thick slab rosewood fingerboard with “Carson” stamped in the neck pocket.


But despite the memories, the guitars, and the lifestyle he had to leave behind not of his choosing, Nalls is still a very grateful man today. His wife of 39 years, Minni, has remained by his side through thick and thin. He also has a son and daughter, and three grandchildren – all of whom live in the Nashville area and visit him on a regular basis. And while moving around gets more difficult every day, Nalls is not a broken man. In fact, he still plans on finishing his second solo CD which he started recording several years ago while his fingers were still cooperating with his once stellar guitar-playing abilities. And for a man that seemed to be on top of the world at one time and is now limited to just a few steps a day, Nalls has the mindset of a man that is, of course, realistic of his condition, but also a positive attitude that keeps him going day after day … no matter how bad some days can get.

“There are times that I get really depressed,” Nalls said. “And sometimes I do feel like a burden to my family. I used to be the alpha male of this family … the top dog. I was traveling the world, going to places like Australia and Japan, Europe, pretty much all over the world. And when I lost it all of course it was devastating, to say the least. But my wife still loves me, even after 39 years of marriage, and I have my kids and grandkids.

“And I really want to finish my second solo CD. My studio is down right now, and I need a new computer. But I am trying to get it all back up and running so I can finish it,” Nalls said. “The tracks are all there, and I play the bass and guitar on almost all of them. What I need to finish are the lyrics and the vocal tracks and then put it all together. If someone wants to help me put it all together and help me finish it, I’m all for it. But it is my stuff, and I still want to be a part of the final process. I would really want the chance to be able to complete it, and hopefully someday I’ll be able to do that.”

For a man in his condition, Nalls is a pretty amazing human being. He’s also an incredible inspiration to anyone he comes into contact with. So the next time you’re debating what finish you want for that new Les Paul, or whether to buy that limited edition Martin acoustic or some other vintage guitar, think about Jimmy. I know he’d probably appreciate it. But I guarantee you’ll be a better person for it. And your perspective will have definitely been realigned.

For more information on Jimmy Nalls, visit his web site at His book is also still available through Amazon, as is his solo CD and all the music he recorded with Sea Level and The Nighthawks.

Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s Facebook page at

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