Trademarks: The Headstock Wars


In business, when an idea takes off, invariably others will follow the money and get involved and sometimes, it gets ugly. No business ever predicted what would happen with rock and roll in the 1950s except maybe the record companies and radio stations who had been manufacturing artists for years. When Elvis released Heartbreak Hotel in January of 1956 the world changed. Some would say it was Bill Haley a few years earlier but I ask you, who inspired more people to play guitar? A balding fat guy with a bad comb-over or Elvis Presley, no offense Bill but I know who I would idolize.

Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly created the music we wanted and we were lucky they did. Fender, Gibson, Gretsch and Guild were making the instruments these artists played and it was good business with a brand new revenue stream, the tools for rock and roll. Impostors and derivative products started cycling up to the public eye, some cheaper but looking the same and soon, very soon, Gibson and Fender were stamping out imported instruments that looked IDENTICAL to their products. This took a little while to happen, however, and it made it possible for the USA become the entertainers of the world. So let’s look at why.

2 Les Pauls, an Epiphone and a Gibson

Before we get too far, a guitar headstock is its’ pedigree, plain and simple. It’s the place that every guitarist looks first unless the body wood is so flipping gorgeous that we catch our breath. The headstock shape, inlays and most importantly name denote the level of cachet you were dealing with. Guitarists, most of them whether they admit it or not, are cork sniffers. If you don’t know that term, it means we tend to be very critical of less prestigious guitar brands without actually looking any farther than the name. For example, the production methods on both brands in the image above are virtually identical going so far as to usage of the same wood sources, only the name and sometimes internals like electrical components and pickups are different. I should add that generally speaking, the Gibson guitars are made by more experienced hands than their imported cousins. As I said, it’s not all guitarists, just most (here come the flames). I think, as production values have increased across the spectrum, the trend is downward and away from cork sniffing. But again, I went beyond where I wanted, home again Jeeves let’s move forward onto the past.

nuclearfamilyIn the 1950s, the rest of the world was retooling after losing much of production in factories due to world war 2. The USA was virtually untouched while Germany was destroyed along with Russia and a good deal of Europe. Japan was destitute and despite an unwavering national pride, they were beaten (Yamaha survived mostly intact where Ibanez’s factory burned in the war and they had to retool and didn’t start building guitars until well into the 50s). China was in the midst of their red revolution behind Mao and was not making everything in the world like they do today.

Ironically, with the advent of no middleman (you know, eBay and the internet of things) to both fleece and kind of protect the buyer, we’re seeing the same thing happening today. Especially with Chinese knockoffs, both legitimate and pirated but I accidentally got on my political horse there, back to the story. I will return to knockoff high end guitars before we’re done here. With no competition from international companies in instrument production (they were focusing on rebuilding roads,  cars, industry, etc), the American guitar companies had the market and the artists that were driving it. Nice little feedback loop there. With that scenario, American culture over-spilled our borders and drove world acceptance and interest in rock and roll. It wasn’t until the British Invasion of the 1960s that any other country would shift the direction the music industry was following. (unrelated to guitar but our dominance in music also helped drive movie and television courses as well)

The USA was also in the midst of McCarthyism and were staunchly isolationist in policy and business. The red scare kept us consuming products we made, not imports. Imports really didn’t start back up until the 1960s. So the guitars we picked from were American, no others. The world didn’t follow those ideals and went about copying American designs rampantly throughout the 1950s and Japan, especially, started creating very accurate copies. My personal thought here is that with American soldiers in high numbers for the occupation of Japan, and no FedEx, those troops wanted American or American-esque products and Japanese companies were happy to provide. In fact, returning troops brought many of the instruments back into the USA and it was the first look many people had at these guitars.

Greco copies of the Les Paul and 2 Fender Telecasters

Some of them were absolutely horrible but some weren’t. The thing to remember, however, was that American companies didn’t need to retool after the war, they ran the same machines that had been in place for decades. Those machines were getting old by the 60s and the rest of the world was working with new production, with better tolerances and by the early 70s, those machines were ancient. Declining revenues for American companies and no reinvestment in new machines spiraled the instrument quality to historic lows, hearkening the darkest time for Gibson, Martin and Fender. Meanwhile, the quality of the world’s guitars was finally starting to exceed domestically produced instruments. It was those conditions that created the interest. Tokai, Ibanez, Yamaha, Teisco, Greco, Takamine and ESP were all actively creating guitars that were aimed right at the American buyer who couldn’t afford the Fender or Gibson but wanted that look.

justiceormoneyThese copies and the legal battle that ensued came to a head (hah, see what I did there?) for Gibson in 1977 when they sued Elger Co, the North American based distribution company (owned by Ibanez) for direct Les Paul design infringement (the company brought the guitars into the USA). The lawsuit was settled quickly as Ibanez was already starting to push very hard into original designs and was poised to release the Iceman and their most excellent Artist series of guitars (I’ve owned 2 Artists, they are fabulous instruments). Many of the trademark (or lawsuit) models are far superior to the guitars the copied and this is shown in the vintage Japanese single cutaway (Les Paul) market. Don’t think it was just the electrics, acoustic guitar builders were also targeted, Martin, for example, argued in the 1980s about the Takamine F-340 being virtually identical, down to logo design, to existing Martin designs. The case never went to court but Takamine changed their design.

G&L “Classic”, a Fender Telecaster with a different headstock

Fender had been spurned by infringement themselves when they were tackled by Gretsch for their use of the name “Broadcaster” 1951 for the design that eventually became the Telecaster. Later they threatened ESP with infringement but worked out a deal that kept things out of court. Ronnie Wood from the Rolling Stones has an ESP that looks remarkably like a Stratocaster. These legal actions forced the designers to be quite protective of their headstocks and drove the shapes that grace the guitars we play today. Brands like PRS, Parker (so sad that Parker seems all done), Jackson (owned by Fender) and Ibanez have radical, very identifiable headstocks at this point. George Fullerton and Leo Fender, when they created G&L guitars, having created the designs used for so long, created a brand new headstock despite having the same body as the Fender variant. Speaking of Fender, they tried, unsuccessfully, in 2009 to protect the Telecaster, Stratocaster and Precision Bass body designs from infringement. The reason for no protection? Fender had never argued before and styles like the Beretta by Kramer and the Soloist by Jackson that were strat-like had been in circulation for decades, the genie was out of the bottle. So, from a production standpoint, seems like things have stabilized, or have they?

Counterfeit guitars exist and there are a lot of them. They might be counterfeit because they were built from several instruments, the vintage Fender market is rife with partsocasters (stratocaster “looking” guitars made from multiple sources) that aren’t quite what they say the are. They might be intricate replicas, built to look like a coveted model but made by cheaply paid workers with substandard materials. With an original 1959 Les Paul valued at over $25K US dollars, there is a lot of money to be made and let’s be honest, people are rather easily led. Know the instrument you’re buying, don’t be purchasing anything “vintage” without playing it or having someone you trust play it. Using a vintage leader like Gruhn’s drops your risk considerably, be a smart consumer. The Chinese replicas are very good and hard to recognize so if it’s cheaper than the real thing, trust it’s likely a fake. That’s all for now, stop by next time when I profile Jerry Cantrell’s G&L Rampage guitar affectionately known as “Blue Dress”. Thanks for stopping by.

KSK January 2017


2 thoughts on “Trademarks: The Headstock Wars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s