The great rock'n'roll swindle

Craftsmen - and con men - are making a mint forging 'vintage' electric guitars. But who wants a beaten-up Strat anyway?
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Meet Clive. He showed me round his workshop in North Yorkshire, made me a cup of tea, played me some music on his 1960-something Gibson guitar, and then threatened to kill me. Jokingly, I hope.

Meet Clive. He showed me round his workshop in North Yorkshire, made me a cup of tea, played me some music on his 1960-something Gibson guitar, and then threatened to kill me. Jokingly, I hope.

There are maybe about a dozen Clives in the world, mostly in America, and they pose a threat to the growing trade in vintage electric guitars. They produce "age refinished" electric guitars. Or forgeries, depending on your point of view.

This, says Clive, is a typical tale of a Sixties Fender Stratocaster: bought for maybe £200 by Afghan Man, it is sold in the Seventies to an owner who tires of its production-line looks and takes a sander and some glitter paint to it, unwittingly destroying its future value as a vintage piece. Eighties Man knocks the hell out of it, but it's the Nineties owner who realises he's got a classic. Offered a pittance for it by a West End dealer, he thinks he can do better. So Nineties Man contacts Clive. And Clive, using secret magic learnt from his joiner dad and his stint as a car sprayer, not to mention 30 years at the plectrum himself, fixes it.

First, he returns the Strat to its factory-original finish. Mint. Worth a fortune. But mint guitars of the period look suspiciously clean. So then Clive does his speciality act. He simulates 30 years of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. Guitar abuse. Heavy on the fag burns and the ketchup. Wear from belt-buckle gyration, Transit-cracking, floor-dropping and luggage carousel-bashing. And hey presto! A modern classic. That's £5,000 to you guv, instead of the £700 it was worth when Clive got it.

Clive tells me he'd have to kill me if he told me how it was done. But he vehemently denies dishonesty. Though his techniques are those of a forger which, used carefully, can turn a very ordinary non-classic £500 guitar into a £10,000 one, Clive says he never converts cheap stuff into fake gems and he never passes his work off as genuine. He concedes that others do, though.

The trouble is that the electric guitar, especially the Fender Stratocaster and its vast family of cousins, was never meant to go on The Antiques Roadshow . This was a practical, Fifties, production-line tool. Give four 14-year-olds four Fenders and a Philips screwdriver and they'll be able to create four Frankenstein Fenders: neck from one, body from another and so on, before you can say "Meccano".

"It can be a rather grubby Arthur Daley-type world," admits Richard Chapman, a guitar consultant to Christie's. "There are instruments that have been stolen, composite instruments and fakes so good they're almost real. In some cases I take them apart and examine them under ultra-violet light."

In fact, one of the better ways into the business is through the growing trade in vintage spare parts, especially in Fender neck-plates, each with the all-important serial number engraved on it - each gratifyingly easy to remove from one model and attach to another. The Gibson Les Paul, the Fender's rival, is less adaptable - though it's still putty in the hands of craftsmen like Clive.

So does it matter that the fortysomethings on both sides of the Atlantic are getting conned? These are the former teenagers who lusted after the instruments in the Sixties, learnt to play in the Seventies, made a pile in the Eighties and in the Nineties can slake their lust on a terrific guitar, all the while comforting themselves that it's "an investment". Which a vintage guitar is - if it's real. Or if it can pass for real. If you can sell it for $10,000 (£6,250) then $10,000 is what it's worth, real or fake.

There is less risk, and I think more pleasure, in acoustic guitars. You can still pay less than £700 for a cello-shaped Gibson guitar - the head nattily emblazoned with the words "The Gibson" rather than plain old Gibson to demonstrate its early Thirties vintage. And, for those with a love of the acoustic guitar, a celebrity fetish and very deep pockets, it's rumoured that Mark Twain's Martin will shortly appear on the auction scene. Or, for a mere £5,000 you can buy a genuine Maccaferri - as played by Django Reinhardt.

Yet even with acoustics - each as individual as the craftsman who made it - it's easy to be sold a pig in a poke. Bad repairs, amateur re-finishes or unwise modifications can ruin a guitar's value. So why not forget the past and buy a new or new-ish guitar? The answer lies back in the late Sixties, when the main manufacturers, Fender and Gibson, were bought up by big business, turning them from independent companies into small parts of multinationals. They turned out inferior, conveyor-belt stuff, that didn't sound good or keep its value. As soon as that started, the knowledgeable players started looking around for used instruments.

Today, many of the balding boomers who can play do buy new - especially if they've got the bucks for something bespoke. But the fetishists want something for the weekend, a quick trip back to '69. And there's no shortage of them. At the sale of Eric Clapton's collection at Christie's in New York this summer, the place was packed with fans - many with as much as $15,000 to spend and not a hope of coming out with even a guitar strap. But the age-refinished merchants and their ilk threaten the "celebrity-owned" market as much as the vintage one. The reclusive Microsoft co-founder and cable services billionaire Paul Allen recently bought what was billed as the icon of icons: Jimi Hendrix's white Strat which he allegedly used to play the "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, so impressing the young Tony Blair. In the US music press it was rumoured he paid as much as $2,000,000 to the Italian music TV personality who originally bought it at auction.

Actually the price was more like $750,000 and despite assurances from Mr Allen's HQ in Seattle that the Strat really was played at Woodstock, the man who sold it to him now denies that he ever said the instrument was the Star-Spangled Strat of Strats. Red Ronnie, as he's known to his Italian fans, insists this is a Hendrix-owned guitar (though there's no documentation for it) but says, through his spokesman, that he never led Mr Allen to believe it was the Woodstock model.

Earlier this year, Mr Allen thought he was dallying with a rock star's wife, Jerry Hall, only to discover the marriage between Ms Hall and Mr Jagger was never legal. Now, he'll have to face the fact that his new guitar may not have been the model he thought it was, either.

'Six Silver Strings' - The quest for a million dollar guitar is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday at 1.30pm and on Saturday 11 December at 11pm