By Vladimir Nardin, PissedConsumer.com 

A good guitar shouldn’t cost a fortune. Right?

That’s what most consumers believe, and the market has responded in some unscrupulous ways. Brands like Apollo, Aspen and Rockinbetter make no bones about it — they’re not the same as the higher-priced brand-name guitar whose design and sound they’re trying to emulate. Other guitars aren’t at all what they appear to be. Everything down to the slapped-on insignia looks like the genuine article, but after a few minutes of strumming a subpar instrument you’ll be left singing the blues.

An article in the December 2009 issue of Premier Guitar magazine explored this topic at length: “Then the conversation turned to Chinese counterfeit Gibson guitars, and how they were coming into this country and fooling astute guitarists, famous rock stars and guitar dealers who should know better. I learned that counterfeit guitars have regularly shown up on eBay, where people have been—and continue to be—scammed out of their hard-earned money, thinking they were buying a real Les Paul, Stratocaster, Paul Reed Smith, or other well-known instrument.”

If experienced musicians are getting fooled by knockoff guitars, what are you and I to do? Buying directly from a factory’s website seems like a safer alternative than eBay, Craigslist or other second-hand sites, but even this isn’t foolproof. One aspiring guitarist describing his experience with the Fender factory on the website PissedConsumer.com, owned by market research firm Opinion Corp., wrote “Fender refuses to replace the guitar and only offers to fix the guitar in 6, yes, six months. Do not buy Fender guitars ever, their warranty and services are awful.”

In reality, there’s no way to entirely guard against buying a knockoff guitar disguised as a brand-name instrument. However, consumers can take steps to increase their odds of buying the best guitar possible.

Tip 1: Don’t purchase a guitar online. The price may be tempting and the retailer may be reputable, but you can’t put a price tag on being able to test a guitar for yourself in the store. This goes for any musical instrument, but the expansion of the knockoff guitar market makes it all the more true. A reputable instrument dealer is always going to be more vigilant against the black market than, say, eBay.

Tip 2: Know how you’re going to use the guitar and make your purchase accordingly. Are you a serious musician planning on making a recording or a giving a live performance? In that case, an audience can hear and judge the sound of your guitar at a high volume. The instrument needs to sound clear and crisp. Don’t skimp on quality, as an expert ear will be able to tell the difference between a genuine guitar and a cheap knockoff.

The rules are different if you’re not a performing musician, or if you’re just planning to use the guitar for practice at home. A cheaper guitar will likely require more long-term maintenance, or have a different feel from a more expensive model, but the basic mechanics of playing the instrument will be the same. The sound quality only needs to meet your basic standards — not someone else’s.

Tip 3: Always have this question in your back pocket: “How do we know it’s not a knockoff?” With enough experience, anyone can identify specific features that associate a genuine guitar with its maker — Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, Gretsch, Rickenbacker, et. al. Each comes with its own set of quirks. Some of these companies have been producing guitars for a century, making those quirks tougher for an unscrupulous guitar maker to emulate. A good clerk can answer the question by pointing to the guitar, so don’t be afraid to walk away if they can’t.

Knockoff brands have been filtering through the guitar market long enough that a silver lining has emerged: Some of them are actually pretty good. By getting the best sound out of lower-cost materials and increasing the quality of their craft, knockoff guitar makers have driven down the cost of a good instrument. As long as you’re a musician and not a collector, learning your guitar isn’t a genuine Les Paul doesn’t have to be a bummer if you’re happy with the sound.

Once you know what guitar you want, and what you’re able to get within your price range, you can rest easy and rock on.