Like a fingerprint or a social security number, the series of digits inked or impressed on the back of a Gibson headstock can go a long way toward identifying a guitar. But, with more than 75 years of shipping records in the Gibson books, and dozens of variations on numerical schemes used over the years, serial numbers sometimes do little to shed light on the origin of a mysterious Gibson.
“Serial numbers can be extremely tricky,” says Gibson Customer Service Manager Jason Davidson, whose team fields calls and emails regarding every Gibson division. “Some can tell you a lot about a guitar, and some don’t really tell you anything. Gibson has had so many different schemes over the years, and now we’re using reissue serial numbers that look like the old serial numbers.”
Inside a locked closet just outside Davidson’s office are some of Gibson’s most enduring written materials—shipping records dating from 1936 to 1970. With vintage Gibsons selling at auction for as much as half a million dollars, Davidson will sometimes roll up his sleeves and poke around in the ledgers, but only as time allows. The earliest volumes contain hundreds of yellowed pages covered front and back with rows of handwritten numbers. It can take Davidson several hours to locate a specific serial number, if he can find it at all. Even then, there may be four other guitars—of all different models—with the same number sequence.
When faced with a question about a guitar’s date, Davidson most always refers to his beyond-dogeared copy of Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars.
“At least a quarter of the calls that Gibson’s Customer Service team gets are related to the dating and IDing of guitars,” Davidson says. “We make sure all the guys have a copy of Gruhn’s Guide.”
Davidson also recommends the Blue Book of Electric Guitars.
Another resource for IDing and dating guitars is Gibson’s computer database, which catalogues scores of serial numbers from 1987 on through the present.
“It doesn’t always date the guitar,” says Davidson. “A lot of people think you can just dump these formats into a database where you can pull up the date, but there’s so much more to it. Serial numbers can pull up multiple guitars from multiple years.”
To illustrate his point, Davidson types in a serial number from memory and it quickly pulls up three different guitars—an SG, a Steinberger, and a Les Paul.
“Sometimes I’ll literally pull up 10 guitars, and five of them will be so similar you’re not going to know what the customer has. The ship date can help us, but if it’s a weird serial number, we’ll ask for photos.”
Today, Gibson USA takes great pains not to recycle serial numbers. To combat the problem, the company upped its serial number sequence last year from eight digits to nine.
“We added another digit to reflect the batch of the day,” says Gibson USA Support Coordinator Eric Marlow. “We were getting close to having so many guitars come through the factory that the serial number would probably lapse in a day and then start repeating itself so we added that extra digit.”
With consumers and collectors as attentive as Gibson’s, even miniscule changes in design and manufacturing can translate into a chorus of ringing phones in Gibson’s Customer Service department. That’s exactly what happened following a recent modification in the font size of the serial numbers used on the new Les Paul Classics.
“We’re always trying to get things more accurate,” explains Marlow, “so we changed the Les Paul Classic font because we found a stamp as close to the ’60s version as we could.”
Davidson is quick to point out that consumers have good reason to be alarmed by real or perceived discrepancies on Gibson models.
“We get calls from pawn shops and used music stores every day, and a lot of the guitars that people ask us about end up being fake Gibsons,” he says. “A lot of the counterfeiters are using the standard eight-digit series. For the most part, it looks real. But there are some obvious indicators—if it starts with a five, for instance. We don’t start any eight-digit serial numbers with a five. Or it might be an eight-digit serial number that indicates it was built on the 700th day of the year. In a case like that, we’re clearly dealing with a fake guitar.”
Davidson is referring to Gibson’s system—in effect since 1977—of including a guitar’s build date within the serial number sequence. On today’s new models from Gibson USA, Memphis, and Acoustic, the first and fifth number in the sequence signify the year a guitar was built, and the second, third, and forth number identify the day of the year.
“You get the hang of it, where you can see the date immediately,” says Davidson. “It may be confusing at first, but the reason we do our serial numbers this way is tradition. Our customers want serial numbers to be formatted a certain way—like they used to be.”
For more information on Gibson's serial numbers, refer to our online guide here.