Evaluating and Buying Used Guitars
by Paul D. Race
This is a companion article to our article “What Kind of Guitar Should I Start On?”. As that article states, you don't need a new guitar to start out. But you are more likely to get the guitar you need if you have a friend or family member who plays guitar well look at it, and, if necessary, make adjustments.
The problem with shopping for used guitars is that there are a lot of cheaply-made and subsequently abused instruments out there. And worse yet, the damage or poor construction isn't always obvious.
Note about dinky "starter" guitars: For this article, we'll assume that you are NOT shopping for a 1/2-sized or 3/4-sized guitar. The vast majority of those that come up on the second-hand market were unplayable when they came out of the box, and have not improved with age. Many have, frankly, already discouraged one or two hopeful students, and will discourage you, if you bring them home. If you really need a 1/2-sized or 3/4-sized guitar because of the student's size, consider buying a new, name-brand instrument. Alvarez and Yamaha, for example, make 3/4-sized instruments that are generally playable out of the box and capable of producing satisfactory sound for the price.
If you rule out undersized guitars, that leaves dreadnoughts, parlor guitars, archtops, and 12-strings as the most likely candidates, probably in that order, unless you really "need" an archtop or 12-string. All of these guitars are described in more detail in our What Kind of Guitar Should I Start On? article.
Note about professional instruments: Starter and intermediate guitars are built to look like professional instruments. That's why so many $100 department store electrics look like Gibson Les Pauls or Fender Stratocasters, and so many $100 acoustics look like Martin D18s. But professional instruments are built with materials of exceptional quality, with exceptional precision, and time-consuming attention to detail and durability. Which brings us to another point - a used professional instrument in good condition will outplay and significantly outlast any student or intermediate model. That doesn't mean to ONLY look at used pro guitars, but learn to recognize value - and cheap imitations - when you see them.
- Used Pro Electrics - It's a lot easier to carve and paint a block of wood to look like a Les Paul body than it is to find, properly cut, and hand-mill choice wood for a neck that will be as playable a century from now as it was when it came out of the box. For electrics, your surest bet for getting a true professional instrument is to buy a name-brand made-in-America Fender or Gibson. Yes, it will cost a lot of money, even used. But if it hasn't been abused, and you take care of it yourself, a pro electric will outlast any number of imitations. That said, several other name brands make decent professional-quality guitars. But if you don't do your homework, you may get stung on an "$1100" guitar that you buy used for $550, and later see for $350 new in the store.
- Used Pro Acoustics - Most acoustic guitars today have plywood faces topped by a razor-thin veneer of cedar or spruce. The advertisements for these instruments all say "spruce top" or some such. But virtually all professional guitars and a few good intermediates have solid spruce or cedar tops. The beauty of a solid top is not in the appearance, but in the sound. Every year you own (and take care of) a solid-topped guitar, it will sound louder and richer than it did the year before. And pro acoustics have frets, fretboards, necks, and tuning mechanisms designed to last a century of moderate use. Again, if you're in the market for a pro acoustic, get to know the models you're likely to be looking at. Another tip is that companies like Takamine, Martin, and Gibson usually reserve their own brand names for solid-topped guitars - they assign their plywood-faced guitars to sub-brands like Jasmine, Sigma, Epiphone, and Maestro.
- Scams - Every so often you'll come across a guitar with the logo "accidentally" scratched off the headstock and a seller who claims it really is a Martin or Gibson. Even worse, there are a few folks out there who have gotten good at forging name-brand headstocks. Before you go to buy a supposedly professional used name-brand guitar from someone you don't know, check out the new ones so you have a sense of how they balance and play, and get the serial number, etc. off the back of the used one and check it out. Or take a professional player with you. Or all three.
A note about pro Ovations - As an aside, Ovation's professional guitars hold their own alongside the best guitars in the industry. But their bottom-line and mid-line guitars do not have pro features. And they all say Ovation on the headstock, which leads people who've never held a Legend, Balladeer, or Longneck to think all Ovies sound like bricks. Worse yet, older Ovies don't have the model name inside the guitar - only the model number. So if you're looking and an older Ovie that someone is trying to charge real money for, you need to do some research before you lay your money down. I personally have three Ovie pro guitars that sound great, keep marvelous tune, play well, and will almost certainly outlive me, no matter how often I drag them to gigs. But don't run out and get a Korean-made plywood-topped Ovie on my account. Do your homework.
Research the Market Before You Start Looking
The following list may seem like overkill, and if you have a friend you trust to walk you through the process, it is. On the other hand, if you're on your own and on a limited budget, doing research before you actually start looking at potential purchases could save you significant money, as well as wasted time and gasoline.
- Ask Your Guitar-Playing Friends - Check out your friends' guitars, see what brands they have, ask them what they paid, ask them what they like and don't like about them. Keep in mind that almost everybody who loves his or her instrument will claim that their brand is the only decent one out there, and try not to get pushed into buying a particular guitar because it's you're friend's favorite.
- Window Shop - Visit music stores and see what they're asking for good intermediate instruments (or starter guitars if you're broke). Learn which brands you think look promising. Don't buy anything yet - no matter how good the sale is, you still need to make certain the used market isn't better. Some places it's way better. Also, if you have any local pawn shops that aren't scummy, you could check there. (My sister's first guitar and my first banjo came from pawn shops back when there were several nice ones in downtown Dayton.) But if you're the kind of person who lets people pressure you into stuff, take a friend who is iron-willed, and maybe iron-fisted. Remember, only one deal in a thousand is really a "no-brainer" at this point.
- Make a Note of Local Department Store Brands - In the last few years, starter brands like "First Act" and "Lyon" have been flooding department stores with $50-$100 guitars that look nice and, in some cases can actually be made playable. But these tend to go on sale for half price a few months after Christmas. Some folks will buy them all out at half price, then advertise them for the original price. And because they've never actually been played, they will never have been "set up" or even restrung, so most of them will still be virtually unplayable. In other words, if you know what brands your local department, discount, and superstores are selling, you're less likely to pay more for a "used" one than you would for a new one in the store.
- Check Local Ads - Now that you have some idea of what you're looking at, get the local "Tradin' Times" or whatever it's called, and go through the ads with a highlighter. Check Craig's List ads, and make a note of the ones that look promising. Don't buy anything yet unless your guitar expert friend tells you there's one you SHOULD NOT PASS UP. Also, if you do this for a couple of weeks, you establish a "baseline" that gives you some idea of how fast these things are moving. For example, if a guitar you think you might like has been advertised three weeks in a row, the buyer may be open to negotiation.
- Check Out specific Models Online - If you see a local listing that seems interesting, go online and see what the instrument would cost new from a discount supplier like Musician's Friend or Music 1-2-3. If the guitar is listed on Amazon, check out the user reviews.
- Assemble a "Short List" of Similar Guitars Available Locally - Rule out off-brand or "starter brand" instruments unless you're very broke and they're VERY cheap, or they're that brand's "intermediate" guitar. So "First Act" should be ignored unless they're basically giving it away. Some "discount" brands, like Rogue, have an upgrade line that may compete with better brands' entry-level guitar. So a so-called "professional" Rogue might be in the same leage as a similar-sized starter-line Alvarez or Washburn.
Note: Whether the Listings Mention Cases or Gig Bags - You will want something to drag your guitar around in. At the high end, a "hardshell" case will provide pretty good protection from just about everything but airport baggage handlers, who seem to have it "in for" guitars. At the low end, many beginning and intermediate guitar players may have a "gig bag" for their instrument. A "gig bag" is a sort of soft case that won't protect your guitar is someone throws a suitcase on it or drops it off a truck, but will help you avoid little scratches and pings. It will also make it easier to take places and give you a place to store straps, picks, sheet music, etc. If you have to buy one it will cost you $30-40 or more. So if two similar used guitars are $20 apart in price, and the one that costs more includes the gig bag, consider that a good investment. Also consider that the guitar is less likely to have much cosmetic damage if the owner has had some sort of case for it.
By now you should have an idea of how much the kind of guitar you are looking for should cost. In most parts of the country, anything but a classic professional guitar in new condition should cost 30-50% of the guitar's advertised list price, or 60-80% of the guitar's sale price from discount chains like Musician's Friend and Music 1-2-3. Find 3-5 local instruments that fall into that range, or a bit above or below. Look up the specific models advertised to see if they should be crossed off the list for any reason (say, ugly color or a relatively high amound of negative feedback).
Run your "short list" past your guitar expert friend. When he or she says you're ready, start making phone calls.
Compare Your Short List to What You Saw in the Store
In some parts of the country, the market for used guitars is ridiculously high - you may be better off buying new. But now you have a basis of comparison. One thing to keep in mind is that a decent music store will offer at least some kind of warranty and will have a person on staff who can set your guitar up or at least take a look at it if you have trouble with it. Thirty-odd years ago, I worked at a music store. We tuned and - if necessary - adjusted every guitar that came into the store. Even our cheapy guitars went home more playable than name brand guitars from the mail-order places. If the difference between the guitars on your short list and similar guitars in the store is less than $50 or 25%, which ever is larger, you may be better off in the long run shopping at the store, especially if you can talk them into free lessons, or throwing in the gig bag or something.
In the Dayton/Springfield Ohio area, the balance has gone back and forth several times in my lifetime. More often than not, when I'm shopping for a friend or student, I do much better on the used market. But I know what I'm looking at.
The rest of this article assumes that you're still going to shop for used instruments.
Line up Cash and, if Possible, a Friend
Get twenties and a few tens out of the bank before you go looking. You might come across a guitar that is probably worth $150 and the seller wants $175. If you have tens and twenties, you might be able to talk him down to $150. If you only have twenties, the best you'll do is talk him down to $160. You get the idea.
If you're looking at an electric or an electric-acoustic, plan to take a little practice amp and a known good guitar chord. You want to be able to check out the electronics with a "known good setup." Chances are the seller will have a good cord and amp to use, but if he or she doesn't, you have a backup.
If you don't play guitar at all, get a friend who is a pretty good guitar player to go with you. If you're looking at a pro instrument, and you're still a beginner, get a friend who really knows guitars to go with you. If you're a female, get a male friend to go with you for your own protection; you can claim he's your guitar expert even if he's dumber than paint.
What to Look for When You're In the Room
Okay, you have a general idea of what kind of guitar you want, what kind of money you expect to pay, and how long you want to spend looking. You've set up an appointment to see the guitar, and you've arrived at the seller's place. What do you look for?
Check overall condition
If the guitar looks like it has been abused, it probably has. Belt-buckle scratches on the back, tons of pick scratches on and around the pick guard, paint chipped off the head from banging into things. By themselves, these may just indicate normal wear and tear (plus criminally sloppy strumming technique). A vintage professional guitar may have all of these without damaging playability or sound at all. But on an inexpensive guitar, added together, such damage may indicate that the guitar's owner has been careless. If you are put off at all by cosmetic damage, walk away. Chances are the next guitar on your list looks like new.
Check the Neck
Sight down the neck (like you would an arrow or a piece of lumber). If the neck looks like a ski slope, pass. If it's straight on both outside edges, that's good. If this is a nice guitar otherwise, and the neck is gently bowed, it still might be work a look, as long as:
- The guitar has an adjustment bolt in the neck. (The end of the bolt usually takes an Allen wrench and is usually covered by a little plastic triangle on the head of the guitar. Sometimes, you can see the end of of the bolt on the end of the neck closest to the hole.)
- The bowing is consistent along the length of the neck, and the neck bows the same amount on both edges.
If the neck bows more along one edge than the other, or if it bows more sharply along one part of the fingerboard than another, run do not walk. Also, if the neck bows more than a couple of millimeters and there is no neck adjustment screw, you should probably pass.
Fret the Strings
See how much pressure it takes to hold the strings down against the frets on the neck using the end of your finger on the string. If you don't have callouses yet, it may hurt the tips of your fingers but it shouldn't hurt the muscles in your fingers or hands. Obviously, if you have a guitar player with you, he or she can do this in a heartbeat. A guitarist can also check for fret buzz up and down the neck. Fret buzz occurs when you push the string down at one fret, but when you pluck the string, it "buzzes" against another fret closer to the bridge. This problem is usually caused by one of the following:
- A neck that bows too much
- A neck that is pulled back too far
- A bridge that is too low
- Frets that are so worn that they are significantly lower than the unworn frets
- Frets that are uneven in height
None of the above problems are “fatal.” In fact our article “Setting Up Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments” describes many ways to address these issues. But if the problems seem extreme, it may indicate extreme neglect that may have caused other problems you can’t see.
A Note about "Steel-Reinforced Necks" - In most guitars made today, "steel-reinforced neck" means that it has an adjustment bolt in the neck. However, in cheap guitars, "steel-reinforced neck" may simply refer to an L-shaped piece of sheet steel that runs through the guitar neck lengthwise, under the fingerboard. This helps a little, but once the guitar neck does start to bow (as they almost all do eventually), it doesn't have any provision for adjustment.
Look for Undue Fret Wear
Cheap guitars use thin frets that wear faster than the frets on decent guitars. If the guitar has been played much, it's possible that some of the frets have worn enough to cause problems. Generally this will appear on the frets closest to the head of the guitar, and usually under the highest three strings. If the guitar is a professional guitar and a bargain, it may be worth $100 or so to replace overly worn frets. If it's a $100 guitar, that's probably not a good plan.
Look for Checked Varnish or Undue Warping on the Face
If the face of the guitar bulges anywhere, or if the varnish has a little spiderweb pattern of cracks, the guitar has probably been exposed to temperature extremes, and may have worse problems that are harder to see. If the face is bulging up under the bridge, a previous owner may have used the wrong strings, strung it at too high a pitch, or stored it where there were temperature extremes. Or the guitar's face wasn't braced properly in the first place. At any rate, a face is often a good reason to pass on a guitar, unless it is very cheap, has excellent sound, and is otherwise good condition.
Make Certain the Tuning Pegs Turn Smoothly
If the gears on the tuning pegs are exposed, especially on any guitar made after 1970, that's usually a sign of a cheap guitar. But a worse problem is pegs that don't turn smoothly. One less-than-optimum peg by itself may not be a bad sign - a previous owner may have cracked it in a doorway or something. But more than one signifies either cheap materials or systematic abuse, or both.
Listen to the Sound of an Acoustic
Even if you can't play the guitar, stroke the strings and see if the guitar produces a nice, resonant tone. If all you can hear is low notes, the guitar may just need new strings. If all you can hear is high notes, the guitar is more furniture than instrument.
Check the Electronics (if Applicable)
Run through every function, including volume, tone/eq, switches, built-in tuning, etc. If any of the features fail, or the guitar buzzes, or a loose plug causes a loud noise every time you change position, see if you can talk the person down $50-100, depending on the extent of the apparent damage. If you can't, walk away.
Check the Case or Gig Bag (if Applicable)
Remember, the purpose of a gig bag is simply to make the guitar easy to carry and to protect it from minor cosmetic damage. If the zipper works and the handles are still on tight, it's probably going to do the job. A hard case with touchy latches, on the other hand, can be a hazard.
Chances are you'll get the guitar you need within three stops. Best of all, once you know how to scope out the used guitar market, you can upgrade or help your friends find suitable instruments for much less than you'd think.
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