Let’s face it – good guitars can be expensive. Real expensive. That can be especially true if you are looking to buy new. But – just as when you may be looking for a new (or ‘new to you’) car, there are plenty of good buys to be had if you take a good look at the tons of used guitars that are on the market.
But what should you look for when you’re looking to buy a used guitar? How can you make sure that not only are you getting the best bang for your hard-earned buck, but that you aren’t purchasing an instrument that may be in, let’s say, not in a prime cosmetic and working condition?
Let’s take a look at some of the most important things you should consider when you’re looking at adding a used guitar to your collection.
Condition, condition, condition
As the old saying goes, ‘condition is king’. If you come across a used guitar that’s in your price range, then the most important thing you can do is to perform as thorough of an inspection as you can.
Evidence of previous damage (and subsequent repairs) can be a red flag. You may come across a model that has an incredibly attractive price…but that price might be low for a reason. I would recommend avoiding any used guitar that has, for example, signs that the guitars headstock had been cracked or – even worse – broken off altogether.
Excessive wear and tear is another biggie. Any used guitar will most likely have some buckle rash or slight dings and scratches; that’s to be expected. But always take a harder look – are the frets worn down? Do they have grooves in them? Is the finish wearing off in certain spots? Does the finish on the metal hardware show any signs of corrosion?
I remember one of the first gigs I played with that amp was at a local church. They wanted someone to fill in with the guitar and my friend say, ‘Ah, he can play.’ And so I dragged the amplifier down and started playing and everybody started yelling ‘turn it down!’ – Angus Young
There are many things in common to consider when looking at both acoustic and electric used guitar purchases. There are some things specific to each type of instrument that you should pay particular attention to.
Used acoustic guitars
An acoustic guitar is typically a much more fragile instrument than a solid body electric. Just by the nature of their construction, the body is a prime target for particular kinds of damage since the top, back, and sides are so thin.
Look for signs of cracking. Many acoustic guitars these days – even the less expensive models – have solid tops instead of laminates, which are extremely sensitive to humidity and temperature conditions. A used acoustic that has not been adequately cared for may be dried out and just a few steps away from having a crack that can run across the entire body.
The bridge joint is another area to look for. Make sure that the bridge is glued securely to the top and is not starting to lift up. That condition can be caused by exposure to high temps when the guitar is strung up to pitch. The tension that strings place on a guitar is much more than you think it may be, and if any glues have been allowed to soften, then you may have a big problem to deal with.
Used electric guitars
Most electric guitars are a bit more durable than acoustics, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to look for if you’re considering a used model.
First and foremost is the electronics. Here is a simple checklist of things to inspect:
- Do all of the pickups work?
- Do all of the potentiometers (also called ‘pots’) turn freely?
- Does the volume pot sound scratchy when using it? If so, then the pot may be dirty or be getting ready to fail
- Is there any excessive humming or buzzing? This may indicate a grounding issue or some other type of wiring problem.
- Do all of the switches operate as they should, and do they do so without any unwanted noise?
Inspection of the hardware is a prime point too, especially if you are considering a model that has some sort of tremolo bridge system. Make sure that the bar travels smoothly and doesn’t have too much (or too little) spring pressure. Also, a significant factor to look for here is tuning stability – it doesn’t make much sense to have a trem bridge if the dang thing won’t stay in tune whenever you use it.
The price is right
The price of a used guitar can be just as important as the condition. You may run across a near mint guitar, but if the price isn’t within your budget, then there’s not much point in looking any further.
The best advice we can give is ‘buy the most guitar you can with the budget you have available’. Using the used car analogy again, your budget may limit you to buying a car that has a few more miles on it than you would really like. But that’s really OK – you have to strike a balance between how good of a guitar you want as compared to what you can afford.
See it live in person.
With the multitude of online services where you can buy used guitars (Reverb, eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, etc.), there certainly is no shortage of places to find that great deal you’ve been looking for.
While that seems convenient, there is a bit of a disadvantage. Sure, you can look at pics to see the overall condition, but there is no substitute for being able to sit down and play it before you lay down your hard-earned cash. That great deal you came across may look great online, but there’s no way to tell how it feels or plays unless you actually have it in your hands.
Now, that’s not saying that you can’t buy a good guitar online. People do it all the time. That being said, our recommendation is to – if at all possible – try before you buy. A local Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace buy may be the best way to give it a quick playthrough before pulling the trigger.
If you do end up buying sight unseen (and guitar unplayed), the recommendation is to use a payment method where you have some sort of buyer protection. That’s really important just in case things don’t go as smoothly as you would expect them to.
Educate yourself on what you want
Sad to say, there are people out there that can be very unethical. They may try to take a junk guitar and sell it as being something much more than it really is. There are numerous stories around the internet of people doing dishonest things, like slapping a Fender logo on the headstock of a super cheap Strat copy and trying to pass it off as the real deal.
Take the time to do some research, so you know what to look for. A little knowledge can go a long way, and also help you to not get duped!
Keep an eye out for prices that appear to be extremely crazy good deals as well. If it seems too good to be true…it usually is.
Overall – as the old saying goes -‘ caveat emptor’ (let the buyer beware)…
One parting piece of wisdom: don’t let the possibility of a potentially good deal keep you from seeing what an instrument really is. It’s really easy to get excited and overlook things that will pop up later on once the honeymoon is over. Try to stay objective as much as you can, as hard as that may be!
Buying a used guitar isn’t nearly as complicated as you may think it can be. All it takes is a little time and effort on your end to do as good of the inspection as you can. Also, do a little research to make sure you know what you’re looking at when that ‘perfect deal’ seems to be right in front of your eyes.
Keep all of these points in mind, and you just may end up with the right guitar for you, at the right price.
Ask about buying used guitars in our community forum for guitar players.