I’ve been a guitar player for 25 years, and in that time frame I’ve only purchased one brand new guitar. All the other guitars that I’ve owned I’ve either built or purchased used. Given that, and the fact that I repair guitars for living, I think it’s fair to say that I have a lot of experience with used guitars.
Used guitars have always been a fairly large part of the overall guitar market. However, in the past, most used guitars were purchased from either music stores or pawn shops…maybe a classified ad once in a while. Now, thanks to Craig’s List, Facebook, and other online communities, it is much easier for people to buy and sell music gear directly to each other, without the middleman. This is good for the seller, but the buyer has to be a little more wary of what they are getting into. With that in mind, I’d like to point out a few things that buyers should watch for and think about before they plunk down their hard earned cash on a used instrument.
This is one that I have personal experience with, as do several of my customers: You find a guitar you want to buy on Craig’s List, and the seller assures you that it “plays just fine”. So, you go and meet them, only to find that the guitar has one or more problems that need to be corrected, and in fact does not “play just fine”. Here’s a list of things buyer’s should be on the lookout for when purchasing a Craig’s List (or pawn shop, music store,etc…) guitar. These are common issues on guitars that I see in the shop, all the time:
-Worn, grooved frets: Frets don’t last forever. Nickel silver is softer that steel, and so frets wear out as they are played. Push aside the strings and look for grooves and flat spots on the frets. Pay particular attention to the first five frets under the high E and B strings, this is where some deep grooves can develop. A “fret dress”, where I file out the grooves & reshape the frets so they have the proper “crown”, costs a minimum of $75, so keep that in mind when determining a fair price for the guitar.
-Uncomfortably high action: “Action”, which is basically how far the strings are from frets, can vary widely from guitar to guitar, and what action a player likes is highly subjective. With that being said, most of us prefer low action, and there is a point where the action becomes “uncomfortably high” for most people. If the guitar you are about to buy has high action, be prepared to spend anywhere from 10 bucks for a simple truss rod adjustment, up to $200 or more for a neck reset. I’d say as a general rule to stay away from less expensive acoustic guitars that have very high action, especially if the saddle is already very low to the bridge, as this is a sign that the guitar needs a neck reset.
Electric guitars usually have enough adjustment capabilities that most high action problems are easy to remedy. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule…
Lifting Bridge: This is a very common issue on acoustic guitars. Before buying a guitar, always inspect the bridge where it attaches to the top. If you see cracking or gaps around the back of the bridge (see picture), be prepared to get it fixed, as the problem will typically worsen over time.
There are a couple ways I repair this issue, depending on the quality of the guitar. On less expensive import models that use “mystery glue” to hold the bridge down, I will simply flow super glue into the crack and clamp it down. Once the glue is dry, I add one or two small bolts that help keep the bridge attached to the top. I consider this a “quick and dirty” repair. It works very well, and is appropriate for use on less expensive guitars that need to work. For what it’s worth, using bolts was fairly common back in the 60s and 70s, even on some quality Gibson & USA made Epiphone guitars.
On more expensive, USA made guitars, I will carefully remove the bridge the rest of the way and then refit it to the top. Once I have the fit right, I will glue the bridge back down with wood glue.
Of course, there are other problems, like cracks and whatnot, that a buyer can encounter when looking at used instruments, but the ones listed above seem to be the most common. As always, the golden rule when looking for used guitars is: Buyer Beware.
Made in USA vs. Imported, and A word About “Vintage” guitars
As a general rule, USA made musical gear holds its value better than imported gear, so keep that in mind when determining a fair price on an instrument. It is usually a sound economical decision to get a USA made guitar repaired if needed. Imports, on the other hand, can go either way. My pricing structure and repair philosophy can make some repairs on imports a viable option, but not always. If you can, check with me before buying a questionable instrument. If you can’t, simply refuse to buy an import guitar that has uncomfortably high action. That alone can save you a lot of time and money.
Vintage. There’s a loaded word. In regards to guitars and amplifiers, there really is no official criteria to determine what is vintage and what is just old. In the past, vintage typically meant the instrument or amp was of high quality, pre-1970s & made in USA (or European, in a few instances). Now, however, sellers are often using the term on just about any old guitar or amp, regardless of it’s pedigree. In my opinion, the word is so misused, that it is basically useless as a way to judge the quality or value of a piece of gear. Just disregard it. Most guitars, even the “cheap” ones, were made in the USA back in the 50s and even the 60s. A plywood guitar is still a plywood guitar, old or new. Don’t pay more just because it’s old. I will say, however, that the old USA made, as well as some of the old Japanese made, cheap guitars are easier to work on, because they used hide glue or standard wood glue in their construction, and are therefore easier to disassemble. That is their saving grace.
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