When it comes to buying a used (or sometimes new) electric or acoustic guitar, especially if you are a beginner you want to get a guitar that is not only right for you in terms of look etc. but also that it does not have any issues that may not only impair its playability, but also not have any hidden issues that may be expensive to correct.
Most experienced guitar players know what to look for when buying a used guitar, but beginner guitar buyers run the risk of making a bad purchase if they don’t know what to look for
Used guitars for sale in your local music shop (i.e. My Shop!) tend to be far less risky than buying a used guitar from a stranger or online auction or website. Ebay can be risky but with the joint eBay/PayPal buyer protection you are pretty well covered – just make sure the seller has a decent amount of feedback. I personally would never buy on eBay if the seller has less than 50 feedback with a score of 98% +
When buying from strangers via online websites like Gumtree.com or via Forums, Facebook etc. it is more risky as once you have handed over your hard earned cash, that’s it – no comebacks, no warranty etc. There are many honest people out there selling good used electric guitars, there are many who aren’t so honest. If you are buying a used electric guitar in person, or have just received your guitar from an online auction please use the following tips to evaluate the guitar and hopefully decrease the chances of making a bad purchasing decision.
Please keep in mind that some problems like action, intonation, neck relief issues will occur in every guitar at some point. Environmental conditions like heat, cold and humidity will affect your guitar. Fortunately these issues can almost always be corrected with a few tweaks if you know what you are doing, or just get it set up by a professional. I believe that any time you buy a used electric or acoustic guitar, it’s a good idea to have it serviced.
Here we go – Hopefully I have not missed anything out.
Lets start at the top and work our way down:
Check the tuners are working correctly – check the tuning pegs are straight. Also take a look on the back of the headstock for any holes which will indicate that the original tuners have been changed (this can be a good thing if the stock tuners were inferior).
Check the nut for correct placement – it should fit nice and tight. The nut slots should be clean and spaced correctly. Check that the two outer E strings are spaced comfortably from the edge of the fretboard. The most important thing is to check that the slots have be cut to the correct depth. Too high and you will have intonation issues (pressing the strings too hard to fret the note will bend the string sharp). If the slots are too deep you will have string buzz on open strings.
Check the neck for cracks, especially along the neck and the area between the neck and the head, which is the weakest spot on an electric guitar – this is especially important for Les Paul style guitars or guitars that have a similar style headstock with the back angle. See the picture for an example
Cracks in the finish are cosmetic and are not a big concern unless you find them too unsightly. Structural cracks could result in the neck completely breaking. Structural cracks tend to follow the grain of the wood. Scratches, dents and wear to the finish are normal if it’s a used guitar.
Check the guitar’s neck to make sure it isn’t warped or bowed. The way to do this is to hold the guitar at eye-level, once with the guitar’s body closest to you and again with the neck head closest to you - look down either side of the neck. The neck should be straight. The neck may be slightly bowed or warped, so adjusting the truss rod should fix the problem, but not always. If the warping or bowing is really bad and has been that way for some time the neck may need to be replaced.
Check the frets for wear – a little bit of fret wear is going to be there if it’s a used guitar. Just make sure the frets still have plenty of height left as excessive wear can always be stoned out (about £25 in a repair shop). Also check the fretboard and inlays. In rosewood/ebony boards on older/heavily played guitars you may find grooves worn into the fretboard – especially the first 5-7 frets and sometimes 12-15. This is not going to affect the playability too much but is a sure sign of a heavily played guitar. On maple fretboards this wear can go down to the bare wood (also the edges of the fretboard) If you find this unsightly the fix can be expensive as the job involves stripping the old finish, cleaning out the dirt, and reapplying finish.
Inlays should be flush with the fretboard although most will be slightly raised. Also check the fret ends – you should not be able to feel them too much unless they are jumbo – just check for sharp edges. Sharp edges are common on older guitars with rosewood/ebony boards. The wood has dried out over time leaving the fret ends slightly exposed. A good lemon oil treatment and some fret end filing will cure this issue. A problem I have found on many used and believe it or not new guitars is loose fret ends – you need a good eye to check for this although the best way is a fretting hammer (any small hammer will do if you are careful). Using the hammer, LIGHTLY tap each fret end – it should have a nice solid sound – if you tap one and it sounds muted compared to the others, than it’s a loose fret/fret-end. This can be repaired but will add to the cost of getting the guitar to play correctly. Ever played a guitar that gets the E string caught under the fret ends?
Check the intonation. This can be difficult for beginner guitar players. Play a harmonic at the 12 fret and then on the same string, play the note at the 12 fret and compare. If one sounds higher or lower than the other, the intonation is off. Do this for every string – it is best to use a guitar tuner to compare. Intonation is an easy fix on most guitars although I have often seen guitars from some well-known manufacturers that have incorrectly positioned bridges which make it impossible to intonate correctly. Also acoustic guitars may just have a straight saddle – you can swap it out for a compensated one to help with intonation.
Check the action. I measure a guitar’s action from the bottom of the string to the top of the fret at the 12th fret area using a string action gauge - you won’t be able to judge this with your eye, so just check the strings should do touch the frets, or they are so high it hurts your hand to fret the notes. Again, action can be fixed in most cases on electric guitars – but it may be more work that you think. Bolt-on necks may need to be shimmed to get better action (adding to the expense) Set necks cannot be shimmed so the only way to reduce action is via the bridge and truss rod adjustments.
Plug in the guitar to test the pick-ups and the pick-up selector switch as well as the tone and volume knobs. There shouldn’t be any pops or humming, nor should the sound cut in and out. A common problem is input jacks – they can go at any time on any guitar regardless of price etc. Its an easy fix – usually just a quick solder unless it’s a barrel style jack (popular on Ibanez) which will need to be replaced. Check that the electronics cavity is clean and the soldering looks professional and/or original.
Scratchy sounding pots can also be fixed in most cases – replacing pots in relatively inexpensive and a good upgrade for cheaper guitars.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK:Always research the make and model of the guitar you are looking to buy. Is it still made or has it been discontinued? Get the serial number and check it out on the manufacturers website. Check out customer reviews. Search e-bay (search for completed listings) You may see a few guitars advertised for much more money – remember a seller can ask what they like for a guitar – its value is what someone will actually pay for it. Gumtree, and other classified venues are good places to see if anyone else is selling the same make and model and for how much. This will help you decide if the seller’s asking price is too much (time to negotiate), too little (it does happen) or at market value.
Finally, remember used electric or acoustic guitars are going to show varying degrees of wear and may require minor or major adjustments. Hopefully this guide will help you make a more informed guitar purchase.