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Buying used guitars is a great way to save money while still getting a (potentially) great-sounding instrument. With a used guitar, you can almost always get more for your money. But to do that, you’ll need to make sure you know what to look for.
What to Look for When Buying a Used Guitar
Whether you’re looking to buy a guitar, a bass guitar, or even an entirely different instrument, it’s a good idea to have a general checklist you go through before buying:
Guitar Make and Model
There are plenty of brand new guitars aimed at beginners. There’s nothing wrong with these, but if you shop for a used guitar and know what you’re looking for, you can sometimes find a guitar of a better make, model, or both for a lower price.
First, find out the make and model (and year if possible) of the guitar you’re considering. If you’re unfamiliar with the brand or with guitar brands in general, do a little research (even a brief internet search is fine) to see if the brand has a good reputation.
Ask About the Age and Condition of the Guitar
If you can’t see the guitar in person, it can be hard to assess its condition. If you’re buying online, asking about conditions is a must. Most online sellers are extremely honest about flaws in their used guitars, as they want to avoid the hassle of a return.
Test It Yourself If Possible
In a perfect world, we’d all be able to try a guitar before we buy it. If you’re shopping in a brick-and-mortar store, spend some time playing any guitar you’re seriously considering, paying special attention to both playability and tone.
Of course, if you buy online, you can’t do this. However, some sellers will post demo clips or videos that will at least let you hear the exact guitar being played.
Give It a Once-Over
This is one of the first things you should do — carefully study the guitar and its parts. Do you see any potential problems? Does anything seem out of place? If so, it’s a good idea to investigate it further or talk to a salesperson (if available) about it.
We mentioned that testing out a guitar yourself is ideal. If you get a chance to try out a guitar, pay attention to the feel of the fretboard and the neck profile. Is the neck slim enough for your hand size and playing style? Is it easy to play up and down the neck?
If you’re shopping for used guitars online, you may be able to ask individual sellers about playability. In some cases, you may be able to find a review of the guitar that mentions playability.
Make Sure the Guitar Feels Comfortable in Your Hands
There’s nothing better than playing a guitar that feels like home. If you are shopping in person, make sure you’re very comfortable with a given guitar. Try playing sitting and standing. Ideally, the guitar will both be comfortable and have a sense of balance, too.
Dings, Cracks and String Rust
These are three of the easiest things to spot. Dings and string rust aren’t really major issues, but cracks can be. Dings are usually just spots of cosmetic damage caused by wear and tear. String rust is easily solved with a fresh set of strings.
In some cases, very small cracks may be able to be overlooked. Especially on an acoustic guitar, if you see a crack, look to see if the crack goes all the way through the wood of the guitar. So if you see a soundboard crack, shine a light inside and see if you can spot the crack from inside the guitar. Each crack is different, but ones that go all the way through the wood (or substantial cracks on the neck) are likely to spread and cause major issues.
You can technically replace the fretboard of a guitar, but it’s an involved process that can get expensive. So before you buy, look carefully for problems with the fretboard. Some less expensive models have unpleasantly sharp fret edges. Some guitars have been played so much that the frets themselves have notches in them and need to be replaced. You might even see a fretboard that has been pitted from fingers.
Guitar Head Issues
When you think of potential problems with used guitars, your mind probably doesn’t go to the headstock first. But thanks to the angle the headstock makes with the neck, some guitars are prone to suffering headstock fractures. Be sure to look very closely at the headstock area of the neck to make sure no cracks are starting to form.
Before buying, it’s very important to make sure the neck is straight, as neck bowing is often difficult and expensive to fix. Turn the guitar sideways and rest the body on your foot. Shut one eye and look down the neck between the low E string and the edge of the neck. Do the same on the side of the high E string. Do the strings look parallel to the edge of the neck? If so, that’s a good thing.
When buying used, make sure you’re getting a fair deal. It’s always wise to check the going rate for similar guitars online before committing to a purchase.
How Do You Know if Your Second-Hand Guitar is Good?
Ideally, you want to see how good a second-hand guitar is before buying. But if you already have a guitar you got used, you might wonder how it stacks up. Run it through the list of what to look for above.
If you’re wondering about the value of a used guitar you already have, you might consider asking a guitar instructor or music store if they have an idea of how much the guitar is worth. But often, a quick online search will give you a decent amount of information.
Advantages of Buying a Used Guitar
Plenty of new players find themselves asking “What should a beginner guitarist buy?” And in many cases, players and even instructors will recommend a used guitar. Used guitars are generally less expensive. In the case of an acoustic guitar, it will also have an improved, “played-in” sound. Plus, buying used can be a great way to find discontinued models you can no longer buy new.
One advantage of buying used that many people don’t consider is upgrades. Plenty of guitarists upgrade various components before trading in or selling their instruments.
Disadvantages of Buying a Used Guitar
When people ask “What should I check while buying a guitar?” they’re generally trying to avoid some of the potential disadvantages of buying used. And while buying used can be great, it does have some downsides. For one, you may find that a used guitar has a defect you don’t expect. Used guitars don’t come with a manufacturer’s warranty (some used music stores offer their own limited warranty), so if something breaks, you’re typically on your own. And much like used cars, used instruments are more prone to experiencing various issues than new instruments are.
Things to Ask Yourself When Buying a Guitar
Buying a guitar is a big decision, and it’s not generally wise to make that decision lightly. Before you make your purchase, be sure to ask yourself the following:
Does the Guitar Stay in Tune?
This one seems obvious, but even high-end instruments sometimes have tuning issues. Tuners can be upgraded, but most people prefer to not purchase a guitar that comes with faulty tuners.
Is the Guitar Neck Straight?
Neck warping is one of the hardest issues to fix in guitars. In many cases, the neck needs to be replaced entirely, and this can be costly (often exceeding the value of the guitar). Make sure you’ve used the neck test described above the verify that the neck is not bowed or warped.
How Far are the Strings From the Fretboard?
This refers to the action on a guitar. Most players prefer lower action, where the strings are closer to the fretboard. Slightly higher action usually isn’t a reason to reject a used guitar — action tends to be fairly easy to adjust. But if a given guitar has strings that are extremely far from the neck, it might be indicative of bigger problems.
Can You Comfortably Reach the Fretboard?
If you’re buying a guitar, you want to make sure that you can play it comfortably. If you can, try playing the guitar sitting and standing to make sure you can reach the fretboard. If you can’t, you might want to look at guitars with less bulky bodies or even shorter necks.
Buying used instruments is always an adventure. And now that you know what to look for, you’ll be able to save some considerable money on your first (or next!) guitar. Happy shopping!