The Golden Rules of Buying a Used Guitar

Stick by these rules and you can negotiate the second hand market to find the axe of your dreams.

Ultimate Guitar
Since I've been at UG, I've written a number of guitar buyer's guides tailored for different kinds of consumers. But, it struck me the other day that I've never tackled the second hand market.

That's a glaring omission on my part, and one that I'm keen to rectify. Because, while buying a used instrument is often a great way to grab a bargain, it can also be a bloody minefield.

To clarify here, I'm not talking about buying used instruments from an established guitar store. Reputable instrument retailers will only sell used instruments that have been checked and vetted. They'll also do a full set up on said axe. You're not likely to get a mega-bargain buying second hand guitars from a guitar store proper, but you get the security of knowing that the instrument isn't a turkey, and that you can return it if you have any problems.

What I'm referring to here is buying guitars "in the wild" - from pawn shops, via private listings sites like Gumtree and Craigslist, or online auction sites such as eBay. In my experience, these are the places where you find can crazy deals on used electrics. But, they're also the places where you're at most risk as a consumer. Inaccurate listings can often be misleading, while underlying problems with an instrument aren't the easiest to spot. Then you've got the issue of dishonest sellers trying to pull a fast one, with no safety net if things go sour with your old/new axe.

To help you snag a second hand steal without getting ripped off, I've compiled the golden rules for buying a used guitar. Stick by these and you can negotiate the second hand market to find the axe of your dreams.

Inspect Everything, Check for Details

When viewing a second hand instrument, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for any defects, anomalies: anything that might hint at an underlying problem with the instrument.

Don't be put off by signs of general wear and tear. Those are to be expected when buying used. What you're looking for is signs of deeper damage; cracks on the wood, hairline cracks or stress fractures on and around the neck, or any evidence of previous breaks on the instrument.

Frets are another area for consideration. While worn fingerboards aren't necessarily a problem (after all, you'd expect the previous owner to have played their instrument), badly worn frets are, as having them dressed or replaced can be incredibly expensive.

You'll also want to check the neck for warps or bends, and the condition of the hardware.

If you notice anything out of the ordinary when looking at the guitar, don't be afraid to query the seller on it. And if you're not satisfied by their answer, then walk away. The low cost of a second hand instrument is entirely negated if you need to spend hundreds doing it up.

Put It Through Its Paces Before You Buy

Of course, you can only learn so much from looking at an instrument. Much of a guitar's true nature will only become apparent once you plug it in and play it. So make sure you do just that.

Whenever I go to buy a second hand guitar, I always insist on taking my trusty Blackstar HT5 with me. And I make sure to take my time putting the guitar through its paces. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I want to confirm that there aren't any major issues with the guitar: that the electrics, the hardware and the setup are all sound. Secondly, I want to really get a feel for the instrument, with what I can do with it and what it's like to play. Do I get on with the neck profile? What do the pick-ups sound like running through my setup?

Going into someone's home, setting up your amp and playing a guitar for half an hour might seem like an imposition. But, if the person selling the instrument knows anything about guitars, they'll likely be more than happy for you to do so. After all, you need to know that you're happy with the guitar, and the only way to do that is by playing it.

If you went into a guitar shop and were serious about buying an instrument, the store clerk would likely let you play until you were completely satisfied. Don't be afraid to expect the same from a private seller.

Get the Lowdown on the Guitar's History

If you're in the market for a used guitar, you want to know where exactly that guitar has come from. So be prepared to ask the seller about the guitar's history. Did they buy it new, or has it had multiple previous owners? Have there been any modifications or upgrades made? Has it been refinished? Was it gigged, or used mostly for bedroom playing?

Along with inspecting and playing the guitar, these questions are the detective work you need to do to ensure that you buy a quality instrument. And, if the seller isn't trying to pull a fast one, they should be more than happy to answer them. If they're not and start getting cagey when you probe them for details, then walk away.

Of course, there will be times when the seller won't be able to respond to your questions because they simply don't know the answers. Perhaps they bought the guitar second hand themselves and didn't have the foresight to ask the previous owner. They might be selling the guitar on behalf of a relative and not have the full lowdown on the instrument.

In those instances, whether you buy will come down to how you got on with inspecting and playing the instrument. If you're confident that there are no faults and love the way the guitar feels through your setup, then trust your judgement. But, if you have your reservations about the axe, AND the seller isn't able to offer you any concrete information about its lineage, then think very carefully about whether you want to take the risk.

Be Wary of Partscasters

If you're in the market for a used Fender instrument, then definitely take note of this one, though it also applies to other types of guitars as well.

A Partscaster, as the name suggests is a guitar made of parts from various instruments. Typically, the owner will have bought a few of different guitars of the same style, and taken the best bits of those instruments to create one mega-axe.

"But," I hear you say, "that sounds awesome! Why would I want not a guitar made of loads of awesome bits?"

The problem here is that, once somebody's built a Partscaster, they rarely want to sell the awesome guitar. Instead, they're going to flog the guitar made out of all the reject parts. And, if they're being dishonest, they're not going to tell you that it's the shit one. They might not even tell you it's a Partscaster in the first place.

There's a great and very in-depth guide to Partscasters over on Planet Botch that I'd recommend reading if you suspect the guitar you're looking at is a hybrid. To summarize though, there are three things to remember.

Be very wary of sellers that won't categorically tell you if a guitar is all-original, or won't categorically summarize where the parts are from. If the seller plays dumb about the guitar's lineage and you suspect they're having you on, then don't part with your money.

If the seller is asking substantially less for the guitar than the secondary market dictates, that should raise an eyebrow. Ask yourself why that person would be selling said instrument for an unnecessary discount.

Finally, check the guitar for any signs that it's been tampered with. Do the pick-ups look like they've come from the same set? (mismatched poles are usually a giveaway on this one, as are color discrepancies between the pick-up covers). Can you see signed of unused or filled in screw holes on the headstock, or beneath the scratchplate? Are there any chips around the neck pocket, suggesting that a different neck has been forced into it?

Buying a Partscaster is fine if you know what you're getting. While a parts instrument won't be worth much as an investment, a well set up hybrid guitar with quality components can provide you with a great player at a reasonable price. But, you need to make sure that you're getting what you're promised. If you don't, you're running the risk of throwing money down the drain.

By Alec Plowman

20 comments sorted by best / new / date

    This should be retitled "How to piss off the seller by being a quality nazi that takes an hour to buy a guitar" No seriously, this is a kickass guide. Great points.
    Rebel Scum
    Meh, there's no rules really. I bought a 2nd hand guitar from someone and it had no brand markings or serial numbers. Its plays great. Its got some decent defects that make it original and fun to play. Its great for playing Mayonnaise by Smashing Pumpkins as it can really let out that feedback at the right moment.
    I recently bought a pretty beat up strat; I build guitars and bring strings and nice ,but small Vox as well, and for acoustics a mirror to check for any damage inside. The strat, I refinished, stained,painted and put a sealer over that. Guitar cost me 45$ at a pawn shop and looked new when I was done. Then, I sold that for about 150% profit. Nice. I also found a Greg Bennett(sp) by Sammick acoustic that I checked for damage. None but the tuners, which were good enough to get an idea. Put some nice Grovers on it, but first I did a slight refinish on and am Playing that puppy all the time. Cost 35 bucks to buy, spent a little too much fixing it, but it was worth it. If possible, bring a luthier or tech to check it out....keeps the junk outta your hands. I'm just lucky I have some knowledge in that area, and have a few luthier friends more experienced than I am.... Nice little side business for when I retire.
    Getting a Refret or Dress isn't that expensive. You should be able to get a full refret for around $250 and a dress for less than $80.
    250 is a lot for something that "isn't that expensive"....
    More than 'inexpensive' I'd say it's 'worth it', if you find an awesome used guitar and it's just in bad shape because the previous owner was an ape, I'd definitely put some money on it to make it shine. But yeah, I guess if you're talking about buying a used mid-low end instrument in crappy conditions, it'd be kinda dumb to even think of buying it for $200 and spending $250 refretting it when you could probably find the same instrument for $350 in decent conditions.
    It's not that much if you have a good guitar, also 250 is at the top end, most will be cheaper. Full refrets are only needed in the most extreme cases where there is barely any fret left. 99% if the time a dress does the job.
    Thanks for sharing these fundamental guide lines. I got burned last year buying a guitar online through a well known, and normally reputable site, but made a deal with what turned out to be one flake of a seller. This year, I made out like a bandit scoring a $500 used Hagstrom Swede Gold Top marked down to $300 (4th of July sale), with a complimentary set-up, and a Hagstrom hard case thrown in for... well, we agreed to keep that detail on the down low. 2009 model but damn near mint. You win some you lose some. I do not get any kick backs for saying this, but I highly recommend Truetone Music in Santa Monica, Ca. They definitely won me over.
    If you are a long time player you'll be fine, if you're not then take one with you.
    You know, there is one question to ask to really know if you're getting a good guitar. Just ask 'em, Does It Djent?!?!?!?!!!!?! LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLLLLLOOOOOLLLLLOOOO O
    some of this is too generic and obvious,but it is good on the most basic level. as far as the comment on demoing, if you need to spend more than 10 minutes on it, something is not right. look at pictures on the listing and call and ask questions first. that way, you know most of what you need to know, check and see everything is as discussed, hand me the cash and go. i am not a guitar store, i am not there to be interviewed for a half hour and have my time wasted because you don't know what you are looking at/for.
    I needed a cheap acoustic to take on the road. I went to a guitar store with $300 bucks in my pocket and played every guitar they had within that budget. I ended up with an Epiphone Dove. Here's the weird thing, Once I picked the guitar the guy brought 3 other Epi Doves he had in stock. Every one exactly the same, right up until I played them. Each one sounded worse than the last. None of them even came close to the sound I squeezed out of the floor model. Now I know this anecdote is about a new guitar but the lesson is the same. PLAY IT. All that matters is how it feels and how it sounds.
    i had the same thing with a les paul off the rack, i played about 6 of them, the young dickhead trying hurry me out the door with one just deadpanned at me "the all sound and play exactly the same" should have clubbed the ignorant fucker over the head with the thing.
    Have had three very good experiences regarding used guitars. First was a 1978 model Ovation with case. Hardly played when I bought it this year. only 1 previous owner. Was perfect, just the case had wear & tear. Second, was a Fender Strat MIM. basically a brand new guitar with no wear and tear, showed very little playing wear. Three, bought a guild from a music store on line. this was a special order that was never picked up. perfect guitar, unused and got it with case for 1/3 of retail as they couldn't sell it.