The secondhand acoustic guitar market is often a place where bargains are to be found – and it’s probably never been more buoyant. We provide some thoughts on buying a used instrument.
We’ve all heard stories about guitarists who have found six string gold in the pawn shops of yesteryear. Pre-war Martins for peanuts, Gibson and Fender electrics that turned out to be holy grail 1950s models – you know the sort of thing. Sadly, that kind of story is becoming less and less common as dealers just about everywhere have wised up, mainly, I suspect thanks to the internet and the easy immediacy of information available at the click of a mouse. But there are still some very good deals to be had on the used market today and so if you’re after an instrument that is both pre-owned and pre-loved, here’s a few things to look out for when inspecting any prospective new purchase.
Begin with a healthy serial
First of all, it’s always worth doing a bit of research on any model you see advertised or hung on a shop wall. Many manufacturers – especially the bigger makers – these days will have online databases that will allow you to check when a guitar was built and often its full spec, too. This is an ideal way of double-checking what an advert or prospective seller is telling you. As a live check, I have with me here a Yamaha APX acoustic and I really can’t remember when it was that it came into my possession. A quick look online, however, reveals that it was made on December 26, 2000 – and all I did was put “Yamaha Guitar Serial Numbers” into Google to find out! The more information in your possession when you approach a purchase, the better armed you are against being caught out.
A funny thing happened…
As anyone who has ventured into a guitar forum will tell you, there’s an awful lot of talk going on about different makes and manufacturers of acoustics 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some of it is extremely useful, some of it exquisitely nerdy, and some sadly misinformed. If you can sieve out the useful stuff, then it’s worth a little forum exploration in your quest to find out more about a potential purchase. Good information speaks for itself – users of the same make or model you’re interested in might have some useful stories to tell which reinforce your ideas about its value. Nerdiness can come in handy, too: insider info like which factory the guitar was built in, changes in ownership of the company concerned, good patches, bad patches in terms of build quality – all these can help bolster an opinion.
When you’re in a hands-on situation, your first port of call is to check what kind of condition the body is in. Are those slight dings and dents just signs of loving wear and tear or are there signs of mishandling that might indicate something more serious amiss under the surface? In general, is the cosmetic condition of the instrument reasonable for its age?
As far as determining the general health of an acoustic then there’s plenty that the eye can tell you before you’ve even played a note. A well mannered seller will often volunteer any modifications or repairs that have been made while the instrument has been in his hands, but I’ve known cases where people have bought instruments without noticing signs of a fairly major repair having been done. So look closely; as far as the top, back and sides are concerned, you’re looking for tell-tale signs of cracks or splits. Quite often these will be along the grain of the wood and so they may be difficult to spot, but a good going over in decent light should be all it takes to locate signs of a previous casualty. If you do find anything, don’t despair unnecessarily because if the repair has been done professionally then it will be just about as strong as it ever was and the likelihood if it affecting the tone and general performance of the instrument is very low indeed.
It’s more difficult to see what’s going on inside the guitar, of course, but a general look through the soundhole and possibly a few probing gropes with your fingers should tell you at least part of the story. If the outside of the guitar looks good then you can be pretty sure that its internal structure is fine, too. Any loose bracing should show up as audible red flags when you take it for a test run, anyway.
A bridge too far
One thing I have seen on second-hand guitars is signs of the bridge starting to lift. I remember once being shown a 12-string which the owner told me had become difficult to tune. I looked at the back of the bridge and it had started to lift noticeably – in fact, I think you could have easily got a matchstick in there. Needless to say, I recommended some first aid in slackening the strings off and urged the despondent owner to seek the services of a repairer as soon as he could.
The fact is that a bridge on a guitar in standard tuning loaded with a set of medium gauge strings is under approximately 81kg of string tension and this can eventually take its toll. So check around the back of the bridge for any sign of lifting and also look along the top of the guitar in the area immediately in front of the bridge, too. If it’s “bellying” or beginning to distort, then it’s a sign that prolonged string tension is beginning to have an adverse effect.
Neck and neck
If the guitar you’re looking at has a mahogany neck, pay special attention to the area around the base of the headstock on the back. Are there any cracks visible? Does it look like there might have been a repair done hereabouts at any time? It’s not that uncommon for a guitar to fall on its face and break its neck and it’s nearly always here that the damage happens. As the headstock angles back, it produces a weak spot and undue impact will sometimes result in breakage. Once again, though, all is not lost as mahogany is comparatively easy to repair in expert hands and I’ve seen quite a few instances where this type of repair has been evident. In fact I once owned a 50-year-old Gibson ES175 that had been expertly repaired in this area and it didn’t affect the playability at all and, as it turned out, it didn’t affect the resale value by much either.
While we’re talking about the neck and fretboard areas, check out the general condition of the fretboard. Any splits or hollows? These aren’t so easy to fix and they will affect the overall playability of the instrument. More importantly, is the neck straight? Check the action, too – is it unreasonably high or suspiciously low? If you know how to sight a neck – that is, the art of looking along the fretboard from the nut end to check for straightness – then do so. Many imperfections can be sorted out quite simply via the truss rod, but if you suspect anything seriously out of whack or are unsure, then it’s probably best to walk away.
One of the more obvious signs of wear and tear on any guitar is on its frets. It’s easy to see, too, but the signs of even moderately heavy usage in this region shouldn’t create too much cause for concern. If it’s a prestige make then the thought of an eventual refret shouldn’t put you off. Even though the idea of ripping all the frets out and replacing them sounds like a major operation, in the hands of an expert – and let’s face it you wouldn’t trust anyone else – the results are generally invisible. All you need to do at the time of purchase is to consider how much life you think the frets have in them and balance the cost of a refret somewhere down the line against what you’re being asked to pay.
One other check to carry out is to make sure there are no frets that have lifted or come loose. Both conditions should reveal themselves by carefully playing every note along every string. Loose frets make an unpleasant and very audible noise and a fret that has lifted with show up in either buzz in the surrounding areas or by a note missing altogether.
The mechanical nature of a string tuner is basically very simple – a capstan, a cog and some kind of threaded screw is practically all that’s involved at a very basic level. So there’s not an awful lot that can go wrong in this particular area. I’ve known tuners that look rusty, bent or slightly askew work perfectly and was once reassured by a guitar maker of high repute that the failure rate of a tuning machine is very low indeed. Furthermore, in the instance where you might want to change them in favour of some shiny new ones then replacements are readily available via mail order and it’s a very easy refit or upgrade to make.
Open back tuners can be subject to rust – I’ve seen plenty, but generally they still function – and sealed units are more difficult to diagnose by sight.
However, if the guitar you’re looking at is an older model and you are conscious of keeping its vintage vibe intact, then some exploratory twists and turns might be in order. Defects to look out for are a great deal of slack – that is there is movement in the tuner when you twist it that doesn’t seem to have any affect at all – or uneven, lumpy turning. Neither is fatal, and in the case of a vintage instrument it’s sometimes best to leave well alone, but it can make the job of tuning a little harder than it should be.
Here we go gathering nuts…
A guitar’s nut is subject to wear via friction from tuning, bending and so on and so it’s best to check the string height around the first couple of frets to make sure that there’s still enough material – bone, plastic or whatever – to do a proper job. If strings buzz down in this area then a worn nut is usually the prime suspect.
String saddles can wear, too, although I’ve found that they’re quite hardy and don’t generally cause too much cause for concern. If everything looks fine down at this end of the string length and there are no Grand Canyon-type grooves visible in the saddle then all should be well.
If the guitar has a pickup fitted, asking to hear it plugged in is not at all unreasonable. Modern electronics onboard guitars are generally quite reliable and it should be an easy job to determine whether the pickup is working correctly or not. The only problem I’ve experienced personally in the past was that the under saddle pickup in one of my guitars developed a hum, which was tracked down to a minor preamp problem and easily sorted.
If all of the above check out and the price is right, then the chances are that you’ve bagged a bargain. Some final words of caution: avoid buying a second-hand instrument online from places like eBay unless you’re 100 per cent sure that the seller is reliable and trustworthy. Buying blind is a risky business as you rarely get a chance to inspect the instrument beforehand. Forums are rife with horror stories, but there have also been some shining successes, too. As I say, it’s a big risk and certainly not for the faint hearted or if you aren’t sure of your ground. Happy hunting!