So you’re checking Craigslist, MarketPlace, Letgo, OfferUp, etc. There are tons of electric guitars, so where do you start?
OK, you’ve settled on a guitar style, and you have a budget for your used guitar shopping. Be sure that budget allows for –
- a guitar amp (a 10 to 15 watt is ok for practicing in your living room but the better the amp, the better the sound!)
- a cable to connect the guitar to the amp; a case (especially if you’re going to be going places with your guitar)
- a strap (you should practice standing as well as sitting because if you ever perform, you’ll probably have to stand).
- gig bag or case is you’ll be taking it with you
- a guitar stand
You’ll also want some lesson books and sheet music, and a music stand to hold the sheet music. (You’ll want a bus for your band, but that can wait til later!)
In the Tampa area, I find the most ads (biggest selection) on Craigslist, but often the best deals are on Marketplace or OfferUp. Don’t be in a hurry and don’t “fall in love” with a guitar before you own it.
Craigslist let’s you set filters for “Dealer”; “Individual”; “Price – hi/lo”; and distance. Often dealers’ pricing is inline with individuals and you’re more likely to get a refund if you get home and the guitar quits working, if you buy from a dealer. But you’ll pay a sales tax on top of the price, so you just have to balance things out.
Listings that are out in the “boonies” and have been posted weeks before, are more likely to be negotiable on price. But do you really want to drive a half hour then feel like you have to buy a guitar that is disappointing just so you won’t have wasted over an hour of your time?
Listings with no email or no texting can be more negotiable, since they won’t get as many prospective buyers contacting them.
I’ve found the best buys are either ads posted today or over a month ago. Those “tweeners” have already turned down the low-ballers and are still hopeful of getting their price.
You can often find “Guitar Flippers” like me, who buy, checkout, refurb, restring and setup guitars before reselling. Many of these “Flippers” work from home, reducing overhead and making it possible to work for far less profit-margin than brick-and-mortar stores. Obviously, this is usually a safer option than buying a guitar from an individual, especially if you don’t feel confident in inspecting guitars and doing your own work.
INSPECTING THE GUITAR
How to checkout a used guitar before buying
Check the Neck
Let’s use the guitar strings as our “straight-edge”! If the guitar has no strings – do not buy it! Sometimes sellers remove the strings to hide serious problems that would be obvious with the guitar strung and tuned.
Before doing the test below, tune the guitar. Tuning is important because we need to have the correct amount of tension on the neck to see whether it is good. You can download a free tuning app like GuitarTuna. They are super-simple to use and plenty accurate enough.
Hold the low-E string down at the 1st (easiest with a capo) and last frets and look for a gap at the 7th fret. When you press the string at the 7th fret, you should see it just barely move to touch the fret. Then check the high-e string the same.
If there is no movement, the neck likely has a backbow and will buzz and have problems. If there is more gap than a piece of paper can slide under, it needs a truss rod adjustment.
It’s normal for a guitar to need occasional truss rod adjustments. A couple times in its first year and it should be checked at least annually after that.
Sometimes people who try to work on their own guitars, will accidentally strip the head or threads of the truss rod nut. Now you have a serious and fairly expensive problem. Most guitars have a 4mm truss nut. But most guitarists have SAE allen wrenches. A 5/32 hex wrench is slightly smaller than 4mm, thus making it easy to strip out the hex nut head.
Check for a cracked or cracked and repaired headstock (see “Headstocks” below). This is a fairly common problem with the bent-style headstocks. If it has been properly repaired, the guitar should play fine and there shouldn’t be any future problems, but the resale value of the guitar has taken a serious hit so you should be getting a bargain.
All frets will eventually wear. Unless you do your own fret work, inexpensive guitars generally aren’t worth the expense of a level & crown job or fret replacement.
To check for fret wear, use your fingers to slightly move the few highest strings a bit out of the way, one string at a time and look at the first three frets direcectly underneath.
A bit of discoloration is ok but if there is any visible wear at all, you shouldn’t buy the guitar without having a guitar tech look at it.
Even a few thousandths of an inch is enough to possibly cause dead notes or buzzing against the next fret.
When playing on newish frets, the wear gets spread several thousandths of an inch to either side of the string as your fingers, ever so slightly, randomly fret at different spots. But once the wear begins, the string will consistently find the bottom of the groove and the wear will be exponentially faster.
Plug the guitar in and try it out. Test all switches and knobs. Gently move the input plug a bit. Any noise? If so, it probably needs a new input jack (or a better cable). Now turn the volume dial all the way up, then back down several times. Do the same with each tone knob. Do you hear static? Walk! Move the pickup switch into each position and back. Any noise? Now play the guitar in each switch position and with a variety of volume and tone settings.
Of course, if the seller wants to meet in a parking lot and you don’t own a portable amplifier, this is going to be difficult.
You’d be amazed at the percentage of guitar sellers who will sell you a guitar with a bad switch, bad pot or even a pickup that isn’t working (usually just a wiring issue) and not tell you about the problem! I have this happen to me nearly every month!
Use Your Eyes
First, look at the overall condition of the guitar. Is it clean and polished? Are the pickup poles, saddles, bridge and tuner keys free from rust and corrosion, or does it look like the guitar sat, uncared for, in a garage for months?
“Buyers Eyes” have blind spots! Even though I’m experienced at buying guitars, I have to use a mental checklist to be sure I’ve looked at all the important aspects of the guitar.
I’ve unknowingly bought guitars with cracked headstocks, missing saddles, broken nuts (that slotted thingy at the top of the neck at the headstock), missing strap buttons, missing or non-matching tuner key, etc. I could go on, but I’ve embarrassed myself enough already! 🙂
Before coming to look at the guitar, you’ve hopefully checked out similar guitars of the same make and model on Reverb.com, ebay.com, etc. and you have a good idea of the average price for the condition of this particular guitar.
As the instrument passes each test, merely give a grunt or “hmmm” that doesn’t give away any positive feelings. Saying, “That’s good!” after each inspection point is only likely to drive the price higher or at least have it set in stone!
Pause at each flaw you find; rub your finger over it slowly and shake your head slowly, then move on to the next.
If you’re satisfied with the instrument, with your best poker face and in a disinterested, steady voice, say “What’s your best price on this thing?”
If the seller knocks some off of his advertised price, be sure to send half the savings to me! 🙂
Whatever this new price is, is your new “starting point” on your negotiations. Only at this point should you proceed..
If you want to make an offer for less than the seller is asking, ask if it comes with a case (when you know it doesn’t). Ask if he has the manual and truss rod tool that it came with. If it’s a tremolo type guitar, ask if he has the tremolo arm. Many times the answer is “no” to each of these questions, and with each “no” you’re chipping away at the sellers confidence in his price.
Now pull out the amount of cash you want to spend so that the green is in front of the seller’s eyeballs. Then say something like, “I like the guitar but I can only pay $X for it”. Or, “I’d be willing to pay $X for it, but that’s the best I can do.”
Avoid getting into a debate about what the guitar is worth. That could turn into a rabbit hole and get the seller angry, which won’t help you get a deal from him.
You want to develop a friendly rapport with the seller, not an adversarial one.
Guitar Buying Summary
The guitar may only cost between $100 and $200 or so, but to many of us, that’s still a big deal. Getting a guitar with high action can hurt your fingers more than necessary and cause a beginner to not enjoy practicing and eventually to give up.
There are a host of problems that can slip by you when you’re excited about getting that shiny, new-to-you guitar. If you don’t mind the hassle of dealing with a dozen or so sellers and choosing a guitar – the buying experience can be a lot of fun.
Wherever you buy, do set aside a particular time each day for your practice. There will be days you really don’t want to practice. On these days, make yourself do ten minutes at least. Those ten minutes are 100 times better than zero minutes!
There will be times when things come up and you can’t practice. For this reason, it’s best to try to practice as early in the day as possible so if your regular time has to be missed, you may be able to squeeze some time in later in the day.
When you’re learning guitar, you’ll come across things – maybe a chord or a concept – that seems totally impossible. It’s like a brick wall that you can’t get over, under or around no matter how hard you try. It’s OK. It’s normal. Just keep trying, but stop before you get really frustrated. Move on to something else and come back to your brick wall tomorrow. Then the next day. Then the next.
Soon, your brick wall will have some cracks. The “impossible” will become “really difficult”. Keep at it. The “difficult” will become “doable”. The “doable” will eventually become “easy”. I promise.
Everything depends on regular practice. That takes commitment and discipline. Acquiring the trait of discipline will take you far in life, even if it isn’t in the field of music. Get strummin’ and have fun!