My experience is mostly with Squiers, and although that is the make I’ll be discussing, most of what I cover would apply to any electric guitar, especially those in the lower cost area.
So you’re checking Craigslist, MarketPlace, Letgo, OfferUp, etc. There are tons of electric guitars, so where do you start?
STRAT, TELE OR LES PAUL?
Let’s first decide on the style of guitar you want. There are Stratocasters, Telecasters, Les Pauls and smattering of other styles. For beginners, I’d break them down into two groups – those with floating bridges (tremolos) and those with static bridges.
Check with your instructor, but in my opinion, a beginner should not have a movable bridge. it just complicates things such as intonation and your tuning is likely to be less stable.
Telecasters and les Pauls have static bridges. Strats have floating bridges but you’re likely to find these to be the most popular models and probably among the least expensive (Squier, Yamaha, First Act & others). The good news is that you can have the bridge blocked off so that it does not move. Then, when you’re ready to become a high-profile rock star, you can unblock the bridge, reset your intonation and screw in your tremolo bar.
OK, you’ve settled on a style, and you have a budget. Be sure that budget allows for a guitar amp (a 10 to 15 watt is fine for practicing in your living room); a cable to connect the guitar to the amp; a case (especially if you’re going to be going places with your guitar) and a strap (you should practice standing as well as sitting because if you ever perform, you’ll probably have to 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 LetGo 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’ll find two or three sources like me at SuperSquier and Jeff at Guitar Rescue in Largo, who buy and sell used electric guitars, but take care in the selection then clean and do a professional setup before reselling the guitar.
INSPECTING THE GUITAR
There are some obvious advantages in buying from us, which I’ll get to shortly. But right now, you’re on your own and you’re looking at a potential buy. What should you be looking for?
1] Overall condition
Does the guitar appear to be well cared for, or has it been tossed around, maybe left in the garage or backyard occasionally? Inspect all the metal (bridge, etc.) closely. Rust? Corrosion? How about the strings – are they rusty? A guitar kept in an air conditioned home, even here in Florida, isn’t likely to get rust or corrosion.
Sight down the neck from the headstock end. First down one side, then the other, to get an idea of how straight the neck is. If you look down the center of the neck, it may appear that the low-E side is higher, thus a twisted neck. But there’s probably nothing to worry about. Often the nut is higher on that side due to the greater diameter of the low-E, and making the neck appear twisted.
Now sight down each side of the neck from the body end. During either of these inspections, if you notice a slight bow in the center of the neck (maybe a 1/16th or so), don’t worry. You want a certain amount of “relief” and you can usually adjust the truss rod if it’s slightly out of spec.
Hold down the E string (any E) at the first and last fret. There should only be a tiny gap in the middle about 1/16th of an inch.
3] Truss Rod
Most necks have a truss rod that allows straightening of the neck as it begins to bow from being under pressure of the strings. And most of these will be adjustable from the headstock. Gibsons and Epiphones will have a cover over the truss rod access hole. Most Fenders do not.
These are generally adjustable with an allen wrench. Sometimes the truss rod nut gets stripped out and the hex hole that accepts the allen wrench becomes a circular hole and you can no longer adjust the truss rod. This can be an expensive repair and sometimes requires “surgery” costing more than all but the most expensive guitars are worth.
Take a small flashlight and shine down into the hole. If the allen nut seems rounded (stripped), you’d better pass unless you’re buying the guitar for parts.
Is there a build-up of crud along each fret edge? This can probably be cleaned, but it’s indicative of wear and a certain lack of care. Check along the edge of the fretboard on each side. Is there any sign of separation? If so, I’d take a pass. Look over the fretboard condition in general.
Move the strings aside a bit and inspect each fret for wear. If the metal is worn so that some areas are a little lower than others – pass! This might be fixable by leveling the frets, then recrowning but it’s a big (i.e.: expensive) job and there are tons of guitars out there, so don’t take this one!
If you decide to take it and have someone level and crown the frets, be sure that the lowest fret areas are at least .03 inch above the fretboard, otherwise you probably don’t have enough fret height to allow for a decent job.
(Better ask before you do this!) Turn each tuner to loosen the string one entire revolution. While the string is loose, see if the post wobbles. Then turn back the same number of turns. I’ve gotten guitars where one of the tuners had a broken gear, but the seller had found that “sweet spot” where he could get it turned past the problem cog and tune the string. Sure, a new set of tuners isn’t a bank-breaker, but it is an expense and a big pain to change out. Why buy this guitar when there are plenty of “good-uns” to choose from?
With the switch in each position, be certain that each pickup is actually working. Again, look for rust & corrosion. Are the pickups fairly level? Are they too wobbly? Are they equally spaced with just a slight difference between high-E and low-E? If not, this instrument is probably going to need a setup. That’s a big job if you’re capable of doing it yourself and a pricey job if not.
Play each open string, one at a time, using one of the free tuning apps like “Harmonic Tuner”. Note whether the string is slightly sharp or flat (if it’s way off, then tune the guitar). Now hold the string at the 12th fret (2 dots). You should get the same note, just an octave higher and it should be within a few points sharp or flat of matching the open string. If it’s off much more than that, this guitar needs its intonation set and it really should have a full setup first, because changing just one setting will likely change intonation.
While the guitar is stil plugged into an amp, gently move the output plug a bit. Any noise? If so, it probably needs a new jack. Not a huge expense, but a pain and it involves soldering.
Now turn the volume dial up, then back down quickly several times. Do the same with each tone knob. Do you hear static? Sure, you can get a can of electric contact cleaner and hope it’ll fix it, but if it doesn’t, you’ll have to replace the pots, and that involves a bit of soldering. There’s a ton of guitars out there that don’t have this problem, so why not walk away?
Move the pickup switch into each position and back. Any noise? If so, you’ve got a problem similar to the volumne/tone knob issue.
Now play the guitar in each switch position and with a variety of volume and tone settings. Do you like the sound? There’s really no “poor quality” sound or “great quality sound”, there’s just “sound” with many parameters, but forget all the marketing adjectives. What is good sound and what isn’t is entirely up to your ears.
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!
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! 🙂
A quick last word about negotiating – it’s one thing to work a hard deal and get a good price, but it’s another thing altogether to take advantage of someone who’s in a financial bind. Always be fair. In a “Good Deal”, everyone wins.
The guitar may only cost a hundred or two, but to many of us, that’s still a big deal. Getting a used guitar with high action and other setup issues 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 buy 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.
If you’d rather have confidence in your selection and take the danger and risk out of the experience, you might be better off dealing with Jeff or me. I usually have about thirty guitars on hand and maybe ten to fifteen amps, plenty of cases and straps, etc.
I think Jeff carries about the same, more or less. If you come to one of us (and I have no connection with Jeff’s business), you’ll be met with someone who will be more interested in helping you make a good choice than in selling you something.
You’ll be sure to leave with an instrument that will give the right note whether you’re playing on the first fret or the fifteenth. This is called intonation and more than half the used guitars in classified ads are not properly intonated, in my experience. And a guitar with low action that will be much easier on tender finger tips, but if it’s too low you’ll get fret buzz, so check for that too.
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 10 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.
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. Practice will eventually lead to competence. Get strummin’ and have fun!