Is it a Guitar Or Firewood?
There are so many hidden pitfalls just waiting to bite you when you’re guitar shopping! I’m talking about total loss possibilities – buying a piece of firewood instead of a guitar!
“Firewood guitars” can look beautiful; they can charm and lure you into a mode of “I’ve just got to have this guitar!”. But you’ll soon regret ever having seen the guitar and you’ll be out all your money, if it’s a “firewood guitar”.
And there are a lot of them out there. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s define a firewood guitar as one that will cost more in time and/or money to turn it into a decent guitar, than it is worth.
For instance, an Affinity Squire, no matter how pretty, is likely not worth fixing if it has a stripped truss rod nut, worn frets, electronic problems or even needs a new nut, unless you’re capable of doing your own repairs.
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You can buy most used Squiers from $100 to $160 or so as they currently sell new for $229. So, if you buy one for $130 and then learn it needs a new nut, was it worth it? I charge $10 for a bone nut and $50 to install and then it will need a setup ($70) and a set of strings. Now you have $260 + strings invested in a used guitar you could have bought new for $230.
There are many worse problems the guitar could have, and we’ll talk about them momentarily, but just how could you have forseen that the nut was bad? With sellers wanting to meet in parking lots, etc., you could easily miss the faint open string buzzing that robs tone, from low nut slots. But I’m going to tell you how you could have detected this problem even in the noisiest of locales.
Stripped Truss Rod
Guitar strings tend to pull up on the headstock, bowing the neck over time and making the guitar uncomfortable to play. A truss rod is intended to counter-balance string tension and is adjustable so as the neck and rod slowly loose this tug-of-war, more tension can be added to keep the neck relatively straight.
One of the most devastating and hardest to detect problems is a stripped truss rod nut. On Squiers, the truss rod cavity is at the headstock and open. But what seller is going to allow you to stick an Allen wrench in there?
Most Squiers take a 4mm Allen wrench to adjust the truss rod. Most Americans have SAE, not metric Allen wrenches. A 5/32″ looks very close, but it’s a tad smaller and likely to strip the Allen screw head. In fact that’s not an uncommon problem.
Other truss rod problems include stripped truss rod threads, broken truss rods and locked-up (“frozen”) truss rods.
So how can you detect a truss rod problem? Ya gotta read this whole article to find out! If your browser detects that you’ve skipped a single word, the secret will remain hidden! OK, I’m kidding, but I think it will be more helpful to put all the inspection how-to’s together at one place then to spread them throughout this article, so hang tight!
If you’re meeting at a parking lot, and you don’t have a portable amp, it can be difficult to detect electrical problems. I had a seller last year who “demo’d” the guitar in his garage but wouldn’t let me play it. I didn’t think much about it and I bought the guitar.
When I got it to the shop, I learned that only the neck pickup worked! Someone had tried to do a “fancy” wiring job and the insides were a mess. I pulled out all the wiring and rewired everything and the guitar played fine. But if you’re not confident in your wiring/soldering skills, you may want to avoid guitars with electrical problems.
I’ll tell you how to detect these problems with and without a portable amp.
Guitar Action Issues
Other than the nut, your guitar’s neck relief and saddle heights are the main factors determining the guitar’s “action” and playability. My guitar inspection guide will tell you how to check these criteria and help you avoid problem guitars.
Guitar Inspection Guide
Slow down! Carefully inspect every inch of the guitar headstock to the bottom strap button. Tune the guitar before taking any of the measurements mentioned below.
- Missing Strings – can hide more serious problems. String prices generally range from about $4 to $7 a set. Why would anyone try to sell a guitar that is missing strings?
- Headstock – Look for signs of abuse. Inspect truss cover screws – if worn, then truss rod has probably been adjusted frequently. Not a good sign.
- Tuner Keys – Look for missing bushing, loose 10mm nuts, missing covers on back. Turn each key slightly back and forth (only slightly). Feel any “slop”? Tuner keys generally cost $25 to $65 but can be a pain to replace. If this is a sub-$300 guitar, it might be better to pass than have to mess with tuner key replacement.
- Neck -Inspect the area where the headstock merges with the neck, especially on angled/tilted back headstock guitars like Gibson, Epiphone and many others. Look to see if the headstock/neck has been broken and repaired. If professionally repaired the guitar should play fine and the repair will last the life of the guitar. But if it’s a DIY repair job or not even repaired, stay clear! Inspect the areas on the sides where the fretboard bonds with the neck and runs under the nut. Many headstock cracks are hard to see in this area. If the guitar has no strings or is not tuned, the seller could be hiding a broken headstock, as the crack often recloses and can be hard to see. Running your fingernail up and down the back of the neck in this area can sometimes help. The outside strings should be parallel to the neck edge but well inside and should not run too close to the edge.
- Nut – the guitar nut is the slotted thing at the top of the fretboard where the neck meets the headstock. It should suspend the strings high enough to not buzz against the first fret, yet low enough to allow accurate intonation (i.e.: where notes are accurate in the first few frets). Fret (hold down) each string at the 3rd fret while tapping the string just over the 1st fret. You should see movement but only slight movement. If you have a string action ruler, fret at the 12th fret and measure each string between the 1st fret and the bottom of the string. It should be no more than .020″ (twenty thousandths) and no less than .010″ for each string. It’s common for the low-E to be close to 20 and the high-e closer to 10. If any strings are outside these measurements, you should probably pass on this guitar. Nothing other than a professional set of nut files (about $100 per set) can properly file down a nut. If the slots are low, you could shim it or use the baking soda/CA glue trick (Google it), but then you’d have to file slots back down a bit, needing those $100 files.
- Frets – I charge $70 for a level/crown job to remove fret wear plus $15 for each fret that must be replaced and another $70 for the setup needed afterward. So, unless you want to add $140+ to your guitar purchase price, stay clear of guitars that show any fret wear. Even a little fret wear is bad because once the grooves have started, instead of randomly spreading contact along the fret top, the strings will find the center of that groove with every strum and fret wear will become exponentially faster. Start with the unwound strings (high-e, etc.) and move each string aside a bit and look closely for fret wear. Do this along the first 8 frets at least.
- Neck Relief/Truss Rod – Fret each E/e string at the first (easier with a capo) and last frets and measure the distance between the 7th or 8th fret (where the deepest point of the curve lies). It should be between 0.010″ and 0.020″. If there is much more than 0.020 (say 0.030 or more), the guitar needs a truss rod adjustment. This isn’t a deal killer by any means, unless the owner appears to be knowledgeable and capable of doing this sort of maintenance. Then, you’d have to wonder why it wasn’t already adjusted. Maybe because of a truss rod problem? If there is no space at all between the bottom of the string and the fret, the neck likely has a backbow due to the truss rod being over-adjusted. Over 0.020″ or under 0.010″, and I’d ask the seller to adjust it right then and there, unless he’ll let you inspect the truss rod and adjust it yourself. Though most take a 4mm Allen wrench, some take 1/8″ or 3/16″ and some take a socket type wrench. Use your flashlight to peer down the truss rod opening and try to ensure the screw hex head has distinct sides and isn’t worn and rounded. If there is more than a few thousandths difference between low-E and high-e relief, the neck has a twist – another good reason to keep on shopping.
- String/Saddle Heights – Knowing the string heights (action) is important. Too high and the guitar will be uncomfortable to play (and hurt you fingers!). Too low and strings will “buzz” along the fret tops and rob you of some of your tone. Fret at the 1st fret (capo is helpful) and measure at the 17th for Fender/Squier style guitars or 12th fret for most Gibson/Epiphone styles. Around 0.070″ at low-E, 0.055 at high-e and roughly 0.065 in-between. Most guitars allow for easy adjustment of string heights BUT if your bridge or saddles are already at maximum or minimum height, your neck has a problem. “Bolt-on” necks (they’re actually “screw-on”) can be shimmed – but is this something you really want to mess with? Neck-thru types are way more serious.
- Sharp Fret Ends – run your hand along each side of the neck and feel the fret ends. Sharp? If so, the guitar will be uncomfortable to play. A 220 or 320 sanding foam block can smooth the fret ends, but if you have fretboard binding, I’d think twice. You also risk scratching a finished neck with this procedure.
- Strap Buttons – Guitar bodies are usually made of soft wood and the screw threads frequently strip out. This is easily fixed by plugging the hole and redrilling as needed, but there are a lot of like-new used guitars out there that don’t need this work. Either use it as a negotiating tool or consider passing.
- Output Jack – Loose output jacks are a common problem and easily remedied on most solid body guitars, but on semi-hollow guitars, not so much! At least use it as a negotiating ploy. If the seller claims “It’s an easy fix.”, you can reply with “Fine. Fix it then. I’ll wait.”
- Floated Bridge – Fender-style bridges should either be “decked” – rear of bridge setting firmly against the guitar body due to tremolo spring tension, or raised slightly – 3/32″ above in a “floated” position. Floyd Rose types should be parallel with the body. Any variations and the guitar needs a setup. (Most guitars need a setup anyway but if you’re buying a sub-$200 used guitar, you’ll probably want to avoid that $70 expense). Beginners should always go with a decked or even hardtailed (immoveable) bridge if the guitar has a tremolo system. LP, SG and Telecaster style guitars do not have moveable bridges and thus no moveable bridge problems to be concerned with.
- Intonation – using your free guitar tuning app such as Guitar Tuna (Android) (iPhone), first be sure the guitar is tuned. Then fret each string at the 3rd fret and pluck the string. The 1st string (high-e) should give a ‘G’; 2nd string (B) should give a ‘D’; 3rd: ‘Bb’; 4th: ‘F’; 5th: ‘C’; 6th: ‘G’ If your tuner shows the note to be much more than 10¢ off, (ten of the tiny lines on your tuner), then the guitar’s intonation is pretty far off. Not necessarily a deal killer if you’re up to adjusting the intonation yourself, but it could also be a sign of other problems.
- High/Low Frets – If you try to fret a note where the next fret up (toward the body) is high, the string will buzz and the note will not ring as clearly as it should. If you fret at a low fret, you’ll have the same problem. A high fret can easily be “dressed” by a guitar tech, but most have minimum bench fees like mine of $35. A low fret would either call for replacement or a level/crown depending on the condition of the other frets. Level/Crown calls for a setup afterward, total fees: $140. That’s not a cost I’d like to add to a $150 guitar! So fret each string starting at the 1st fret and pluck. Repeat all the way up the neck (toward the body) and on each string. Listen carefully. If you’re in a noisy place, use your string action guide or a credit card as a fret rocker; place it on 3 frets at a time near the 1st string and see if it rocks. Repeat at 2nd string, etc. Then move up (toward the body) one fret and repeat.
- Electrical Issues – If you have a portable guitar amp, plug the guitar in and use a 6″ metal ruler or similar to tap each pickup as you set the switch to select it. You should hear the “tap” come through your amp. Twist volume and tone dials back and forth and listen for static which would indicate that the controls need cleaning or maybe even replacement. No amp? If you can get a 1/4 Inch Guitar Instrument Cable Connector, i.e.: “amp plug”, and wire it to an ohm meter, you’ll be able to test the circuits and ensure each pickup is good. Frankly, pickups rarely go bad. It’s usually just the wiring, switch or potentiometer that needs replacing or fixing. None of those parts are expensive, but the work might be unless you can do it yourself. Your ohm meter should read between 4k to 12k ohms for most pickups. Be sure all knobs are turned fully clockwise. A reading of zero ohms would indicate a short and no reading on your meter would indicate an “open” circui – i.e.: broken connection, etc.
- Corrosion – Check pickup poles, saddles, tuner keys, all metal parts for corrosion. Once the plating has been eaten off of a part, there’s no putting it back. Not economically, at least.
- Strings – Even new strings may have a little bit of corrosion, but if there’s very much, the strings will need replacing. String replacement is a fairly easy job on an electric guitar; a bit tougher on most acoustics. Ask yourself, “Is this something I really want to tackle before I can enjoy playing this guitar?”
There’s a ton of nearly new, cheap used guitars out there. Don’t let “Guitar Fever” blind you to a guitar’s flaws. The odds of finding a used guitar that doesn’t need any work at all, (based on my rather strict standards), is zero. But if you’re careful, you can find a deal on a guitar that will need minimal adjustments that you can learn to do by yourself.
If you’re not willing to take the time to carefully inspect, then make adjustments to the guitar after buying, then I suggest you purchase your used guitar from a small shop or work-from-home guitar tech like myself. Most of us will stand behind the guitars we sell and we’ll bend over backwards to make sure you’re happy with your new used guitar. You’ll find my used guitars for sale here.
Want a quick, easy and reliable way to measure string heights as described above? Order my accurate string gauge before the end of April, and I’ll include a printout of this Guitar Inspection Guide for free!
Did I overlook anything? Do you disagree with some of this? Let me hear from you in the comments below.