(Note: After reading this article, you’ll want to be sure to check out my book – “Guitars Gone Bad!” on Amazon.)

I’ve been flipping guitars and doing guitar tech work for years. I think I’d be considered a savvy guitar buyer. I try to buy guitars in good condition, just like you and everyone else would.

I carefully inspect each guitar from end to end. I look closely for headstock issues, fretboard separation issues, fret wear, signs of abuse, etc.

I use the E strings as a straight edge to check the neck. I check truss rod cover and control cavity plates for wear that would indicate someone had been messing around with the innards, and I question the seller closely.

So what do you think my success rate is? What percentage of the guitars I buy need little to no work? What do you think your percentage is?

OK, I’ll go first!

# of Problems% of Guitars
“Success” rate of an experienced buyer

Being a data-geek from my previous life as a programmer/database guru, I entered all the data from the whiteboards I’ve kept on guitars I’ve bought to refurb, setup and resell.

I was honestly surprised at just how many problems these guitars had and the seriousness of many of these issues.

I think some people doubted me when I said I spent an average of two to four hours getting each guitar ready to sell. Now, I can show the actual data.

If you’re no better than I am at buying used guitars, it’s safe to say (from the table at left) that 75% of your guitar buys will have between 4 and 8 problems that will have to be addressed before the guitar will play its best.

You’ll have a roughly equal chance that your new-to-you guitar will have fewer than 4 or more than 8 problems.

If you’re looking to buy your first used guitar, you honestly don’t have a chance on the Craigslist / Marketplace / OfferUp marketplaces, flea markets, etc.

This data represents hundreds of guitars I’ve bought to resell. I track the work I do on each guitar with a whiteboard. When I’ve finished the guitar, I take a photo of the whiteboard.

I finally got around to entering all the data (up through last December) into a database where I could put these tables together.

Pickups6Non-functioning or excessive corrosion or mounting issues
Electrical35Required soldering, parts replacement or had noise
Neck Relief64Was 50% or more out of spec
Nut52Required slot filing, shim or replacement
Saddle Heights77More than 10% out of spec
Pickup Pole Heights54More than 1/32″ out of spec
Neck Angle11Unable to properly adjust with saddle screws (shim required) or neck twist
Fret Wear20Excessive fret wear affecting playability
Frets Level331 or more frets high or low causing buzz or loss of tone
Fret Ends28Sharp fret ends causing discomfort during play
Truss Rod2Worn, stripped or frozen truss rod – unable to adjust
Hardware56Loose or missing screws or nuts at tuners, bridge, tailpiece, neck plate, etc.
Output Jack30Loose output jack or connection issues
Even new guitars tended to have from 2 to 4 of the above issues

I track more issues than this, but I didn’t enter things like proper bridge float, etc. that don’t apply to every guitar. Also, since nearly every guitar required tuning, new strings and intonation, I didn’t show those issues here either.

Some things, like neck relief, torquing proper tension on tuning key nuts, neck plate bolts, etc., are fairly simple adjustments if you know what you’re doing and use the correct tools.

Other things such as filing nut slots & level & crowning require a bit of know-how and specialized (and pricey) tools that even the experienced guitar player is unlikely to have.

Here’s an example of my white board. Red = problem; Black = OK; Blue = Change

If you have the tools and know-how and enjoy working on guitars like I do, then you don’t really mind these “little problems”. But if you’re someone looking to buy a used guitar to learn to play, let this be a WARNING!

Newbie Used-Guitar-Buying Advice

Yes, you can safely buy a used guitar, but you have to know how. If you buy a used guitar from a brick-and-mortar store such as Guitar Center, Sam Ash, etc. or one of their web-based presence like MusiciansFriend.com, you must understand that they do not check used guitars out and they definitely do not set them up!

They’re getting their used guitars from basically the same people I get the from and those guitars are going to have the same problems at the same rates as in the charts above.

The employee listing the used guitar for sale may not know any more than you do about used guitars. They certainly aren’t likely to take the time to check the guitar out (even if they knew how) and list its problems in the ad.

And when you get the guitar home and realize that it’s hard to play (yes, guitars can be a bit difficult, but not half as difficult as most used guitars are!), the store clerk isn’t likely to have much empathy for you.

They may offer a setup and strings ($50 to $80) but big-store setups aren’t known to be great. And would you have bought that $150 used guitar is you knew up front that you’d have to spend so much more money to make it decent?

The secret (for inexperienced guitar buyers and non-techs) is to buy from a mom-and-pop shop that has a good guitar tech. Hopefully, that tech has gone through the guitar and fixed all the problems and set the guitar up for correct and easy playing.

I won’t sell even a $99 guitar until I’ve gone through it end-to-end to make sure it has “good bones”, level frets, etc. and I install new strings give it a thorough, professional setup then play-test to ensure that my customer gets a used guitar worthy of all the time and effort they’ll put into it with their practice and play time.

There are others like me throughout my local area and possibly even online. I’m just beginning to put more effort into my online sales, and I may find others out in the “webiverse” who take their craft seriously.

guitar setup whiteboard
Whiteboard for the very next guitar I setup after writing this article

After writing this post, I picked what appeared to be a quick, easy setup guitar and documented, step-by-step, everything I did to the guitar. It’s guitar #38746 (I stamp my own serial numbers into guitars I sell, for warranty purposes) shown on the whiteboard above. Follow along with me step-by-step as I detail everything I do while preparing a guitar for sale in this, my latest article (click).

Motivation to Offer Great Used Guitars

I could tell dozens of similar stories, but let me tell you about a young lady who works two jobs to support her two children. Both jobs are fast-food places. She drives a used car that seems like it’s held together with baling wire and hope.

She saved up $120 to buy a used guitar for her daughter from Marketplace. She brought the guitar to me to install new strings and show her how to tune it.

After looking the guitar over, I had to tell her that the guitar wasn’t worth a set of strings; was essentially unplayable (string heights were nearly half an inch!) and that she’d wasted her money.

It was a cheap, old acoustic guitar with a bowed neck, domed top, cracked nut and seriously worn frets. Oh, and no truss rod!

I felt bad for her and told her I’d take the guitar in trade as a down payment for a Squier Strat and a 10 watt amplifier, for which I’d accept $150 in payments. The Squier had new strings, pro setup, etc. and I gave her a 1-year repair-or-replace warranty.

It took a couple months, but she did pay me in full and I never had to remind her. I wouldn’t have taken the junk acoustic, but I didn’t want her to think charity was involved.

I haven’t heard more from her, but I do hope her daughter is practicing and enjoying the guitar.

Checkout my current used guitar inventory and feel free to ask me questions.