8 Things to Look for When Buying A Used Guitar | Acoustics and Electrics

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By Guitar Pick Reviews

The process of buying a used guitar is a very personal matter. This has to do with the fact everybody has their own taste. There’s no accounting for taste! That’s why it’s important to follow your instincts when buying a used guitar. 

The guitar will be an extension of yourself to transfer your ideas, emotions, and feelings to the instrument and create the most beautiful music. Aside from taste, there are a couple of technical things to look out for when buying a used guitar. We’re describing them one by one below. 

General Tips for Buying A Used Guitar 

First, take a look at what a new guitar will cost. This helps you to decide what you’re willing to spend on a second-hand guitar. Also, keep in mind the costs of refurbishing the guitar or buying a new set of strings. Dig into different brands of guitars to find out which brands will retain their quality and value. 

A used Gibson guitar
Used Gibson guitars usually hold their value pretty well

Fender, Ibanez, and Gibson are generally good examples. When the brand Tanglewood introduced a new series of acoustic guitars, at first it seemed to be a fantastic guitar. However, soon after it proved to have a high wear on the frets, which often caused the frets to be replaced after one year. When buying a second-hand guitar like this, it’s almost always a bad buy.

Why Would You Buy A Used Guitar?

There are many reasons to at least consider a used over a new guitar. Whether you’re trying to save on your first guitar, upgrading, or even if you want to add a new guitar to your collection.

First of all, there’s the price. A used guitar will usually cost a lot less than a new one, and negotiating with the seller can get the price even lower. Another reason can be if you want a guitar made in a specific year or a model that’s no longer in production. Some players think that guitars get better as time goes by, so they prefer used guitars over new ones. One more reason could be that you played it, and just had to have it. I may sound weird, but rarely, you play a guitar and instantly feel inspired. In this case, you might as well offer to buy it.

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Things Look for When Buying A Used Guitar

Here are a few things that might be wrong with a used guitar, that you should definitely look at before buying it.

#1: Did The Neck Lose Its Shape?

The neck of the guitar allows you to play notes and takes the strings from the body to the head of the guitar. The strings put a lot of tension on the neck which creates a small (and desirable) curve in it. If there’s something wrong with the neck it could be twisted, convex, or concave. This could result in the strings sitting too far from the neck, or too close which could create fret buzz because a string is hitting one, two, or even worse, all frets. 

It's important to inspect the neck of a used guitar before buying it
It’s important to inspect the neck of a used guitar before buying it

Sometimes it’s only a matter of adjusting the truss rod, but other times there’s more going on. In which case it’s recommendable to consult a guitar repairman.

You can check if the neck is properly adjusted yourself: 

 Press down on the first fret with your left hand, and press down on the last one with your right hand. Now check if there is space between the neck and strings at the eighth fret (about the thickness of a sheet of paper). The space should be the same for all frets. If that’s not the case the neck is curved.

It’s also possible to look down the neck of the guitar from the head towards the body. If you look closely you can tell if the neck is straight or not.

#2: What’s The Top Made Of? (On Acoustics)

The top of the guitar is an important part of the sound and resonance of the guitar. The bridge is also fitted on the top. The sound is influenced by the material of the top. This could be plastic, laminated wood, or solid wood. As a rule, a solid wood top is preferable over a laminated one. 

An acoustic guitar top made of solid wood is preferable over one made of laminated wood
An acoustic guitar top made of solid wood is preferable over one made of laminated wood

This is because the top has the best resonance when it’s made out of a solid piece of wood and not by pressing layers of wood together with a laminated wood print layer on top. The best way to spot a solid wood top is by looking at the side of the sound hole. When the top is solid you can often see the nerves extending at the side. With a laminated top, you can often see the layers.  

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#3: What’s The Condition Of The Tuning Pegs?

The tuning pegs of a guitar are fitted on the head of the guitar. They’re used to tune the guitar. Try turning the pegs to make sure they’re moving smoothly without creaking and squeaking. Also, check if the pegs retain the tension on the strings. 

The tuning pegs are one of the things you should check when you are buying a used guitar
The tuning pegs are one of the things you should check when you are buying a used guitar

Sometimes the pegs are releasing the tension of the strings. It’s possible to replace the tuning pegs on a guitar. Depending on the quality you choose it will cost you somewhere between 25 and 150 dollars. 

#4: Are The Strings Still In Good Shape? 

As a rule of thumb, the strings on an electric or acoustic guitar last about 25 playing hours. After that, you can still use them but the sound degrades step by step. There are also coated strings. These last longer (Elixer, Ernie Ball, and other brands produce coated strings). When buying a second-hand guitar you need to check the state of the strings as well. 

Dirty guitar strings
Would you really check the sound of a guitar with strings that are this dirty?

Sometimes a guitar will sound very dull. However, If old strings are fitted this is almost logical. The best way to evaluate the sound of the guitar it’s best to fit a new set of strings. You can try to discuss this with the seller. If they’re not willing to change the string, don’t worry. Clean the strings and they should be in good enough condition for you to have an idea of what the guitar sounds like. 

#5: Are The Frets Worn? 

If a guitar has been used over a longer period of time the frets will wear down. This is caused by the pressing of the strings on the frets. Over time this wears down the frets causing irregulates. This is a common problem with the beginning of fret buzz. Sometimes it can be fixed by adjusting the neck. 

The downside of this is the strings will sit further away from the neck and playing the guitar will be harder. But even then it’s a matter of time before the frets have to be resurfaced or replaced. You should pay extra attention to this when buying a second-hand guitar. 

Worn down guitar frets could be very expensive to fix

When the frets are worn down it might seem like a bargain, but you’ll soon find out you’ll have to put in a lot of money to fix it. The resurfacing of the frets often starts above 100 dollars.

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#6: Is The Output Jack Noisy? (On Electrics and Electric Acoustics)

If there’s one thing you don’t want your electric guitar to do, is to make noise every time you slightly move. Always properly inspect the output jack when it’s plugged into an amp. Play with the cable and make sure the connection is silent.

A guitar output jack
A guitar output jack

If it’s noisy, it’s most likely a matter of weak soldering, but it could also be something more serious. If you feel adventurous, you can get this guitar, but make sure to reflect this noise in the price.

#7: Are The Knobs and Switches Silent And Working? (On Electric Guitars)

While the guitar is plugged in, twist the knobs and switch pickups. Even though noisy knobs are easy to fix, it might indicate that the guitar wasn’t properly treated. That being said, if noisy knobs are the only problem the guitar has, you can probably let it slide and fix the noisy knobs by yourself.

Volume and tone knobs of an electric guitar
Volume and tone knobs of an electric guitar

#8: Overall Condition

Is it clean? Are there hits or dents? Is the finish still intact? Ask questions about the last setup: When was it done, and who performed it? This type of question will give you a good indication of how well it was taken care of.

Things to do After You Bought a Used Guitar

No matter how well it was taken care of, or even if it never left the case. When you get a used guitar, there are two things you should do.

Set Up The Guitar

Setting up a guitar is essential for many reasons, but it’s even more important when you just bought a used one. A guitar setup is personal, and it changes based on your style of playing, so make sure to adjust your guitar to the way you want to play. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but you can definitely try to save a few $100s every year by setting up your own guitar or just take it to your guitar tech.

A guitar setup includes changing the strings and proper cleanup, so it is, essentially, all you got to do.

Change the Strings

If you decided not to set up the guitar (or decided to do it later) and the seller didn’t change the strings when you inspected the guitar, you probably want to change them yourself. The old strings are most likely well past their prime, and you want to skip playing strings that contain someone else’s grime.

Deep Clean

A good cleanup is part of any guitar setup, but since it was recently owned by someone else – you want to invest some more effort in the first cleanup. After all, it has someone else’s sweat.

Final Thoughts

Having a new guitar is exciting, even if it’s used. If you followed the above suggestions, you got yourself a great guitar. Enjoy it, treat it well, and get inspired!

If you have other tips for buying used guitars, post them in the comments below. See you next time!

Additional Resources

Here’s a great video that covers some points for buying a used guitar: