From the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY MAMIE MINCH
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part series on shopping for a used guitar.
When shopping for your next guitar, there are plenty of reasons to consider buying something pre-owned. If you’re shopping for value, you stand to get more for your money in the category of used. And, of course, if you’re in the market for a vintage sound and look, there’s no substitute for the real thing. With a few tricks, you can feel confident heading out into the world of used-guitar shopping. In this three-part series, I’ll give you some perspective on how to decide what you’re looking for, how to find it, and how to feel good about the money you’ll spend.
So, how do you decide what you’re shopping for? Well, what are you interested in? Are you a rank beginner whose only requirement is an instrument that’s playable? Or do you have a crush on a specific guitar, like a 1940s Gibson J-45 with a banner headstock? I would suggest starting with an idea of what you would love to find, and playing as many instruments as possible. This will help you know what feels natural in your hands—and pleasing to your ears—as well as what you can expect to pay. Don’t rush the process. You’ll learn a lot just by checking around and seeing what’s out there—and if needed, adjusting your idea of what you’re shopping for.
Where should you look for used guitars? You can visit a vintage guitar dealer, try to find a private sale, or bid in an auction. Of course, getting a guitar in your hands and playing it is ideal. This will give you a chance to see whether you really like it, and whether it’s a good example of its model. For instance, two 1965 Martin D-18s won’t feel or sound exactly the same.
The internet is a great resource, and you’ll find lots for sale on eBay, Reverb, and the like, but you’ll want to make sure that the seller has good communication skills and allows for returns if the guitar is not as promised or if you simply don’t like it. Wherever you’re shopping, you’ll want to know how to inspect a used or vintage guitar, and I’ll talk more about that process in the next installment.
By the way, you can pretty much count on not getting a one-off, insanely good deal. We’ve all heard the stories, but those days are over thanks to the internet. With a little time, any seller can figure out fair market value for their instrument, so plan on paying a reasonable and comparable amount for that guitar in your area.
Don’t forget—you will likely need to put some money into repairing an old guitar, so figure that into your budget. (I’ll go into more detail regarding this later in this series.) To start with, most older guitars will need at least a setup—a truss-rod tweak and a saddle-height or nut-slot adjustment—so set aside at least $65 for that. Many instruments will need a lot more, like crack repairs, a neck reset, or a re-fret. If you buy a guitar in a private sale you will generally get the best deal, but consider why it’s being sold. Does it need work that the owner doesn’t want to bother with or doesn’t even know about?
This is one of the advantages of shopping at a vintage guitar dealer—they usually have a repair department. It’s true that there will be a markup at a vintage dealer, but it’s not a mystery what you’re paying for. They have sourced a guitar they thought was interesting and marketable, and fixed it as needed, because a piece that’s in good shape commands a higher price than one requiring restoration.
A dealer should be upfront with you about what they know about a guitar, including what work it’s had done or might still need. Here is where you’ll go with your gut instinct. Have you heard good things about a particular dealer? Do you like the way they answer your questions, and do you feel trusting of them? You should! Their business depends on you feeling good about the transaction. For a certain kind of shopper, one with a little more to spend and who is looking for some assurance along with their new old guitar, a vintage dealer can be a good choice.
In fact, simply going to visit a shop, whether it’s a vintage dealer or a neighborhood music store, really should be in your plans. Don’t just sit at home and look online! Talking to people who know a lot about guitars is so valuable. For example, say you love an older small-bodied mahogany Martin, like a 00-15, but can’t find one you can afford. A dealer in a brick-and-mortar store can help suggest a wonderful substitute, like a Guild M-20, the guitar that Nick Drake famously played.
Over the next two installments, I’ll talk about buying a used guitar that needs repairs—as so many of them do. We’ll cover what tools are useful in inspecting a guitar, what repairs are easily handled, and some common issues to look out for. Stay tuned!
Mamie Minch is the co-owner of Brooklyn Lutherie and an active blues player. brooklynlutherie.com
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.