From the February 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY MAMIE MINCH
So you’ve been shopping for your new favorite old guitar, and you’ve done everything right: You’ve got an idea in mind of what kind of guitar you’re looking for, you did some research to get a feel for what things cost in your area, and you’ve started to look at guitars that could work for you. Here are some techniques to help you determine what kind of work a used guitar might require once you bring it home. Remember, pretty much every guitar will need at least a setup (running generally between $60 and $100), so roll that in to your budget from the get-go. A note: The prices I mention below are a general idea and can vary—a lot—depending on where you live and the experience level of your tech. If you are tempted to bargain shop when getting a repair quote, don’t simply hire the lowest bidder! You will get the repair you pay for, especially in the case of a vintage guitar.
So to start, give the guitar a…
Hold the guitar in your hands, and really have a look at the top, back, and sides. Finish can tell us a story about what’s happened to the guitar; you can see if it’s been damaged by moisture or an impact. Does the finish look pretty consistent? Do any dings or flaky areas catch the eye?
Are there any gaping cracks or seam separations in the body? If the exposed wood isn’t dark and the two sides haven’t warped away from each other—an indication of being open for a long time—cracks are not the end of the world. Likewise, a neatly repaired seam or crack doesn’t worry me too much. If seams are open or there are cracks in need of repair, you’ll need to add $50–$150 to your repair bill.
Have a look at the bridge. Is it glued down firmly? Try to slide a piece of paper under the back edge and corners. If it goes under any part of the bridge at all, the bridge needs to be removed and re-glued. This crucial repair cannot wait. If you don’t have a solid glue joint, the sound will suffer, and the top will be stressed and pulled in ways that it wasn’t built to withstand. I recommend keeping the tension off of a guitar until this repair can be done. Imagine adding $150–$300 to your repair bill.
Next, look at the neck joint. Does anything look out of place? Is the finish chipping or discolored along the bottom edge of the heel? This could reveal a previous neck reset, which is not such a bad thing if it was neatly done—it means you don’t have to pay for it! Lots of guitars, including almost all vintage Martins, will need a neck reset in their lifetime. I’ll talk more about how to spot a future neck reset in the next column.
Now let’s talk about the neck—a crucial element in a guitar’s health. A bit of relief is nothing to worry about, but a lot of relief, a twist, or a rollercoaster up and down are potentially deal breakers. There are a couple of ways to look for a neck’s straightness. Here’s what I do first: I set the lower bout of a guitar down in front of me, and, pointing the neck right at me, I lift the headstock up to one eye. Closing the other eye, I sight along the neck, using foreshortening to see how straight each side of the neck is. This helps to see big irregularities, dips, humps, and slopes.
If you have a hard time getting this to work for you or want a more precise take, come prepared with an 18-inch straightedge and lay it along the tops of the frets while the guitar is strung up to tension. You’ll be able to see how much relief is in the neck. A good aim is to be able to slip a 0.010-inch feeler gauge under the string at the eighth fret. You and your luthier can tweak it from there.
PLAY THE DARN THING
If all looks acceptable to you, here’s your chance—sit with the guitar and play some tunes. Bring what you need to give it a good test drive: your favorite pick, a capo, perhaps a generous friend who can sit across from you and tell you how it sounds out in the room. Ask the guitar to do all the things you wish it would, and take note of any ways it falls short. Here is a good chance to get a feel for the neck, and to see how healthy the frets are. If there are a couple of high or low ones, a fret-dress will likely work, and cost you somewhere from $50 to $150, but if they’ve been played flat and dressed a couple of times already, it’s time to replace them. A refret is more expensive if your fingerboard is bound, or is made of maple or a very brittle ebony, so it would likely cost between $250 and $600.
Next time, I’ll talk about checking out what’s inside the box—braces, bridge plate—to help you shop for a hearty guitar. I’ll also cover how to tell if a guitar has a healthy neck angle—and whether you might need to commission a neck reset for it!
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Mamie Minch is the co-owner of Brooklyn Lutherie and an active blues player. She is the former head of repair at Retrofret Vintage Guitars.