From the March 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY MAMIE MINCH
When you’re searching for a new-to-you guitar, it pays to be curious about all aspects of your potential instrument’s well-being. So far in this series, I’ve talked about ways to shop for vintage or used guitars: doing a basic once-over to find any issues, scrutinizing a neck, what to think about cracks and seam separations, how to tell if a bridge needs to be re-glued, and what a difference a refret can make.
In this installment I’d like to talk about a couple of ways to get deep when assessing a guitar. First, have a peek inside the body. It’s helpful to bring a mirror and flashlight along when you go to look at a guitar. Think about it like popping the hood on a car—if you know what you’re looking at, you can tell a lot.
As always, the prices I mention are a general range. Costs can vary—a lot—depending on where you live and the proficiency of your tech. Don’t be tempted to bargain shop when getting a repair quote! Repairs are like tattoos: you get what you pay for.
One big reason I look inside acoustic guitars is to check out the bridge plate. This piece of wood—often maple, but sometimes rosewood or another wood—reinforces the top and plays an important role in a guitar’s sound and sturdiness.
When you look at a bridge plate, you want to see the strings’ ball ends and the bridge pins popping down through holes that are clean and circular. Sometimes you see a bad pattern of wear. It could be because a softer wood was used to make the bridge plate or because of how it’s been handled. The holes can be ragged or worn, and the wood between them may have been gouged away.
Sometimes, if a bridge that’s pulling up goes unglued for a long time, the bridge plate will actually split. If the wear is bad, it may need to be repaired or replaced. This could cost anywhere between $75 and $400, because removing a bridge plate is tough and can be unpredictable.
Check out the rest of the inside of the box. If there are cracks, you’ll be able to see if cleats—thin wooden patches—have been used. A couple of cleats and a neatly repaired crack or seam separation are not the end of the world. These fixes generally don’t affect the sound, and you can tell something about the quality of work a guitar has endured by having a look at how neatly this has been done.
The last thing I want to cover is neck angle, and whether a guitar might need a neck reset. Of course, over time, strings put lots of tension on a guitar. Certain things are bound to give to that tension, and, as the angle of a neck pulls forward and the slight arch built into a guitar’s back flattens out, you might find that the action gets higher and higher. Sometimes, problems are easy to spot: a very short saddle or a bridge that has been shaved down reveals that a previous repairperson tried to fudge things and lower the action without resetting the neck. The guitar won’t sound as good as it could; the break angle over the strings will be shallow and the strings won’t vibrate the top as much as they should.
Here’s a quick way to get a general idea of neck angle, but it only works with a pretty straight neck and a full-height bridge. Take an 18-inch straightedge and lay it along the fretboard so that the end touches the bridge. If it sits just on top of the bridge, or almost does, that’s probably a pretty good angle. If it dives towards the top, the angle is too forward, or shallow, and the guitar could need a neck reset.
Don’t let these words make you feel panicked: lots of great guitars, including most vintage Martins, end up needing their neck angle reset over the course of their life. Thinking about price, remember that a reset is a major repair, and some shops always do a refret at the same time. This makes it a hard repair to price, as it could run anywhere from $350 to $1,000.
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Even with a repair or two to consider, you still stand to get more for your money when shopping used or vintage. And of course, you can’t reproduce the mojo of a cool old guitar. Hopefully this guide helps you find the perfect, broken-in guitar of your dreams.
Mamie Minch is the co-owner of Brooklyn Lutherie and an active blues player. brooklynlutherie.com