How to Buy a Used Acoustic Guitar

Willie Nelson's Guitar Trigger

Ooooooooh, don’t you dare turn up your nose at used guitars. That’s precisely the reverse of what you should be thinking. If you offered me two guitars, exactly the same except one was brand spankin’ new and the other had been gently played for the past 30 years, I’d pay more for the used one. Let me give you eight reasons why.

1. The wood ages and the sound matures, bringing out overtones you never knew existed.

When you buy a new acoustic guitar you need to be very careful the first several years that they don’t dry out or get too much humidity. Why? The wood hasn’t settled into its cured state yet. Curing of wood is so very important that done right the wood goes for a pretty penny. The old forest wood that is being pulled up from the bottom of the Great Lakes is prohibitively expensive. Some believe that Stradivarius aged his wood under water so that the cells would lose moisture slower and also be affected by anaerobic bacteria. Personally I haven’t got time to wait, so I’ll go with a used guitar. Now maybe you can’t tell the difference, but you will be able to tell the difference in the next item.

2. Used guitars are generally a lot cheaper, 50% less than what they retail for isn’t uncommon. The PK30 from Tacoma sells for $1469 US online, you can get it from guitarweb on Ebay with a cosmetic finish flaw for $749. That’s a practically new guitar. My 1979 Flyde Orsino cost me $300. New that guitar is $1500. To get the tone that my 25 year old guitar has you’d have to spend $2000-3000. All those numbers are retail folks.

That brings up an interesting point, I classify “used” guitars into four categories: old used, new used, refurbished, needs work to play.

Here is how I break them down:

Old used is at least 10 years old. These guitars have a history. They weren’t turned over just because a new model came out. Most have been gently played or played and forgotten. This is where I recommend you buy. The best bargains are here.

New used is less than five years old. “I bought it for my son and he lost interest” guitars fall into this category. “I thought a better guitar would make me play better” guitars fall in here too. Generally these are low to mid range guitars. Still you can find some decent bargains in here too.

Refurbished guitars are factory seconds or used trade in guitars that have been fixed by a reputable dealer like my friends at guitarweb on Ebay. You can find some great deals on very recent models at places like this. If you go this EBay route, look for a seller with lots and lots of positive feedback.

Needs work to play is something you should just steer clear of, unless you find a 1943 Martin that needs a new neck for $200. Buy it and take it to your local guitar shop to be fixed. The other time you might buy a guitar like this is if you are looking for a specialty guitar. For instance an old archtop Jazz guitar could be had for next to nothing. Take that into a luthier to have the neck reset for a couple of hundred bucks and you could have a real gem.

3. Most guitars don’t get used that much in the first place. More people give up rather than stick to playing. I have no idea what the actual numbers are, but I’m sure there are more guitars in basements, under beds, in attics that aren’t being played than there are guitars being played. Wouldn’t that be nice to find an old Fender Strat that was only driven to church on Sundays by a little old lady?

4. The design of the guitar hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the past 30 years. Not that I need to elaborate on this one, but aside from pickups, not much else has changed.

5. There is something satisfying about bringing the guitar home, taking off the strings, vacuuming out the inside, cleaning the fretboard and body, restringing with fresh new strings and hearing that first chord.

6. Used guitars are not like used cars. Used guitars are like vintage wine or cigars, they get better with age.

For instance, this will link you to a page with a 1943 Martin that is listed for $9000. Click on over to the next page and you’ll see one listed for $135,000.

7. There are woods available in older guitars that are no longer available. Brazilian Rosewood for example, is only available now in three piece backs. Why? Because all that can be logged now are Brazilian Rosewood stumps. True you can find really high end guitars that have solid Brazilian backs, but if you are reading this article you probably aren’t looking to spend six grand for a guitar.

8. Older guitars are often handmade. Why is that better? Because each individual unit was examined by hand every step of the way. Sometimes cutting to laser precision doesn’t make the best sound out of a naturally grown piece of wood. Luthiers used to tap the tops and listen to make sure the tone was right all over the top and they still do in high end guitars. That doesn’t happen in an assembly line factory.

Okay, let’s pretend I convinced you. What do you need to check to make sure the guitar is in good working condition? Well here is a list of 10 things to check.

  1. How does it look? Does it look like it was well taken care of? Does it look like it was well played but still in good shape? If a guitar was well cared for it shows. I like mine to look slightly played in, so I know a guitarist was caring for it.
  2. How does it sound? Play every note on every fret of every string. Make sure it doesn’t fret out. Could be a sign of needing a fret job, or worse yet a neck reset. If you bend strings, bend ’em and check out the sound. Pay attention to all of the frets, not just the ones you play. Pay special attention to the ones at the sound hole end of the fret board.
  3. Speaking of the neck here are five handy dandy tests.
    a. Sight down the neck from the side. The neck should appear pretty straight. A little bit bowed is okay, a lot is not. A hump where the fretboard meets the body is a good reason to put the guitar down. Also make sure the neck is not twisted from side to side.
    b. Hold down the low E string at the 1st and 12th fret, or wherever the neck meets the body. Now look at the 6th fret, can you just barely see light? If you think you could fit a first string under you are good. Any space greater than a 6th string and you need some setup work, possibly a neck reset if the action is too great and there isn’t enough saddle or bridge. See comment below
    c. Gently push the neck to and fro, up and down; it shouldn’t give at all. It may flex a little, but the neck socket should be like a rock.
    d. Look at the neck joint at the body, it should be flush.
    e. Look at the joint of the fretboard and the top, it should fit snug.
  4. Check to make sure the neck has a truss rod. Reinforced is okay, truss rod is better.
  5. Check out the space directly in front of and behind the bridge. Both sides should be relatively flat. If the back bulges up a lot behind the bridge, or sinks in front, put the guitar back. A symptom of this is very high action. Some bulge and sinking is to be expected, but the distortion should be less than half of the bridge height.
  6. Speaking of action, how is the action at the 12th fret? Is it how you like it? If not, see number 7.
  7. Check out the bridge and saddle. Is there any room for the saddle to be lowered? Is there any room for the bridge to be lowered? If both have been lowered as much as they can be, it’s a sign the neck probably needs to be reset. The saddle shouldn’t have big grooves in it either, that’s another sign of a desperate need for a neck reset.
  8. Little cracks are not a problem, big cracks are. Use your best judgment. They are cheap to fix.
  9. Push down lightly on the top all over and listen for creaking. If it creaks one of your braces may be unglued.
  10. Listen to it. Try to disregard the strings, they are probably older than dirt. Does it sound like a new set of strings would make it sing? If you really think you might buy it, ask the shop to put on some new strings. If they won’t, buy a set yourself and put them on. $4 spent to test the thing isn’t much.

Some of the problems above may be acceptable to you. I sometimes buy good guitars with necks that are coming off the body. I know ahead of time that a neck reset($200-300), or new frets($10 each), or a top crack($50) is going to be necessary and bargain accordingly.

What are some good brands to look for? Well, to each their own, but here is what I look for:

Lesser know names: Fylde, Grammer, Springhill-(Fender), Mossman pre-’76, Weymann, Marwin, National, Vega, Washburn (30s and 40s)

Better known: Guild, Epiphone or Epi – archtops, Kay archtops, Gretsch, Yamaha LL series, Gibson, Takamine – (high end only), Alvarez – (high end only)

Well known (and hard to find a bargain): Martin, Taylor

High end but sometimes a good deal: Everett, C. Fox, Froggy Bottom, Lowden, Huss and Dalton, Northwood, Lakewood, Brook, McIlroy, Breedlove

Probably should steer clear: Any old Ovation, but there are exceptions. In general plastic doesn’t age as well as wood. I do love the new ones though. If you find a refurb, that might be a great deal.

Not even if you paid me: Any acoustic Fender from the mid 70s with a Strat headstock, huge neck block and broomstick support inside.

And two more I just wouldn’t buy: Any old used twelve string. New used maybe, but the string tension over time is a force to be reckoned with. Any laminate top guitar. What’s the point? Laminate tops are strong, so strong they don’t really improve their tone with age. If you are just looking for a knockabout, this may still appeal to you.

Where should you go to get them?

Here are my favorites:

Looking to save a buck or two on a new used guitar? Can you live with a crack repair, bridge reglue, finish defect? If yes head to guitarweb on EBay. 5157 positive feedback ratings can’t be a fluke. They go through cycles on guitar brands, Gretsch is really popular now, Garrison was a week or two ago, Takamine is ever present and some good deals on Tacomas can be had. They also have a large selection of Electrics and inexpensive acoustics.

Strictly high end guitars – Shoreline Acoustic Music. Looking to step up to a better quality guitar? This is definitely a must browse site. Shoreline has McIlroy, Taylor, Martin, Lakewood, Brook, Fylde, Northwood and whatever anyone has traded in. Some great deals, (don’t confuse great deals with dirt cheap, these are high end guitars), can be found on their Dutch auction page.

All types of guitars can be found at Elderly Instruments. Got $135,000 burning a hole in your pocket? Well they have a Martin for you. Elderly also has guitars for $200 so you should be able to find a vintage guitar in your price range. Elderly does the best job of describing the condition of their guitars that I have ever seen.

Buffalo Brothers has a nice selection of mid to high end guitars and includes a special section for lefties.

Did I hear you say you want a bargain? You want something off-beat or maybe just a fun place to shop? Go to Fat Dawg’s World Famous Subway Guitars. Not only do they have a little of everything, they have good prices and a great return policy.

One other choice you might want to consider is a pawn shop. If you’d like to learn more go and read A-Js article Where to Find Great Prices.

I hope this helps you in your quest for ancient tone.

Good luck and if you have questions, I’m just a forum away.