11 Tips for Buying a Used Electric Guitar

Questions to Ask Yourself and the Seller When Buying a Used Electric Guitar

Buying a used electric guitar is in many ways no different than buying a new one in that there are many fine used guitars for sale, and you want to find the guitar that is right for you in terms of look, sound, price, ease of play, and comfort. The biggest difference, of course, is that with a used electric guitar you are buying a guitar with a past, and if you aren’t careful you could end up buying a lemon.

For experienced guitar players this isn’t so much of a problem, but first time guitar buyers risk making an unwise purchase if they aren’t prepared.

Generally buying an electric guitar from a local music store is far less risky than buying from a stranger, especially if the store has been in business for a while and has a good reputation. If a business has spent years of hard work building up a business and developing a positive reputation, it isn’t too likely they’ve achieved that by selling customers second-hand electric guitars that are in poor condition

With strangers, the trust factor is virtually nil, at least to start. While there are many honest people out there selling used electric guitars in good condition, there are many who aren’t honest. That’s why knowledge is power and protection. If you are buying a used electric guitar for the first time – from a stranger, a music store or wherever, -- prepare yourself ahead of time with the following tips and you’ll decrease the chances of you making a bad purchase.

As you read the tips below, keep in mind that some problems like intonation or slight bowing occur in virtually every guitar at some point. Luckily having an electric guitar serviced isn’t that expensive: where I live in Maine it costs about $20-$30 and includes minor adjustments to the neck, frets, action, and intonation if needed. In fact, any time you buy a used electric guitar, it’s a good idea to have it serviced.

Having said that— the tips.

1. Check the guitar for cracks, especially along the neck and the area between the neck and the head, which is the weakest spot on an electric guitar. Cracks in the finish are cosmetic and aside from their unsightliness, not a big concern. Structural cracks could result in the neck completely breaking. Finish cracks can run in any direction, but structural cracks tend to follow the grain of the wood and may fissure.

Realize that scratches, dents and wear to the finish are normal: the guitar is used after all. If you watched the Super Bowl halftime show, you might have noticed the finish on the back of Bruce Springsteen’s Fender Telecaster is worn to the wood. Unless such flaws bother you aesthetically, they don’t pose a problem.

2. Sight check the guitar’s neck to make sure it isn’t warped or bowed. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to hold the guitar at eye-level, once with the guitar’s body closest to you and again with the neck head closest to you, and look down either side of the neck. It should be straight. If the guitar neck is slightly bowed or warped, adjusting the truss rod should fix the problem and absent any other problems, isn’t a major concern. In fact, it’s a common problem. If the warping or bowing is pronounced and has been that way for some time, the neck may need to be replaced.

3. Check the intonation. This is tricky for beginner guitar players who haven’t yet learned how to play harmonics. Play a harmonic at the 12 fret and then on the same string, play the note at the 12 fret and compare. If one sounds higher or lower than the other, the intonation is off. Do this for every string. For accuracy, it’s best to use a guitar tuner to compare.

4. Check the action. For electric guitar, standard action is 6/64 in. on the sixth string and 4/64 in. on the first string (measured from the bottom of the string to the top of the fret.) You won’t be able to judge this with your eye, so just be aware the strings should not touch the frets, nor should they be so high it hurts your hand to fret the notes.

5. The strings should not rattle, buzz, or mute when played, no matter if the guitar is plugged or unplugged. The frets should not be loose.

6. Plug in to make sure the pick-ups and the pick-up selector switch work as well as the tone and volume knobs. There shouldn’t be any pops or humming, nor should the sound cut in and out.

7. Ask the seller how long he’s owned the guitar and if he bought it new or used.

8. Ask if the guitar is still under warranty, and if so, is that warranty transferable.

9. Ask the seller if any work has been done on the guitar, and if so, why.

10. Before checking out the guitar, do some research on the make and model. Is it still available or has it been discontinued? Read customer reviews. Check e-bay, Craigslist, and any other classified venues to see if anyone else is selling the same make and model and for how much. This will help you determine if the seller’s asking price is too much (don’t be afraid to negotiate), too little (good deal!) or at market value.

11. Last, remember what I said in tip #1. Used electric guitars are going to show varying degrees of wear and tear and may need minor adjustments. If you find an electric guitar that has no major problems and feels and plays like it belongs in your hands, buy it!