Working at a repair shop (SF Guitarworks) in the Bay Area for nearly three years taught me a lot about buying used instruments. Occasionally we would have customers bring in seamlessly innocent second-hand guitars (maybe encouraged to purchase them by enthusiastic sales people or well-meaning friends), only to find out that the bridge was coming off and therefore in need of dire repair. It was our job to spread the gospel truth of guitar repair, but how could we also teach beginners and professionals alike how to shop for used instruments? In this article, I will discuss some of the most common problems of used instruments to help you avoid a potential money sink.

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Watch Out For Fret Wear (and Resulting High Action)

Most guitars (unless specially made) come with nickel fretwire frets. When you purchase a guitar brand new, a fret top is rounded like the top of a mushroom. Overtime, the frets can become worn down and develop “divets” or small marks that will impact the resulting sound. Sometimes people will think this to mean that the neck is moving in a backbow like fashion and then address the problem by raising the action (adjusting the truss rod, shimming or raising the saddle, shimming the nut, etc.). However, the divets are a result of a greater problem, which is that the frets are simply wearing out. Usually in a repair shop, this can be addressed by doing a fret level (either on a neck jig or modern CNC technology like the Plek).

Most used, vintage instruments will have some type of fret wear unless they have been worked on in the past. And even if there isn’t any sign of fret wear, the frets may still be uneven (due to temperature changes, uneven placement during assembly, and so on). The trick with this one is to try out the guitar and make sure notes rings out clearly without any dead spots. Be sure to play the instrument in its ideal setting (an electric should be played plugged in, so you aren’t hitting the note harder to compensate for volume). An instrument in good condition will play cleanly up and down the neck, especially with barre chords, without the action being too high. It’s important to remember that uneven frets don’t spell the end for the instrument. Ideally, if you are about to drop $1000 on a used Taylor, you probably won’t want to drop an additional few hundred dollars to get the frets fixed. The unfortunate part about fret unevenness is that it can happen with new instruments as well, so it’s always good to take your instrument for a test run when you are considering the purchase.

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Check The Placement of the Bridge

Acoustic instruments have a few hundred pounds of tension on the neck of the instrument. Over time, this can cause the neck to become underset, which results in a very costly, time-consuming repair. However, sometimes it isn’t a neck reset that the guitar needs; rather, the bridge is beginning to pull up and come off. Take a small piece of paper (the width of a business card or post-it note) and run it along the length of the back of the bridge; if it slips under the bridge of the instrument, it’s a good sign that the bridge is lifting. Maybe the bridge has been like that for many years and won’t move any further. Most likely, it will need to be removed, cleaned up and re-glued properly. This is fairly common on old acoustics and if the neck angle is correct, could be the culprit of any high action.

It is also good practice to get in the habit of checking the placement of a bridge on an electric instrument. Sometimes, people would come to me and say “my guitar doesn’t intonate properly.” My usual answer for this would be “it needs to be set-up” but in rare cases, the bridge may be in the wrong location. You can use a straight age, like a yard stick, and measure along the high E string from the nut to the 12th fret; double that measurement and that should be where your bridge sits.

Look For Signs of Dodgy Repair

One of the most common repairs in the industry is the “Gibson headstock repair.” Go ahead and Google it right now – you’ll see a variety of Les Pauls, 335’s and J-50s that have unfortunately experienced this break. The joint where the headstock and the neck meet is responsible for holding the weight of the body and is therefore under quite a lot of strain. It is in your best interest, when finding a sweet deal on a Gibson model, to make sure that this repair was done soundly or that you can have it evaluated with a repair technician with some type of return guarantee from where you are buying it from. It is almost completely impossible to cover up this repair unless the guitar has been refinished. The repair should be completely solid to avoid further complication.

Other repairs to look out for deal with the condition of nuts and saddles (especially on acoustics). If they are so low, the strings are barely breaking angle, be aware that this might be a sign that the instrument is in need of a neck reset and that the previous owner might have delayed this by sanding down the nut and saddle for lower action. Unless the guitar neck bolts on, neck resets can be costly and time consuming.

Does the Instrument Make Weird Noises?

This one is funny because obviously, it’s a guitar so it should make some noise. However, odd or unusual noises to watch out for are the following:

  • Tap the back of the neck gently with your thumb. Do you hear a metallic rattling noise? This is often the sign of a broken truss rod, which may be rattling around inside the shaft of the neck. A broken truss rod means you will not be able to adjust the relief of the neck. If the action is already very high, the only way to circumnavigate this problem would be to act as if the truss rod isn’t there (and hope that a heat press will fix the excess relief) or replace the truss rod.
  • Check the tuning machines by tapping on the guitar headstock gently. Is there any type of rattling or metallic noise? It may be indicative of broken machines. This isn’t a huge problem to replace, unless the tuner profile is old and you don’t want to worry about drilling holes for a different type of tuning machine.
  • Gently tap the back of an acoustic guitar. Is there any type of dead thudding sound? This could be a sign that the braces are loose. This is not a big issue to fix but if many of the back braces are disconnected, it could compromise the stability of the instrument.

Buying a used instrument should be something satisfying and not stressful. There’s nothing more frustrating than buying something you think looks cool but ends up being a money pit. Hopefully now you are able to buy a guitar with confidence. And remember: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Monique Hernandez-Fuentes is an independent musician based out of San Francisco and writes for GuitarTricks.com.

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