Buyer Checklist

Buying pre-loved, secondhand or merely used is the most cost-effective way, in theory, to grab your dream guitar. Or is it? Used guitars can have numerous ‘issues’ and repairs can be costly. Reviews editor, Dave Burrluck, shows you what to look for…


We’re all obsessed by price, but sometimes the cheapest deal, especially on a used guitar, may end up costing you a lot more in the long run. Like cars, guitars need maintenanc­e – the more they’re played, the more likely things will wear out or stop functionin­g. Buying used from a good dealer should ensure that the guitar has been looked over, restrung and set up. Buying privately or online, however, you’re on your own. Whichever route you choose, it’s time for head over heart. And if you buy blind, you’re open to all sorts of problems – we’d never recommend that, even though plenty of us do it! If you can, play the guitar and adopt a more thorough, cynical approach.


First off, tune up with a tuner and stretch the strings. Double-check your tuning. Play, for example, a root E or A and then, using the low open strings as reference, play inversions up the fingerboar­d. If it sounds a little out of tune, re-check your tuner and repeat. Setting correct intonation is easily done, but double-check that there’s enough adjustment at the saddle, for example, especially on a tune-o-matic bridge, to set your intonation and/or your string height should you need to. Bear in mind, too, that if the strings are old you may get all sorts of stability and intonation problems that are simply cured with a new set. Run your finger under the high E. Does it feel rough? It shouldn’t. Make a mental note of how the tuners themselves feel. Do you hear any little pings as you tune? That could mean the nut isn’t cut properly. String buzz may mean you have a fret problem, the truss rod isn’t set incorrectl­y or the string height is simply too low. If you ask nicely, some shops will restring the guitar for you and re-set action/ intonation. We love these shops!


Modern tuners rarely present problems, but always check. On a sealed unit, the feel of the tuner can be tightened up just by screwing in the flat- or cross-head screw that holds the button to the tuner housing. Bridges can be more problemati­c. Oldstyle wrapover bridges may be sonically efficient but are sometimes impossible to intonate accurately. Adjustment screws can get gunked up or ruined by someone over-tightening the screw and ripping its thread. Check carefully. Don’t try to adjust a rusted screw, for example, on a vintagesty­le Strat saddle or steel-saddled Tele.


Vibratos [1] can be really troublesom­e, so a play-test is essential. Make sure it does what it should do – if the tuning is wildly out after a few waggles, you might have a problem that very much depends on the vibrato system. If all this is sounding out of your comfort zone, again, ask the dealer for advice. If it’s a private seller, beware.

This little piece of plastic, metal or bone can be highly troublesom­e on some used guitars. Quite often, someone has done a little bit of, ahem, DIY and cut the grooves too low with the wrong tools. Replacing a nut isn’t hugely expensive. Bend behind the nut: does the string come back in tune? Are there pings or creaks? Fret a string at the 3rd fret then ping it behind the fret – it should sound clearly and you should be able to see a slight clearance between the underside of the string and the 1st fret. Use that tuner again: does fretting at the 1st actually produce the correct note or is it sharp? If it is sharp, the nut grooves may be too high, or the nut might be in the wrong place. The nut is often the culprit on guitars that don’t stay in tune; the string is catching in the incorrectl­y cut nut

grooves. You can certainly add lubricatio­n (soft pencil lead still takes some beating), but a properly cut groove, which needs specialist files and some know-how, is the only proper cure. FRETS

Take a close look at the frets themselves [2]. Fretwear is going to happen and a full refret, especially on a bound or maple fingerboar­d (which may require refinishin­g), can be expensive. That doesn’t mean you should look elsewhere, you just need to budget for it. If there is visible wear, it’s often possible with a larger gauge wire to lightly dress the fret tops and re-profile them – again, a job for someone who knows what they’re doing. With ‘vintage’ small gauge wire, this might not be possible and a partial or full refret may be needed.


It’s rare that a pickup stops working [3], but far from unheard of. Plug in – check each pickup is working, all very obvious! Likewise, other idiot-checks are the controls and switches – check they work and do what they are supposed to do. Expect some crackles, especially if the guitar hasn’t been used much recently. Rotate controls fast and move switches back and forth. Quite often, this will cure any issues. If not, you might have a problem that can’t be fixed with a squirt of Servisol.

Check any pull-push switches that voice a coil-split, for example. Are the coil-splits actually working? Wiring repairs and mods are easy enough on Strats and Teles as well as the majority of solidbodie­s, for example, but semis such an ES-335 are a lot more involved. That means more skill and time if you do it yourself or a bigger repair bill if you need to employ a tech.


How you set your pickup heights, such as your string gauge and string height [4], is a personal thing. Listen to the guitar plugged in: does the neck pickup seem a lot louder/quieter than the bridge? Simple height adjustment will alter things quite dramatical­ly. Check you can get the approximat­e voicings you’d like, although you should bear in mind that some pickups aren’t height adjustable and some require pickguards or scratchpla­tes to be removed. If the pickups remain vastly unbalanced then it’s possible that some DIY modding has gone on – which is not always a problem, just another thing you may need to sort. Many a good guitar has been ruined, or at least impaired, by an enthusiast­ic amateur who thought they knew better than the original designer.


Condition [5] will have an effect on the price you’ll pay, which can work to your advantage if you’re after a ‘player’. However, things such as headstock breaks, even those that are well repaired, might mean you’ll have difficulty selling on the guitar in the future. Check for finish cracks, too, especially on set-neck guitars where the neck joins the body and around the nut area. If there are any, it might be just a finish crack, but it could potentiall­y be something more serious resulting from impact damage.


Bolt-on necked guitars are wonderfull­y serviceabl­e and, as per the original design, if you have a problem with such a neck, replacemen­t is quite doable, although obviously adds cost. A set-neck guitar presents more of a problem, and checking that all is okay isn’t easy for the inexperien­ced. Sight down the neck from the nut end to the body using the low E string as a straight edge. Do the frets look parallel with each other? Does the neck have a slight concave curve (good), or does the surface look uneven, or even twisted (bad and worse still!)? In playing position, hold the low E at the 1st fret with your left hand and around the 16th fret with your right. Again, with the string as your straight edge you should see a slight gap above the 6th/7th fret and between the underside of the string – around 0.5mm or less. More than that and the guitar might need a slight truss rod (tightening) tweak.

Truss rods aren’t rocket science – any tweaks will be covered by a store selling secondhand – but unless you know what you’re doing, don’t.


Getting a ‘picture’ of the guitar you’re thinking of buying is no bad thing. Think of the car analogy: one careful previous owner or a car used for business travel? We know which we’d go for! A guitar that has been looked after will invariably have less issues compared with one that’s been heavily played and abused.

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