You are currently viewing What to Look For When Buying Used Guitars? – Used Guitar Buying Guide

Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by Teemu Suomala

reveals one of the experienced guitar players who write for guitaristnextdoor.com

Author: DL Shepherd

Darren has been playing guitar for over 23 years. He fronted the metal band Suddenly Silence in the early 2000’s, and also achieved recognition as an award-winning bluegrass guitarist.

A native of southwestern Virginia, and has shared the stage with many big-name acts from various genres. When he is not playing one of his many guitars, he can be found riding his Harley through the mountains of Virginia.

photo reveals owner of guitaristnextdoor.com

Editing & Research: Teemu Suomala

I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I love guitars and have played dozens and dozens of different guitars through different amps and pedals over the years, and also, building a website interested me, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website.

I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have also been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as SongsterrMusicnotesGuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar.

I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog (I guess that went the right way…).

We’ve all been there: pawn shops, flea markets, the “used” section at the local music store. All of these places can be a great source of high-quality instruments. Some have been lovingly cared for while others look as if they’ve been through a war. 

I spend a lot of time going through used guitars and I have found some really good deals.

  • I once scored an Ibanez SR500 bass for $80.
  • I also found an Ibanez RG321MH for $150 (with a case)
  • And I stumbled on an all-solid-wood 1980s Aspen A-128S (Martin D-28 copy) for $80.

These guitars are still in my collection today and I play them regularly. (You can see what guitars I own currently and what I have owned here. Many of them have been buyed used.

Before you go buying up every piece of gear that catches your eye, be aware that there are some things that you need to keep in mind. There are things that you need to look out for when you are looking at used guitars that will keep you from buying something that isn’t easily fixed. Believe it or not, most used instrument brokers don’t repair or restore used equipment – they sell it “as is”. Therefore, you need to know what you’re looking at before you throw cash at it. 

Here are some tips about buying used guitars that will help you out the next time you’re considering something that seems like a deal that is too good to be true (it probably is). 

Recommended read:

Anatomy of An Acoustic Guitar

Anatomy of Electric Guitar

9 Things to Look For When Buying Used Guitars

1. Neck

The first thing that you should look at is the neck. Make sure the neck is straight with no bends or warps. A warped neck can mean that the guitar was stored with a lot of tension on one side or the other. This can make the guitar unplayable and cannot be fixed cheaply (sometimes requiring a neck replacement). 

Look at the guitar from the headstock and down the neck. Everything should be straight all the way to the body. If you see some slight upward bend, it may just need a slight truss rod adjustment. As a general rule, the straighter the neck, the better. 

If you see a warp or a twist, I would recommend that you pass on it to save yourself the trouble.


2. Neck Joint

displays Heel & Neck Joint of an acoustic guitar

With both electric and acoustic guitars, you need to check the neck joint where the neck meets the body. Inspect the area for cracks since it can be a high-tension area. For acoustic guitars, make sure that there is no gap between the neck and the body. A gap indicates that the neck has been under very high tension (probably from using very heavy strings). If you see a gap there, go ahead and pass on it. 

For electric guitars, the neck may be set into a pocket using glue only (set neck) or bolts (bolt-on). It may even be a neck-thru style with no real joint there. You need to look for cracks in the wood. These can appear around the bolt heads on the back of the body of the guitar, at the corners of the pocket, or even on the heel of the neck itself.

Remember that small cracks will usually turn into big cracks!


3. Headstock

Displays a Headstock of electric guitar

Inspect the headstock and the tuners. The tuners should feel solidly attached to the headstock with no wiggle room. Headstocks are often accidentally knocked around so it is a good idea to check for any cracks especially around the tuners. 

Many guitars (Gibson Les Pauls, for example) tend to break around the headstock right at the nut. It is a good idea to check this area for cracks or evidence of a repair. If it was repaired, ask if it was repaired professionally. 

While you’re up there, inspect the nut of the guitar for any cracks. Electric guitars with a locking nut can sometimes develop cracks near the bolts on the rear of the neck, so check there. Make sure the nut looks smooth.


4. Fretboard

displays Fretboard of an acoustic guitar

Look down the neck from the headstock and inspect the fretboard for uneveness, worn spots, and other damage. Closely inspect the frets by pulling the strings to the side. If the frets are excessively worn, pass on it. 

Check the edges of the frets by carefully running your hand up the sides of the fretboard. It should feel smooth with no sharp places. If you feel the frets catching your hand, the fingerboard wood may have shrank and exposed the fret edges. This can be fixed by dressing the frets, so it is up to you whether you want to put the extra time into it. 

If the neck has binding around it, be sure that it is not detaching from the edge of the fretboard.


5. Action

displays action of a guitar

If the neck looks straight and the frets are in good shape, you can now check the action. Typically, a little action is acceptable. However, a guitar with a high action can indicate problems with the bridge/saddle, neck, nut, or even an issue with the guitar top (acoustics). 

A guitar with the action set too low will suffer from buzzing, poor sustain, or general poor tone. This can usually be adjusted with a professional setup. If you have experience setting up your own guitars, then you’ll be able to judge whether or not you can fix it. 

You’re looking for a uniform action for all strings. It would be a good idea to have a means of measuring the action (like a string action gauge) to see if it needs to be adjusted one way or the other.


6. Bridge and Saddle

displays bridge of an electric guitar

Electric guitar bridges are typically made of metal, but things can still go wrong. Some electric guitar bridges are fixed and others have tremolo bridges that move. You want to look at the bridge and make sure that everything looks correct. Make sure that all of the parts are there – some guitar bridges have a lot of small parts and pieces that can be easy to miss. 

Check the saddles to make sure there are no obvious burrs or imperfections. Make sure that they are not worn. Also check the set screws to be sure that the heads and threads aren’t damaged. This can make setting up the guitar very difficult. 

For tremolo bridges, the top of the bridge should be parallel to the top of the guitar. If it isn’t, check to make sure that the springs are not stretched out (meaning they’ll need replacing). These are located in the cavity on the back of the guitar. Sometimes they will simply need a readjustment. 

Check our full guitar bridge types guide here.

displays bridge of an acoustic guitar

For acoustic guitars, you need to make sure that the bridge is fitting against the top of the guitar. If you see any gaps, this indicates a problem with the bridge or the top that may not be repaired easily. Check the saddle for cracks. Also, check to make sure it is not too high or too low. If it has been sanded down as low as it will go, this could indicate a problem.


7. Body

displays Soundboard & top of an acoustic guitar

Lastly, inspect the body. If the guitar has been played, you’ll probably notice some surface scratches or dings. Remember, this is a used guitar and not a new one. Don’t be too picky about the small things. Sometimes, a good buff will take out a lot of the surface scratches. If the scratch goes all the way to the wood or into the wood, use caution – especially on acoustic guitars.

  • For electric guitars, checking the body is pretty simple. This is because they are not nearly as fragile as acoustic guitars. If you don’t mind a few scratches and dings, then you’re usually ok. 
  • For acoustics, however, you need to look a little closer. Use a mirror or the camera on your phone and place it in the soundhole if you can. Look for any bracing that appears loose or cracked.

Push down on the top lightly and release. You shouldn’t hear any scratching or creaking. This could indicate a broken or cracked brace. If the guitar has been advertised with a solid top, be sure it isn’t a laminate top. You can usually tell by running your finger around the inside edge of the sound hole to feel the wood grain. The wood grain will go all the way to the edge on a solid top while it will generally feel smoother on a laminate top.


8. Sound

displays a guitar player playing a guitar

Obviously, you want to make sure that the guitar sounds good before you buy it. Before you start putting it through its paces, make sure you inspect the strings to find out if they are new or old. This can have a major impact on how the guitar will sound. If I know that I’m going to be looking at a used guitar, I always bring a set of strings with me just in case I need to put them on for a test run. 

Once you’re satisfied with the strings, its time to give it a test. The first thing that I like to do is test the tuners to be sure that they are working properly. This can be done by tuning a string to pitch, detuning it, and then tuning it back to pitch. This lets you know if the tuners are slipping or not. 

I then play a combination of chords and scales. I attempt to use every spot on the neck for both. I check for buzzing, dead spots, and fret burrs by doing scales all the way up the neck. I’ll throw in string bends too (this really helps find burrs on frets). 

If it is an electric guitar, plug it in and see how it sounds. Make sure that the input jack is tight and that the cable isn’t easily pulled out. This could indicate a worn jack that needs replaced. Check the pickup switch and volume/tone pots. They should not produce any scratching sounds when moved. If they do, they may need to be cleaned. If you hear a loud buzzing or popping, you may ask to take a look at the electronics cavity to check the wiring. 

All wiring should be neat with little to no splicing and the solder joints should look shiny. If not, then there is most likely an issue with the wiring that needs some attention. 

For acoustic guitars, you can use the same techniques without the worry of electronics.


9. Playability

displays a guitar player playing an acoustic guitar

This one is huge and often overlooked. I am guilty of overlooking this one myself simply because of getting caught up in the moment while playing a guitar that I thought I really wanted. You really want to make sure the guitar is something that you actually enjoy playing. In other words, is the neck too thin or too thick? Is the fingerboard radius too much? Does it feel overly stiff or overly flabby? Does the action kill your fingers?

These are all things that will effect how much you will play the guitar. Make sure that it plays up to your standards or you could end up selling it yourself or hanging it on your wall for decoration. 

If it doesn’t play well, then you’ll never get your money’s worth out of it!


Pros and Cons of Buying Used Guitar

Pros

  • Lower cost
  • A chance to own discontinued models
  • Great tone
  • Craftsmanship

Cons

  • May need repairs which cost money
  • May have finish imperfections or dings

Used Electric Guitar Buyer’s Checklist

  • Check the neck
  • Check the neck joint
  • Check out the headstock and nut
  • Inspect the fretboard and frets
  • Check the action
  • Inspect the bridge and saddles
  • Look over the guitar body
  • Plug it in and play it! 
  • Take note of how it feels when you play it
  • Use the pickup switch and volume & tone knobs to hear if there is any unwanted noise

Used Acoustic Guitar Buyer’s Checklist

  • Check the neck
  • Inspect the neck joint
  • Check the headstock and nut
  • Inspect the fretboard and frets
  • Check the action
  • Inspect the bridge and saddle
  • Closely check the body and listen for loose bracing
  • Play it and see how it sounds
  • Note how it feels and plays
  • If the acoustic guitar has electronics, play it plugged in if possible and check if the tuner works.

FAQ

Is it Wise To Buy Used Guitars?

Buying used guitars is certainly wise if you do your homework and know what to look for. Once you learn how to tell if a guitar is good, buying used guitars can be a great way to get some awesome guitars for a fraction of the money.

I know of some people who buy and sell used guitars to make a little extra money on the side. It can be a fun and lucrative side hussle as long as you don’t become like some of us and want to keep everything you get your hands on. 

Even if you don’t plan on buying and selling for a living, then you can get some really good gear if you know what to look for. Just be cautious!

Where to Buy Used Acoustic and Electric Guitars?

You can find used guitars locally at pawn shops, flea markets, and music stores that take in used instruments on trade. These are great places to find used guitars because you can actually inspect them in person and play them. 

You can also find used guitars locally by checking out yardsale pages on Facebook. You can ask to see the guitar before buying to ensure that you aren’t getting a lemon. Beware of scams that require you to pay money up front before you see the guitar in person. 

Reverb.com is a great website for used guitars as well. It requires sellers to be verified before they list their instruments for sale which adds purchase protection. Sweetwater.com and Musiciansfriend.com are two online retailers that have used guitars for sell as well. They have a solid reputation in the industry and provide a lot of details on the guitar (ex. Guitar has a light scratch on the upper horn, slight belt rash on back, etc.). 

How to Negotiate a Better Price on Used Guitars?

As a former sales professional, I could write an entire series of articles on how to negotiate the price of anything! When it comes down to it, everything is up for negotiation – even new stuff! But we’ll stick to the topic of used guitars for now. 

The first thing that I would recommend is to not show that you’re overly excited. In other words, keep your cool!

If you show the current owner that you’re holding your dream guitar in your hands, they’ll assume that you’ll pay the asking price for it and be reluctant to help you out. 

Make a reasonable offer. Base your offer on the condition of the instrument, the extras, and the amount of setup work you will need to do to it. It is also a good idea to see what the same models are going for on the used market (you can use a site like Reverb.com to check values). The main thing is to try to be fair while pointing out the things that will need to be done to it. Devalue it. Make it seem like the little scratch on the upper horn is a big deal. 

Don’t trash talk it and don’t lie, – simply point out the fair market price, the imperfections, and the things that you feel need to be done in order to make it a playable instrument. Reasonable people will always reason with other reasonable people.

How to Avoid Scammers and Dishonest Sellers?

The old adage of, “If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is,” applies to used guitars as well. As much as we would all like to think that a $300 Gibson Les Paul Standard is a smoking deal, you should approach it with caution. These days, people tend to research their items before they sell them – even if they don’t know what they have in the first place. 

So, you should be on the lookout for deals that seem too good to be true or come with lengthy explanations about why they are selling it. This is a baiting tactic used by many scammers. 

Always ask to play the instrument if it is local to you. You should not get any objections from someone who is truly trying to sell a guitar. Would you buy an automobile without test driving it? The same can be said of guitars.

If you are buying online, try to go to reputable sites such as Reverb.com, ebay.com, or another site with buyer protection. This will help keep sellers honest and hold them accountable if they misrepresent their item in any way. 

Stay away from places like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace unless you can contact the seller and play it in person. I don’t recommend buying a guitar from the marketplace if it has to be shipped. There is simply not enough protection for your money. And besides, if it is damaged during shipping, who pays for the damages? The water can get a little murky in these types of transactions. I would rather buy from a reputable website that protects both the buyer and the seller. 

Just watch carefully and never assume that something is not a scam! Scammers are good at what they do!

How To Know if The Guitar is Low-Quality?

The best way to tell if a guitar is low quality is to play it if possible. Putting your hands on it before deciding to purchase is worth a thousand pictures. If you cannot play it, ask the seller for more photos or video of it being played. 

If the guitar has modifications (pickups changed, new bridge, headstock repair, etc.), ask the seller to provide the details. Was the work professionally done? 

Ask to see close up pictures of the neck joint, bridge, and headstock. These areas are prone to cracks and separation due to tension. Ask for pictures of the action. Anyone who is serious about selling a guitar should understand that you are simply trying to learn as much as you can about it before making a decision. 

It also helps to research the guitar in question to see if it was a high-quality guitar when it was brand new. Some models are prone to certain issues. Even high-end guitars have issues (Gibson Les Paul headstocks break like toothpicks). Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions!


Conclusion on What to Look For When Buying Used Guitars

Used guitars can open up a new world (or an old one) to many players. Sometimes buying used is the only way to get models that have been discontinued by the manufacturer. Used guitars can be a lot of fun, and there are some really good buys out there. 

There are also some horrible buys out there. Just remember that scammers will prey on people who know very little. It is important to know what to look for when you are checking out used guitars. It will save you a lot of time and money in the future. 

By using caution and carefully inspecting every inch of the guitar, you’ll be able to make an informed decision. Many of us have learned the hard way – don’t make the same mistakes that we did! 

So, get out there and explore your local pawn shops, garage sales, and used music stores. You might just find your next dream guitar for a fraction of what it would cost you brand new! 

Good luck, and happy picking from all of us at guitaristnextdoor.com. 

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Teemu Suomala

I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I also noticed that most guitar websites don’t do a really good job, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website. I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as Songsterr, Musicnotes, GuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar. I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog(I guess that went the right way…). Expertise: guitar learning techniques, electric guitars, and guitar amplifiers. You can connect with me on LinkedIn or just email me.

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