I got a text from a parent earlier today. She was at a yard sale and came across an electric guitar for $20. Should she buy it? Great deal? Utter garbage? How can you know? Here's a few tips to help you on your used instrument purchasing journey. This article is mostly geared towards the well intentioned parent with little musical knowledge. 

       Before anything else factors in, you have to know who made the guitar. The brand and model of the guitar 
       makes more of a difference in the value than anything else. I can't run through every brand and model here,     

       but here are some basics. 

1. First Act
Though they also make high end guitars, almost every First Act that you'll see was bought at Wal-mart. 
2. Fender Starcaster
Though Fender is a great brand, the Starcaster is their bottom-level guitar often sold at CostCo and Target. 
3. Daisy Rock
You're paying for gimmick and aesthetics in these guitars that are marketed towards young girls. 
4. Silvertone
This is Walmart, Costco, Sams, and Target's current brand of choice. 

There are always flunks out there, but these are generally good, safe brands. Here are just a few of the good guys:
*Fender                            *Gibson
*Ibanez                             *PRS
*Taylor                              *Martin
*Seagull                            *Alvarez
*Epiphone                         *Takamine
*Gretsch                           *Jackson
*Peavey                            *Squier, by Fender
*Washburn                        *Yamaha

That says it all. Even without any musical knowledge you can tell if something looks cheaply made and of poor quality. If it looks like it would be at home in your kids playroom, walk away. 

Look for things on the guitar that may have problems but are easy fixes. This will help you knock the price of a guitar down and you can remedy most of these problems for a few bucks and a few minutes of work. 

1. Strings
If it's missing a string or the strings or rusty and old, use this to your advantage. It's an easy way to talk down the price and strings can cost as low as $4 for an entire new set. 

2. Input Jack
Look at the input jack. This is the part of the guitar where you plug in the guitar cable. On budget guitars this is normally the first thing to go. You can pick up a new jack for a couple of bucks and if you're handy with a soldering iron fix it within minutes. If not, you can get it repaired at a shop for about $5. If the jack feels loose, there's a good chance it has either already shorted out or will do so soon. 

3. Plug it in!
Plug in the guitar and see how everything sounds (more on this below). If there isn't an amp or a way to test it, be sure to drive the price down. Since you are buying it without knowing if the electronics work, you are taking a leap of faith and hoping that everything works out. Most problems are easy fixes, but the seller doesn't need to know that!

4. Electronics
If you have the opportunity to plug in the guitar and test it, do it! Even if you don't know anything about guitar, you can see if it makes noise. Turn the knobs all the way to ten to make sure each one works. Volume knobs control volume (obviously) and tone knobs control the frequency/tone of the guitar. As you turn a tone knob you should hear the guitar adding bass or treble (lower or higher) or getting fuller or thinner sounding as you play the strings. If you turn the knobs and hear crackling, this is a problem to bring up with the seller. 

Test the pickup selector. This is the switch that should have 3-5 positions on it. Each position should make the guitar sound a little different (much like the tone knob). Make sure there isn't any crackling or popping when switching through the pickup selector. You can replace all the electronics on a guitar for about $30. It will cost a bit more if you take it to a shop. 90% of a time if there's a problem with the electronics it's the input jack and this is the easiest and cheapest ($5) fix. If the guitar doesn't play or cuts in and out, this is a great way to drive down the price.

5. Fretboard
This is the part of the guitars where the fingers press down the strings. Look at the fret wires. These are the metal wires running vertically up and down the fretboard. Do they look rusted or grimy? Run your hand over the top and bottom of the neck. Do any of the frets stick out? Are there sharp edges? The frets should be smooth and easy on the hands. These are dealbreakers. Fixing rough frets is not a cheap, easy fix. If the neck has a rough feel or look to it, pass on the guitar. 

6. Playability
This is where it helps to play a little guitar or have someone with you that does. Get your student to teach you a few easy notes or take her along with you for the ride. The action of the guitar (how far the strings are from the fretboard) is what you are looking for. If the action is bad, it's normally a pretty easy fix in the right set of capable hands. Look for fret buzz on the early frets or anywhere up the guitar. Play each fret on each string and make sure there aren't any frets that make buzzing noises. Fret buzz can be indicative of many different problems. Some of them are quick. painless fixes others are expensive and time consuming.

7. Hardware
This is usually all of the metal pieces on an electric guitar and can include the nut and bridge (where the strings rest on either end) on an acoustic. First make sure there are no cracks in the nut or bridge (where the strings are held). Though this is a relatively cheap fix ($25) it will dramatically effect the playability of the guitar if not repaired. Even a small crack or scratch can turn into something major with all of the vibrations of the string over time. Check the tuners on the head of the guitar. Do they turn easily? Are they too loose? Use your best judgment here. Tuners should feel nice and smooth. 

Look for rust on any of the metal parts. This is an easy way to drive down the price and a toothbrush and a little elbow grease can fix the problem in a few minutes. Check out the strap buttons. This is where the strap is held onto the guitar. Make sure they are tight and don't feel loose. If your student plays with a strap the weight of your entire purchase is literally riding on these two small buttons. 

8. Overall Aesthetics
How does the guitar look? Are there any nicks or scratches on it? Is it not the right color for you? These are easy ways to drive down the price. If there is a very noticeable scratch or nick on the guitar, be sure that it won't affect playability or get worse. You can always sand down the guitar and repaint it, but most times you'll be stuck with whatever the paint looks like. Personally, I like a guitar with a little character to it. But when negotiating price, be sure to point out every flaw that you see in the guitar finish. If it's a green guitar and your son really wanted blue, mention that! With a motivated seller you can probably get it a little cheaper because it's the 'wrong color'. 

9. Accessories
What comes with it? Common accessories include a strap, picks, tuner, amp, guitar stand, guitar cable, etc. Most of the time these come in package deals and are of extremely poor quality, so make sure you see what these look like and don't simply rejoice because they're included. You may just be buying someone else's junk in a package deal. Also keep in mind that there are things that you may need if it's just a guitar: amp, strap, cable, etc. If it doesn't include these items, use this as a way to talk down the price. 

                           Closing Tips

1. Fender can be a tricky brand, because they license their name and sell a lot of guitars. They all basically look the same, but the build quality can be drastically different.  As a whole, I would stay away from Starcasters and Squier Bullets unless you get them for around $25. 
Here is a rough (certainly not all inclusive) guide from worst to best with an approximate price tag for a new instrument:

$80 - Fender Starcaster
$109 - Fender Squier Bullet
$179 - Fender Squier Affinity
$229 - Fender Squier Standard
$499 - Fender MIM: Made in Mexico (also referred to as the Standard Strat)
$729 - Fender Highway One
$1000 - Fender American

2. Most guitars can be decent guitars if the price is right and you understand what you're buying. If you pay $15 for a Fender Starcaster in pretty good shape then you've gotten a good deal! But, it's still not a great guitar. It is definitely playable and may be a good starter instrument for your student but you will be upgrading again in the future. I LOVE to buy cheap guitars, fix any small problems they have, give them a good setup and pair of strings, and put them back on the market. It's great to be able to repurpose something and make it useful. 

3. Google it! Most phones have internet on them these days. Use it! Look up the brand and model of the guitar and see how much it's worth new. This will give you a better idea of what you're up against. 

4. Ask around. Feel free to Contact Me (use the contact tab above) or current students can call/text me any time. Sometimes you have time to research and other times you have to make a decision on the spot. Current students can feel free to call/text me for advice. If you're not a current student, find someone reliable that you can trust to give you advice if you need it in a hurry. 

5. Plan to take it to a guitar shop for a basic setup. Most shops will charge about $25 and it is well worth the money. They will look it over and make it play, sound, and feel as great as it possibly can. This is also a great opportunity to throw on some new strings. Be sure to factor this into the cost of the guitar and maybe even use it to haggle. If the action or strings are bad, mention to the seller that you'll have to take it top a shop to get it setup and that costs money. 

So, there you go! Hopefully not as scary as you thought. I think that almost any guitar can be a good buy if the price is right. If you have any questions or thoughts or think I can add something else to the list leave a comment below!
7/9/2014 11:53:17 am

I bought my guitar from a pawn store 5 years back and its still working good.

7/10/2014 09:07:14 am

I highly recommend against buying a used guitar if you don't play yourself, its similar to buying a used car without being able to test drive it. It's possible to do well, but your main objective isn't really to get a good deal it's to buy a good guitar. A car that's a "mechanic's special" might be a good deal for a mechanic but for a regular driver it's a money pit.

I have about two years of experience buying/repairing/selling guitars from garage sales and Craigslist. I have currently have 20 electric guitars and basses in my collection and I've owned over 40 during this time period.

11/20/2015 10:35:45 am

Yes i don"t have a drivers L. So if you could do me a huge faver and find me or if you have one you could sell me for a very good price i would trust in you! to send it to me! It would be a Gibson L.P or a Made in the U.S.A. on both these guitars! I have been playing for 47yrs. and im 53 yrs old now and i sure as hell would just love to get me hands back on to a real guitar again! Thanks. Clinton. PH 1-.616-233-0997

2/9/2016 08:14:02 am

This article is mostly geared towards the well intentioned parent with little musical knowledge.


As I can afford a completely new guitar with the high quality, your article definitely help me much to find the most suitable used one. Your suggested tips are quite details and helpful. I will bring them with me to choose the best used guitar ever. Thank a lot!

7/7/2016 02:54:16 pm

Thank for your advice, it's really helpful for me

7/13/2016 08:07:33 am

Many thanks for this information. I chose this site is one of my favorite. Keep up the good work!

8/9/2016 09:02:36 am

Will definately start browsing some local garage/estate sales. Thanks for the tips!


This article is mostly geared towards the well intentioned parent with little musical knowledge.


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