Tips ‘n’ Tricks For Buying a Used Guitar

Guitar buying is always fun, and some of you have told me that you don’t yet have a guitar, so I thought I would do a little video on buying a used guitar. These tips will also apply to new guitars by the way, but I’ve always loved buying used guitars because you can so often buy a far better instrument used than you would normally be able to afford in your budget if you bought new.

The biggest thing you need to do is to first figure out what you want. Acoustic, electric, classical – those are just the major categories. Within each it gets really complicated – do you want a cutaway, no cutaway, if electric what kind of pickups (single coil or double humbucker)… and the list of options goes on, and on, and on.

How to deal with this? Head down to your local music store and spend an hour playing a whole bunch of different guitars. Try to figure out what you like about each one, and see if anything obvious springs out at you.

Once you’ve got an idea of what you’re looking for, then by all means checkout all options available to you. Last fall I bought my first brand new guitar (the Hagstrom Super Swede I’ve used in many of the videos) – all previous ones were twice-loved. Check the pawn shops, Craigslist, and yes – check the local music shops too. You never know what sort of deals pop up. Online retailers are great for getting a terrific price – Guitar Center often advertises that they give you new guitars at used prices, so that’s worth a look as well.

Regarding buying online, my advice would be that you can save a lot of money by doing so, but you really need to know what you want first. If at all possible, find a guitar of the same make and model you’re considering in a store somewhere and try it out. Once you’re satisfied its the one, then see if you can save money online. That’s cool.

Some key areas of the guitar to check: neck, hardware, electronics, body. Also check the intonation and action, and above all, make sure the guitar is something you’re going to love playing. Nothing is more demotivating than a crappy guitar.

Watch the video for more info on how to check all those things, and if you’re got your own tips, leave them in the comments below.

If this short video wasn’t enough to satisfy your thirst for guitar-buying knowledge, then I highly recommend checking out my friend Colin Daniel’s videos that he’s created on buying an acoustic guitar and buying an electric guitar. Each video is over an hour long, (they’re both free) and you’ll learn a ton if you’re willing to invest the time.

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    1. It’s the shipping that kills us in buying guitars on eBay.
      BUT, it’s not free to drive to the mall, get lunch, so that
      part is by-passed at least.

  1. Great video. I learned some stuff, but I was wondering if you could talk about the different pickups. What is the difference between Humbuckers and single coils?

    1. Type that question into your search engine, and presto! Also, many of the large music firms have explanations for many products.

  2. Good stuff, very useful info, I’m always on the lookout for a nice second hand ax. One day I may run across the one guitar that really catches my eye, & knowing what to look for is a big help.

    1. Be a little careful there, Keith. A guitar “catching your eye” may sound good, and finding one that you are able to play with ease, has no structural defects (and how did they get there?)does require some critical thinking, but to me the critical issue is: is it a well-known brand? These are always easier to sell or trade later if you want a change of pace, or to upgrade. If you get an unknown brand, it may be good (I have one, that I got cheap), but to update later you WILL have a problem. An unknown brand could sit around for a long time before anyone wants it, whereas a Martin (or Gibson, or Yamaha for that matter) could be sold in the middle of the ocean! The exchange privilege given by Musician’s Friend, Music 123, Guitar Center is a nice touch, too, especially if you are not sure what you REALLY like. To buy a guitar for 10 or 20 dollars is one thing…to buy an unknown one for 300-400 dollars does not make sense to me. You are going to “eat it” at some point!

  3. I strongly believe in buying second hand.
    Interesting you should mention, I went to the guitar center first, looked on line for pricing and quality brands and then I spent alot of time traveling and looking in pawn shops for both my acustic and electric.
    Be careful when buying a used acustic. I found that there are alot of abused under cared for acustics more so than good ones.

    On the other hand good quality electrics seem to be more plentiful.

    1. Pawn shop purchases are an interesting subject…I have yet to find a good deal at a pawn shop (at least here in California).
      They want much more than it is worth, and will give you only 30% of what yours is worth, if working a trade. I recently bought a used electric from Musician’s Friend…GOOD deal, exchange privilege, and I can’t find a mark on the guitar! No tax, no shipping, guaranteed, etc. Incidentally, the Goodwill in Seattle, WA has some good deals at times, with accurate descriptions in their postings…nice people, too…and you get to help the dis-advantaged!

  4. I wished I would of seen this video before I got mine as there are some comments in here that I was naive to when I bought mine. Am I happy with my guitar, not like I should be and I find I have to push myself to pick it up quite often. When I can I will be getting another one that I am really happy with. Until then I will practice on this one so I will be better for the new one.
    Thank you for this video, it was awesome. I will be keeping this video on hand for when I get my next one.


    1. Hi Jesse – it might be worth finding a good guitar mechanic locally, and get him to spend an hour setting up your guitar. You’d be amazed at the difference a good setup can make. Lowering the action, adjusting the truss rod, checking the intonation – all things that can make a world of difference to your current guitar.

      1. Thank you very much for all your insights and efforts as they are very much appreciated.
        When I got mine all I wanted was to get back into it after being away from doing it for at least 25 years. I was never great, but used to fool around at parties and matinee shows. However, after watching your video here I wished I had known this then and things would of been different. I guess you live and learn, and that is what life is all about.

  5. Hi Jonathan, You just listed all the good points I’ve been telling my students for years. I guess we have the same rules about buying new and used guitars. Good Lessons! Mike

  6. Wow, you left out a LOT of stuff on the most important part, the neck. Yes, it must be straight and true, but that’s just a starting point. Is it rounded, and how much, or is it a flat fretboard? Is it solid or does it have a rosewood or other fretboard? How wide is the neck, skinny or fat? What is the scale length, and how many frets are there?

    Most important of all, how does it feel in your hand? The best advice I ever saw was to FORGET ALL ABOUT how it looks until you find one that feels good in your hand…

    Probably the number one rookie mistake is to buy something that looks like what person X plays and has a cool paint job, but feels and plays like dirt because all you saw were your dreams. As shorthand, a lot of this condenses down to whether or not your fingers have enough room to move around, is it a cramped neck or does it make you stretch further than your hands can reach?

    If you are a total rookie, don’t overspend… save your money for the NEXT guitar, one you’ll be happy with after you know what it is that you are doing…

    1. I like your comments, Scott, but “whether or not your fingers have enough room to move around…” To me, you fingers will adapt…
      players DO play mandolins! The height of the strings (the “action”) from the fretboard is another story. This can be modified, if necessary, without too much trouble. Some can be adjusted with an adjustable bridge; some may require sanding the bridge saddle a bit, which is not as much a challenge as it sounds. There are numerous sites on YouTube to help you with this, or check with Jonathan. I like to have the height set at about .005″ at fret one (about a human hair) when depressing the string at the 12th fret.

  7. Great stuff there. This makes me think about whether my own brand new guitar has any of these significant issues. One thing that comes to mind is that some of the frets do have indentations from the strings. (since I’ve learned only a few chords, the repeated use of them creates a little rut in the frets.)
    Keep it up Jonathan!

    1. Hey Justin, yeah, wear like that is normal, and shouldn’t be a problem as long as the guitar remains in tune on those frets. You can check this by first making sure the whole guitar is in tune with open strings, and then check the positions that appear worn down to see if those notes are still in tune. As long as they are, you’re good to go. Otherwise, it is possible to get those worked on, and replaced if necessary.

  8. Good advice. I also Ditto Dr T’s RE: I always say Play Play Play every chance you get,even if you only know one or two chords. the more you try different guitars eventually you’ll feel the one that sounds and fits you right….plus if you get into serial #’s you may
    find a real treasure of a vintage guitar at a pawn shop or yard sale but that’s another topic.

    as mentioned previously, be careful in Pawn shops. take a friend who knows what to check. I personally try to support my local small music store but Musicians Friend and Guitar center is very good also. Thanks as usual Johnathan and all of the comments are very good advice.

  9. playability is so important! The difference between my electric
    and acoustic makes me want to trade or sell the acoustic-
    just because the neck thickness and string height. Thanks
    for the tips.

  10. Hi Jonathon, Good Stuff. One thing I have found when looking for a guitar is the WIDTH of the neck. My hubby and I both like guitars with skinny necks. You didn’t appear to mention this in the vid. Very useful advice – keep up the good work – love your vids, they’re always great!

    1. That’s a good point Judi – and that’s something every player has to figure out for themselves, based on the width of their hand. I’ve got an Ibanez electric with a beautifully thin neck…

  11. I just bought a used Les Paul. I had a guitar tech guy at a local shop look it over before I bought it. Turns out it needs some work. You need to know how much work, if any and the cost before you buy. I was able to discount the price to offset the repair cost. Even if the guitar needs no repairs make sure to get it setup properly.

  12. Thanks Jonathan!!! Was timely, in that a friend of mine in GA came across a 1961 Les Paul Gold Top for $2,100 at a yard sale and ask my opinion. I mostly said what kind of music do you want it for, but now am forwarding your video on purchasing a used guitar to him.

    Len/Winter Park, FL

  13. ACTION–ACTION-ACTION—Forget colour,play it listen to it,do your fingers hurt after playin for 30 mins–is it easy to play barre chords—if not dont touch it—Check out for fret wear on the first 5 frets—and once again check the action–right up to 12th fret—-guitar lessons for—ger the GUITARMAN

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