If you were in the market for an acoustic guitar, would you go shopping for new or for used? What would you rather buy, a brand new shiny acoustic guitar, or a guitar that was 30 years old, maybe a few scratches here and there, but well taken care of and always gently played?
This is a great question and one that needs to be addressed, because while many guitar players opt for the shiny new guitar, they may be missing out on what a well cared for aged instrument has to offer...
As wood ages the sound matures, bringing out overtones you never knew existed.
When you buy a new acoustic guitar you need to be very careful the first several years that they don’t dry out or get too much humidity. Why? The wood hasn’t settled into its cured state yet.
Curing of wood is so very important that when it's done right, the wood goes for a pretty penny. The old forest wood that is being pulled up from the bottom of the Great Lakes is prohibitively expensive. Some believe that Stradivarius aged his wood under water so that the cells would lose moisture slower and also be affected by anaerobic bacteria. Personally I haven’t got time to wait, so I’ll go with a used guitar. Maybe you can’t tell the difference right now, but you will be able to tell the difference with some education.
USED GUITAR VALUE:
Used guitars are generally a lot cheaper, 50% less than what they retail for isn’t uncommon. The PK30 from Tacoma sells for $1469 US online, you can get it from guitarweb or on Ebay with a cosmetic finish flaw for $749. That’s a practically new guitar. A 1979 Flyde Orsino cost $300. New that guitar was $1500. To get the tone that a 25 year old guitar has you’d have to spend $2000-3000. All those numbers are retail.
That brings up an interesting point, we can classify “used” guitars into four categories: old used, new used, refurbished, and needs work to play.
USED GUITAR CLASSIFICATION:
- Old used - is at least 10 years old. These guitars have a history. They weren’t turned over just because a new model came out. Most have been gently played or played and forgotten. This is the best class for you to look to buy. The best bargains are here.
- New used - is less than five years old. “I bought it for my son and he lost interest” guitars fall into this category. “I thought a better guitar would make me play better” guitars fall in here too. Generally these are low to mid range guitars. Still you can find some decent bargains in here too.
- Refurbished guitars - are factory seconds or used trade in guitars that have been fixed by a reputable dealer. You can find some great deals on very recent models online. If you go the EBay route, look for a seller with a lot of positive feedback.
- Needs work to play - is something you should just steer clear of, unless you find a 1943 Martin that needs a new neck for $200. Buy it and take it to your local guitar shop to be fixed. The other time you might buy a guitar like this is if you are looking for a specialty guitar. For instance an old archtop Jazz guitar could be had for next to nothing. Take that into a luthier to have the neck reset for a couple of hundred bucks and you could have a real gem.
WHY BUY USED?
GUITARS NEED A HOME:
Most guitars actually don’t get used that much. More people give up rather than stick to playing. I have no idea what the actual numbers are, but I’m sure there are more guitars in basements, under beds, in attics that aren’t being played than there are guitars being played. Wouldn’t that be nice to find an old Fender Strat that was only driven to church on Sundays by a little old lady?
The design of the guitar hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the past 30 years. Not that I need to elaborate on this one, but aside from pickups, not much else has changed.
There is something satisfying about bringing the guitar home, taking off the strings, vacuuming out the inside, cleaning the fret-board and body, restringing with fresh new strings and hearing that first chord.
BETTER WITH AGE:
Used guitars are not like used cars. Used guitars are like vintage wine or cigars, they get better with age. For instance, this will link you to a page with a 1943 Martin that is listed for $9000. Click on over to the next page and you’ll see one listed for $135,000.
There are woods available in older guitars that are no longer available. Brazilian Rosewood for example, is only available now in three piece backs. Why? Because all that can be logged now are Brazilian Rosewood stumps. True you can find really high end guitars that have solid Brazilian backs, but if you are reading this article you probably aren’t looking to spend six grand for a guitar.
QUALITY CAN BE AFFORDABLE:
Older guitars are often handmade. Why is that better? Because each individual guitar was examined by hand every step of the way. Sometimes cutting to laser precision doesn’t make the best sound out of a naturally grown piece of wood. Luthiers used to tap the tops and listen to make sure the tone was right all over the top and they still do in high end guitars. That doesn’t happen in an assembly line factory.
TIME TO SHOP...
Now you're convinced. What do you need to check to make sure the used guitar you've found is in good working condition?
8 THINGS TO CHECK:
#1). How does it look? Examine the entire guitar, what is your gut reaction.
#2). Does it look like it was well taken care of by the current owner? What is the owner like (as a person)? Do they give off the impression of someone who takes care of things they own?
#3). Does it look like it was well played but yet still in good shape? If a guitar was well cared for it shows. I like mine to look slightly played in, so I know a guitarist was both using it and caring for it. This is a lot like buying a used car. A car that is driven is always better than a car that has sat for many years. Driven cars need to be maintained, just like played guitars need to be maintained.
#4). How does it sound? Play every single note on every fret of every string. Make sure it doesn’t fret out or buzz. Could be a sign of needing a fret job, or worse yet a neck reset. If you bend strings, bend ’em and check out the sound. Pay attention to all of the frets, not just the ones you play. Pay special attention to the ones at the sound hole end of the fret board.
#5). Check to make sure the neck has a truss rod. Reinforced is okay, truss rod is better.
#6). Check out the space directly in front of and behind the bridge. Both sides should be relatively flat. If the back bulges up a lot behind the bridge, or sinks in front, put the guitar back. A symptom of this is very high action. Some bulge and sinking is to be expected, but the distortion should be less than half of the bridge height.
#7). Check the string-action at the 12th fret? Is it how you like it?
#8). Check out the bridge and saddle. Is there any room for the saddle to be lowered? Is there any room for the bridge to be lowered? If both have been lowered as much as they can be, it’s a sign the neck probably needs to be reset. The saddle shouldn’t have big grooves in it either, that’s another sign of a desperate need for a neck reset.
FIVE HANDY TESTS:
#1). Sight down the neck from the side. The neck should appear pretty straight. A little bit bowed is okay, a lot is not. A hump where the fretboard meets the body is a good reason to put the guitar down. Also make sure the neck is not twisted from side to side.
#2). Hold down the low E string at the 1st and 12th fret, or wherever the neck meets the body. Now look at the 6th fret, can you just barely see light? If you think you could fit a first string under you are good. Any space greater than a 6th string and you need some setup work, possibly a neck reset if the action is too great and there isn’t enough saddle or bridge. See comment below
#3). Gently push the neck to and fro, up and down; it shouldn’t give at all. It may flex a little, but the neck socket should be like a rock.
#4). Look at the neck joint at the body, it should be flush.
#5). Look at the joint of the fretboard and the top, it should fit snug.
CRACKS IN THE WOOD:
Little cracks are not a problem, big cracks are. Use your best judgment. Little cracks are cheap to fix, big cracks can mean that the guitar is no longer any good..
Push down lightly on the top all over and listen for creaking. If it creaks, one of your braces may be unglued.This may be a small issue, but you won't know until the strings are off and you're in there with a light and a mirror.
Listen to it. Try to disregard the strings, they are probably older than dirt. Does it sound like a new set of strings would make it sing?
Some of the problems above may be acceptable to you. I sometimes buy good guitars with necks that are coming off the body. I know ahead of time that a neck reset ($200-300), or new frets ($10 each), or a top crack ($50) is going to be necessary and bargain accordingly.
GOOD BRANDS TO LOOK FOR:
To each their own, but here is what you can start with:
Lesser known names:
Fylde, Grammer, Springhill-(Fender), Mossman pre-’76, Weymann, Marwin, National, Vega, Washburn (30s and 40s)
Better known names:
Guild, Epiphone or Epi – archtops, Kay archtops, Gretsch, Yamaha LL series, Gibson, Takamine – (high end only), Alvarez – (high end only)
Well known names:
Everett, C. Fox, Froggy Bottom, Lowden, Huss and Dalton, Northwood, Lakewood, Brook, McIlroy, Breedlove
Steer clear of:
Any old Ovation, but there are exceptions. In general plastic doesn’t age as well as wood. I do love the new ones though. If you find a refurb, that might be a great deal.
Not even if you paid me:
- Any acoustic Fender from the mid 70s with a Strat headstock, huge neck block and broomstick support inside.
- Any old used twelve string. New /used maybe, but the string tension over time is a force to be reckoned with on these guitars making them a dangerous purchase if they are older and haven't been meticulously cared for.
- Any laminate top guitar. What’s the point? Laminate tops are strong, (they're full of glue), in fact they're so strong they don’t really improve their tone with age. If you are just looking for a knockabout guitar you can keep on the porch or take to the lake next summer, this may still appeal to you. But, if you're after an "aged" guitar for enhanced tone, stay away from any guitar with a laminate top.
CONCLUSION:Now you're ready to go shopping. Hit the online ad services like Craigs-Liast and Kijiji and start checking into your local ad scene for guitars. Another choice you might want to consider is a pawn shop.
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