MICHAEL MURRAYGuitar Teacher and Performer
Used Guitars Vs. New Guitars
Many first time guitar buyers suffer from the illusion that they will be able to buy a decent used guitar very cheaply. The used guitar option actually becomes more interesting the more expensive the instrument is that you are considering buying. Occasionally someone can find a decent beginner’s guitar at a ridiculously low price at a garage sale or flea market. However, many people also end up buying over priced guitars that have damage and are either difficult to play or on the brink of falling apart. In order to buy a used guitar at a decent price, a buyer needs to be knowledgeable about guitars and have a lot of time.
The first obstacle to saving money by buying a used beginner’s guitar is actually something very positive. A decent new beginner’s guitar is fairly cheap especially when compared to the cost of most other instruments. It is often hard to justify the time, effort and risk of searching for a used guitar when a decent new guitar can be bought for $300. This same guitar in a used guitar store or a pawn shop will probably sell for $200 which is not a huge saving. Since used instrument stores and pawn shops are dependent on which instruments people want to sell, the selection of instruments is often far more limited than in stores that sell new instruments.
Even if the instrument you want to buy is available used, there is the issue of damage and wear. There are various ways in which a guitar may be damaged and while most will be apparent by looking at it some are less obvious. I would recommend looking for any cracks in the wood when examining a used guitar as such cracks can become larger and more serious over time even if they are currently hardly visible. Guitars also undergo a normal amount of playing wear the most common of which is fret wear. Worn frets have a small indent in the metal of the fret which occurs over time from the pressure of holding the string against the fret. The indentations will appear more commonly in the lower frets of the guitar because they are played more often. The strings will then buzz against the upper frets which are now higher because they are not indented. This is a common occurrence and can be repaired. However, if you save $100 on an instrument by buying it used but then have to pay $50-$80 getting the frets repaired you have not saved much money. Always move the strings to the side to look at the contact points of all the frets in a used guitar. The frets should be perfectly round with no indentations or otherwise repair work will be required.
When searching for a used instrument it is very important to select a reputable dealer. While there are some very good used instrument stores who warranty their instruments, the percentage of disreputable stores is higher in the used category than in the new category. Even reputable used instrument dealers usually only give a maximum of 6 months warranty which is less than you will get from a good new instrument dealer. Consignment instruments are usually not warrantied at all. On the other hand consignment instruments can sometimes be a better bargain than the ones owned by the store. This is because the owner decides on the price not the store and depending on how badly the owner needs the money they may undervalue the instrument. The store only receives a commission on the sale. Used store owners and most pawn shop owners are well aware of the value of the instruments they sell and usually far more knowledgeable than the buyer. A good used guitar store will probably sell a (non-consignment) instrument at about 2/3 of its new price. This is why the used instrument market is more interesting the higher the new price of the instrument. The $350 saved on buying a $1000 guitar will make the added risk and possible need for repairs far more worth it than the $100 saved on buying a $300 guitar. Never buy a used guitar without first checking what it retails for new at another store. Do not trust the salesman to tell you the accurate price for the instrument new. It is important to check the new price at a different store because many used stores sell new instruments at an inflated price to make the used ones look like better deals.
Greater bargains can be had in buying a used guitar privately but the risk is higher since there is no warranty on the instrument and private sales are usually final. It also takes a bit of luck to find the instrument you want and the search can be very time consuming especially if you have to travel to various locations to try several guitars. Many though not all private sellers are honest so just like a store you need to know what the retail value of the guitar is new and look for any damage.
The good news with used guitars is that guitars do not deteriorate with age as long as there are no issues with wear or damage on the instrument. If anything older guitars that have been played often sound better because the wood learns to respond to strings better over time. On the negative side at the lower beginner price range the money saved is often not worth the time spent on finding a suitable used guitar and someone who is a beginner may not be able to properly evaluate the worth and condition of a used instrument.