Increasingly, people are buying used acoustic guitars on Craigslist, eBay, and a host of online guitar forums. With Craigslist, you usually have the chance to giver the instrument a good visual inspection before you plunk down your hard-earned money. When it comes to eBay or other online forums, you’ll definitely want to make sure you can return the guitar to the seller if it doesn’t pass muster.
Buying a used acoustic guitar can be a great way to get a higher-end instrument at a more affordable price. But when you buy a used guitar, you’re also buying the normal wear and tear it’s accumulated as well as any hidden damage, and like nearly all musical instruments, acoustic guitars are fairly delicate. They are easily subject to damage either from an accident or neglect.
It’s important to know what to look for when inspecting a used acoustic guitar. Lots of issues can be corrected with a simple setup or with minor repair work, but many problems that acoustic guitars can develop may be serious. Knowing what kind of issues a used guitar has can help you make a more informed buying decision.
Here are some of the more serious issues to look for when inspecting a used acoustic guitar.
Loose Bridge: No matter how well built a guitar is, it’s possible for the bridge to come loose. In most cases, this is easily repaired by a professional, but it’s something you want to look for when you’re buying a used guitar.
Look at the bridge, and inspect the seam where it meets the guitar’s soundboard. Ideally, it will be flush with the surface of the soundboard all the way around. If you see a gap along the back edge, the bridge is coming loose. If the gap is only very slight, take a piece of thin paper, and try to slide it under the bridge. If it only goes in a millimeter or so, the bridge is probably still solidly glued on, but if you can get the paper under the bridge any significant distance, it’s definitely going to need to be reglued.
Worn Frets: Look at the frets all up and down the neck, but look especially in the first two positions. This is where most players do the bulk of their playing. If the frets have deep divots worn into them, they are going to need to be replaced. If you have significant fret wear in just the first 5 to 7 frets, you can probably get away with a partial refret, but if the fret wear is significant beyond that point, you may need to have the entire neck refretted.
Poor Neck Angle: The neck angle is actually one of the most crucial aspects of a guitar’s construction, and it is the most likely aspect to be severely distorted by neglect, and it can’t be corrected by adjusting the truss rod. Neck angle is the primary factor in determining how high or low the action is. If the neck angle is off, adjusting the action so that it is comfortable or playable will be impossible without major repair work. The neck has to be removed from the guitar and refit at the correct angle. On guitars with glued-on necks like Martins and Gibsons, this is a very expensive repair. On guitars with bolt-on necks like Taylors, this repair is actually really inexpensive and easy. In fact, newer model Taylors are designed to have the action adjusted by changing the neck angle rather than raising and lowering the saddle.
The neck angle is the imaginary line that the fingerboard projects toward the bridge. The easiest way to check this yourself is to look down the neck from the headstock toward the bridge. Look down the neck as if you’re trying to aim a rifle. On a steel string guitar, this imaginary line should point to the top edge of the bridge, not the saddle, but the bridge itself. If you’re looking at a classical guitar, this angle should point below the top of the bridge.
If that imaginary line is above the bridge, don’t buy the guitar! A guitar with this condition probably has super low action, and you simply won’t be able to adjust the guitar to get the action high enough to make it play well without buzzing. In most cases, a high neck angle simply can’t be repaired.
The one exception to this rule is with newer model Taylor guitars. Their necks are bolted on and have replaceable shims that determine the neck angle. In many cases, a high neck angle can be corrected by installing the right shims.
If the line the neck projects points below the top edge of the bridge, the angle is too low. This will make the action too high to be comfortable. To a degree, this can be corrected by lowering the saddle, but at some point the saddle will be almost flush with the bridge, and the action will still be too high. When this happens, it’s time to reset the neck angle by removing and refitting the neck. This is actually a pretty common but expensive repair.
Most guitars will need their necks reset after maybe 15 or 20 years, because string tension will pull on the neck and alter its angle. This can also happen prematurely if the guitar is neglected. If you’re looking at a high-end guitar, and it needs this kind of work, it might be worthwhile to make the purchase provided you can get the guitar for a good price.
Cracks and Loose Braces: Acoustic guitars are relatively delicate, and it’s not uncommon for them to develop a crack or two or even a loose brace over their life, especially if the guitar is one that has seen a lot of gigs. Look the guitar over carefully. If you see a crack, ask the owner if it has been repaired. You can also apply gentle pressure to the crack with your fingertips. If the crack feels spongy, it probably hasn’t been repaired.
To inspect for loose braces, play the guitar, and tap the guitar’s top and back gently with your finger tips. If you hear a rattle or a buzz coming from inside the instrument, there might be a loose brace.
The next time you’re looking at buying a used guitar, be sure to look it over carefully for these issues. Being able to spot the need for potentially costly repairs before you buy can help you make a better buying decision, especially when buying a guitar online.
Below is a video of luthier Jim Kozel discussing neck resets and how to evaluate a guitar to see if it needs this kind of work. Enjoy.