You can find some incredible second-hand guitars if you can tell the difference between one that is structurally sound (but that may need a little TLC) and one that is better left well alone.
The problem is how do you know when you’ve found a diamond in the rough?
Well, that my friend is what we’re about to teach you.
In this article, we’ll teach you what to look for when buying a used acoustic guitar and we’ll arm you with all the information you need to find the best acoustic guitar for your money.
Table of Contents
Why Buy a Used Guitar?
Let’s start with the obvious one: cost.
Used guitars are generally a lot cheaper. Very much like buying an expensive new car that depreciates the minute you take it off the salesroom forecourt, a brand spanking new Stratocaster will depreciate in value too.
Of course, give it a few years and it will be a vintage, but you’ll be waiting a good few years for that to happen.
Picking up a used guitar can sometimes save you up to 50% or more on the retail price, and depending on its condition, you could be staring a bargain in the face.
Older guitars have another advantage: many of them are handmade. We don’t need to be a Marxist to recognize the issues with mass production: convenience over quality, etc.
A handmade instrument made by a Luthier is far superior to anything made on a production line.
It might not be a brand you know, but you need to look beyond the brand decal and look at the guitar in front of you.
Like a fine wine, wood improves over time and will sound better. As it ages, wood settles and is much less likely to have issues with humidity.
Many materials such as Brazilian Rosewood are no longer available due to over deforestation in the Amazon. You can, however, find old guitars that are made from this tonewood that will sound superb.
We all know the importance of recycling. Big businesses are still intent on you buying new stuff, that’s how they stay in business, but honestly, where you can buy second-hand, you should. You’ll be doing the planet a favor.
Things to Check
Here are the things to check when you come across a guitar you like the look of. If you need a refresher on what each part is called, refer to our guitar anatomy guide here.
Bowed or Twisted Neck
The neck is essential for maintaining the tension, so it’s usually the first thing to check.
Hold it up so the guitar is at eye level, then and look down the neck (with the headstock nearest you).
It should be virtually straight, and there shouldn’t be any low or high spots. If you see a roller coaster track in front of you, walk away.
Look for any twists in the neck, as this can cause problems when you’re trying to tune it (and playing can be affected too).
The truss rod lets you sort out any bowing (the technical term is ‘adjusting the neck relief’). Fiddling with it isn’t recommended for the beginner, it’s usually something best left for an expert to do.
It’s also worth checking the truss rod is there (yes, sometimes it’s missing, like this Martin I bought second-hand!).
Gap Between Neck Joint and Body
Also, make sure you check the neck joint (the bit where the neck meets the body).
Make sure it’s firmly attached to the body (it should be flush with the body).
A good way of testing is to gently push the neck back and forward ever so gently to see if there is any give. There will be a bit of flex further up the neck, but the neck angle should be solid.
There shouldn’t be a gap, even the thickness of a business card. A gap can be a sign that the string tension is too much.
Particularly High or Low Action
Next, check the ‘action’. Action refers to the closeness of the strings to the fretboard. Higher action is generally harder to play.
Action isn’t always bad, in fact, some genres prefer a high action (gypsy jazz for example) but generally speaking you don’t want the action too high on a typical acoustic.
A lower action is easier to play, especially for beginners, but you trade off some of the tone (low action tends to lose some of the meatiness).
What you’re looking for is a consistent gap between the six strings and the fretboard. This is typically something you’d get done professionally (typically part of a setup).
The height of the strings is personal preference, but the general rule of thumb is that higher action (a bigger distance) produces a clearer, louder volume whereas a low action projects less, but is more comfortable.
For a medium to low action (recommended for most players) it should be around 5/64″ at the 6th string (low E string) and 4/64″ at the 1st string (high E).
Ideally, the action on the guitar you’re looking at is ok, but it’s not the end of the world if it’s too high or low. You can get it adjusted as part of a professional set up, but that will be more cost.
Now inspect the fretboard. Are there any dents or divots present? How about the quality of the tonewood? Does it look dried out?
If so, it might have been subject to either intense heat (humidity) or cold (left in the back of a car overnight in sub-zero temperatures, for example).
Check the fret wires and make sure none of them wobble. Check they are even, not overly worn and don’t have any sharp edges or burrs.
Next, run your fingers along the edge of the fretboard.
Do any frets stick out? If so, the fretboard wood may have contracted slightly causing the fret wires to now be too wide for the fingerboard.
There is a remedy for this using fine sandpaper, but it’s a fiddly job if you’re inexperienced.
The headstock is the pointy end of your guitar.
First of all, check the machine heads. Do they feel sturdy and well-attached? They should.
If the machine heads are open tuners (where the inner workings are exposed) is there any build-up of rust or decay?
Most acoustics will have closed tuners so you won’t get to see inside, but if it’s a classical guitar you’re looking at, it’s likely to have open tuners.
Grab a guitar tuner (whatever you have to hand, a tuning app on your phone is fine) and try lowering the pitch of some strings and tuning back up to their correct pitch. Do they turn smoothly?
When you got to pitch, do they hold? Slipping can be a sign the machine heads need repair.
A guitar with slipping tuners will be a nightmare to keep in tune and isn’t worth the hassle, so walk away (unless the strings are old as the hills, or just freshly put on, in which case it could be the fault of the strings, not the tuners)
Bridge and Saddle
First up, make sure there isn’t a gap between the bridge and the top of the guitar.
If there is a gap, it’s a sign that the bridge is starting to come away which is another tell-tale sign of trouble.
Are the areas either side of the bridge completely flat? Take notice if they’re visibly sunken or bulging.
When a guitar has been set up with too high action for a period of time, the area behind the bridge can end up bulging, or the area in front can sink. If you see this, walk away immediately.
Is there still space for the saddle to be lowered? If it’s been filed down as far as it can go, that’s not a good sign.
Acoustic guitars are generally a lot more fragile than their electric counterparts, and the hollow body is usually the place where most of the knocks happen.
Push down gently on the top and back of the guitar and listen out for creaking.
If you hear anything suspicious, it could mean the supports (known as ‘the braces’) inside the guitar have come away. Again, not a good sign and not easy to repair.
It’s common to find surface marks, dings and maybe even hairline cracks with a used guitar (it’s usually had a bit of a life before you, remember).
Just avoid any deep cuts that go through the finish all way through to the wood.
How it Sounds
For this next bit, you need to have the guitar in front of you. It’s probably the most important step, because if you love the sound then that’s usually a good sign.
When you’re trying to objective ascertain how good it sounds, it’s important your opinion isn’t swayed too much by the state of the strings.
If you’re looking at an acoustic with a built-in pickup, make sure you plug it into an amp to hear how it sounds. If there’s an onboard tuner or EQ, make sure you have a play with that too to ensure it actually works.
How it Plays
Play the whole spectrum of stuff you’d normally play, and even stuff you might not normally. Play some open chords, string bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, give it a proper road test.
The first thing to check is the frets. They’re a common issue on older guitars, so make sure you study the fretwire, paying special attention to the ones up the neck, near the soundhole, which you might not normally play as much (especially on an acoustic).
Play each fret, starting from the first, from the top E to the bottom E string. If you hear a buzz, then something is up with the fret (it’s improperly set) or with the setup of the guitar (improperly set bridge).
Repairs and Maintenance
If you have the luxury of speaking to the owner, ask what repairs (if any) has it had and whether it has ever been to a guitar shop for a professional setup.
It’s also good to know how long has the owner had it, how many previous owners it’s had (like buying a car) – the fewer owners the better, generally speaking. Also, why are they getting rid of it?
Do a few searches on Google. Let’s say you’ve seen a Yamaha FG402 someone is selling. Enter ‘Yamaha FG402 + review’ into the search bar and try and find some first-hand accounts from owners.
Maybe the tuners aren’t great, or the intonation is hard to get right.
In the case of the Yamaha FG402, you’ll find out that the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith played one – and you should probably snap it up immediately!
Also, make sure you check how much new ones are selling for (if they still make the model) or an equivalent model, then look at the used price and make sure you’re happy with the price reduction.
Hopefully, we haven’t totally put you off buying a used guitar!
If you stick pretty close to these checks, you’ll no doubt pick up a bargain.
The important thing to remember is it might be the third or fourth one you look at that really clicks with you, so don’t be too hasty to make the purchase.
Best of luck!