Who amongst us hasn’t dreamed of standing, spandex-clad legs splayed and eyes tight shut, while unleashing a blistering guitar solo in front of an adoring audience? (Or is that just us?) Yet, every axe legend, from the likes of Eric Clapton, to Jimi Hendrix and Slash, had to start somewhere and, more likely than not, their first forays along the freeboard were taken on a second hand acoustic or electric guitar.
However, any novice guitarist quickly discovers that there is bewildering array of makes and models on the market. How do you know which to choose and what to look out for before handing over your cash?
Whether you’re playing for simple pleasure or have ambitions to become a guitar god, our handy hints and tips to buying a second hand guitar will help you hit the right notes.
Many a Good Tune…
Just like an old fiddle, many a good tune can be played on a second hand guitar. If the seller has looked after and maintained their guitar there should be no reason why it won’t continue to give pleasure for many more years to come.
And, unlike the cost of new guitar, alongside the associated amplifiers, equipment and leads for electric models, opting for used versions will keep the costs down. Think carefully about how much you want to spend on your guitar because, as with any instrument, it will demand many hours of dedicated practice before you start sounding less like a cats’ chorus and more a stellar soloist. Of course, if you do decide that all those barre chords, pentatonic scales and finger-picking exercises are not your thing after all, you can simply sell it again on Preloved!
Opinion is divided between guitarists about whether new players are better to pick up an electric or acoustic guitar. Ultimately, the choice is yours, but there are differences between them that are worth considering. Acoustic guitars are usually hollow-bodied and have vibrating strings that are amplified by a sound hole to make their distinctive mellow sound. While most acoustic guitars have six strings, there are twelve-string varieties which give an even richer and fuller sound. Traditionally, an acoustic guitar has all of its strings made of steel, while a classical guitar has three steel bass strings and the remainder made of nylon.
Steel strung acoustic guitars are more closely associated with music such as folk, country and blues and tend to be used for playing chords to accompany other musical instruments.
Classical guitars are distinguished by their wider neck and many players use them as a solo instrument with the emphasis on intricate finger picking techniques.
The younger offspring of its acoustic cousin, the electric guitar first appeared in the 1930s and, since then, has had an unrivalled impact on popular music and spawned countless styles and genres. In its simplest form, their sound is produced by a set of pickups embedded in the body. These pickups capture the strings’ vibrations and convert them into an electrical signal, which is made louder by an accompanying amplifier. The sound of an electric guitar can be dramatically altered by switching between pickups or plugging the instrument into effects pedals to produce an endless array of different noises. The amplifier can also be used to distort the guitar’s sound to create the familiar crunching chords and screeching solos so beloved by fans of rock and heavy metal. Similarly, as versatile instruments, electric guitars can be used to play both chords and solos.
Many guitarists believe that electric guitars are easier to play than their acoustic counterparts as they are far more sensitive to the player’s touch and have lighter strings that are easier to press against the fretboard. However, as with any technical device, they are more complicated than the acoustic version so have more components that can go wrong or need replacing.
Play and Pay
Before handing over any money for your new guitar, play it! Try it out for size and make sure that it feels comfortable and ‘fits’ you. While some beginners might feel intimidated by the idea of fluffing notes in front of another guitarist, it is best to try to ignore your stage fright rather than buying an instrument you later discover is not what you really wanted.
Try our Top Ten Guitar Checklist to make sure you’re satisfied with everything about the instrument.
- On an electric guitar turn, tweak and switch all of the controls, listening out for any suspicious buzzes, clicks and crackles.
- Look at the guitar’s action – the distance between the strings and freeboard. The strings should be far enough away so they don’t buzz, but near enough to be easy to press down.
- Ask about the guitar’s history and look at any paperwork that the seller might have, such as the receipt from its purchase.
- Look for any signs of rust or wear and tear. On older guitars that have lived a little, expect to find wearing on the freeboard and the odd scratch or chipped paintwork.
- Inspect the neck closely, checking for any cracks where the neck joins the body and making sure it is not warped in any way.
- If you’re a new guitarist, ask a teacher or experienced player to come along with you to meet the seller
- Check the guitar’s intonation all along the freeboard. A popular approach is to play the E barre chord on each fret.
- Take a tuner with you to make sure that the guitar stays in tune after you have played it.
- Look for signs of any repairs that might affect the guitar’s sound or strength of the body or neck.
- Make sure all the fixtures and fittings are tight and not loose.
Once you have bought your new guitar there are a few quick and simple steps you can take to make sure it stays in great condition. Who knows, in years to come you might want to sell your guitar and buy another one, so looking after it will help you get the best price!
- Every time you finish practising or playing your guitar, give the strings and body a wipe down with a soft cloth. Regular cleaning of the guitar’s strings prevent the natural oils from your fingers making them rust.
- For a more thorough clean buy some polishes and oils from your local music shop.
- Invest in a case or stand for your guitar. Although the most expensive option, hard cases are custom-made to fit the body of the guitar and prevent damage caused by impacts.
We asked Neal Leggett, guitar tutor at The Academy of Contemporary Music to give us his list of things to be aware of when buying a second hand guitar. Neal has pulled together some key questions and tests that you should try before you buy.
- What condition is the guitar in? Wear and tear such as scratches and small dents will not generally affect the sound or damage the playability of the guitar so not a major worry. If this appears more severe then it may indicate the guitar hasn’t been looked after so proceed with caution. For electrics check rust. You don’t want rust on the bridge it could seize the adjustment screws, plus it looks bad.
- Where has the guitar been stored when not in use? Ideally it should be stored with the strings wiped clean of sweat in its flight case in the house at a constant temperature, but if you get the feeling the guitar has been in the loft or just come out of the garage then be cautious as extreme temperatures and damp can warp the wood causing damage to the body, neck and electrics.
- Does it rattle? The wiring might need attention.
- Are the frets OK? Check them for severe wear and ensure they are even and without any indents.
- Do the strings buzz while playing up the frets? If the strings buzz while playing this could indicate incorrect set up, fret or neck issue. As before, check the frets for evenness and, if this seems OK, check to see if the neck is not twisted or warped. Frets can be shaved or replaced, necks adjusted and the guitar can be set up correctly by a decent guitar tech, but be cautious of extreme neck warp as limited adjustment can be made here and this can cost quite a bit of money to correct. In the worst case you may need to replace the neck.
- Intonation, check the strings are in tune correctly. When playing the same note on each string up the neck it is the same? Take an electric tuner. Check the same note is in tune wherever it is played on the guitar, especially above the 12th fret. If it’s not, the intonation is out. This can usually be remedied but best done by a guitar tech as it requires bridge and possible neck adjustment to ensure the strings are correct lengths. In the worst case, the frets are not in the correct place! If it looks like the owner has done some DIY, be very cautious. For acoustics this is even more difficult as there is less adjustment than an electric. Be wary.
- Do the tuning pegs turn smoothly? If they feel jerky, too loose, etc, this will affect the tuning of the guitar. A nice smooth, tightish motion is best.
- Check the pick up selector, volume and tone controls of the electric, and the same for an electro-acoustic. Ensure a nice smooth action of the volume and tone controls and there is no crackling or buzzing sounds. Changing the pick up selector will ensure all pick-ups are working. Again, check for crackle or buzz. If you hear any it is likely the wiring is defective or the pots are worn and will need to be looked at.
- Connect a guitar lead to the jack input. Make sure you get sound. Waggle the guitar lead on the jack input. Assuming you have a non-faulty lead the sound should not be affected. If you get cut out or crackle, again, the electrics could be defective and need sorting.
- If it’s an acoustic guitar, check that the bridge pegs hold the strings correctly and are not too loose. You don’t want the string popping out while you’re playing.
- Check all the adjustment screws are in place around the pick ups, on the bridge, etc, and that they are the originals. You don’t want to find that someone has bodged it and threaded the screw using the incorrect replacements.
- Check the strings sit nicely in the nut. This is where the strings are placed before they attach to the tuning pegs. Keeping the strings at an even distance over the neck.
The Academy of Contemporary Music offers a range of full and part-time courses in Guitar, Bass, Drums, Vocals, Keyboards, Music Production, Creative Sound Design, Tour Production & Management and Music Business. To find out more about the education facilities here