Okay, so you’ve seen a guitar on eBay that you want. Sure, there are good pictures and the listing looks legit, but how do you know that the guitar is structurally and electronically sound? The best way to be sure before you pay is to collect in person and check it out before you hand over the cash.
What to Look For
There are several things that you should check on a guitar before you buy it. These things might take a while, but it’s well worth it to make sure that the guitar is okay before you buy. Cash on collection is essentially “sold as seen” and has no Paypal protection, so you’re well within your rights to spend twenty minutes checking it out.
The neck of a guitar should be *almost* straight. Yes, a little bit of forward bow (called the relief) is usually desirable, but this is very slight. If you look down the edge of the fretboard from the headstock end, the neck should be almost perfectly straight. If the neck is bowed more this isn’t necessarily a problem as the truss rod can be adjusted to straighten it out, but that will mean taking it to a guitar tech or having a go at adjusting it yourself.
Any bow in the neck should be very smooth too – a constant, slight curve from one end of the neck to the other. If the neck has an ‘s’ shaped bend in it, this can be very hard to rectify and it might be worth walking away. As with all these things, it’s hard to say if it will be impossible to remedy, but it’s certainly something to look out for.
To properly test the electronics you’ll need to be able to plug the guitar into an amplifier. Once plugged in, play some chords and check all the switches and pots. Everything should work correctly with no crackles, pops or buzzes – especially the jack socket. A distorted sound can be great at uncovering wiring and electronic issues as buzzes etc will be much louder.
Slightly rustly pots can be cleaned fairly easily, but if the noise is severe they may need replacing and this can cost a fair bit – not welcome – especially if the guitar is very cheap. If you get any dropouts in the sound, start to worry. Wiring doesn’t cost a lot of money in parts (unless the pickups are damaged) but it can take time and effort to locate any stubborn faults.
Frets wear out over time. You can give them a fret dress to level them, if there is enough fret material left to work with, but if they are REALLY worn they may need replacing. A good refret can cost £200, so you really need to take this into account when buying a guitar.
Fret wear is pretty easy to spot and is usually most prevalent on the first couple of frets where open chords are played. Pull the strings to one side slightly and have a look. Deep ruts in the frets could be serious problem, especially if the frets are quite slim to start with (like on a vintage style strat). Slightly flattened fret tops are more common, and if this isn’t too severe a fret dress can usually sort it out. Some wear is common on a guitar that’s been played a lot, but many guitars only receive light use and so even if it’s old the frets may still be in excellent condition. Look for frets that are as close to new looking as possible.
At the end of the day, all of the three main points can help you to avoid buying a guitar that has faults that could be expensive to fix. That said, a trained eye is still needed to spot all potential issues so it may still be worth getting the guitar looked at by a trained professional. The vast proportion of guitars sold second hand are actually in perfect working order with just a few small wear and tear issues (perfectly normal) but a pro will always be able to give you the best opinion on the condition of the guitar you are looking to buy.
Does the guitar you’re looking at have a floating trem? Ever wondered if you really need a guitar with a floating trem system? Read this article on Floyd Rose type trems.
Not sure what type of guitar you actually want to buy? Read this buyer’s guide for life!
Questions, comments or suggestions? Leave a comment below or get in touch!