Buying Used Guitars — What You Need To Know

Buying used guitars is much more risky.  Right off the top, the seller may not be very knowledgable (and this is true whether we’re talking about inexpensive instruments or guitars costing thousands of dollars.)  So don’t presume anything.  You can’t even presume that the guitar has been in the same environment all its life.  The Seller may live in Florida now, but may have spent years with the guitar (or bought it out from) in Tucson.  So ask — don’t presume, and if they seller can’t tell you, then presume — the worst — until you know better for certain.

Though I’ve had many pleasant successful transactions as a Seller of quality guitars, as a buyer I’ve been less fortunate.  It has gotten to the point that we won’t even give a rough value for a trade in until we see the guitar in person.  Too many times, I’ve received guitars that have been modified (and most often badly) or been exposed to inappropriate humidity, adjustments, etc. — Guitars that were often going to cost more to get right than to just give away (and we don’t sell such instruments, so we’re pretty much stuck on those deals.

So how does one avoid getting ripped off?  A few ways.  First off, though it may pain one to give them the money, ask for several clear pictures and insist that payment be made via Paypal to a verified DOMESTIC company.  That way if you are sent something lesser, you have a means of demonstrating that difference to Paypal, who will be the ultimate judge of whether or not you get your money back.
Another strong method is to get an independent expert appraisal of the instrument.  Sure, taste is subjective, but an expert can REPORT the instrument objectively, describing both sound and playing characteristics and informing you of areas of concern.  For example, there may be evidence of the guitar having been too dry at one time and having damaged bracings from it.  Or something else may be out of whack on the neck, tuners, etc. that can’t be identified via photos.  Get someone who knows what he’s doing to appraise the instrument independently.
On a few deals, we’ve gone 50/50.  I pay half, they ship the instrument, and if all is as promised, I pay the remainder.  That way we each split the risk evenly.  I have done this only when I felt confident in the seller’s honesty as well as his ability to recognize a problem.
What all can go wrong?  The bracing or bridge glue could have dried too much and left them rattling when played.  Heavy strings may have been left on and caused the neck to bow. There may have been too much pressure applied to the tuner’s nuts and started delaminating the finish on the headstock around some or all of them.  The finish may be affected by chemicals, time, sun, humidity, etc.  On certain types of guitars, a neck problem can be a very big deal and expense.  Others may only involve an adjustment but that’s still an expense and the time to do the repair.  The instrument may very well be worth taking that on along with the purchase price.  That’s a choice for the buyer, not the author.
How does one determine fair value for a guitar?  To some extent the extrapolation is best done by a guitar expert who stays familiar with the market on that brand or type of instrument.  One can search eBay’s completed auctions (for ones with a bidder or sale) and Craigslist.  To see what they are actually selling for, stick to the eBay sold items report and take shipping costs into account as well.  Craigslist ads may ASK for the sun, moon and stars and actually sell for a handful of trinkets.  So it just gives you an idea of where it MIGHT be sold.  (Then again, if it’s still on there at that price, maybe not.  Check such ads and see if there’s some reason why it hasn’t sold.  Maybe there’s something wrong with it that’s mentioned in the description.  Perhaps the seller won’t ship.  Could be any number of reasons.  Do due diligence.
Reverb’s appraisal system leaves far too much lacking to be taken seriously.  For example, all Taylors are grouped together, whether they are old enough to have an Expression 1 or Fishman system, or if they have Expression 2 and are revoiced.  That change can be dramatic.  The 614ce, for example.  First Edition Revoiced were impossible to find for sale, but a 2012 version was hard to get a buyer for.  That’s how different the instruments were, yet Reverb’s pricing system considered them the same model and value.  So don’t take it too seriously.
In the final analysis, any guitar is worth exactly as much as the buyers at the time are willing to spend.  From a buyer’s perspective as well, that instrument is worth however much you’re willing to part with to have it for your own.  If you’re gauging price by what you can get for it when/if you decide to resell it, DON’T.   A good guitar isn’t a stockmarket share.  It’s a very personal choice and you should be buying it because there’s something about it that compels you to buy it.  In that case even if you paid $3k and could only sell it for a dollar ten years later (and that’s highly unlikely,) you’ve still had an awesome guitar for $25 a month.   I’ll take that deal any time!
So you found the guitar you want, verified that it sounds and looks as you expect or are comfortable with, and have agreed on a price.  Done deal?  Not quite yet.  Still have to get it shipped (or receive it).
If yours is a high-end guitar, it probably came in/with a hard shell case that is ample protection.  If that’s the situation, it’s a few simple steps:
Most guitars are in boxes that are about 40-42″ tall, 20″ wide and 9-10″ thick, and weigh about 23 pounds (Imperial) including box and case.
DO NOT FILL THE BOX WITH PEANUTS.  Messy and unnecessary.  Wadded paper, airbags or bubble wrap, even foam rubber, they are all fine.  Taylors and Martins both come in cradled cases anymore, so the cradle at top and bottom are sufficient.  The local dealer may have one available if you haven’t kept the original one it shipped in from the factory.
1) find a box that fits that case,
2) pad it a bit so it doesn’t go slamming around inside the cardboard (as that may cause it to come loose of the cardboard and delay the shipment indefinitely.
3) purchase and print the shipping label online.  UPS.com and Fedex.com both offer that, as well as USPS.    When you print it, print an extra copy and put it in the case with the guitar, so if it does become separated from the box somehow it can still be delivered or returned to you.
4) Contrary to old beliefs, there is no need to tune the guitar down.  Moreover, one should NEVER leave the guitar without string tension altogether.  Though that isn’t likely to harm it over the course of a few days, if the package is lost or delayed it could be unstrung long enough to cause the neck to back-bow, a condition which can be very difficult to reverse.  So at the most, if you MUST, tune it down 1 step to D.  Really, though, they ship just fine fully tuned to A 440.
5) Drop it off at a UPS, Fedex or USPS Office.  While you may be able to hand it off to a local merchant, it’s always best to have them check it in and receive it.  This is especially true on instruments considered to be High Value.  Those can even require a form to be filled out by one of their own employees, (NOT a franchise employee as would be found at a UPS Store.) .  From there, you know that it’s safely out of your hands and the responsibility of the carrier.  Note: If you really have to, you may be able to leave a lower cost instrument with an affiliate. Guitars that cost over a thousand or so are generally not allowed to be handed off to a UPS Store employee.
You can follow the tracking.  I always require adult signature and insure the guitars.

What if there’s a problem when you get the instrument?  If it’s blatantly different than described or was damaged due to improper packing, etc., you’ll be reporting it to Paypal or Square (I prefer the latter for small businesses, but both will protect you as well as the Seller.  If the carton comes in mangled and the guitar MIGHT have been damaged due to the carrier’s negligence, then report it to both the carrier and the seller (as well as the processing company) immediately.  If it all ends up fine, you can always decline to file a claim, but it is important that you declare the damage as soon as it is discovered.  It’s not a quick or painless process but will eventually make up for the loss.
If your guitar is NOT high-end (under $1000) you can ship it well packed but are still best served by acquiring a hard shell case.
Electric guitar cases are available on Amazon for under $60.  The author has this first one (pictured below) and it works rather nicely, with a large box for strings, cable, capo, tuner, etc.  If your guitar is an acoustic or acoustic-electric, it gets a bit more tricky.
If it’s a dreadnought, it needs a dread case.  A classical or Grand Concert body needs a smaller case, the Grand Auditoriums another case, and the Jumbos and Grand Orchestras another still.  All of those in the last sentence will need to be matched by measurements if you’re ordering online.
As an aside: In this player’s opinion, if you have a guitar that cost you $300 or more and you like it, it deserved a hard shell case anyway.  I prefer SKB cases like those shown below.  They cost more but can protect any number of instruments over the years.  Gator makes some decent models as well.  Amazon has about the most comprehensive list of available cases around, and you can sign on for Amazon Prime on a monthly basis and get it to your door in a couple days for free. Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial.

Most transactions and shipments are trouble-free.  The proof is in the pudding.  Tens of thousands of guitars are shipped every month, and there are very few problems of any kind.  So don’t let shipping intimidate you.  Once you’ve done it a time or two, it’ll be easy.

When you get the guitar in, chances are the strings won’t be new.  If there’s any question, go ahead and change them out.  Either use the ones they came with from the factory, or your own favorite, if you can’t figure out what the guitar shipped with.  While you’re doing that, you’ll have the opportunity to clean it up, check everything out, etc.  Be sure to check the battery compartment.  A battery left in the case unused for a long time can corrode.  If that has happened, carefully brush the corrosion off of the contact points and install a new battery so you can check out the electronics.  Once you know they work, you can take it back out if ever you need to store the guitar for a few months.

Check out other articles about strings, maintenance, etc.  Feel free to ask questions here or on the AGN page on Facebook.

There are many fine and sweet used guitars out there.  Don’t let a great deal get by you because you’re afraid of getting burned.  Just use good sense and don’t let your excitement about the guitar override requiring confirmation that the guitar is in good shape and has been cared for properly.

ONE IMPORTANT FINAL POINT: If the guitar you are selling has any rosewood on it, you will have to get a CITES permit to ship it internationally.  There is no permit requirement within a country, nor if a person carries it internationally (flight, rail, car, boat, etc.) but a commercial shipment requires one.

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