Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Selecting an Excellent Used Guitar, Part Two

All right, even contrary to the wisdom of Bobby Jones the time has come to buy another guitar. You're not going to buy a new one quite yet but you've got enough bucks to afford a reasonably good guitar. You have decided to look into used guitars because you figure that it will have played into its mature voice and suffered any structural issues by now so as to not surprise you after the purchase. Good for you, for coming to this logic as there are surprisingly good bargains available in the used market. Where are these guitars? Start by inquiring with the local guitar teachers or guitar societies. They may know of people who have guitars for sale and probably even have some knowledge of the quality of the guitar. Often music stores specializing in acoustic guitars will carry some used guitars although not every city has such a store. One can find instruments offered on E-bay and at dealers to be found on the Internet via your search engine. I would not purchase any instrument without a return privilege usually a 5-7 day approval time which normally will cost you at least return shipping costs which can mount up dollar-wise. Finally, if there is a classical guitar luthier within driving distance of you they will often have a few used guitars for sale or know where some are located.

What to look for? First, suspend any notion of buying by maker or brand. If you want the best guitar, buy with your ears and your fingers. Used guitars often have finish marks and come pre-dinged so you don't have to go to the trouble to make the first one yourself. Ideally one will not consider appearance or aesthetics but of course visual appeal does matter……. just make sure it is third or more on your list of important things rather than number one.

Here are the important issues to look at first before even playing the instrument:

1.) - Look at the action. If it is very high, take a look at the fingerboard by sighting down it toward the bridge to determine if it has too much bow. If it has a lot of bow check out the amount of saddle remaining above the bridge to lower the action. If the guitar has very little saddle showing and the action is very high then that is a guitar that is in trouble. These things can be fixed but the guitar would have to be available at quite a discount and make a very lovely sound to make it worth the costs to have a luthier repair things. Not that a lot of neck bow by itself isn't a serious problem but with enough adjustment left at the saddle sometimes these guitars will play very well.

2.) - Check the string condition and/or inquire as to the age if the owner knows. Surprisingly, if the guitar is in a music store you can pretty well count on the guitar having dead strings. Ask if the strings can be changed if they look dull, tarnished or worn. Bass strings in particular are vulnerable to rapid degradation. Needless to say, acoustic performance is best evaluated with good strings.

3.) - Hold the guitar up to the light and look for deformation of the top and back. Chances are there will be some, which is normal. Just make sure that it isn't excessive as this is a sign of stress due to string tension or humidity problems in the guitar's past. It would be a good idea to determine if the guitar is being stored in a proper environment especially if it is located in a music store. Often guitars can change once stabilized in humidity conditions that are right for it, usually between 35-50%. Anything outside that range can effect action and tone negatively.

4.) - Check the back of the bridge to make sure that it is securely attached especially at the base of the tieblock. Bridges can be reattached but it costs money and can have positive or negative effects on tone. Better to pass and look for a guitar without issues such as this. If the guitar has extraordinary sound though it may well be a good negotiating point.

5.) - Closely check the soundboard, back and sides for cracks. Surprisingly, cracks usually don't affect the guitar sound that much but they can have continuing structural threats to the guitars health. That being said, cracks on the back often can be very stable. The author has owned a guitar with a 4" fine crack in the back that has remained unchanged for over 30 years.

6.) - Look at the condition of the frets and fingerboard for wear. Many players think that this indicates a need for refretting but usually the fret can be dressed and polished without any problems. Any competent repairman can likewise repair fingerboard wear.

7.) - Operate the tuners up and down several turns to see if they operate smoothly. Tuners are easy to replace so don't place too much importance on them. Instead you can use that as a negotiating point and replace them at your convenience. Good quality tuners can be installed for you for less than $125. Excellent quality tuners are available for $200 installed.

Very well, now is the time to play the guitar in earnest. Listen for clear, strong basses especially on Cedar guitars. Often, older Cedar guitars can go muddy and out of focus on the bass side especially if the soundboards were made too thin. Conversely, Spruce guitars often develop very fine powerful basses as they age. On the treble side, listen to the high trebles, as you want to hear some sustain and character up there.

Listen for any weak or wolf notes. The good thing about older guitars is that they usually have worked out these problems. Now is the time to locate the problems in note production as one can have these problems escalate in importance and quickly ruin appreciation for the new acquisition.

Loudness or power, balance, separation and sustain should be evaluated separately on the candidate guitar with scales and set pieces you have identified before heading out to shop for the new instrument. Once you have narrowed down the acquisition to a couple of prospective instruments, then come back at a later time with your own guitar for a good comparison. The reason for this is that guitars can sound different in a strange environment and it is better to have along your trusty ax with its familiar tone. Even better is to ask to take the guitar to your home studio environment. Not likely, but it's worth the asking. Forget any preconceptions about wood types, only focus on the tone being made by the instrument and it's effect on your creation of music.

Look for the guitar that convinces you without reservation that you must have it. Please don't look at price tags or labels until you have completed all of the above steps. This may surprise you as it is possible that you will select an economical instrument over a more expensive one as your must have baby. Many guitars are priced on intangibles such as original price, maker or popularity………they can mean little or nothing, trust only your ears and your fingers. What if you select the guitar that is well outside your pocketbook? Sorry, that's the risk you take with my method!

Now is the time for negotiation. With used guitars there is usually room to move the asking price down somewhat. The old used car line "How low could you go on the price?" is always a good place to start. After hearing that figure it would be good to bring up any discount issues you might have such as needing new tuners or set-up work. Check into the quality of the case that comes with the guitar. If the guitar is in a music store, they may be willing to provide an upgraded case if you buy. As usual, you have to tread that fine line between finding a fair price and letting the guitar become a materiel thing to haggle over. Remember the guitar will bring it's personality to you in the creation of music and you don't want the acrimony of negotiation to accompany the new instrument to it's new home with you.

As a final note, forget about trading in your guitar or wondering if your guitar will hold its value or even getting into the idea of collectable value. Only buy a guitar because of its musical and emotional value to you. Never, never, never, ever fall into thinking of the guitar as an investment. A guitar is to be enjoyed here and now as our musical partner and just as a musical note exists in our imagination and dreams, the instrument that creates that magic is most valuable when it is fulfilling it's personal mission with you.

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