Buying a Used Acoustic Guitar

What guitar player wouldn’t love to have a brand new Gibson, Martin, Taylor or any of the famous guitar brands with a rich history of good sounding guitars? Some of the desirability for these guitars is rooted in hype or perhaps driven by the fame of an artist, but for the most part, their popularity is because they are well…classics. The catch is these guitars come with a hefty price tag that most of us can’t pay or really need to use the money for other things.

Can I find a great bargain at a pawn shop?

I think the days of rummaging through pawnshops and finding that Pre-war Martin D28 is probably past us. Most pawn shop owners are well aware of the value of their used guitars and often ask for a premium.  Also, larger retailers like Guitar Center have implemented a no haggle policy for their used guitars further adding to the difficulty of finding a great deal on a used guitar.
So why bother you ask? Well, for one if you really like guitars there can be a lot of fun in trying out the different used guitars until you come across something that you just can’t buy in the stores. There is also the added benefit of the history that goes with your search and with the used guitar. And lastly, sometimes that aged or vintage sound just can’t be found in some of the newer guitars.

How do I get started?

Before you start your search think about what it is you’re looking for in your guitar. Let’s say for example you really want an all wood guitar that is great for bluegrass picking. You’re a bit of a traditionalist so you’re looking for a dreadnaught shape and you’d prefer a well-known guitar brand for re-sale purposes in the future should you decide that you don’t need that type of guitar. In this senario you are probably looking for something like a Martin, Gibson, Taylor, or perhaps a Takamine guitar. This doesn’t mean these are the only good guitars you should look at. These are just some household names associated with high-quality guitars. Of course you should go with whatever brands you like if you have a favorite that is different. Guitar brand and which brand is better falls into the realm of religion and politics, everyone has an opinion….. On with the search, literally. A quick google search gives me some baseline information on new guitars in this category:

Brand Model Price
Martin MMV $1800-$2000
D16-RGT $1800-$2000
D18 $2400-$2500
D28 $2600-$2800
Taylor 400 series $1800-$2000
500 series $2000-$2300
600 series $2800-$3000
700 series $2800-$3500
Gibson Hummingbird $3000-$3500
J45 Progressive $3000-$3200
J45 $2500-$2700
Takamine Pro Systems 5 $1500-$1700
E360 $1500-$1700
Pro Systems 7 $2700-$2900
*Note these numbers are based on a recent google search which are subject to change and may be different from what you actually find in the store.

At a quick glance you can see a new guitar from these manufacturers in the style you are looking for in the scenario will run approximately 2-3 thousand dollars. This is important as you start to look at used guitars. If you’re looking at a used D28 for example and they are asking for $2700 dollars, unless the used guitar has custom guitar parts such as pickups, tuners, or any other non-standard alterations you probably should pass (unless it just sounds amazing when compared to a new one).  The next step is to start looking for used guitars!

Places to look for used guitars

I usually start by looking at Guitar Centers website. Another option is to call some of your local shops and ask if they have any used guitars of the brands or styles you are looking for. If it sounds like I’m plugging for Guitar Center, it’s not really that. I just find that they are very competitive due to a large number of stores and the high volume of transactions. If your adverse to Guitar Center try Sam Ash or Musicians friend, as any of these companies provide a very good indication of what a guitar should be worth regardless of where you end up purchasing the guitar.
A quick search shows the following:

Brand/Model Price Approximate Discount
Martin D28 $1900 20% discount from new
Martin D28 vintage 1970 $1900 20% discount from new
Taylor 710ce $1200 45% discount from new
Gibson J-45 Natural $1245 45% discount from new
Takamine Pro Series 7 $2400 10% discount from new
*Again these numbers are based on a recent Guitar Center search which are subject to change and may be different from what you actually find in the store.

These were the ones that were of interest to me based on the description and photo. From here if I was in a hurry I would call Guitar Center and have them ship the one I was interested in to the local store and then go test it out after it had arrived (i requested the j-45 be sent to local store for a $30 fee that comes off the price of the guitar if i buy it). But typically I just set these numbers aside and go try out the different guitars in stores close buy. I may spend a couple of weeks doing this until I find one that catches my interest even if I have one being shipped to the local store I use the time to see what else is available.  After trying several different instruments I find that the one I liked the most is the Gibson J-45 Natural. The reason for its discount was someone had signed it on the front, I wasn’t much interested the signature but the sound compared to a new one in the store was quite a bit better. And it came with the LR Baggs pickup system.  As you can see by looking around and searching the internet for comparable guitars I was able to get a used J-45 Natural and original hardshell case for just under 50% off the cost of a new one that sounds great.  As a bonus because it is a popular and a well known model,  I should have no trouble selling in the future should I decide to go a different direction. As a side note, I was able to lightly sand out unwanted signature and buff out the finish. But that is a story for another day.

Quick Guitar tips for inspecting used guitars (in no particular order):

  1. Does it sound good?
  2. How does the action feel?
  3. Is the neck adjustable (some older vintage guitars don’t have an adjustable truss)
  4. Does the neck look like it needs to be reset (the bridge is almost flush to saddle and the action is still too high)
  5. Is the saddle starting to separate from the guitar? ( you can check this by running a business card around the edge of the saddle.  if it goes in.. it is starting to pull away)
  6. Do the electronics work?
  7. Are the frets grooved from too much play and need to be re-fretted?
  8. Do all the tuning keys work?
  9. How does the finish look
  10. In larger stores you can ask if they can put new strings on it to get a better idea of how it sounds

In general, you just want to have an idea what you are getting into.  If any of the repairs seem to much for you to fix yourself or perhaps will cost more than you want to spend (neck reset) you simply pass and go to the next one on your list. Hope you find this information useful and it helps you find that guitar that you just can’t put down!

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