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Music U.K. Tells You How To Buy Secondhand Gear

Article from Music UK, January 1983

Getting the thorns out of that second-hand rose

There are two reasons for buying secondhand musical equipment. The first is that for some reason you particularly want a product which is no longer made. The second is that the contents of your pockets resemble the collected volumes of the wit and humour of Joe Stalin. They're very different motivations, of course, but there can't be many (any?) musos around who haven't at some time or another found themselves faced with the prospect of spending their hard earned cash on an unknown secondhand quantity. There are, thankfully, some golden rules to follow when looking at used equipment, rules which apply more to the beginner starting our trying to equip his band on a shoestring than the experienced player who knows a lot about gear and what to look for. His biggest worry is getting screwed by the rip-off merchants who disguise relatively valueless old guitars to make them look like much sought after vintage instruments. It happens frequently (sadly frequently) and some very big name musicians have found themselves parting with hundreds and even thousands of pounds, only to be told later by a real expert on vintage instruments that they've bought a fake.

There's only one way round that problem. Make damned sure that you know a lot about your subject before you buy an old guitar from a private individual who is purporting to sell you a particular vintage guitar. It's like the antiques business in that sense, the only way to survive is to be able to tell a real 16th. Century crapping stool from a 1920's fake! If you don't know the marks made by a 'converter' of fake goods, and you're not totally sure of the real thing then either don't buy or take someone along with you who does know. Of course, to knowingly sell a fake as the real thing is a criminal offence in the U.K. and it's unlikely that a dealer would risk such a serious charge knowingly. In case you're not sure (and it could well be that he could be acting in good faith, not realising that he was ripping you off) make certain that you get a receipt for the instrument which states exactly what he is selling it as. Should you find out later that he was wrong, and if he argues, then you have a watertight case which you can either take to the local office of fair trading (contact the town hall) or privately to a solicitor.

I must stress, however, that I doubt if there are many retailers who are deliberately bent enough to try this sort of stunt on. Most retailers will admit they made a mistake, refund your money and chase the sod who took them for a ride!

But, life being the nasty business that it is, the real problems with buying secondhand gear don't concern awful decisions like whether or not to buy yet another '58 Les Paul Gold Top for most of us. We're the great multitude who simply cannot afford a new amp or guitar or something equally necessary. For us a brand new guitar may cost us such a large sum of money that our amp has to be secondhand. Or maybe we just need a spare guitar, or an acoustic which we won't be using often enough to justify the cost of a new one. How do we know that what we are buying actually works and, with luck, should keep on doing so until we can afford something better?

Probably the band member who has the greatest problem in this area is the keyboard player. Although the advent of micro electronics and integrated circuits has meant that there are now instruments retailing at silly prices which are capable of sounds previously only the province of fully pro items, it may well be that even the rank beginner will need several keyboards if he is to make a go of a good stage sound — and that may still call for buying some of them secondhand. Furthermore, good though some of the new mini keyboards are they don't always offer all the sounds you need and you may be forced to look backwards in time to find something that will provide what you want.


To equip yourself with several items means that you've probably got to buy secondhand when you start, so what do you look out for? Well, this raises, immediately, a question which bothers anyone buying secondhand anything, from cars to Hi-Fi to houses. Do you buy privately and have little or no comeback should things go horribly silent during your first major solo, or do you pay a retailer his profit margin and get some sort of guarantee?

The answer has got to be up to you and your own experience and judgement. Possibly the only really safe way of buying a secondhand instrument privately is to buy direct from a friend who has used the gear for a while and who is selling because he is either giving up the game altogether or upgrading his own system. That way you know the product's history. If you're buying 'blind', through the pages of Sounds or Exchange and Mart then you are running a risk. All you can do is try a few tests (more about which soon) and pray that the saving you are making over a dealer's price will cover any repairs which may prove necessary if you are unlucky.

A dealer may not offer a cast-iron guarantee but he is obliged by law to offer goods which are of merchantable quality so the gear must work properly when you buy it — you can at least be legally sure of that. And anyway, dealer's are not the musician's enemy. If anything goes wrong reasonably soon after purchase, most dealers, if approached in a sensible way, and without instant threats of writs and physical violence, will try to help you. They know only too well that a satisfied customer will always come back for more and will spread kind words around about his shop. Go back with the product and explain in pleasant tones what went wrong. If you get a boot up your backside, well, you know what to tell your friends about that shop, don't you! Believe me, most retailers are too jealous of their reputations to be silly if something goes wrong soon after a purchase. Of course, they might offer something 'as seen' and here it's up to you to decide whether it's worth the price they are asking, bearing in mind that there's no comeback if things do go wrong.


Fortunately for the modern keyboard player, electronic instruments tend to be very reliable. Gone are the days when Hammond organs ran off lovely old valves and tone wheels which were subject to wear (however good they were) and modern equipment is almost all solid state which means that, in practice, the components can be regarded as most unlikely to actually 'wear out' (with the obvious exceptions of knobs, switches, key mechanisms and the like). What can happen however, is that these components can break down, usually due to well aimed pints of Newcastle Brown or over-vigorous attention in the back of a Transit van minus half its suspension system. Fortunately faults of this kind manifest themselves easily. All you have to do is plug the synth in and try every single function offered. If switches crackle and keys do not operate smoothly then you know you've got a rough item. Usually a dealer will ensure that gear like this is not offered for sale before it is serviced. If pots and switches do crackle in use then they can either be just dirty or so well worn that they require replacement. Unless you can be sure that the former is the case avoid equipment symptoms like this.

Keys, ditto, should work easily, return correctly and produce all the effects specified. One happy co-incidence is that many Japanese manufacturers have a nasty habit of introducing new models every few months or so, outdating previous lines which, hence, lose their re-sale value on the secondhand market. If these superseded models suit you then fine, go right ahead and buy them. If not, they should never be looked upon as an investment. As times change they are likely to lose even more value rather than appreciate. In this sense they are the opposite of fine guitars which can actually gain in price. Secondhand synthesisers can be cheap but they aren't much of an investment. If you simply try every function loudly through a good amp, though, you're unlikely to buy a duff one — faults show easily on equipment like this, so watch out for false tuning, sticky and inoperative keys, wave forms which don't etc. etc. — your test here will be mainly from the ears.

Drummers have an easier time altogether. Despite all the baloney talked about developments in drum technology, drums haven't changed a great deal in twenty years or so. The basic problems with kits remain the same, some offer good fittings and some don't, some lose their shell shape and some don't. When buying a secondhand kit these factors are really all you have to worry about.


Don't take too much notice of the heads they come with, or even the sound produced by the kit. If you've heard another drummer getting the sound you like out of a brand XYZ kit and you are offered one similar then ail you have to look at are mechanical factors. Possibly drums are the easiest instruments to buy privately as they are so easy to check for faults. Don't be afraid to take off front or bottom heads and peer inside looking for cracks in the laminates and any hints that the drum shapes have gone out of true. If they are perfectly round and show no signs of warping then you're o.k. to buy them, providing they manifest no cracks or other faults.

Stands and fittings are also vital. Different brands have different advantages and faults in their fittings but often one make will swap for another. If all the money you have to spend is going on the kit then carefully check the fittings. Make sure that nuts lock when they should, that threads aren't stripped — purely mechanical considerations which any drummer can check for himself.

Buying used cymbals is a little dodgier. Apart from cracks the main difficulty with cymbals is that, despite some manufacturers' assurances to the contrary, many supposedly identical cymbals sound different from each other. Look for chips and the early signs of cracks in the metal. If you like the sound of the cymbals, trust the fittings and find that the shells are o.k. then you're pretty safe to buy, secure in the knowledge that your favourite head brand and your own tuning will get you the sound you want. Even duff fittings can be changed and drums can be recovered so they're easy to buy. Drummers are lucky players!

Not so guitarists, who have many difficult considerations to worry about. The basic checks on any guitar are A/ that it has a straight neck, B/ that the intonation is accurate, C/ that it functions properly without electro/mechanical faults in the pickups and controls, D/ that the fretting is o.k. E/ that it's a sound you actually want, F/ the machines work well and hold their tuning.


All this sounds very hit and miss but, actually only a straight neck is a problem. Even some very experienced guitarists seem to believe that a straight neck means that if you sight it like an arrow every good guitar neck will be dead straight. Regrettably this is not true for many guitars. The physics of producing an accurate intonation from a fretted (or fretless for that matter) instrument dictate that often there will be a slight dip in the neck — a factor which can prove that old adage about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. Unless you know what to look for it's far better to look at the guitar's neck for twists and warps rather than dips and stick to an intonation test for telling you whether the guitar is 'in' or not. All you do to see this for yourself is sound a harmonic at the twelfth fret. Next you play the fretted note at the same position. The two notes should be identical — or near enough. A dealer should be able (as should every guitar player for that matter) to adjust the string length (via an adjustable bridge) to make sure that any guitar he is selling is in tune thus. If you've got cloth ears you can always take along a small guitar tuner to check it for yourself.

Small deviations can be caused by even slightly worn strings but it's a risk to buy an old guitar with duff intonation as it can be the sign of a warped neck or such other nasty faults as incorrect fret placing. For all that there is little that cannot be corrected by a good guitar repairer and if you are offered a vintage guitar for silly money it could be well worth buying it whatever the faults — they can all be corrected with enough skill and money. In case you think that bargains cannot be had, two acquaintances of mine have picked up bargains in the last few years, one bought a vintage Strat for £30, the other a fine Ricky bass for about the same! One famous musician I heard about recently bought an unplayed Gibson Mandolin in the-States for £60 in a junk shop. Battered? No, the mandolin had never even been played, and it was 1930's vintage!!


Assuming that your guitar plays in tune when chords and runs are played at the high end of the neck, try plugging it in and winding up you test amp. The pots shouldn't crackle when turned, and they should work soundlessly well. The nut should be unworn and cleanly cut and the machines not slip when the strings are tuned up. The frets shouldn't overlap the edge of the fingerboard and rasp against your fingers and their heights should be even. All electrical parts like switches and sockets should function quietly and smoothly as they should on a new model. Again, never turn down a bargain because of one minor fault (most things can be put right) but why buy a guitar which seems weak in any area when you can get a better one elsewhere for the same money? Finally, listen to it. Pickups shouldn't whistle or seem loose and the sound should be free of any buzzing from the frets or the electrical components.

Finally, onto amps. Do be very careful when buying these as many amps have the capability of frying you if they are seriously faulty. Make sure even before trying them that they are either connected to a standard 13 amp plug fitted with the appropriate fuse (usually 3 amp, but not always) or a proper 'trap' which is also fused correctly. Check that the fuses on the amp itself are actually fitted, and that some previous clown hasn't resorted to the lethal 'silver paper round a matchstick' trick and, assuming that all is correct electrically, plug in and fire away. First off run through the amp using a guitar or keyboard that you know — preferably your own. Check the pots and switches for crackles as you turn each of them up and discard the amp if they sound crackly and the dealer will not offer to replace any defective ones or clean those which are merely dirty.

Watch out for very old imported amps, even if they are ostensibly of U.K. manufacture. With valve amps it is vital that they use valves which are currently available, for the output stage. Refuse any valve unit which runs on obsolete valves as most amps need re-valving every year at least with even semi-serious use and it's hard to get some types these days. Check that the cabinet is sturdy enough (they do get dropped you know!) and listen closely to the speaker. Do not probe the cone with your fingertips, it won't tell you anything. Just listen for false notes, unwanted distortion and any odd crackles, whistles, hums and bangs which can come from the amp. Be especially careful to see that a foreign made amp will run on our own 240 Volt 50 Hz supply (it will have a plate on the back telling you this sort of information). Assuming that all is well in these tests, you're reasonably safe to go ahead.


Much the same tests apply to PA equipment, at least the sort of PA gear which most semi-pro bands use. If speakers sound knackered (try connecting another set of speakers to any duff sounding mixer amps) do remember that speaker re-cones come fairly cheap as do, for that matter, some types of new replacement speakers. If you're offered a bargain price on a PA system and you suspect a couple of the speakers are on the way home don't automatically rule it out. Many a basically weak PA speaker cab has been improved out of all recognition by the fitting of a decent speaker in place of a manufacturer's cheaper one!

There's a phrase in law 'caveat emptor' which means 'let the buyer beware'. Despite the various Sales Of Goods Acts of recent years and the growth of consumer movements generally, it still applies that it's down to you to make the correct choice when buying anything. If you are unsure, always take a more experienced friend along with you when buying. The less you know, the more you need a trustworthy dealer with a good local reputation for selling secondhand equipment. Those buying outside the dealer's safety net (which you are paying for, of course) are taking a risk which only personal knowledge will counter. The choice is yours.

Secondhand gear is an inevitable purchase for every musician at some stage in his career (often at both ends of it, for the reasons stated at the start of this article) and if you use your common sense you're unlikely to go wrong. If you haven't got any, and are honest enough to admit it, then buy new every time, that way most of the risk is removed. But it's only really with synthesisers that equipment goes out of date rather than out of fashion, so the rest of us are reasonably safe. In compensation secondhand 'out of date' synths can be an exceptionally good buy. With a little common sense and a vaguely suspicious (although not paranoid) attitude we can all benefit from secondhand gear when we need it.

New or old, the choice is yours — and old can be a good buy for the sensible player. All you need is a little well placed caution and you won't go far wrong. But never forget, gear prices in recent years have come down considerably, taking inflation into account.

If what you need is only on the market secondhand, or it's all you can afford, applying the simple guidelines here will help. The key is to be cautious but not hyper critical. There's gold in some of this old equipment; vintage valve amps to be picked up for a song (or should that read 'for a riff'?) and 'only just out of date' Jap synths for very little money, drums that people have got bored with and various other goodies. Sure, buying secondhand can be risky but with care it can be like walking into a gold mine with an open invitation to help yourself. As ever it's down to your own common sense and acumen. Any sensible player can equip himself and his band for relatively low money this way. Follow the simple rules and you won't go far wrong. Happy hunting!

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Gary Moore

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Hamer Vector Guitar

Publisher: Music UK - Folly Publications

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Music UK - Jan 1983


Buyer's Guide

Feature by Gary Cooper

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> Gary Moore

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> Hamer Vector Guitar

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