If buying secondhand guitars fills you with dread, follow our fault and flaw guide to dodgy instruments.
Presenting the MAKING MUSIC secondhandist's guide for those bits to watch on six-strings and basses plucked from walls by salesmen and from under beds by classy-ad placers.
THE ONCE OVER: Anything missing? Pickups, knobs and machines are easy to spot, but check the screws, especially those holding the neckplate at the back. Likewise the machines (a screwless machine head might start life okay, but later twist out of position), and the intonation screws in the bridge (those that shift the saddle backwards and forwards - caution now will save you jamming bits of silver paper in the gaps later).
If they're all there, are any screws badly scarred or burred? - could be signs of DIY hamfisting by the previous owner. Apart from these, consider any obvious scratches, flaws and evidence of mishandling, and whether these affect the value.
START WIGGLING: On a Les Paul style headstock, do either the D or G machine heads appear bashed or loose. If the guitar's fallen over a lot (dumb previous owner) these are the extrusions that cop it. Poke the pickups to see if they fall inside the body, tug on the strap buttons in case they're working free (danger plus embarrassment when new buy drops off your strap) and heave on control knobs. If the latter pop off, don't worry unduly, just put them in your pocket (once you've paid) and return them to their proper position later. At least they won't fall off in the bus on the way home.
FRET, NUT, SADDLE: Are the frets very flat on top, and barely standing above the surface of the fingerboard. Then they've been continually stoned (YEAHH!!) to lower the action. Could produce intonation problems. The string finds itself in contact with a piece of metal almost ¼in wide instead of a gently rounded peak. Somewhere (anywhere) within that ¼in is the proper intonation point.
Are any frets lifting? Can you get a fingernail between the underside of the fret and the timber of the fingerboard? Yes? Not so good. Does the tang (the stem of the fret below the surface of the wood) reach past the fretboard layer and touch the wood of the neck itself? This could indicate a past re-fret. Not a problem if the job's been well done, indeed an expert may even have boosted the guitar's value, but it should make you suspect that the guitar's lived a hard life.
Is the nut worn, cut too deep or wide so that strings buzz, or packed with those familiar bits of silver paper. Nuts can be replaced but if in a bad state, you could be getting a false idea of how the guitar performs. Might be able to convince the shop to stick in a new nut as part of the deal.
AN ACOUSTIC: Is the saddle badly chipped or worn? Beware acoustics with low saddles and high actions, especially if the timber of the body's top bows upwards noticeably behind the bridge. Not much room for adjustment there, monsieur.
HAS YOUR desired instrument been treated to any additional cosmetics since it left the factory (check this by trying to a find a brochure that has a shot of the original in it.) Thinks... is the fancywork there to make it look nicer, or to cover a hideous botch by a previous owner/repairer? Example, we once saw a bass neck that had been shaved thinner (at the owner's request) and then had an ornamental black stripe added to the back (the repair shop's idea). This was because the "repairman" had shaved so inexpertly, the metal of the truss rod had started poking out through the wood, and the stripe was there to conceal it.
Physically place the guitar on your lap in the playing position, and gently try to move the neck vertically up and down. If it gives and shifts appreciably, (up or down by half an inch at the headstock end) this could be sign of a poorly machined neck/body joint. Should be okay if the guitar is destined for a quiet life at home. Wild on-stage thrashing could worry it.
NOW PLUG IN: (checking that the jack socket isn't loose or crackly.) All controls on full, twang a string and move the guitar around, jiggle it about, etc. You should get a strong signal, without cut-outs or crackles as you wave the guitar around, which would indicate loose wiring. Twang string again, and turn all the controls from full to off and back. Do they fulfil their appointed tasks, without humming, crackling or general nasty rustling noises? Same for pickup selectors and coil tap switches, if on board.
With guitar turned up, but no strings struck, is there an unpleasantly loud hum (faint hum is to be expected from single coil guitars, especially near strip lights, dimmers, etc, but only as a background presence). Does it change when you touch the strings or a metal part of the guitar... drastically. If so, earthing may be suspect.
Pluck each string individually. Is any one wildly louder or quieter than the rest (potential pickup fault). Some small variation is to be expected. Very hard to evaluate feedback danger before getting the guitar in a loud environment, but you could try tapping the pickups with something hard (a pencil, your head). If loud, hollow bonking noises issue forth from amp, pickups are microphonic and that usually implies they're prone to feedback.
CHECK THE TUNING: Take a tuner or pitch pipe with you, borrow one if needs be, or ask the shop. Make sure the guitar is at least somewhere near proper pitch. If the strings are well below, could be that someone has slackened them off to improve the feel, lower the action, and prevent a weak neck bending under the strain.
ACTION and intonation. These are harder areas for the newcomer to judge (rent a knowledgeable mate for the day if poss). Look along the neck. There should be a mild downwards dip in the middle (NOT absolutely straight). Verify by pressing down the top E at the first and last frets at the same time, and looking at the length of string in between these two points. There should be air beneath the string around the seventh fret. Metal should not be touching metal. While peering down the neck length, be on the lookout for any sideways twisting (a warped neck) that is, not maniacal sixties dancing from salesman).
If you can slip a matchstick between the top E string and the 12th fret and it's almost held in place, the action is okay. If you can slip a ball point pen in the same gap and not meet friction, the action is not okay.
ANY ONE of these faults shouldn't be enough for you to storm out of the shop in protest. Three or more ought to put you into price/bargain validation scenario (is it as cheap as you'd like, or is the dealer prepared to knock a bit more off). More than three or four and you'll have to be very much in love with the instrument to go ahead.
But always bear in mind that some of the above signs merely indicate a dumb previous owner, and are not necessarily the guitar's fault. After all, you are going to be more careful and loving aren't you?
The truly dangerous flaws - bad neck joints, lifting frets, twists to the neck, etc - are those introduced at the factory, and there you'll have to think hard.
FINALLY, the oldest advice is the finest. If at all possible, take a more knowledgeable friend with you to give an independent opinion. And don't buy anything that doesn't feel right to you. If in doubt, keep the wallet closed. When the salesman says, 'that's okay, there's three other people dying to have it,' fine, let them spend their money unwisely. Bet you it will still be in the window next week.
Feature by Paul Colbert
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