Since I began repairing guitars professionally in 1990, thousands of instruments have crossed my bench. Many were used guitars purchased by owners who thought they were getting a great deal, but were later surprised to discover their instrument needed extensive repairs. Music stores, online auctions, and pawnshops can be a great resource for buying a used instrument, but you need to keep your eyes open. What you don’t see can and will cost you.
Here’s a list of things to check before buying a used acoustic guitar. These are issues that are typically overshadowed by sexy features, but they can cost more to repair than the value of the instrument. My hope is that armed with this knowledge, you’ll avoid making a costly mistake when buying a used flattop.
Check the seams and joints. One of the first things I do is inspect the glue joints—areas where different parts attach. I suggest starting with the neck joint. Does the neck heel fit tightly against the body? Relentless string tension can make the very end of the heel pull away from the body, as in Photo 1. Removing and resetting the neck costs hundreds of dollars, so in most cases, this type of gap is a deal-killer.
Run your finger along the binding to check its integrity, using your fingernail to identify any seams that are opening (Photo 2). Binding that’s separating from the sides, top, or back can be expensive to repair, especially if it’s deteriorating.
Got cracks? Always check for cracks in the wood. Potentially problematic areas include the vulnerable headstock, top, and back (Photo 3). Cracks can be a sign of structural failure or result from the guitar being exposed to low humidity—a common malady. Whatever the cause, cracks may cost hundreds of dollars to repair.