Photo 1

During the 25 years I’ve worked on guitars, I’ve had many clients bring in a recently purchased used electric for a setup, only to discover that the axe has serious underlying problems that were not disclosed by the seller. Most guitars you find in a reputable music store have been checked out by the shop’s in-house repair team and are sold at a fair price. But in many cases, instruments acquired from online auctions, pawnshops, or flea markets are not always the “killer deal” they appear to be.

To help you avoid buying a used electric guitar that would cost more to repair than it’s worth, let’s look at some critical things you need to check before making a purchase. These are common problems that can get overlooked when you’re smitten by a flashy paint job or a cool design. (Before you go shopping for a used acoustic, read “Tips for Buying a Used Flattop.”)

Most used electric guitars are going to need some repairs or a setup, and buying a guitar that needs a little work isn’t necessarily a bad deal, as long as you come out ahead when you add bench time and parts to the selling price.

Fit and finish. The first thing most players notice on an electric guitar is the finish. Normal finish checking doesn’t detract from a used instrument’s value, but stains and discolorations do, so it’s important to inspect the paint or lacquer, which can get damaged by synthetic guitar straps or chemicals (Photo 1). Unfortunately, you can’t simply polish away such flaws if they’ve penetrated the finish.

Refinishing a guitar can be very expensive and actually lowers its value. Most electric guitars are actually worth more “stock and ugly” than “refinished and pretty.” A “refin” guitar is only worth about half of one with a stock finish—even if the original finish is scratched or worn.

Be on the lookout for cracks that go through the finish right down to the wood. A deep crack in the finish can be a sign of separating seams in the body, whether it’s a solid, semi-hollow, or hollow instrument. It’s very expensive to fix such structural damage.

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Heads up. Always thoroughly inspect the headstock! The area where the neck transitions into the headstock is vulnerable to damage, and Photo 2 shows what can happen if the guitar is dropped or takes a hit in this area. Look for wrinkles or ridges on and around the headstock—telltale signs of a headstock repair. Even when perfectly repaired, a guitar with a broken headstock is only worth half of one that has never been broken. This can be a game-changer when deciding to buy a used electric.

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Fretboard issues. Carefully inspect the frets. Dents or divots cause by string wear (Photo 3), can be expensive to repair or replace. Most professional luthiers charge about $150 for a fret level. A full refret can easily cost $300 to $600, depending on the condition of the fretboard.