I call it research, and we all do some form of it. My investigation session starts with Sweetwater and Youtube. I load the Sweetwater landing page, type the guitar make and model in the search box, and watch the spinning wheel of death until my product page has successfully loaded.
Next, I read the specs and watch the videos, and if I’m still interested, I open another browser tab and repeat the process on Youtube. I have my favorite influencers and watch them demo my possible new acquisition. I watch video after video as I daydream of playing said guitar through my rig, with my band, at one of my gigs.
I also perform a similar investigatory method using Reverb and Ebay. But this process goes nowhere. That is until it finally does, and I make a purchase.
Now, the guitar shows up, and I tear through the packing, and I go through the disappointment of the guitar not living up to my expectations.
This happened with my Dean Zelinsky Tagliare. This was a custom order that I made through the Zelinsky guitar site. After playing one, I ordered the guitar online, which made this a little different than the typical purchase where I’ve purchased a guitar with little to no physical reference point.
I made my travel plans to the states as I was visiting family in NYC and was planning to stay for six weeks. Indeed the guitar would arrive before I returned to my home in the Andes Mountains.
Unfortunately, the guitar arrived 36 hours before my flight. And it played terribly. This left me with a dilemma. Do I return the guitar the next day and hope the manufacturer fixes it, replaces it, or gives me a refund? Or do I keep it and fix it myself?
I opted for the latter. I packed my bags and headed for the airport. The entire flight, I wondered if I had made a mistake.
Fortunately, I can make some basic repairs and perform a proper setup. And after this experience, I can confidently make an online purchase, assess the guitar’s condition, and perform some basic maintenance techniques that most guitarists should know.
BTW, about that Dean Zelinsky Tagliare that I almost returned but decided to keep. It’s become my main gigging guitar, and I love it. After a complete setup, the guitar plays, feels, and sounds great.
Buying Guitars Online Is The New Norm
I grew up hanging around record stores and guitar shops. I prefer holding and playing the instrument for a while before spending my hard-earned money. But we live in a different world today, and purchasing products and services online is the new norm.
Most reputable companies offer an exchange and/or return policy. And most purchases are secure. So ordering a guitar online is a safe and easy option. But there are some ways to assess that your instrument is in good working order before the exchange/return window closes. And some of these essential maintenance tips you should already know. And they’re easy enough to learn how.
If you know what to look for and how to perform some basic instrument tweaks, you should have no problem purchasing online.
And if you need to know what to look for, I’ll show you in this article. Also, these tips will help you assess a new or used guitar before you buy it.
How to Check If Your New Guitar Is In Good Condition
I could’ve returned the guitar in my Dean Zelinsky story, and who knows how that would’ve played out. Instead, I took my time with the instrument and performed the tweaks I had learned over the years. My concern was that this was a brand-new guitar that should’ve been set up correctly before leaving the manufacturer.
In all fairness, the guitar could’ve appropriately played when it did leave the manufacturer and shifted during shipping. They didn’t know my playing preferences regarding string height and neck relief.
I’m sure that many of you have similar stories. Let’s avoid future misunderstandings with a little bit of knowledge, and maybe you’re just a truss rod adjustment away from years of playing enjoyment with a guitar you already own.
Here’s what I look for when I’m checking out a guitar to buy or when I have already purchased the guitar online and it first arrives.
The overall condition of the instrument can tell you a lot about the instrument. And we’re looking beyond the scratches, dings, and normal wear and tear.
Used instruments should show some signs of use, but if the guitar is well-maintained, there should be little wrong with it. But there’s also that poor forgotten guitar that’s been sitting in a closet or under a bed for years and is covered with dust, dirt, and grime.
In either case, if you’re looking at a used guitar, try to find out as much as possible about the instrument’s history. Send the seller an email and ask for a bit of background. A well-used guitar will show signs of fret wear and fingerboard wear. You’ll also find that pots and the pickups might be noisy and worn.
These are not dealbreakers. A well-used guitar could be well-used for a reason. And everything that I mentioned above can be cleaned, conditioned, and fixed.
For new guitars, I tend to look them over for scratches or dings with the expectation of not finding any. But, this is the only step that I quickly work through.
Bottom Line: Give the guitar a quick look to enjoy the wow factor. For new guitars, I don’t expect any issues. But, for used guitars, take your time and assess the sound, feel, playability, and look. More on this in “How I ‘Play Test’ a New or Used Guitar ” article.
Always check the tuning machines. You want to ensure they feel right, i.e., not too loose or stiff. A friend of mine describes loose tuners as sloppy, which is a great way to describe them.
You can use a drop of oil on the open gears for stiff tuners. But, I’ve also seen some older tuners that have a hole on the back—to be honest, I’ve only seen these on older and cheaper no-name brand guitars.
Enclosed tuners are usually fine. But they may need a slight adjustment with a Slotted- or Phillips-head screwdriver at the end of the tuner button. I’ll do this every few years on my guitars to even out the tension. But I’ll only clean the tuning machines on my guitars with locking tuners because they’re of better quality with little need for maintenance and adjustments.
For modern tuners, the large retaining bolt on the tuner may come loose over time, and this is easy to adjust using the correct size spanner.
Bottom Line: A guitar that doesn’t play or stay in tune can be a nightmare, and it doesn’t matter how pretty or great it looks. Out of tune is a dealbreaker. But, minor wear and tear is expected. And you can begin assessing the tuners by feeling for the stiffness or looseness of the tuners.
Also, I have no problem upgrading the tuning machines to locking tuners, and this could be a haggling point if you’re buying a used guitar. Although, I have upgraded mid-level guitars to make them gig-ready, and I budget for this.
Check the post-hole sizes! Vintage-style tuners have a smaller post hole than modern tuners.
My second electric guitar was a cheap, used L-style that I purchased for under $100. I took it to my lesson, and my teacher told me the nut was worn out. The good news was that it wasn’t cracked—which is the first thing to look out for when assessing the nut.
The string grooves are the next thing you’d want to check; this was the problem with my black Les Paul copy. The quick fix is to place tin foil under the string or strings that buzz. But this is just a quick fix rather than a long-term solution.
For new guitars, many are factory shipped with .009 gauge strings. And, if you put higher gauge strings on your new guitar, you may experience some tuning issues on the lower strings. These strings get caught in the string groove creating some tuning issues, but this is also an easy fix.
Bottom Line: If the nut is cracked, it must be replaced, which is challenging for a newbie. While this is not a dealbreaker for the right guitar, it is a job for an experienced repair person. A pro can optimize the guitar’s action, lower the string grooves to the proper height, and address the tuning issues of a tight nut slot.
But if you’re only dealing with a tight nut slot, you can try fixing it yourself. Use 1,200-grit sandpaper and fix the sticking point yourself. Then add a bit of Nut Sauce or string lubricant, and you should be all set.
For basic maintenance, clean the nut occasionally with a stiff toothbrush and light lubricant. I like Wilkinson’s SlipStick.
Fret wear is easy to see and feel. The first thing to look for is grooves and see how deep those grooves are. These grooves may be deep and uneven if the guitar has been used (and used a lot). These can be normal wear and only cosmetic. But some grooves can cause playability issues, especially when bending a string.
An improperly smoothed fret can be a headache for new guitars, especially cheaper ones. Wallet-friendly guitars are mass-produced and not heavily scrutinized before they leave the factory.
Smoothing out frets is also a job that you can do yourself. I suggest smoothing out the frets after you straighten the neck.
Bottom Line: Glance at the frets and check for grooves and wear.
For minor fixes and aesthetics, you can quickly fix them by using 600-grit sandpaper and a hardwood block. Rub the frets from the bass to the treble side. This should keep the frets nice and shiny.
You’ll need a professional for major fret wear issues, such as buzzing caused by uneven frets. Full and partial refrets are costly, so you must be sure your guitar is worth refretting. Also, fingerboard binding and maple refinishing add to the refretting repair.
Most fingerboard issues are simple clean-up jobs. I’ve never had an issue with a new guitar. But I have had some used guitars worth the time and energy to clean up, set up and flip. And all of those used guitars had gunky fingerboards.
Cleaning a fingerboard is easy and should be performed with every string change. But, when assessing a used instrument, I’ll scrape some gunk off the fingerboard with my thumbnail and look for cracks.
Most dirt and grime will come off with a damp cloth and some elbow grease. For the tough spots, I use an old plastic credit card.
You can also use some fingerboard oil but use it lightly. Fingerboard oils and conditioners are overused and can cause loose frets if you soak your fingerboard. Ed note: I’ve actually had a student do that. He coated the fingerboard with oil and let it sit overnight. The frets came loose.
Bottom Line: Fingerboard condition should be noticed on many used instruments. And any problems with binding or cracks are usually easy to see if you look closely. I’ve never experienced a fingerboard issue that has made me walk away from the guitar.
For cleaning, apply the oil to a cloth and not directly to the fingerboard. Rub the oil into the fingerboard and use some elbow grease. Let it dry and rub off the residue with a clean cloth and restring. You’re all set.
This is an important one. Let’s start with bolt-on necks. And please be gentle when checking the neck security. Gently try to move the neck from side to side. If there’s a problem it will be immediately noticeable. You’ll feel a slight movement.
This could be something as simple as tightening the neck screws. But it could also be something a little more serious, like the neck pocket’s base being uneven or uneven finish build-up.
Perform the same gentle side-to-side movement for a set (or glued-on) neck. If you feel any play, walk away.
Bottom Line: Check the neck security by gently moving the neck from side to side. You may need to tighten the neck screws if the neck is loose. But don’t overtighten! If the screws feel tight and the neck is still loose, take it to a pro or walk away. If a set neck wiggles walk away.
When was the last time you checked your bridge? I’m guilty of overlooking the bridge as well. Sometimes I’ll forego the setup and change strings quickly to get to the next gig or rehearsal and ignore the bridge. But a quick look at the bridge can tell you a lot.
First, check for rust on the saddles. This is common on an ignored bridge. And, if you’re assessing the bridge on an S-style guitar, only adjust the saddles after addressing the rust first.
Another problem area on S-style bridges is that the bass side saddles are sometimes screwed too close to the back wall of the bridge.
Here’s a tip for cleaning rust on an S-style guitar: Squirt some WD-40 into a small bowl and apply the oil to the saddle with an artist’s brush. This allows you to control the amount of oil you use for the saddle.
If you’re assessing a tune-o-matic bridge, check to see if the saddles are sitting at the front or back edge of the bridge. If yes, this will keep your guitar from intonating properly.
Bottom Line: Rust and gunk are common bridge issues that, over time, can affect the performance of the bridge. But these can easily be cleaned with some WD-40 and a stiff toothbrush. For stubborn rust, please remove the parts from the guitar and soak them in WD-40 overnight.
Another rust area to look for is the small Allen key socket at the top of a Fender height adjustment screw. You can also soak the screw overnight and use a needle to clean the gunk.
Pickups, Pots, and Wiring
A few years ago, I was asked to look at a 1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom for $3000. This was for a friend who was considering purchasing it. I thought to myself, “That price can’t be right?!” I checked it out, ran through the checklist above, and everything worked. I plugged the guitar in, and the electronics worked, but something was not quite right about the guitar.
I asked if I could open it up and look at the wiring. The seller said sure (after all, it wasn’t his guitar, he was just a broker). I couldn’t believe what I saw. The wiring was terrible. It looked like a child had done the soldering, and the wires were cheap, plus there wasn’t any shielding. I encouraged my friend to walk away.
But I learned a precious lesson. Check everything on the guitar and inside when buying a used guitar.
If the guitar has no strings—yes, I’ve experienced this too—then plug it in and check the pole pieces. Adjust the pickup selector switch and then the tone and volume controls. Are they working correctly? Are they noisy? Are they loose?
At first glance, the 1968 Les Paul looked lovely. But, had it not been for the wiring, I could’ve made a mistake and cost my friend a lot of money. It turned out that this guitar was a Chibson.
Ed note: Chibsons are Gibson replicas made in China. While some guitars are good, others are sold as vintage Gibsons.
Noisy controls are not a dealbreaker, but that faulty wiring certainly was.
- Check everything on the guitar.
- Make sure you plug it in, and it works properly.
- If the guitar passes that test, open it up if you can and ‘look under the hood.’
Electronics are not in my wheelhouse, but you can tell when a professional has done the work.
If you purchase a guitar online, you can take it through these paces at your leisure, and I suggest you look at the wiring. New guitars shouldn’t be a problem, and used guitars may have a noisy pickup or control switch that could use a drop of switch cleaner, which is normal.
But a deal that seems too good to be true should be a sign that you should check everything.
I’ll go as far as to purchase a new mid-level guitar and upgrade the tuning machines, pickups, and pots to turn it into a gig-ready workhorse.
The steps I outlined here are for evaluating any guitar under many circumstances. I take these steps to assess a new or used guitar purchase and perform this test before an in-person purchase or after the online order arrives.
I also use this process when one of my guitars starts acting up. Although, I know my guitars very well and can make a slight neck or saddle adjustment on the fly. But, occasionally, it’s worth taking the guitar through the “How I ‘Play Test’ a New or Used Guitar” and performing a proper setup. This keeps the guitar playing in top condition.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article; I hope you got something out of it.
Till next time, practice smart and play from the heart.
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