Whether it’s a used guitar I’m purchasing in person or a new one that arrived from an online transaction, I perform the ‘Play Test’ to assess the guitar for feel, sound, and playability. And, if you’re performing the ‘Play Test’ in person, I suggest bringing a headstock tuner (I also bring a strap to sit comfortably).
Start by tuning up and checking that the open strings aren’t buzzing. Although you might be tempted to play flashy riffs and licks, start with chords first. And, an electric guitar should always be tested with an amp—you need to assess the electronics and the guitar’s sound as you run through the ‘Play Test.’
Evaluate the Sound and General Playability by Playing Chords
- Dial in a clean amp tone and start playing CAGED chords up and down the neck.
- Play the chords slowly and listen.
- As you’re doing this, also check the ‘feel’ of the guitar.
- Do the chords sound in tune?
- Compare the open-string chords with inversions in the higher positions.
- Do you hear any dead notes or buzzing?
- Feel the guitar’s action up and down the neck.
- Are the strings feeling further away from the fretboard the higher up the neck you go?
- Check the basic intonation
- Use the headstock tuner to evaluate the fretted note at the 12th fret with the harmonic.
Check the General Playability by Playing Licks and Solos
- Play some of your favorite licks up and down the neck.
- Perform the licks slowly in all positions and listen for dead notes or buzzes.
- Try playing slow, upper-fret bends and listen for notes that fret out or strings that choke.
Evaluate the Neck
- Sight down the fingerboard from the nut to the bridge
- Look for parallel frets.
- Use the Low E string as a straight edge.
- Does the neck look straight or relatively even with a slight concave bow? This is okay.
- Are there any prominent humps? This is not okay.
- In playing position, fret the low-E at the 1st fret with your left hand and, with your right hand, fret where the neck joins the body.
- Look for a slight gap between the string and the top of the fret at the 7th or 8th fret. The gap should be the thickness of the high-E string.
- Repeat with the G and high-E strings.
Check the Nut Height by Fretting Each String at the 4th Fret
- Assess the gap between the underside of the string and the top of the 1st fret.
- There should be a slight gap.
Fundamental neck issues can be handled by adjusting the neck’s truss rod. If you have a convex bow, you need to tighten the truss rod; if you have a concave bow, you need to loosen the truss rod.
Truss rod adjustments are made in quarter turns and re-evaluating. It would help to revisit some of the ‘Play Test’ steps as you re-evaluate. Remember, you could only be a short turn of an Allen key away from a properly set-up guitar that is a pleasure to play.
On the other hand, a guitar that is not set up correctly can be frustrating to play. In my case, when my guitars start acting up, I notice that I pick and fret harder to try and compensate for the uncomfortability.
I learned the hard way to take my time and evaluate the guitar’s sound, feel, and playability. None of these have do with the way the guitar looks. If you’re anything like my, the guitars looks are the easiest thing to notice and fall in love with first. And I’ll try to convince myself that certain issues with sound, feel, and playability are no big deal.
But, as time goes by, the infatuation wears off and is overtaken by frustration because the guitar doesn’t play or stay in tune—and, it never did. Or, the wiring was always a little suspect and the pots are noisy. So, you make several trips to the guitar shop and drop more money on a faulty instrument.
Avoid these problems and seriously scrutinize the instrument as you go through the ‘Play Test.’ I’ve discovered that simple chords and licks, when played slowly as I carefully listen, will let you know that the guitar’s playability is up to par.
I also cover some other topics in depth in my article, “How to Inspect a Guitar for Damage.” I cover the guitar from top to bottom and what to look for when purchasing a guitar. Also, there’s suggestions for possible solutions and tweaks that you can easily do to troubleshoot these problem areas.
Acquiring a new guitar is exciting and can lead to a lifetime of enjoyment. But, it can be frustration if you get a new instrument that is constantly in the shop because of nagging little issues. So, educate yourself and learn how to perform minor tweaks and repairs. And, enjoy that new guitar.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article; I hope it has helped you in some small way.
Till next time, practice smart and play from the heart.
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