At the time of publishing this article, many are still experiencing lockdowns and/or some form of restriction. Yet, at the same time, guitar sales have skyrocketed! with 1.6 million acoustic guitars sold in the US alone in the past year.
All that extra time at home has led more people to pick up the guitar. But, the reality of being unable to visit a store in person has also brought about a colossal shift in consumer behavior. While once you may not have dreamed of buying a guitar without playing it first, attitudes have changed or more accurately been forced to change.
With that in mind, in the following article, I’m going to share some useful tips I’ve used over the years for buying acoustic guitars online, that should help you avoid buying a guitar with problems. But if you are in a hurry, here is a quick summary.
When buying an acoustic guitar online: Know the value of the guitar by comparing similar listings e.g. same brand, model, and year. Look for evidence of repairs, especially neck repairs, or signs a neck reset is required (action will be high, and can’t be adjusted lower). Ask the seller how the guitar will be shipped and pay with Paypal which offers an additional level of protection.
I’ve also written a fairly detailed acoustic guitar buyers guide for beginners so if you have questions such as, should I buy a nylon or steel-string guitar? or how much to spend or you are unsure what body style and size will be an ideal fit for you click here or check out some of the links below that get even more specific:
- How to Pick The Right Size Guitar For Your Child
- What Are The Best Guitars For Fingerpicking and Fingerstyle?
- Buying an Acoustic Guitar [What To Look For]
- Short Scale Acoustic Guitars – Everything You Wanted to Know
- Why Good Acoustic Guitars Are So Expensive
- How Many Guitars Do You Really Need?
- Acoustic Guitars that Play like Electrics
- Acoustic Guitar Nut Width + Comparison Chart
- Are Fender Acoustic Guitars Good? [An In-Depth Guide]
- What Makes the Best Acoustic Guitar for Singers
- Buying An Acoustic Guitar Online
For the remainder of this article, we’ll assume you already have a pretty good idea of the guitar you are looking for and the budget you have to operate within.
Why Listen To Me?
So who am I to be giving this advice? Well, apart from writing about acoustic guitars, a lot, I’m also left-handed.
If you’re left-handed like me you already know where I’m going with this and won’t be shocked to learn that my local music store, despite holding 250+ guitars at any given time, at last count stocked 2 left-handed acoustic guitars. Sure, it’s well documented that there are plenty more left-handed options available nowadays online, but this isn’t the case in-store.
As a result, every guitar I’ve purchased since the early 2000s has been online. I’ve also owned a business that sold guitars online, so you could say I’ve seen it from both sides.
Should you Even buy guitars online without playing them first?
In a perfect world no, but these are unusual times.
That fact is, no two acoustic guitars ever truly sound and feel the same. And, just because you played the same make and model in a music store doesn’t mean the energy (e.g. projection and volume), tonal palette, and feel of the neck will be exactly the same.
With this in mind, it’s always best to play before buying where possible. But, if that opportunity isn’t available, the next best thing is to do your research, know where to look and how to find a great deal, and then follow up with the right questions to ask a potential seller. But, before all of that, decide if you are buying new or used.
Are you buying new or secondhand?
My recommendation would be to:
Buy a new guitar if:
- You are happy to pay full price and want that new guitar feeling
- You are only comfortable buying from a brick and mortar dealer and want a full warranty
- You are new to the guitar and don’t know what problems to look out for, what constitutes good value or want a bundled deal e.g. strap, stand and tuner included.
Buy secondhand if:
- You want to save money and you are less concerned about visible signs of wear
- You know enough about guitars to recognize a good deal, and spot potential problems (this article will help with that)
- You are comfortable asking lots of questions.
In short, if you are familiar enough with guitars to have developed some preferences e.g. brand, body style, neck profile, nut width, etc. I’d recommend taking a look at the second-hand market first and that’s going to be the main focus of this article.
Guitar is, unfortunately, not a hobby everyone sticks to. And just like buying a new car the minute, a new guitar leaves the store the value begins to drop (unless the guitar is an appreciating asset e.g. a vintage model or has brand recognition).
That means there are plenty of almost new guitars (e.g. hardly been played) going for at last 20% less than retail, and sometimes considerably more.
Alternatively, if you are a beginner you also increase your risk of buying a guitar with problems without the protection of a warranty or paying above the market value of the guitar. However, if this is the case you can always leverage the experience of a friend or family member that plays guitar for a second opinion.
It’s also true that many of the marketplaces you might choose to buy from offer protection for buyers if the guitar isn’t as described, or arrives damaged.
How to Buy a Second-hand Acoustic Guitar online
Where to Buy Acoustic Guitars Online
There are two major online marketplaces available to find used guitars, ebay.com and reverb.com (both also sell new guitars). You can also try craigslist if hoping to buy locally and inspect the guitar first, or the guitar center secondhand marketplace, but in most cases, eBay and Reverb have the most options.
While most of us are familiar with eBay, you may be less familiar with reverb.com.
Reverb.com has been in operation since 2013 and has grown quickly, receiving 16.97 million visitors in the previous 6 months alone. While that’s just a portion of the visitors going to eBay the site specializes in musical equipment, with a focus on guitars and accessories (new and used), unlike eBay.
This isn’t to say you should choose one over the other, I’ve always looked at both, and often the same instruments will appear on both.
Setting up Alerts
One of the best things you can do is set up alerts from both marketplaces so you receive emails with products filtered to your preferences. I receive alerts from both every day, even when not actively looking, just in case a rare gem comes along.
How to set up alerts for Acoustic Guitars on eBay
Setting up alerts on eBay is easy to do, and is based on your saved searches. To get started, first, conduct a search using the filters on the left of the listings. The options will change depending on your search term, but in most cases include:
- String configuration
- Body type
- Country of origin
- Model year
- Body material
- Number of frets
- Price range
- Buying format
- Item location and
- Shipping options.
A useful tip I sometimes use is to also include terms such as ‘price reduced’, ‘urgent sale’, or ‘or nearest offer’ by using the advanced search feature to include additional keywords.
Once you have conducted a search, click the ‘save this search’ link at the top of the page (you will need to be logged in, or sign up for a new account).
You can check your saved searches here and can edit the search filtering, remove the search (stopping further emails being sent to you), or view a collection of the items listed.
If you are planning on searching eBay for a secondhand acoustic guitar, make sure you set this up it’s a no-brainer and will give you a bigger pool of guitars to ultimately select from.
How to set up alerts for Reverb.com
Reverb.com works in much the same way, allowing you to receive notifications for your ‘feed’ based on your search preferences. The terminology is slightly different but essentially works the same way.
First, run a filtered search. You can also use advanced search operators on reverb.com, listed here.
The options Reverb.com provides are as follows:
- Category (e.g. acoustic guitars)
- Ships to
- Seller Location
- Deal type e.g. on sale or accepts offers
- Price range
- Year, and
- Buying options.
From there, click on ‘follow this feed’ as shown below and either log in or create a new account and then choose ‘add this to my daily email feed’.
And that’s all there is to it.
If you have now set up both correctly, you should receive daily emails with guitars that perfectly match your preferences.
Reviewing Acoustic Guitar Listings
Once you are receiving alerts from eBay and reverb.com it shouldn’t take long to shortlist a few potential candidates. The second-hand guitar market is quite active, especially in 2021 as many people are picking up the guitar for the first time and putting it back down again pretty quickly.
Once you have a couple of potential candidates it’s time to start scrutinizing the listing. If you have done your homework you should already have a good idea of the market value of the guitar, but if not compare similar guitars online, on both eBay and Reverb.com to ensure the guitar represents good value.
Be careful though when comparing.
Small details included in a listing can make a big difference to the price. For example, a solid wood top compared to an all-laminate top will significantly affect the value of the guitar. A guitar with a pickup system will usually be more expensive than the same guitar without.
The year the guitar was made is also important. As an example, Taylor guitars retain the same model number on the 314CE which was first introduced in 2006. This guitar has undergone several generational changes over the years affecting the preamp and revoicing the EQ to make improvements when playing plugged in. This happens all the time.
As a result, it’s smart to research not only the model but also the year and check for any significant differences.
Where the guitar is made is also an important consideration. USA-made guitars tend to be worth considerably more than guitars made in other countries, even when offered by an established brand.
Many of the higher-profile companies now offer a premium (made in the USA) line and a less expensive line of products made overseas, usually in China, South Korea, Indonesia, or Vietnam.
If unsure, research the model and year of manufacture and know what you are looking at. For example, Martin and Taylor only manufacture in the US and Mexico. The brands listed below all manufacture at least some of the line-up outside of the United States:
- Recording King
- Harley Benton
I have no issue with guitars made overseas, but you should be aware of how this affects price and resale value.
I’ve worked with a number of the larger companies in China building guitars and with the advent of CNC manufacturing and improved quality control many (not all) of the guitars coming out of China are of a good standard but will never be as valuable as a US-made guitar.
Checking the Product Photos
If you are anything like me I know you’ll be looking at the product photos before reading the listing, and there are a few important photos we need to review to rule out any major problems.
Below are the photos I’d consider essential to review prior to purchasing a guitar:
- Full-length image of the front of the guitar
- An image looking directly down the neck of the guitar from the headstock back toward the body
- A close-up of the headstock, front, and back that includes the logo, any serial numbers, and country of origin.
- Close-up images of the back of the neck.
- Close-up images of the fretboard including the fretwork (ideally side-on and from above)
- Close up of the bridge from above and the side.
Additionally, the following product photos are also helpful:
- Close up images of the body including the binding (if the guitar has binding)
- Full-length image of the back of the guitar
- A number of macro shots showing the hardware (tuners) and fretwork
If you are serious about the guitar and the listing doesn’t include all of the photos listed above, ask for them. Especially images of the neck and bridge as these are crucial when buying a used guitar.
What to Look out for
Cracks in the body
Cracks are far more likely in older guitars, but even if the guitar is reasonably new it is always worth looking over any close-up shots of the body to identify cracks, especially in the soundboard. Cross-grain cracks usually occur nearer the lower bout of the guitar, so be sure to pay attention to any photos that show this section in detail.
Cracks can be repaired, so this won’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t proceed but if you are a beginner you probably also don’t want to buy a guitar with problems unless priced accordingly.
Cracking won’t always show in product photos so it pays to also ask the seller.
Again this is far more likely in an older guitar but look for signs that the string tension is also causing the top of the guitar to warp. This can (sometimes) be rectified by increasing the humidity of the room the guitar is stored in over 2-3 days, but results can be hit and miss, and more often than not a warped top means the guitar requires repair.
In most cases, cracks in the body, body warping, or bridge lifting are all signs that the guitar is affected by the tension of the strings. In some cases, you may even see a combination e.g the top is warped and the bridge is lifting.
If you see evidence of a neck repair I’d be very careful about proceeding.
Carefully inspect any photos of the back of the neck and look for any changes in the finish that would indicate the finish has been reapplied due to the neck cracking. In some cases, it will be impossible to tell (if the luthier is particularly good) and you may need to also ask the seller if the neck has undergone repair.
When necks are repaired properly there is less chance of problems developing, but a poorly repaired neck will only cause more problems and without being afforded the ability to play the guitar first you are opening yourself up to risk.
If the listing doesn’t include an image looking straight down the neck, request one. This will allow you to see if the neck has a twist or the action is unusually high.
If the neck is twisted e.g. you can see a visible twist (indicated by the action being different on the bass to the treble side or vice versa) I’d walk away. While this can also be repaired in some cases, it’s often a serious issue.
Additionally, you should also be able to see the action e.g. the distance between the underside of the strings and the fretboard. A high action in itself isn’t necessarily a problem, and may just mean the truss rod requires adjustment or the saddle should be filed down a little.
But in some cases (especially older guitars) a high action might indicate the need for a neck reset. The easiest way to tell is if the action appears high in the product photos but the saddle is already quite low. This indicates the high action is more likely a result of the pitch of the neck, and can’t be adjusted further by simply filing down the saddle.
In other cases, it may be the truss rod requires adjustment. If you are a beginner and don’t know how to do the work yourself, you may be best walking away as the guitar will have some costs upfront to ensure it is highly playable.
What is a Neck Reset?
Over the course of an acoustic guitar’s life, a neck reset may be necessary to counter the tension from the strings pulling the neck upwards and increasing the string action. A neck reset is performed by removing the (glued) neck and adjusting the neck angle or pitch. In most cases, additional fretwork is also required, making a neck reset a major job.
Clearly, we are putting a lot of focus on the neck in our virtual inspection, but if unable to play the guitar first, this is important, it’s the guitar’s interface and will otherwise affect playability, sometimes significantly.
When inspecting fretwork, it can be difficult to really gauge unless you have a photo looking directly down the neck (as used for checking if the neck has a twist). This will indicate if the frets are uneven, low, or the unwound strings have gouged the frets themselves.
If the frets appear low, or uneven this may indicate the frets need leveling and crowning which will again cost money to have done. If the frets are marked on the bottom half of the fretboard e.g. you see what appears to be indentation lines in the fret wire, this will be caused by the unwound strings and will require work to repair.
Inspect the Bridge
Another common problem that will require repair is if the bridge is showing any signs of cracking or lifting. This problem occurs also as a result of the tension from the strings pulling against the bridge.
Look for any signs that the bridge may be newer than the guitar itself. Again, if the bridge has been replaced and the job has been done well (e.g. using the correct glue) this won’t affect how the guitar plays or sounds, but it’s good to know all the same.
Otherwise look for visible cracks, especially in line with the bridge pin holes or any signs of the bridge plate lifting, which will begin from the rear of the bridge and is best inspected by looking at a photo of the guitar side-on.
Check for A Counterfeit Logo
While less common in the acoustic guitar world (acoustic guitars are just harder to make) you will still hear of reports of counterfeit Martin guitars, especially older D-28’s.
If you are looking at spending the kind of money a Martin D-28 will fetch, it makes sense to either arrange for the guitar to be inspected by a luthier prior to going ahead with the deal.
Otherwise, if you have concerns ask for a close-up of the logo and study the logo carefully and compare it to images you can source online. On the remote chance, the guitar is a counterfeit, it may well be the case the seller is completely unaware and will be happy to facilitate your request.
However, if they are reluctant, this should be a red flag.
Checking the Product Description
If you have looked over the product photos and are satisfied the guitar doesn’t show any obvious problem signs move onto the listing and start formulating a few questions for the seller.
Unfortunately, as we are dealing with private sellers (mostly) when looking at second-hand guitars the product descriptions may not offer as much information as you might like. Most people don’t know how to write a thorough product description so chances are you will need to ask questions, which in itself is a good test to see how responsive the seller is.
Below are the questions I’d consider the most important:
- The make and model of the guitar and year of manufacture
While this may already be partially explained, sellers typically don’t include the year of manufacture or where they purchased the guitar from. Ask this to confirm the guitar you are looking at represents good value, hasn’t changed hands regularly, or gives you any reason o be suspicious it’s a counterfeit, which is only usually a problem in more expensive high-end models.
- Has the guitar has any modifications or major repairs?
The same details we have looked for in the product photos should be raised with the seller, especially if the photos don’t provide sufficient detail or you are concerned about anything you noticed when reviewing the product photos.
- What is the history of the guitar?
Ask if the seller has traveled or gigged with the guitar or it has sat in a bedroom. This isn’t necessarily a problem but will help you better understand the history of the guita when making a decision on whether to proceed.
- Is the hardware original e.g. the tuners
You should also ask about the condition of the hardware. For example, a worn tuner can result in tuning stability issues.
- Are there any visible chips or marks that the photos do not indicate?
- What’s the condition of the nut?
While more difficult to tell from product photos, it’s a good idea to ask about the condition of the nut as this plays an outsized role in terms of tuning stability, playability, and tone. While a nut can always be replaced, it’s not a job for a beginner and you will need to ensure you are replacing it with a nut that is suitable for the guitar.
- Are there any rattles or noise when the guitar is played?
This might indicate loose hardware and/or loose bracing. Both are not difficult repairs, but they are repairs all the same and will cost you money. This is pretty easy to identify if inspecting the guitar in person by tapping the guitar but as we’re buying online ask the buyer specifically if there are any vibrations when the guitar is played, or any signs of loose bracing when tapping the top of the guitar.
- How does the guitar play and sound?
Of course, most sellers are biased, but at least you have asked the question.
What if the seller lies to you?
Online marketplaces more or less work on the honor system with regard to the seller’s reputation. If you are unhappy, request a refund, or lodge a complaint it’s often in the seller’s best interest to address the problem quickly. However, if it’s a one-off and the seller isn’t active on the two platforms, you may need to take a leap of faith, to some extent after inspecting the photos and asking all the right questions. If the guitar isn’t what you were expecting you can then take the matter up with both eBay and reverb.com.
Check the Seller’s Profile
As discussed above, in most cases, sellers will not have long-established reputations on either marketplace, as the majority of guitars sold are on-offs from private sellers. But, it is still worth checking the seller’s profile, in case there are red flags that indicate the seller has a history of misleading people or is reluctant to address problems post-sale.
The best place to check is previous comments from buyers. Most of the time, buyers are confident proceeding provided they feel the seller will look after them. So, if you see comments from people indicating there was a problem, however, the seller addressed the issue satisfactorily, you know you are likely in good hands regardless of what happens and are therefore taking on less risk than you may have otherwise.
Don’t pay attention to all comments
Also, be aware of comments made by uninformed people, especially with regard to playability. Keep in mind not all comments are fair or accurate. I’ve dealt with hundreds of customers post-sale, and most don’t understand how important a setup is. The fact is all guitars require a setup to play well. If for example, you are having the guitar shipped from a region with very different humidity levels this can cause physical changes in the guitar that require a setup to address e.g. the neck requires truss rod adjustment or the action needs to be adjusted.
Shipping and Payment
You should also pay close attention to how the seller plans to ship the guitar. If the seller hasn’t divulged information about the packaging the guitar will be shipped in (ideally this will be a hard case) ask about it.
You don’t need to be nervous about shipping, guitars are shipped all over the world every day but acoustic guitars need to be packed in a way that protects the guitar even if handled roughly.
If you are nervous about how the guitar will be shipped, send the seller to this link and explain how you would like the guitar shipped and if they are agreeable. Remember, you can always compare the before and after photos to check if any damage has occurred during shipping and can request remediation using the links above. Also, keep in mind Reverb’s safe shipping must be used for purchases over $1500 in value up to $10,000.
eBay also offers some options with regard to ensuring delivery that you may want to discuss with the seller prior to committing to buying the guitar. You can send the seller a link to this page specifically.
Bidding / Making on Offer
Sellers have a few different options when it comes to listing an item, they can either run an auction and let people bid on the guitar or list the product with a set price. In some cases, on eBay for example, you will see ‘or best offer’ which means the price is negotiable and the seller will either accept, decline or counter offer any offers you make.
This should be at least 5% lower than the ‘buy it now’ price.
Reverb.com doesn’t offer an auction per se, but the buyer can utilize the ‘make an offer‘ feature, if they wish, meaning the price can still be negotiated.
Keep in mind, when making an offer you are committing to buying the guitar at the price offered. Also, keep in mind, if you are negotiating, you are allowed up to 5 offers (on eBay) and are able to set when the offer expires. Of course, you can also contact the seller directly and ask what price they would accept.
Most sellers expect your first offer to come in under the price you are prepared to pay but I don’t recommend lowballing or playing games with the seller. Most sellers are prepared to do the right thing in my experience, as their online reputation depends on it. Coming in too low may offend the seller or the seller may take less care when shipping or be less responsive if you have questions.
Once you have agreed on a price or agreed to pay the list price try paying with Paypal if at all possible. Paypal offers another level of protection for buyers, so it makes sense to pay through Paypal if possible. You can read more about Paypal’s buyer protection here.
And that’s the process I have used over many years to buy guitars without playing them first. I hope the information included helps you find and buy your next dream guitar, even if you can’t play the guitar first.
Keep in mind, while there’s really no way to protect yourself completely from buying a problem guitar, if you follow the advice above, know the value of the guitar, and have conducted as thorough a visual inspection as possible you will reduce the chances of anything going wrong by a significant amount. And let’s face it, while buying sight unseen is far from ideal, judging by the current state of the world we may be buying our acoustic guitars online for some time yet.