In the following article, I’m going to share some useful tips I’ve used over the years for buying acoustic guitars online.
Who am I to be giving this advice?
Well, apart from writing about acoustic guitars, I’m also left-handed.
If you’re left-handed you won’t be shocked to learn that my local music store, despite holding 250+ acoustic guitars at any given time, at last count stocked 2 left-handed guitars.
As a result, every acoustic and electric guitar I’ve owned since the early 2000s has been purchased online.
Should you buy guitars online without playing them first?
It’s always best to play before buying an acoustic guitar. But, visiting a physical store like Guitar Center isn’t always an option. So, 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. 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 only comfortable buying from a brick and mortar dealer and want the assurance of a full warranty and after-sales support.
- You are new to the guitar, lack someone who can offer expert advice e.g. you don’t know what represents a reasonable price
- You want a bundled deal e.g. strap, stand and tuner included.
Buy secondhand if:
- You want to save money and 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. You can save money by looking at the second-hand market first.
Where to Buy Acoustic Guitars Online
You can also try craigslist if hoping to buy locally and inspect the guitar first, but in most cases, eBay and Reverb have the largest range which includes private sellers and guitar shops alike.
While many of us will be familiar with eBay, you may be less familiar with reverb.com.
Reverb.com has been in operation since 2013 and has grown quickly, receiving 17.5 million visitors in the previous 3 months alone. While that’s just a portion of the visitors going to eBay the site deals exclusively in musical equipment, with a focus on guitars and accessories (new and used) including guitars for beginners and experienced players alike.
Setting up Alerts
One of the most effective 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 sites 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, search for a guitar using the filters on the left of the listings. The options will change depending on your search term, but in most cases will 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 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 terms.
Once you’ve 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 to see this option).
You can check your saved searches here and can edit the filters you have in place, 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, make sure you set this up…it’s a no-brainer and will give you a bigger pool of affordable guitars to ultimately select from.
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 as eBay, allowing you to receive notifications for your ‘feed’ based on the types of guitars you prefer. The terminology is slightly different but essentially works the same way.
First, run a filtered search. The options Reverb.com provides are as follows:
- Category (e.g. acoustic guitar / acoustic-electric guitar)
- 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 search’ 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 it.
And that’s it.
If you have 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 quality instruments. The second-hand guitar market is very active.
Once you have a shortlist it’s time to begin 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 when comparing. Small details 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. 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 manufactured is also an important consideration. USA-made guitars tend to be worth considerably more than guitars made in other countries, even when offered by established guitar manufacturers.
Many high-profile companies now offer a premium (made in the USA) line and a more affordable 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
This doesn’t mean guitars made overseas are of poor quality by any means, but you should be aware of how this affects price and resale value.
How to Inspect An Acoustic Guitar
While it’s clearly more difficult to identify problems when buying an acoustic guitar online, I’ve written a detailed guide here on how to inspect acoustic guitars including checking for evidence of neck repairs and poor fretwork.
I’d suggest reading this first, before moving on to checking the product description and looking over the product photos.
Checking the Product Photos
If you are anything like me you’ll be looking at the product photos before reading the listing, and there are a few important photos we need to review.
Below are the photos I’d consider important when inspecting an acoustic guitar:
- A 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, serial number, and country of origin.
- Close-up images of the back of the neck.
- Close-up images of the fretboard including the fretwork
- 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, it doesn’t hurt to request additional photos. Especially images of the neck and bridge as these are crucial.
Checking the Product Description
If you have looked over the product photos and are satisfied the guitar doesn’t show any signs of a problem, move on to the listing and start formulating a few questions for the seller.
If looking at second-hand guitars, you will mostly be dealing with private sellers. As a result, the product descriptions may not offer as much information as you might like, so chances are you will need to ask questions.
Below are the questions I’d consider the most important:
- What is the make and model of the guitar and what year was the guitar manufactured?
Sellers typically don’t include the year of manufacture or where they purchased the guitar from. Ask this question to confirm the guitar you are looking at represents good value, hasn’t changed hands regularly or gives you any reason to be suspicious it’s a counterfeit.
- Has the guitar had any modifications or major repairs?
The same details we have looked for in the product photos can also be raised with the seller if you are unsure, especially if the photos don’t provide sufficient detail or you have concerns.
- What is the history of the guitar?
Ask if the seller has traveled or gigged with the guitar or if it has just sat in a bedroom. This isn’t necessarily a problem but will help you better understand the history of the guitar when making a decision on whether to proceed.
- Is the hardware original?
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.
- Are there any rattles or noise when the guitar is played?
This might indicate loose hardware and/or loose bracing. 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 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, private sellers will not have long-established reputations. But, it’s 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 you know you are likely in good hands.
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 a new guitar shipped from a region with a different relative humidity this can cause physical changes in the guitar that require a setup to address.
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.
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.
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, 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, 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. Most sellers are prepared to do the right thing in my experience, as their online reputation depends on it.
Once you have agreed on a price try paying with Paypal. 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.
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 the perfect guitar, even if you can’t play it beforehand and based on the current state of the world (2022) we may be buying our acoustic guitars online a little longer yet.