When I look at buying a vintage guitar, or for that matter any guitar, there are 14 checks I make to ensure I can at least play the guitar, iregardless of the condition.
There are pros and cons to looking locally or looking online for a guitar. Buying a guitar from a local classified ad gives you the opportunity to inspect and play the guitar. And of course you get the chance to negotiate one on one. The only con is that some people are not comfortable negotiating but that gets easier the more you do it.
Buying online has it’s cons as well. You may receive the guitar and it is not as described. Before making any bids or offers be sure to read the shipping and return policy.
The pro to to buying online is that you have many more choices and you may be able to pick up a gem. If you don’t consider the shipping cost you may get a good deal, or at least a real cool vintage guitar. If you do see a guitar you are interested in, do your research. Get the model number and use eBay and Reverb to check what people are asking for them. If you can’t find any for sale then search forums to see if you can find some information on the guitar. As I mentioned above Jedistar.com is a good resource for vintage guitar information, not for pricing.
At times you will find very little information on a particular guitar or model. If that happens then you will probably use your gut feeling. Like most things we buy we are drawn to the looks of the item first. If you like the look and like the sound then you will be happy with the purchase.
Remember that buying a guitar is not a life time commitment, you can always sell the guitar and buy another, or just collect them like a lot of guitarists.
When inspecting a guitar you want to cover it top to bottom and inside and out. You can start anywhere but we will go from top to bottom and inside to outside.
1. Headstock: Normally headstocks don't warp but if they are made up of glued together pieces there may be cracks. Very small cracks aren't too much of an issue, but larger cracks can be. Most times as long as the tuning pegs aren't affected then it should be an issue.
2. Machine Heads: Or tuners as some call them. Make sure they turn easily. Sometimes they cease up a little or become very loose. Look for any missing grommets on the face of the headstock where the tuning pegs protrude through. The good news is that machine heads can be replaced easily and if you search you may find originals.
3. Nut: The nut is at the top of the neck and has grooves where the strings sit in on their way to the tuning pegs. Normally made of bone, sometime plastic. The good news is, if it is cracked or broken, it can be fixed fairly easily.
4. Neck: Sight the neck from the top and from the bottom. A warped neck, from side to side, is a big issue. It should look fairly straight. All guitar necks will have a bow in them and if set up properly you will see a slight dip in the middle of the neck. Bows in necks, for the most part, can be adjusted with the truss rod. The adjustment for the truss rod will be either at the top of the neck or can be seen at the end of the neck through the sound hole. As well look closely where the neck meets the body for any cracks.
5. Fingerboard: Is the piece on top of the neck where all the frets are. Most times fingerboards are easy to clean when the strings are removed. Sometimes the fingerboard gets grooves in them because it has been playing so much. These can be fixed.
6. Frets: The metal pieces on the fingerboard that distinguish each fret. Many times you will see dents or grooves from the strings and sometimes they get flat. This can be addressed.
7. Bracing: All guitars have some bracing on the inside. Tap lightly on the top of the guitar and if there is a loose brace you will probably hear it rattle. Most times these can be fixed. If you can get your hands on a mirror, something like a dentist would use, you can look inside. You can see a piece of bracing on my guitar at left through the sound hole.
8. Bridge: The bridge is on the body and it is where the string originate from. You should look at this with it stringed and in tune. There are two common types, one where the bridge has bridge pins that hold the string in and the other is a tailpiece that is attached to the back of the guitar that hold the string that run over the bridge. In a perfect world the bridge should be flat and have no gaps between it and the body. have a look where the bridge meet at the body to see if it is lifting. Have a look at the body right behind the bridge from the side and look for the body bowing up or down. If it is bowed and/or the bridge is lifting it can be fixed but, depending on the severity, it can be expensive and time consuming to fix. More than not on vintage guitars there is some of this but many times not enough to worry about.
9. Body: Many vintage guitars will have scratches, dents, and wear marks. Some times it adds to the vintage look and sometimes not. Many times you simply have to ask yourself if you can live with the look or not. Minor scratches can be buffed out. Cracks in the body can affect the tone of the guitar. Cracks along original glued joints can be fixed but holes and cracks in the meat of the guitar are more difficult to fix. Check to see if the guitar strap knobs are there.
10. Pickguard: Below the sound hole, it's normally made of plastic and normally glued onto the body. It's supposed to save the top of the guitar from strumming with a pick. Some guitars do get wear below the pick guard, like the ones in my guitar shown. They are a part of the vintage of this guitar, not always the case. A pickguard can be replaced fairly easily.
11. Binding: The binding runs along the edges of the body top and bottom, most times a white or ivory color. Check to make sure there are no cracks where the top, sides and bottom meet or gaps or where pieces of the binding are missing. Again this can be fixed but costs can mount.
12. Strings: I’ve seen strings on guitars that were so old they looked like they were the originals. I would leave vintage strings on a guitar if I was going to display it and not play it, or play it once in a blue moon. Original or old strings may look cool but you are not going to get the tone you are looking for. If I am going to play a guitar I will definately replace the strings.
13. Cleaning: I’ve bought guitars that no one else would look at because of grease, dirt, paint marks, nicks and dents. You would be surprised at what you can do with a damp rag and warm water. And with enough elbow grease, you can clean a guitar up pretty good. Don’t shy away from what seems to be a great guitar because it’s filthy dirty.
14. Hydration: This is commonly overlooked by a lot of people. The humidity level in a room or in the case you are storing it in, should ideally be between 45% and 55%. You can buy or make humidifiers and you can pick up cheap hygrometers to measure the humidity level. This makes a big difference in keeping your guitar in the proper hydrated state for the best tone and playing.
On the same theme of hydration I will be writing articles on how you can fix a bowed (upward) lower bout just behind the bridge and a caved in sound hole by starting with hydrating the guitar.
At the end of the day buying a vintage guitar to me is like treasure hunting. Every once in a while you find a diamond in the rough. I get great satisfaction from bringing a guitar back to some degree of it’s original look.
If you like the look and sound of the guitar, then that is really all that matters. Not every guitar is for everyone, and the feeling you get when playing it and looking at it is the most important thing.