10 Tips When Buying a Classic Electric Guitar

1961 Gibson SG Les Paul Custom
1961 Gibson SG Les Paul Custom
My Gibson SG
My Gibson SG
A close-up of my guitar (notice the slide switches under the bridge)
A close-up of my guitar (notice the slide switches under the bridge)

Buying a classic electric guitar could be an excellent investment


Many people collect classic electric guitars. If I had more money, I’d probably have a collection of Gibson and Fender electric guitars, perhaps an Ibanez or two as well. Nevertheless, I do own one that could be considered a classic. And, over the years, I’ve learned a few things about electric guitars, though I don’t consider myself an expert. But I don’t need to be, because now there’s what’s called the Internet!

My Classic Electric Guitar

I’ve learned quite a bit about classic (or vintage) electric guitars simply while trying to ascertain exactly what mine is. I bought it at a pawn shop in South Lake Tahoe in 1977, so I know it’s at least that old, which means it qualifies as a vintage Gibson guitar.

Naturally, the first thing you do when trying to find out exactly what kind of guitar you have is check its serial number, which for my guitar is stamped on the backside of the headstock. But the serial number on mine is nearly impossible to read in its entirety – I can only read a few numbers, even using a magnifying glass - so this strategy has proved inconclusive.

Keep in mind, when you find a readable serial number on a guitar, information on how to interpret this number is available in catalogues and on the Internet.

Anyway, please refer to the photos of my guitar I provided. Notice the slide switches for the pickups. Almost all Gibson SGs have a toggle switch instead, so this makes mine kind of an oddball. It also has Gibson single coil pickups instead of Humbucker (or Humbucking). The bridge cover is different too - I've never seen one like it on a SG.

Anyhow, I was told by two friends that it’s definitely a 1967 model – a Summer of Love guitar, if you will - though I recently discovered that since the pick guard is not the bat wing style, it must have been made after 1971. Then I discovered the pick guard on my guitar is not the original one! Oh, well. So I’m continuing to check around, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the model and date nailed down.

Thus you see before you a 1972 Gibson SG Standard.

I think.

Thus, keeping in mind what I’ve told you about trying to authenticate my guitar, let’s move forward. Please keep reading and I’ll give you my Ten Tips When Buying a Classic Electric Guitar:

1. How does the guitar look?

If the appearance of your classic electric guitar is important to you, look for dings, dents, cracks or discoloration in the finish or body, neck or headstock. If it does have imperfections, don’t buy it or offer to pay less for it. My SG doesn’t look very good, but I don’t care how pretty it is. I simply want a guitar that sounds good when I play it!

2. Is the neck straight?

Look down the neck of the guitar to make sure the neck is straight as an arrow, with a slight bow in the fretboard. If it isn’t, your strings won’t “fret out” properly, causing some of them, usually the first string or small E to rub the neck or “dink” when you pluck it at the twelfth fret or higher.

Once, I bought a guitar for $20 that – I eventually discovered - had a warped neck, probably from being subjected to extreme hot or cold - and the first string on it always dinked when I fingered it in the higher register. Oh, I wanted to throw that guitar in the trash, which I finally did!

3. Is it really a Gibson?

If you’re looking for a Gibson or Fender (recommended), make sure the appropriate logo is on the headstock. Duh, right? Also make sure that your guitar has a serial number, so the specifics of the instrument can be verified. Also be aware that people have put Gibson or Fender necks on guitars with a different trademark. In fact, Japanese copies have been modified to look like Gibsons or Fenders, so don’t be fooled!

4. Does the guitar sound good even without an amp?

A genuinely good electric guitar will sound good even without amplification. It will resonate or sing when you play a chord and/or bend notes. Also make sure that you can easily tune the guitar without an amplifier. I once bought a SG-like Japanese copy that I could never tune properly. There was something screwy with the D string. What a piece of crap that was! Always beware of off-brand guitars. (That one eventually got thrown away too!)

5. Is the guitar grounded properly?

If you’re still interested in buying this prospective guitar, plug it into an amplifier. Just about any good amp will do. The main thing you want to do is make sure the guitar is well grounded. After you play a chord, quickly pull away your hand from the neck. Does it make a loud scratchy sound? If it does, then the guitar isn’t grounded properly, which means it may need electrical work. Perhaps a solder needs to be re-done or the guitar may need to be completely re-wired. Re-wiring a guitar isn’t real expensive, but if it has to be done, offer less for the guitar or choose another one.

6. Do the frets appear worn?

At some point, spread the strings on the neck to see if the frets have grooves or notches in them. If they do, this guitar will need a fret job, because an axe with bad frets will buzz and be harder to play. If the frets are thick enough, they can be re-surfaced or leveled; otherwise, the frets will have to be replaced, which costs more money. Nowadays, getting frets resurfaced costs about $200 and having the frets replaced costs twice as much.

7. Is the intonation good?

Unless you’ve got perfect pitch, use an electronic device to tune the guitar perfectly. (Some people can tune a guitar better using their ears, but that’s another story.) Then hit the twelfth fret on each string and see if the instrument is still in tune. If you don’t have to re-tune any of the strings, then the intonation is good. You can also check the intonation by playing harmonics at the twelfth fret, and then plucking the open strings to see if the tuning matches.

If you must adjust the intonation, you can do so by turning the screws that move the saddles beneath each string on the bridge, essentially changing the length of the strings. Intonation can also be tweaked somewhat by adjusting the truss rod in the neck.

If you like to blaze away on the upper frets, the intonation on your guitar must be good to excellent!

8. Will the machine heads keep the guitar in tune?

When you play the guitar, hammer the heck out of the strings to see if the guitar quickly goes out of tune. If it does, the machine heads may need to be replaced. Years ago, the stock Gibson machine heads on my guitar were replaced with Schaller machine heads. However, now my guitar isn’t completely original. Watch for this on old guitars, as many people switch to other brands of machine heads at some point.

9. Does the bridge work properly?

Give the bridge a quick look and make sure the saddle upon which the strings rest are in good shape and that the rest of the structure appears sound. You may want to make sure the bridge hasn’t been replaced with one from another guitar, therefore decreasing the value of the guitar.

10. Is the whammy bar functional?

A vibrato arm or tremolo bar that doesn’t work properly is more trouble than it’s worth. When you play a guitar that has a whammy bar, give that thing a workout. If the guitar stays in tune after using the tremolo bar numerous times, then the thing is probably worth having. Of course, if you play music that doesn’t require the use of a tremolo bar, then don’t get a guitar that has one!

More Tips

My best advice for buying a classic electric guitar is to be patient and don’t give them what they want for the guitar unless you’re reasonably certain it’s worth the price. In that regard, check their price with whatever is available on the Internet, particularly Craigslist and eBay. Also, browsing the local pawn shops is a good option. Yes, pawn shops are back!

And if you decide to buy a guitar that needs some work, don’t do it yourself unless you feel competent. If you aren’t good with tools, as I am, do yourself a big favor and take it to a guitar shop and have a craftsman do the work. The best way to find somebody who does quality guitar repair or restoration is to ask around. Word-of-mouth in this situation may be the best option.

Afterword

Whether you’re going to play it, just look at it or simply collect it as an investment, I wish you luck finding a good classic electric guitar. Maybe you'll snatch a 1961 Gibson SG Les Paul Custom. A good one will probably cost from $5,000 to $25,000. Dream on!

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Comments 6 comments

monkeyminds profile image

monkeyminds 4 years ago from My Tree House

Excellent information for the newbie and a few pointers for the oldie guitar player as well. Good job!


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, monkeyminds. Classic electric guitars are great to behold, especially when in mint condition. Later!


monkeyminds profile image

monkeyminds 4 years ago from My Tree House

I have the first guitar I ever bought. It is a Yamaha FG-75. A classical acoustic from1972. Too bad didn't buy the Gibson electric I was looking at back then!

Do electrics sound better with age like acoustics?


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, monkeyminds. I haven't noticed any change in sound on older guitars, acoustic or otherwise. Neverthless, it makes sense that older acoustic instruments may sound better with age, since they're made of wood, which could change for the better with passing years. Anyway, as I wrote in the article, a good electric guitar has a pleasing tamber, even without an amplifier. Later!


GuitarGear profile image

GuitarGear 3 years ago from Youngstown, Ohio

I have a 1954 Gibson ES-350 that was my father's. I don't play it anymore as it is in bad need of a restoration. With the economy the way it is I've seen some real deals on classics out there. This is a great hub Kosmo. It's also important information for those who may be thinking about buying classics as investments for the future. Thanks!


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 3 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, GuitarGear dude. I liked writing this hub, and I hope it shows. I wish more people would leave comments, so we could swap guitar stories. Later!

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