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New vs Used Guitars: How to Decide Which You Should Buy

Updated on November 29, 2015
Guitar Gopher profile image

Guitar Gopher is a guitarist and bassist with over 30 years of experience as a musician.

Buying a used guitar instead of new is a great way to save money or afford an instrument otherwise out of your price range.
Buying a used guitar instead of new is a great way to save money or afford an instrument otherwise out of your price range.

New Guitars vs Used Guitars

A new electric or acoustic guitar might be your ideal option when it comes to buying a musical instrument. After all, who doesn’t prefer a shiny, brand-spanking new guitar right from the factory?

Used guitars, on the other hand, may have seen a few battles in their day before they found their way to you. But you can get a great deal if you choose wisely, and end up with a quality instrument you would not have been able to otherwise afford.

However, used gear also makes some people nervous, and that’s understandable. Knowing how to evaluate a guitar and decide if it is really worth it is a skill that takes time to learn, and if you are a newbie you might not yet have the knowledge or confidence to make a smart decision.

In that case, is it wiser to go with a new guitar and get an instrument you can (hopefully) count on right out of the box? Further more, why would you choose a new guitar when there are so many quality, affordable guitars on the market these days?

This article is intended to help you wade through the confusion and determine how to go about buying a used guitar. Or, maybe you'll decide you should choose a new instrument instead. By the time we’re done, hopefully you’ll have a better idea of what you are looking for, and the knowledge to make the best decision for you.

Reasons to Choose New Guitars Over Used Instruments

Truthfully, in over thirty years as a guitar player I have always been on the fence about used gear. I tend to be overly sentimental about guitars, and I want to pick an instrument off the wall at a guitar shop and have it stay with me through its entire life. Most of the guitars in my collection have had only one owner: me.

Sentimentality aside, there are some practical benefits to choosing a new instrument:

  • New guitars typically come with warranties. If something goes south after you take it home you can generally get it fixed or replaced. Of course this usually isn’t so with used gear.
  • Obviously, new instruments have seen much less wear and tear. Even a used guitar in good condition may have somewhat degraded frets and fingerboard, and may be in need of other TLC once you get it home.
  • You know what you're getting with a new guitar. Fresh from the factory, the guitar is what it says it is. You don't have to wonder if the previous owner swapped out pickups or made some other mod without telling you.
  • You can and should expect a new guitar to be perfect right out of the box (though, of course, not all are). A used guitar, on the hand, may need some attention and a little extra care to get it up to your standards.

Benefits of Pre-owned Guitars

The reasons listed above are enough for some guitarists to avoid second-hand gear, but as you’ll see there is also a very strong case to be made for used guitars. There are good reasons why those of us on tight budgets might prefer to go the pre-loved route when it comes to guitars and other gear.

Here are a few of the points in favor of choosing a used guitar:

  • For beginners and veteran guitarists alike there are some serious potential savings when it comes to used gear. As your experience as a guitar player widens, and your tastes get richer, the positives only get better.
  • Many seasoned guitarists who choose used instruments aren’t shy about whipping out a screwdriver and soldering iron and putting their own stamp on a used guitar. If you aren’t comfortable with that, you can always take the guitar to a local guitar shop for a fret job and any other tweaks it might need.
  • There are some amazing guitars out there from outstanding brands like Gibson, PRS, Martin and Taylor. Unfortunately, many of the best guitars are priced way too high for the average budget. However, if you are willing to go used, and if you are willing to be patient, you may be able to land one of these legendary instruments for a fraction of cost of a new guitar.
  • Used guitars can have a certain vintage appeal. In some cases this is all in the mind of the player, and that's okay. If it makes happy to own a Strat from the '80s there is nothing wrong with that, I guess. In other cases you may stumble into a legitimate find and get a vintage masterpiece for a steal.

Used or New Guitars for Beginners?

There are some good reasons beginners might choose a used guitar as their first instrument, and some not-so-good reasons.

Many beginners think they need to choose a pre-owned instrument because it means they will spend less when starting out. Maybe, but I do think there are other considerations.

Unlike a vintage Gibson Les Paul, budget guitars intended for beginners don’t get better with age. And beginners don’t yet know enough about guitars to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to gear.

Therefore, why complicate things by choosing a subpar used guitar as your first instrument when quality, beginner guitars are so affordable these days? For beginners looking for budget instruments in most cases I suggest going with a quality, affordable guitar or starter pack that comes with a warranty. Why inherit someone else’s disaster when you are first starting out?

Of course there are exceptions to this. If you have a family member or friend who knows a lot about guitars and is willing to help you do the legwork and find a great pre-owned instrument, you may wish to take advantage of the help.

Or, if you are willing to do the homework yourself, as a newbie you can get a better-quality instrument for the same price as a beginner’s instrument. The key is you have to be patient and spend some time learning about guitars so you know what you are looking for.

Bottom line: For beginners looking for beginner guitars, my advice is to go new. For a newbie looking for something a little better than the typical beginner guitar, used is a great way to go if you are prepared to put in the work.

Tips for Buying a Used Guitar

No matter what your skill level, you’re going to need to evaluate a used instrument to decide if it is worth your time and money. So, what should you be looking for?

It's a good idea to apply the same steps for choosing a new guitar to the process of buying a used guitar. Ideally, you are going to be able to handle an instrument you are interested in. You want a chance to plug it in (if it is an electric guitar) and play it. But many people buy online, and that’s okay too, as long as you are choosing a reputable seller who is giving you a good picture of what the guitar is all about.

Of course you are going to want to know the standard info about the guitar’s history. You'll want to know:

  • What year was the guitar made?
  • How many owners?
  • Have there been any modifications or repairs?

Look for signs of cracking or separation where wood comes together.
Look for signs of cracking or separation where wood comes together.

Some sellers might not have all of this information, and are selling the instrument “as is”. But the more you know, the better you can determine what you are willing to pay for the instrument.

Some parts of the guitar wear harder than others and are worth a close look.

  • Tuning machines and any other mechanical parts such as knobs, switches, jacks and tremolo bridges should be in good working order.
  • Hardware should be inspected for signs of corrosion.
  • Look for signs of warping in the neck.
  • Check the seams where pieces of wood are glued together and make sure they aren’t coming apart. This is especially important for acoustic instruments, as cracking or separating wood is a sign the instrument hasn’t been cared for very well.
  • Check the frets. Depending on the age of the guitar you might expect some wear. Too much wear and your guitar will need a fret job, or potentially a fret replacement.
  • Blemishes, dings and dents may matter to you, or they may not. Some players like the look of a distressed instrument.

All that said, some folks don’t mind getting a guitar that needs some work and putting their own personal stamp on it. There is sure nothing wrong with that approach, as long as you know what you are getting yourself into.

Best Place to Buy Used Guitars

If you are lucky, you might have some music stores around you that deal in used gear and continually get guitars in stock. Some companies deal exclusively in used gear.

Or, you may choose to buy online. Once again, there is no “right” answer, as long as you choose a reputable seller.

But there are a few things to think about when making your choice:

  • While you can find some great deals through guitar shops and dealers, realize they are probably applying a markup to the price they paid for the instrument. Often you can still come out of top, because in many cases they are taking used guitars in a trade and giving less than top value as credit.
  • Never be afraid to politely bargain with a music store on used gear. It never hurts to ask for a better price and in some cases they may have had a guitar on their wall for a long while and be happy to get rid of it for less.
  • Ask if they are selling the guitar on consignment. In this case they take their cut from the owner instead of bumping up the price for you. Through the store, you may be able to negotiate with the owner as well.
  • Through classified ads and online auctions you can cut out the middle man and deal directly with the owner. This can often mean a better deal.
  • Be aware of who you buy from as much as what you are buying. If you choose to deal with people one-on-one you never know what you are going to get. Most people are honest, but some aren’t, and others are downright bonkers.

So, should you go through a music store, or make a private deal with the owner of a guitar? I have done it both ways, as a buyer and seller. Personally, I prefer to deal with a reputable dealer or music store. Even with a slight price markup, it is worth it to know the transaction will be done in a professional way. The few extra bucks are worth it to avoid the potential drama.

When buying a used guitar always check to be sure the controls and mechanics are working correctly, and that the hardware shows acceptable signs of wear.
When buying a used guitar always check to be sure the controls and mechanics are working correctly, and that the hardware shows acceptable signs of wear.

Is a Pre-Loved Guitar Right for You?

Deciding to buy a used electric or acoustic guitar is a choice that should not be made without a full understanding of what to look for and what to avoid.

Newbies may be able to land a better guitar than the typical starter instrument, but only if they take the time to learn what makes it worth the asking price. Veteran players can get some great deals on instruments that would be otherwise out of their budgets.

Some players love owning guitars with histories behind them. Others like being the first and only owner an instrument has ever had.

Some guitar players want a guitar that’s good to go as soon as they take it home. Many others aren’t afraid to get a guitar with a few issues and put a little work into it.

What is the right choice for you? Hopefully after reading this article you are a little closer to figuring that out. Good luck finding the perfect used electric or acoustic guitar for your budget and style!

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