Now don’t get me wrong – I am not having a dig at anyone here! I regularly pick up bits and bobs from charity shops and I have bought some absolutely lovely things. I am not here to criticise anyone!
What I wanted to talk about was buying guitars from charity shops or car boot sales and some of the things to look out for that might end up with your purchase costing more than just a new set of strings.
The other day, a lovely chap brought in a guitar that he’d grabbed at a charity shop. To be fair, I totally get why he wanted it: it was a really nice looking instrument. He wanted to get it up to speed and asked if I would take a look, which I did for him. On first inspection, a couple of things came up that he hadn’t noticed. Firstly, the frets had been worn down so much that they were flat. Secondly, the bridge was cracked through and someone had broken off a bridge pin in the hole. On closer inspection, the bridge had a metal adjustment plate that would raise or lower the action – this was missing both screws and the bridge saddle itself had been sanded down to a sliver. Thirdly, it also needed at least two machine heads (tuning) replaced – you may as well replace them all in that case as it wouldn’t really cost any more. When I looked at the machine heads, you could see that they had already been replaced at some point. And finally, the top itself had been damaged on the lower bout. It may have been possible to salvage with a bit of TLC but cosmetically, if nothing else, it didn’t look good.
Anyway, once I’d given him the news he asked roughly how much it would cost to put right. I wasn’t sure how much the damaged top might be to fix but I gave him the price of the parts and labour for the rest. He smiled and said he’d leave it...
...because he’d only spent £4.00 on the guitar.
We both had to laugh – the guitar actually cost less than a packet of strings and he re-donated it to the charity shop.
Worth A Look?
So, what do you need to look out for when checking out a bargain at the boot sale? Well, I’d start at the bottom and work up.
Firstly, check the bottom of the guitar. Has it taken a bang? Sometimes the guitar may have been dropped and the strap button pushed into the base of the guitar. Make sure everything is where it should be.
Next, check the guitar for cracks. An acoustic guitar is a relatively delicate instrument and can be susceptible to knocks. A crack in the wood might not be fatal but it will definitely affect the tone. If you’re unsure, I would leave it. A crack or damage to the top (the front face of the guitar) and you should walk away.
Take a look at the bridge. This is where the strings attach to the top. On classical guitars, they are tied on; steel strung acoustics have pins that hold the strings in the body. In many cases, the bridge is stuck onto the top, rather than screwed down. Is it lifting? Over time, the glue can soften and the string tension literally pulls the bridge off. This isn’t terminal but would need to be repaired and is something that a guitar tech or luthier can do relatively simply.
Check the top itself. Is it bowing? Often, the boot-sale guitar is a creature that has spent many years in a loft space, heating up, freezing, getting damp, drying out etc and, over time, this affects the wood itself. If the top is bowed, you will struggle to get a decent tone out of the guitar. In an ideal world, I’d say walk away from this one but, if you must have it, you’ll definitely need to have it repaired. On a cheap guitar, the repair will definitely not be cost-effective. Another good test is to give the top a push: does it creak or can you feel any mechanical movement? It may be that the bracing under the top has come free. This can be fixed by a guitar tech or luthier as it will require re-gluing and clamping in place. Not a big job but it takes a while.
Have a look at the neck. Sight down its length and check to see if it is bent or twisted. I once saw a bass that had been sat in a caravan for many years that had a neck like a corkscrew! No amount of fiddling with a truss rod was going to fix that one! If the neck bends up / back slightly, this may be easily remedied if the guitar has a truss rod through the neck. If not, especially on classical guitars that tend to have set necks, then it would be best to think again.
Check the frets: are they worn? Do they have chips or gouges on them? It’s more common than you’d think but guitars are built to be re-fretted. However, a re-fret can be pricey. If you were looking at re-fretting a cheap acoustic, I doubt it would be worth the expense. Re-fretting a more professional instrument may well be a good investment, especially if you intend to make this your primary choice.
Finally, take a look at the headstock. Are there any cracks around the neck or the machine heads? Certain brands of guitar are famous for having a weak joint where the headstock joins the neck and they have a nasty habit of breaking off or cracking if the guitar takes a knock. Check the machine heads. Do they turn easily? Are the cogs chipped or have missing teeth? Replacing machine heads is a very simple fix and they aren’t generally very expensive so don’t feel it’s a deal-breaker. Also, check the nut (slotted for the strings where they join the neck). Has it taken any damage? Once again, replacing a nut is a simple job and the parts are cheap (around £10) so you can feel pretty confident that, even if you need a new one, you can go ahead with the purchase.
In conclusion, you can definitely pick up some absolute gems at the charity shop or car-boot sale and there is no reason whatsoever to ignore a bargain! If you can keep these tips in mind, you can buy with a bit more confidence.