Examining a Garage Sale Guitar

Examining a garage sale guitar on a bench
Examining a garage sale guitar

Examining a Garage Sale Guitar can be an interesting endeavour but you may not know how to evaluate it, or where to start. Every now and then you might come across an old guitar that could be valuable or just have a place in your collection for nostalgic reasons. So the question is how do you determine which category your find falls under? And, perhaps most importantly is it worth the time and effort?

If your anything like me, there’s seldom a guitar that you come across that you can’t find a way to improve or turn into a “player”. What do I mean by a “player”? Well, it must meet certain criteria to qualify and what that depends on most is what you intend to do with it. Let’s start by creating some categories of guitars:

1) The Student / Learner’s Guitar

2) The Campfire Buddy Guitar

3) The Serious Rocker Guitar

4) The Collector Guitar

Now you might feel that these categories don’t cover all your options and that’s fine. Or, you may want to rename them—especially the 3rd one if you’re more of a blues or a jazz player. Either way, I’m sure you’ll agree that you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a guitar that gets bashed around at a campsite. Or, one that finds its way into the back of a closet after the beginner that you bought it for has decided that it’s just too difficult to learn.

So, if the guitar that crossed your path is going to be evaluated, ask yourself first if you can place it into any of these categories? If not, it might already be a waste of your time. But, it could still be of value to a serious collector for different reasons and that’s another story altogether. If you have the time to devote spending hours researching the internet, library and other resources, go for it. If not, maybe you should keep on walking?Image result for apple icon itunes


What To Look For:

What To Look For is not always a straight forward thing either. However, there are some common things that I examine first and recommend:

1) String Nut: Is it cracked, made of bone or plastic or has it been replaced? Is the nut ill-fitted, discoloured, or loose? Plastic is common on low-end guitars and will discolour over time becoming yellowed, but on a collector guitar, that’s not a problem. Bone can also discolour but not as severely. Replacements can often be purchased ready-made, or you can get a custom one, but it will cost considerably more unless you do it yourself.

2) String Tuners/Machine Heads: Are they open back or closed, adjustable, bent or damaged in any way, have plastic knobs, or have they been replaced? Are the loose? Do they turn freely or are they difficult to rotate or even seized? These are pretty simple to replace nowadays but not in all cases. Some may require alterations to the headstock so study this carefully before you decide if it’s something you want to do.

Checking out the tuning machine heads--these are in excellent condition
Checking out the tuning machine heads–these are in excellent condition

3) String Action: Are the strings sitting very high above the fingerboard, or too close to the frets? Sometimes this is due to improper string nut height but may also be due to the neck adjustment (see No. 4 below). Take a sight line on each side of the nut looking down towards the guitar’s body and see how the curve of the neck looks (see example photo below). It should have a bit of up bow for proper string relief, although some guitars can play reasonably well with a straight/flat fingerboard, it’s not usually the case.  That’s because the action will be higher and thus more uncomfortable if you intend to play chords or notes higher than the 5th fret. Generally, anyone just strumming chords and notes within the first 3 frets will be fine with this, but it’s not desirable for the rest of us!

Viewing the neck from the nut on a --note the upward bow of the fingerboard.
Viewing the neck from the nut–note the upward bow of the fingerboard.

4) String Relief: Examine the string relief gap by depressing the strings at the 12th fret and plucking the strings on the neck side. You’ll then be able to see if they make contact with the frets indicating back bow, or if they sound out the note cleanly indicating upward bow of the neck. If they sound out cleanly, I measure the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret at the 5th fret. If this is excessive it means that a truss rod adjustment will be required, and the same is true if the string is making contact with the top of the fret. It’s ideal when this gap is no more than 0.015 to 0.025″ without a lot of string buzz.

5) Cracks and Chips: Examine the neck, headstock, and body for cracks and chips that need repair. Minor cracks and chips in the finish are not really a big concern but anything that might affect the structural integrity of the instrument is what we’re looking for.

Checking the rear of the bay for damage on a bench
Checking the rear of the bay for damage

6) Frets: Examine frets for deep grooves and edges of frets for sharp ends. Deep grooves will require fret replacement which is an expensive repair. Minor wear can often be left alone or you can have fret dressing done, but it’s not always needed, depending on your intentions for the guitar. Sharp fret ends will require filing and sanding and can be easy to rectify. This is caused by shrinkage of the fingerboard wood in dry environments.

NOTE: Try to store your guitars where the humidity level is around 35 to 40% whenever possible.

7) If It’s An Electric Guitar: Electric guitars need to be checked to see if all controls, pickups, and connections work. Plug in the guitar and listen for unusual cracking noises or buzzing. With the volume controls on full, tap individual pickups with a small screwdriver to see if they are actually working. Then use the selector switches and re-check the pickups. Repeat the process setting the tone controls from treble to bass. Check volume controls to see if the function from zero to maximum. Cracking noises from volume and tone controls is common and can often be corrected with spray cleaners but sometimes replacements are required. If possible, examine the internal wiring and controls and look for new components and/or signs of poor repairs like sloppy soldering.

NOTE: If you believe you’ve discovered a collector guitar that may be valuable, it’s best not to make any alterations, replace components nor have any repairs done. That’s because in so doing you may even lower its’ value.

8) Bridges: I’ve left this to the end since there are numerous types of bridges and different things to look for:

Acoustic guitars will normally have a bone or plastic single strip inset into a wood bridge plate glued to the body. These may be set too high creating uncomfortable string action but can be easily removed and filed down. If broken, they are easily replaced as well. But, often you’ll find that the bridge plate might be lifting off the body. This can be removed and re-glued. However, if the plate is still secured and the top is bulging upward it’s a costly repair and you might want to keep walking again.

Archtop guitars will normally employ a wood bridge with thumb wheels that rotate to raise or lower the string action. These can be found on both acoustic and electric guitars, (as seen in the photo in this blog), and are often not anchored or secured to the body. If you can’t tune a guitar like this to pitch, it’s normally because the bridge is out of position and must be adjusted for the scale length of the guitar. Electric guitars will normally have this type of bridge made out of metal and they will usually be anchored or set in place. Some have adjustable bridge saddles that can be moved forward or backwards and on occasion, they might be missing or require replacement.

Electric Guitar Bridges: These can be simple designs like fixed types with saddles that are fully adjustable (i.e. up, down, forward and backwards). Or they might be tremolo types that have a bar to bend the strings downward to alter pitch. There are a lot more issues with these as there are wearing parts, missing springs, worn out threads, etc. Frankly, too much for me to cover in this article so I’ll have to do that at another time. Bear in mind that all to often these tremolo bridges have been improperly set up and will need a fair bit of attention to make them play as they should. Check out this link to see just one key thing that I can point out.

Based on what you’ve learned from these examinations you should have a pretty good idea of how to categorize the guitar in question and whether or not it’s worth your time and effort. Keep in mind that if you’re only spending $10 to $20 you can’t be too picky, and if it’s playable, you may just have found the ideal campfire guitar or a fun instrument to do a little experimenting on. If you’re in the learning stage of doing guitar repairs these are ideal finds that you won’t be worried about conducting tests and trials or modifications to as well.