Ed's Shed: A Good Vintage

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What to look for when buying a used guitar.

I’ve have always wanted a vintage electric guitar. I’ve noticed that some Sixties Epiphone and Gibson models can still be had at reasonable prices. What should I be looking for when I buy an old guitar? I’ve only purchased modern guitars and don’t want to become a victim of my own inexperience. —Paul Hopkin

This is a good question, and a timely one. As it happens, the Shed has a new addition to its six-string family: an original 1965 Gretsch Corvette. It’s cute, plays like a dream and has a tone that would make Jack White sob like a baby. Better still, it sold for pretty much the same price as a recent reissue version. So, yes, there are still some bargains to be had, but you need to know what you’re doing. Here are some tips to help you out.

1. Do your homework and familiarize yourself with the specifications of the guitar you’re interested in buying. Get a book on the specific guitar brand or research it online.

2. Ask the seller for the serial number. You can use it to determine the year of the guitar’s manufacture. Even without the serial number, you can often date a guitar from its features. For example, headstocks on Gretsch Corvettes made from 1961 to 1963 had three tuners per side. The Shed’s Corvette has two on the bass side and four on the treble side, as a 1965 Corvette should.

3. If you’re buying a guitar from an online auction, ask the seller to email you some detailed pictures of the guitar. Be specific about what you want to see.

4. Ask the buyer about repairs and part swaps. Has the guitar been altered in any way? Has it been refretted? In particular, ask if the pickups are stock or replacement. Aftermarket pickups can seriously affect the tone of a guitar—not to mention the resale value of a vintage instrument.

5. Ask about fretwear. If the frets need to be replaced or leveled, you’ll have to figure the bill for the work into the seller’s asking price. Get a quote from your local repair shop.

6. Don’t expect an old guitar to look pristine. Cracks in the finish, worn patches, dents and chips all add character to the instrument. It’s a beautiful thing, so don’t be put off by it.

7. Ask the seller if the guitar’s neck or headstock has ever been broken. If it has, that should be reflected in the selling price. If you can’t visit the seller, ask for a detailed shot of the back of the guitar’s neck and headstock.

8. Vintage guitars that have been altered to improve playability are often referred to as a player’s guitar. These guitars are generally cheaper than original-spec models. Mint or nearly mint examples are often described as “investment grade.”

Should you purchase the guitar, you may want to make alterations to it. Any time you replace parts, be sure to keep the originals safely stored away. Doing so will improve the guitar’s resale value, should you ever decide to part with it.

One last word: Remember that not every vintage guitar is great. Some of them suck. The thrill is in finding a good one. Also try comparing an original guitar with a reissue. You might find you prefer the new version.

How often should I change the strings on my electric guitar? —Patrick Morrison

You should change them as soon as they sound dull and lifeless or become difficult to keep in tune. Clean your strings after playing your guitar and they will last longer.

I’m going abroad for a while and need to store my electric guitar safely while I’m away. Do you have any tips? —James Travis

Detune the guitar’s strings, give the hardware a good cleaning and store the instrument in its gig bag or case. Place it in a closet or under your bed, as long as neither location is near a radiator. For that matter, a hot water or radiator pipe that passes behind the wall of a closet can raise the temperature inside the space, so check the area before you leave your guitar there.