The Luthier’s Corner: Buying a Used Acoustic Guitar

by Rick Mullen

Whether you’ve decided to buy a used guitar for reasons of economy, or you’ve just run across a sweet little number lying in some music store’s back room and you must have it, buying a used instrument is always a little risky.

Guitars get played, get handled, get stored in nasty environments and sometimes meet with accidents. Here’s a few things I look for as an instrument repair guy when evaluating a used guitar for a client.

High Action:
I start by looking for the obvious. A bridge/saddle that is cut as low as it will go is a sign that the neck is out of alignment. In severe cases this might require a neck reset, quite an expensive repair. There are different ways to join a neck to a guitar body including the traditional tapered dovetail joint, the bolt on neck, the combination bolt-on/dovetail and in some inexpensive imported Asian guitars; the non-removable neck!  Determining which kind of joint it is will greatly affect the repair price as some fixes are much more labor intensive.

Resetting the neck also entails replacing the bridge as well, if it was shaved down. Shaving down a bridge is a quick fix for those who can’t reset a neck. If you have an old Martin or Gibson and the repair person wants to shave down your bridge- find someone else!

Here is a quick way to check the adjustment needed on the action; On the low E string, place one finger on the first fret and another on the 15th.  Using the string as a straight edge, if the gap between the string and the fret is bigger or smaller than the thickness of a business card, then you need an adjustment.

Normal Wear:
Frets are the number one most neglected maintenance item. In most older guitars the frets will have to be dressed or replaced (that’s the first thing I do when I procure a used instrument).
Next I check the seams and glue joints for stability and look for any cracks. Cracks usually come with loose braces as well. I first check inside the guitar soundhole with a mirror then loosen the strings and stick my arm in there feeling for loose braces. ( I love the look on the clients face when i’m doing this, it’s like Oh my God he’s violating my guitar!)

Specific Problems:
A bulged top behind the bridge is a sign of either a bridge lifting, a bridge plate warping, an instrument having been stored in bad humidity conditions or all of the above. ( a lifting bridge can cause a warped bridge plate and don’t forget a few loose braces with that one too)
If you can slip a business card under any corner of the bridge then that bridge has lifted and will have to be re-glued. If you remove a bridge pin and it’s bent, that’s either a lifting bridge or a lifted bridge that was repaired ( I always replace bent pins).

I highly recommend having an instrument evaluated by an experienced technician, they can give it a thorough going over, checking inside with a mirror for any problems.  In the future we; The Guitar Mechanics, (see below for contact information) will be video taping everything from simple setups to resetting necks and other major repair work, anyone interested in viewing will be able to purchase a yearly subscription.


Rick Mullen is a working musician and luthier residing in Dutchess county, NY.  He has toured with Don Mclean and Commander Cody for a decade as well as many other regional acts.  He builds, repairs and restores instruments and is currently working out of Jim Heslins “Axe Shop” in Poughkeepsie, NY.

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