The online market is probably the largest market place for buying vintage guitars. There are a number of dedicated online and auction market places such as Reverb, VintageAndRare and Gbase and also many dealers that sell on the web. Obviously, the first thing that crosses your mind is “is it risky to buy online?” The answer is “yes, there will be risks as you are not able to inspect and test the guitar personally.” So what are some of the problems with buying online?
The first thing to note is that inspecting the guitar personally before buying is quite impossible. While clear pictures provided by sellers are useful, it should be noted that no digital picture can capture the many factors that go into placing a value on an instrument. You can mitigate the risks by researching, checking and asking the right questions before purchasing. It is imperative that one ask the right questions and insist on clear answers to the questions. If the seller refuses to respond to your questions or give superficial answers, I would recommend that you look for a different instrument. The questions I would ask are:
1. Is the neck straight?
The neck of a guitar should be straight. I cannot imagine anyone would want to play with a guitar with a bowed neck. If the bowing is small and if the guitar has a truss rod, it may still be possible to fix the problem. But if it does not have a truss rod, you should just forget about buying the guitar. One of the first questions I would ask is whether the neck is straight and I would probe further with supplementary questions like whether there is string buzzing when single notes are played up and down the neck. Excessive buzz is indicative of a bow. Although a luthier can sometimes straighten a bowed neck by applying heat and pressure, it's best to avoid this problem if possible. Of course, small amounts of bowing can be fixed by a truss rod adjustment.
2. Is the intonation accurate?
Poor intonation can be the result of a bowed neck, worn frets or improper adjustment at the bridge. Many cheap guitars have a bridge that cannot be adjusted for intonation. It would generally be advisable to avoid buying a guitar unless it has an adjustable bridge. If you buy a guitar with a non-adjustable bridge and the intonation isn't right, you've got a very nice piece of wall art. A way to test is to play the same note at different places on the neck to see whether the note sounds at the same pitch at each location. Many guitars cannot pass this test perfectly, but the notes should be pretty close to the same.
3. Is there excessive fret wear?
Frets on a guitar that is 30-50 years old, if it has been played often, will show signs of wearing off. I will always ask about the condition of the frets. The best place to check for fret wear is the B and E strings at the third fret. You can also ask the seller to describe the wear on the third fret and whether the B and E strings buzz when picked at this position.
4. Do all pickups work?
A major electronic component of a guitar is the pickup. You want to be sure that all the pickups are working. Sometimes a pickup may not work due to a broken wire or a bad potentiometer or bad switch. In such a case, the fix is straightforward and relatively inexpensive. However, if the pickup is defective, then you may have to get it rewound and that would bring down the value of the guitar. I would genrally avoid such guitars.
5. Can you describe all dents, chips, scratches, cracks, dings, or other finish flaws on the body and neck of the instrument?
We can't expect perfection, but the fewer the better. I avoid guitars with cracks in the wood, chips in the neck, or obvious signs of abuse. A guitar with a neck reset, especially one that has been done well and is ultra stable now, could be viewed as not that serious.
6. Are all parts on the instrument original?
Obviously, from a collector’s point of view, all things being equal, an instrument that is all original will be valued more than one that is not. So a key question to ask the seller is whether all parts on the guitar are original. The most frequently replaced parts on old guitars are the tuners, knobs, bridge, output jack, pots, frets, pickups, tremelo bar, back plate cover, nut, tail piece. When parts such as tuners and bridge, have been replaced, you will probably need to search on the web for pictures of your guitar to determine if the knobs and bridge are correct. Pickups and pickguards are also often replaced so make sure you are getting the originals. Although these parts can sometimes be found, they are generally hard to find and expensive to purchase. I have paid more than $100 for an original back plate cover for a Stratocaster. Also, quite often owners (who have been playing the guitar) like to change the tail piece to a stop tail. You can tell from the holes left behind at the tail end of the guitar next to the back strap button. Quite often, we hear of guitars that have be refretted or undergone rebinding. While these can affect the value of the guitar, in my opinion they may not be that serious as compared to say one that have pickups changed. Frets do get worn out just like tires of a car. Similarly, rebinding could be viewed as something analogous to changing the bumper of a car. It is my humble opinion that things like that are not that serious (nothwithstanding that they will still diminish the value of the guitar somewhat). I would be more concerned with guitars that have changed pickups, and to a slightly less extent guitars that have say changed tuners, pickguard and bigsby. Having said that, it should be noted that originality is still key to a guitar’s value. One should be prepared to expect diminution in value (small or big) depending on the types of changes or modifications made.
7. Is the finish original?
Generally, one would find the value of a refinished vintage guitar fall by about half or more. While a new refinish may look obvious since a 30-50 year old guitar is not going to shine like a new one, however, an old refinish can sometimes be difficult to detect in pictures. This is especially so if the refin is also done to give a deliberate relic look. Popular refin colors are solid black, white, red and blue. If you are planning to buy a guitar with one of these finishes, it is probably wise to ask the seller if they believe it has been refinished.
8. What is the year of manufacture?
Establishsing the year of manufacture requires some research. From my experience, it pays to read up about the particular model; the history of the guitar, its changes in specs over the years (eg body shape, pickup type, wood used, tuners used, headstock design, body thickness, etc). A good source of research information for this is guitarhq.com. Among other things, I would look for three essential information: the serial number, the pot dates, the neck date (for some guitars they are printed on the inside of the base of the neck). The pot date is probably the most reliable as a guitar’s date of a manufacture is generally determined by this date.
9. Is there anything about this guitar that might influence its value that has not been disclosed?
At the end of the day, buying guitars online will have risks and is a bit of a gamble. Sometimes you get an exceptional value and sometimes you may be disappointed. I would always ask relevant questions before the purchase and resist auction fever so as to avoid bad purchases. This question is not fool proof, but it may get you some leverage with the seller if you discover you have been misled.