Knowing what to look for when buying a vintage guitar can be a downright frustrating. Use these tell-tale signs to help you make a decision when spending big money on vintage treasure.
One of the most often asked question when buying a vintage guitar is "what do I look for?" Fortunately, most vintage guitars have tell tale signs that may help you make a decision when spending your money. First, and most important, decide whether you are looking for a "player" guitar, or a "collector" guitar. If you are looking for an instrument to collect, or invest in, please keep in mind that originality is the key. The more "original" the guitar is, the more desirable it is as a collectors item. You can find tons of great info online by looking up the serial number of the guitar. Here is where a little bit of internet-detective work comes into play. Do your homework and always remember a deal too good to be true is often just that: "Caveat Emptor" - Buyer Beware. Aside from this basic research, here are a few other things to look for when examining the guitar.
First rule of buying any guitar is Never buy one without strings on it. While this sounds pretty basic, it is still the most important part of any guitar purchase. The guitar needs to have strings on it to properly check for pitch.
Second rule, and just as important as having strings, is to examing and try the truss rod to make sure it is functioning. Many vintage guitars with unadjusted necks are like this for a reason. If the neck is not straight, take the time to try to adjust the truss rod, this also allows you to see whether the truss rod is broken or not. Nothing is worse than finding out from you guitar tech a new truss rod is necessary to play the guitar.
Third, and also Very important, is to make sure the guitar has some fret wear. Any vintage guitar that has "new looking" frets has either never been played, or it was re-fretted along the way. While it might seem appealing to get a guitar with no fret wear, it is actually a players nightmare. Guitars that are great players, get played. Guitars that do not play, or sound, great usually get left in the closet, and have little to no fret wear.
Fourth rule when examing a used/vintage guitar is to tap on the front and back of the body. This applies for acoustic as well as semi-hollow body guitars. Listen for and loose braces, or components. Many older guitars develop odd buzzing sound as well as vibrations which are usually caused by loose braces. Tapping on the front and back of the guitar will expose any loose braces, as well as is anything is loose in the bridge. This step is the easiest to do first, as it doesn't require any special tools, just your ears.
Lastly, remove the pickguard to check the original finish of the guitar. Many guitars that were refinished in the 70's and 80's have taken on enough patina to fool most people. The easiest way to check the finish is to remove the pickguard to reveal what color is underneath. If you guitar does't have a pickguard, you can check the control cavity to determine the original finish. On Gibson type guitars, you can remove a pickup to see the original color. Paint fades over time, guitars get covered in dirt and grime, or worse, they get re-painted.
Buying used guitars can be a crap shoot. Buying used guitars online can be a downright scary experience. Try to get as many pics of the guitar as you can and do not be afraid to ask the seller for as much info as possible. If you're still not sure, hire your local guitar tech to examine the guitar. Take all precautions necessary to insulate your investment.