How to Inspect a Guitar in 5 Easy Steps

Glenn Sutton teaches guitar, electric bass, keyboard, theory and improvisation for over 30 years, he specializes in rock, blues, jazz, Latin, Brazilian, classical, country, and folk.

How to Inspect a Guitar in 5 Easy Steps

When purchasing a guitar, whether new or used, it is a great idea to take a few minutes to do a thorough inspection of it. Seemingly innocuous things can cause your guitar to break or become unplayable far too quickly. It doesn’t matter whether it is a budget-line or a top-of-the-line guitar you are looking at, the same general inspection guidelines apply. The following five steps will walk you through a quick and thorough inspection.

#1 – Check the Neck and Headstock

Check the tuning machines to make sure they move easily, but aren’t loose. If you are looking at an acoustic guitar, very carefully check to make sure the neck is securely attached to the body. A gap, even one the thickness of a business card, can indicate the need for repair. This is generally caused by the extreme tension of the strings. It can indicate either that the guitar is damaged or was built from inferior materials. Neck pull is not generally a factor in electric guitars unless it had previously been replaced by an unqualified repair person.

It’s very important, especially with a used guitar, to check the neck of the guitar to see if it is straight. Hold the guitar with the tuners close to you and the body of the guitar on the floor. Carefully inspect the neck to see if it is straight and make sure it doesn’t have any low or high spots. Look carefully for any twists in the neck, as this can make a guitar hard to keep in tune and make playing increasingly difficult.

Next, you will want to look at the distance of the strings from the fretboard, or what is commonly called the action. It’s important to ensure it’s not too difficult to hold the strings down in order to play. Generally speaking, the action should be approximately 3/32” at the 12th fret. It can be adjusted somewhat lower for easier play, but usually not by much. Most factories set it between 3/32” and 7/64” on the E string.

#2 – Examine the Bridge

electric guitar bridge

Electric guitar bridge

When inspecting an acoustic guitar, make sure that there is no gap between the bridge and the top of the guitar. Even the slightest gap can mean the bridge is starting to separate from the top. Ensure all six bridge pins are firmly in place and flush with each other. There should be no gaps around the bridge pins and the saddle should be straight and level.

For an electric guitar, check the screws holding the bridges in place and make sure they are snug. If your guitar has an adjustable bridge (most electrics do), use a wrench or screwdriver to make sure the bridge actually is adjustable and not stuck. (You can always ask a salesperson at the store to check it for you.)

#3 – Look at the Frets and Strings

Unless a guitar is very old and has seen extensive use, there should be no issues with the frets. Make sure they are even, unworn and have no sharp edges or burrs. Worn-out frets can cause your guitar strings to buzz when played. Since it can be very expensive to have frets replaced, this is a critical thing to check beforehand.

Check the guitar strings. On some lower-end new guitars, the strings may not be very high quality. With used guitars, the strings may not have been replaced, so beware. New strings are clean and shiny, while older strings will are unevenly colored and may even show signs of unwinding. A bad set of strings can make even the finest guitar sound dull and lifeless. Any reputable guitar shop will either have new strings on the guitar to begin with, or be happy to put new strings on when requested in order to hear the guitar sounding its best.

#4 – The Body

You’ve covered most of the guitar; now look closely for any chips, loose screws, cracks, dings or scratches. If it’s a used model, some wear is to be expected. Some new lower-end guitars may have some minor finish issues that won’t affect the sound or the playability. Either way, you’ll want to look for anything at all that may indicate structural damage.

Acoustic guitars are generally more fragile and susceptible to damage than their electric brethren. With an acoustic, it is especially important to inspect the body in the manner described above. Don’t be tempted to purchase a guitar if it shows any sign of structural damage or extreme wear. It’s better to spend more on a guitar that will last.

#5 – Watch the Pickups

If you are looking at an electric guitar or an acoustic/electric, take the time to play it and check all of the pickups. Make sure the control for each pickup is in perfect working order. Ensure that the pickups are properly fastened to the guitar as well.

A few minutes of guitar inspection now could save you a lot of time, money, and headache later. Talk to your local music dealer if you have any questions.

 

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