Sure, I have some nice, expensive guitars. They play great and they sound great with minimal effort. But there is just something fun about the hunt for a dirt cheap guitar. Whether it’s at a pawn shop, a yard sale, a flea market, in a dumpster, or sold by a creepy guy on Craigslist, there are plenty around. They have their quirks, they have their challenges, but they also have some potential mojo. There are also some where there’s a reason they’re so cheap. So what seperates trash from treasure? Please allow me to expand in the following paragraphs.
My Neck, My Back….
The first thing I look at when picking up one of these bargain bangers is the neck. To me, the neck is the most important component of the guitar. If I don’t jive with the neck, then no amount of upgrades to the tuners, pickups, etc., will make this guitar a winner. It doesn’t matter how good the pickups sound when you have to summon Mr. Incredible’s strength to form a bar chord because the action is so high because of a bad neck. This is especially important with set-neck guitars since you’re pretty much stuck with that neck. Here’s how I evaluate a neck:
Say No To Crack
The first red flag is a crack in the neck. Yes, a cracked neck/headstock can be fixed, but it will be a matter of how much you like the guitar and how much work you will be willing to put into it. A certain style of set-neck guitars, which shall not be named, are notorious for their headstocks snapping off if you so much as look at it incorrectly. But, they can be and are often repaired, usually making the neck stronger than it was before (if done properly). If you don’t feel comfortable making this repair, then it’s best to leave it be.
Is the neck straight?
Before even trying to strum that first G chord, I’ll hold the guitar up to my face and look down the neck towards the headstock to see if the neck is straight. There are tools to really fine-tune the straightness of the neck, but a quick check with the naked eye will let you know if its in the ballpark. If it has a little relief (a slight bow), that’s no big deal as long as the truss rod works. If there’s a twist in the neck, then it is no good to me. There are ways to straighten a warped neck with steam and clamps, but I don’t think it’s worth doing to a $60 guitar.
Do Not Fret, My Dear
Once you’ve determined the neck is straight, next step is the check the frets. Visually look at them to see if there’s any dents or divits from years of someone playing the same 3 chords in the same position repeatedly. Also look at how big the fret wire is, if there’s still plenty of fret there, they can be leveled/dressed. Next I check for dead frets by starting at fret one and playing a note on each string and fret all the way up the board. Don’t just play the notes straight on, do some bends too. Depending on the radius of the neck, you can only bend but so far before the note frets out. Should one of the frets be excessivly buzzing or not produce a discernable note, the size of the fret determines whether or not the subject guitar is going home with me. It also depends on if I really want the guitar. I have the tools for a fret leveling/dressing, but not everybody does. If you don’t have the tools or are not willing to spend to time to fix frets, it’s best to leave that 6-string misfit where it lay.
I’m Built For Comfort, Not Speed
Lastly, if the straightness and the frets are on the up-and-up, I’ll spend some time noodling about on the guitar just to see if I connect with it. This is where personal preference comes in. Do the ends of the frets feel like speed bumps? Is the edge of the fretboard rounded or squared? If the neck isn’t comfortable in my hands, then it will probably never get played. If you have small hands and the neck is like a baseball bat, it probably isn’t the guitar for you. This is all personal preference, but when a guitar feels right, you will know it.
You Can Tune A Guitar, But You Can’t Tune-A Fish!
I guess the tuners are kinda part of the neck, so I’ll throw them in this section. Tuners are often a weak point in a guitar and the first thing that people upgrade. It’s also a piece of the hardware that manufacturers will skimp on to keep the cost down. If you turn the tuning peg and the string jumps up half an octave, then the gear ratios are just all out of wack. Tuners aren’t difficult to replace, but it’s an added cost and hassle you’ll have to determine if the sacrifice is worthwhile to you.
Next I’ll look at the body. It can be hard to tell exactly what kind of wood the body is made out of, and the whole debate of how different woods affect the tone is a whole other subject. Most cheapo guitars will be made with basswood, plywood, or some other softer wood. I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing, it just is what it is. The main thing to look for is any cracks or signs of structural damage. To me, just dings and scratches are no big deal, but just like the neck, a crack will be a no-go for me.
Hardware? Hardwhere? Hardthere!
99% of the time, the hardware (pickups, pots, bridge, saddles) on these budget guitars is the absolute bottom of the barrell as far as quality. The bridge saddles will almost feel like aluminum foil they’re so thin, the volume pots won’t have a smooth roll-off, the pickups will be noisy with a ear-piercing treble, and this list goes on and on. When I buy a guitar in this price range, I pretty much buy it with the plan of at least replacing the pickups, although it hard to justify spending $100 on pickups when you spent less than $100 on the whole guitar. I can generally live with cheapo saddles, unless I find myself breaking strings regularly.
All That Glitters Is Not Always Gold
I know that “relicing” is all the rage these days, and people spend a pretty penny for a new guitar that looks like it’s seen battle. There are also people that want the shinyest guitar that looks like its never been played. Most of the hunts for these cheap-o guitars involve used guitars. A nice shiny guitar is good and all, but there is usually a reason why a used guitar looks like its never been played. These guitars haven’t had the mojo to implore someone to pick it up. A used guitar with some wear along the edge of the neck (aka, natural rolling of the fretboard edges) has seen some love. Much like this Squier Affinity Strat I picked up for $100:
This guitar brings me to my favorite part of buying cheapo guitars: they’re great platforms for modifying! This is where you can take a run-of-the-mill guitar and turn it into something unique. The pickups are usually the first thing to go, followed by the tuners if the guitar won’t stay in tune. After some eBay searching, I stumbled upon this loaded pickguard with a single Duncan Performer Invader knock-off, much in the style of Tom DeLonge. But the pickguard has a swirl finish that really sets this guitar apart. In total I’ve got a totally giggable guitar for $130. Score!
With this level of guitar, you don’t buy them to flip and make a profit. When I buy guitars at this level, I look for something that I will actually enjoy playing. Or I look for something I can make a few upgrades too and it will make a great beginner guitar for a kid starting out. I’m also not afraid to leave a guitar where it is if it just does not feel right.