Are used instruments good for beginners? - Sept/Oct 2003


We get a lot of inquiries from people hoping to get good quality, affordable instruments by finding used instruments in good condition. More often than not, the questions come from parents who are concerned that their child’s interest in playing music will wane & the family will have the “first instrument” as an expensive keepsake of a fleeting desire. While we appreciate the desire to keep the expense modest, buying a used instrument (or too inexpensive a new instrument) can get you something that is hard to play, expensive to fix or both. You can save too much money. Good beginners’ instruments cost between $200 & $500 with a case or gig bag. We recommend saving until you have a budget that will cover that kind of price. 


Action & Playability: older instruments tend to suffer from “neck rotation,” a condition in which the tension of the strings pull the neck of the instrument forward from its original position. As the neck rotates, the strings raise higher & higher from the surface of the fingerboard. The string height, or action, gets very high –often so high that the instrument is difficult, even painful to play. Beginners have very little stamina for the discomfort & difficulty that this kind of problem creates. Instruments with poor action have made many beginning players quit. The cost of resetting the neck to a proper angle to lower the action is reasonable for premium instruments. But the cost is prohibitive for less expensive instruments... often more expensive than a good-quality, modest-priced, new instrument. 


Intonation, Tunability & Buzzing: instruments with high action also have poor intonation. Because the strings are so far from the fingerboard, pressing them to the fingerboard requires more pressure. As a result, tension in depressed strings is higher & intonation is sharp, especially up the neck. Intonation can be so bad that the instrument plays out of tune everywhere on the neck - even at the nut. The problem is even worse when in fretted instruments when the frets are improperly spaced. In addition, poorly spaced frets are often poorly seated. Raised frets cause buzzing & time allows poorly seated frets to raise out of their slots. So, an older instrument with poorly seated frets is even more likely to buzz. 


Tone Quality: good quality, SOLID WOOD instruments that have been cared for well & played, do indeed have richer tone than equivalent new instruments of equal calibre. This benefit is virtually non-existent in laminate (plywood)instruments; almost all inexpensive beginner instruments are laminate. An old laminate instrument is very unlikely to have a better voice than a new one. Many vendors extol the richer tone of an older instrument to charge a higher price for a used instrument. Danger... Caution... Warning! Pay more for tone only if YOU hear more tone. 


Longevity: Because time allows instruments to develop problems, you have some assurance that a used instrument in good health is stable & likely to remain so. This fact is a genuine benefit of buying used instruments. On the other side of the equation, a used instrument with health problems is likely to be a serious money pit. Fixing neck rotation (discussed under “Action & Playability” above) costs $300 or more. Other repairs can also be costly as most qualified repair people charge $50/hour or more. Costs like these are reasonable only if the instrument value (once repaired) exceeds the cost of the repairs that are necessary. 


Resale Value: premium -quality used instruments that have received good care often appreciate in value. So, it’s possible to buy a used instrument& have it appreciate while in your possession. For low- & intermediate-priced instruments, it is more likely that the instrument will depreciate in value according to its condition at the time of resale. So, if you buy a new intermediate-priced instrument & keep it very nice, expect to get about 80% of the new price when you sell it. Similarly, expect to buy a used instrument in good condition for about 80% of the new price. However, the 20% savings will cost you access to warrantee coverage that would come with a new instrument. 


What can I do?

When you choose used, carefully evaluate the value of the savings vs. warrantee.

Make the choice that has the best trade-off for your situation. 
Whether you buy new or used, educate yourself about what is available in each price range.

Be sure to have the knowledge to evaluate the merit of the deal you get.