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Point of No Return

A dealer with a big inventory should still go through every guitar from the pot codes to the tuner tips to make sure it is as described and there are no hidden or undisclosed issues. An individual seller with one guitar to sell should do the same or consult a vintage dealer to help out. Most will be happy to. This is the famous “A” rack at OK Guitars.

You want a really good reason to buy a guitar from a dealer? Return policy. You probably already knew that but dealers tend to charge more than individual sellers but there’s more to this than meets the eye. I buy plenty of guitars from individual sellers and I buy a fair number from other dealers. I prefer to buy from other dealers even though I sometimes have to pay top dollar for them. But wait, why would someone like me who is supposed to know what to look for prefer buying from a dealer? Return policy. Here’s the problem:

I’ve been keeping close track of the accuracy of the descriptions of guitars I buy for at least 8 years now. When buying from an individual seller (usually without a return policy), I ask for a lot of specific photos but when you’re buying from the 90 year old widow of the original owner, you can’t really ask her to pull the pickups and photograph the PAF stickers. Sometimes, you can’t even get a single photo. You simply take your chances. But even when I get all the photos I need, there can still be issues that don’t show up in photos. Overspray for one, rewound pickups for another. Fortunately, the issues are mostly minor but sometimes an undisclosed or unknown big issue like a well repaired headstock crack can sneak by. After all, Grandpa (may he rest in peace) didn’t usually tell Grandma that he broke his $400 (in 1959 dollars) guitar and had to spend $50 to get it fixed. She would just get upset. So, a dealer has to walk a very fine line when buying a guitar from someone who knows nothing about guitars.

You might ask what percentage of guitars that I get are not accurately described? 20%? 25%? 30%? Nope. 90%. Seriously, nearly every guitar I buy from an individual seller has a hidden or undisclosed issue. It’s usually something pretty benign like a changed switch tip or pot that I can address from my parts stash. But, as I mentioned, sometimes it’s rewound pickups, undisclosed damage (usually a minor crack or delamination), repro parts, touchups and on and on. I have horror stories. And here’s the upsetting part-when I buy from dealers, the percentage isn’t all that much better. Since the rise of Reverb.com, everybody seems to be a dealer which is OK but it can be hard to differentiate between really knowledgeable dealers who offer up a healthy dose of expertise with their guitars (and a liberal return policy) from those who don’t. That said, many “hobby” dealers are as knowledgeable (or more so) than established dealers and, with their smaller inventories, can be more careful with inspecting and describing their inventory. After all, I was a hobby dealer for 10 years before I became a full time dealer with a brick and mortar shop. I still go through every guitar with the same attention to detail as I did in 1998 when I was cruising Ebay for bargains.

So, what’s the bottom line here? It is this: Expect issues. Build it into your offer. Inspect every guitar you buy and every guitar you sell as if it were your forever guitar. Fix what’s wrong or disclose it before you list it for sale. It might cost you a sale or two but it will save you from returns, a bad reputation and angry customers. If you aren’t sure what you have or what’s correct and what isn’t, consult a vintage dealer. Most are very generous with their advice. Or take it to a guitar show-everybody at a guitar show seems to be ready willing and able to tell you everything that’s wrong with your guitar-even if there’s nothing wrong with it. And if you buy a guitar and it isn’t as described, talk to the seller and explain the issue. If that gets you nowhere and there’s no return policy, talk to the folks who run the venue where you bought it. Ebay is good at this as is Reverb.com. I’ve had success with both when I’ve run into intransigent sellers who insist that the guitar was perfect when it was shipped and that the frets must have gotten worn or it somehow got oversprayed in transit or in the 24 hours I had the guitar in my possession.

Can you tell that this guitar was refinished from the photo? I sure can’t. Can you tell the guard is a repro (I can)? Photos help but they don’t always tell the whole story. Check your purchase out in person if you can. Get a guitar from someone who will accept returns (for any reason) if you can’t see it in person.

2 Responses to “Point of No Return”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, good comments and advice! As an unsolicited testimonial you are one of the most credible vintage guitar dealers out there and a pleasure to work with! Keep up the good work! Roger

  2. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Charlie – One of the most valuable columns your readers will encounter! I’m a player, not a dealer, but I’ve bought a fair number of guitars and amps from online sources. I’ll only add a few observations from my own (sometimes regrettable) experiences: when you look at pictures or read a seller’s description, trust your first impression and your gut instincts–they’re usually right. Don’t try to rationalize a suspected problem or flaw–when you’re done trying to wish it away (“it looks like a crack but the seller says he thinks it’s a mineral line in the grain”) it will still be there. If seems too good to be true … it probably isn’t! Overall, I’ve had good luck with Ebay sellers – looking carefully at feedback and, if encountering a problem, I promise good feedback if the issue is resolved with a return or appropriate price adjustment.

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