There are a lot of ways to approach the question of “How much damage is considered ok on a guitar.” Today I’m going to take a look at some of the reasons why someone might ask this question, and offer my philosophy when it comes to the care and maintenance of our instruments.
Very broadly, I’ve noticed that there are two types of guitar players. The first is a guitar player who loves guitar, it may be their main instrument and they have spent many hours working and practicing to get better at their craft. They are musicians first, and guitar owners second. They might have a lot of cool gear and like to geek out over things like the newest effects pedals, or the best pickups for a Les Paul, but at the end of the day they’re spending more time making music than they are looking at the Musician’s Friend catalogue, or browsing the guitar forums, or liking guitar photos on Instagram.
The Second type of player is more of a guitar enthusiast. They know every wiring scheme Fender used for the Strat in the past 40 years. They know the best batch of serial numbers for that “true” PAF tone. And they obsess about the tiniest minutiae of detail on their guitar. You’re nervous to pull their guitar out of the case because it is somehow in more immaculate condition than the day it left the factory. This person is rarely at home making music. They’re too often caught up in chasing some type of tone, sound, or ineffable wisp of a vibe that never existed in the first place.
The guitar is a tool that we get to use to make music, and we want to be like that first type of guitar player. If someone hands me a guitar, I want to play them something on it, not just tell them about it.
But, Gear is Cool
Before I go any further I want to clarify that I love gear. I love talking about gear, feeling the craftsmanship of a well-made instrument, and nerding out with a fellow guitar player about these things.
I get it! Gear is addicting, and the music retail industry does too-good-a job at continually putting shiny things in front of our faces.
And to be honest, this is probably something that inspired me to pick up the guitar in the first place. I remember seeing electric guitars at a young age and thinking that was the coolest thing in the whole entire world. There was some kids game show I used to watch and one of the prizes was a Fender Strat and an amp. At the age of 7 I wanted nothing more than to be that kid winning the final round and getting to pick that guitar for my prize. I was always shocked and almost took it personally when someone wouldn’t pick the guitar. How could they!?
The intersection between the physical instrument and our ability to make it make music is a fascinating area, and that space is a bulk of what The Guitar Pages is all about. I love the tactile characteristics of a well setup guitar.
When a sweeping guitar line not only sounds cool but it feels great, that is an otherworldly experience that is hard to describe to someone. Trust me, start talking like this to a non-guitar player and you’ll get some eye-rolls pretty quickly.
All this to say that I understand the desire to immerse yourself in the gear side of guitar playing. We just have to be careful to not allow the love for gear to stop us from meaningful practice and actually making music.
Now let’s explore some of the different reasons why someone might ask this question.
How Much Damage is OK on a New Guitar?
None. A guitar coming out of the QA department and shipped either to you or to a music store shouldn’t have any defects. In fact, if a guitar shop receives a guitar that has a defect, either structural, cosmetic, or functional, that instrument is typically sent back immediately.
Your standards should be the same. If you are buying a guitar directly from an online retailer, that guitar should come to you without any blemishes. If something is wrong, send it back and they will make it right. All of the major musical retailers do a great job of working with customers to ensure they’re happy at the end of the day.
What to look for when assessing if there is any damage on a new guitar:
- Look carefully over the finish, make sure there are no lumps of finish, cracks, or other obvious defects.
- Check the neck pocket. Whether an acoustic or electric, where the neck joins to the body of the guitar is a common place for problems to occur. Look carefully for any cracks in the finish or gaps that look off.
- Make sure the tuners all move freely and work well.
- If it’s an electric guitar, check all configurations of the electronics while plugged into an amp.
- Play every note on the guitar and make sure there are no fret issues causing notes to choke out.
- Look at common places for wear and tear. The back for buckle rash, the lower waist for ‘stuff in the pocket’ dings, and around the pickguard for excessive pick attack.
If you’re buying a guitar directly from an online retailer then you shouldn’t see any damage that indicates the guitar has been played. While most retailers are now doing full setups on guitars before they get sent out (Sweetwater does an amazing job of this), the guitar should be basically unplayed when it gets to you.
If you’re buying a guitar from a guitar shop, you can pretty much guarantee that it has been played before, sometimes by many people over months or even years. This isn’t a bad thing though, and can honestly get you a brand new guitar that is a bit more broken in. Which will result in a better sounding and playing instrument from day one.
However, this quickly increases the chance that there will be small nicks and dings caused by regular use. You can typically use this to your advantage and negotiate a better price on the instrument. Don’t be surprised or upset if the shop would rather keep the damaged guitar as a demo to put on the wall and order a fresh one for you. However, my experience has been that all shops are pretty willing to work with you on a price if you really want to get something.
How Much Damage Is OK on a Used Acoustic Guitar?
If you’re evaluating a used acoustic or classical guitar, here’s what to look out for in terms of damage that is not ok or will require expensive repairs.
Look carefully at the top of the guitar. Are there any cracks in the top or is there any separation from the sides of the guitar? Look at the bridge, it should be glued firmly to the top and you shouldn’t be able to see any space under the bridge. Now tilt the guitar and look across the top from the upper bout to the lower bout. The top should have a natural hump to it that is very slight. If the top is perfectly flat or is sunken that is a sign of a dried out guitar that has not been properly humidified. While that isn’t a total deal breaker, this is a red flag that would cause me to evaluate the guitar in much closer detail.
Play the guitar through its full range, both notes and dynamics. Play some big loud chords and let the guitar ring. Pay careful attention and listen for any buzzing or sympathetic tones that are also audible. Buzzing can come from a number of areas, but if the buzzing is less metallic sounding than woody sounding, this could indicate a loose brace or kerfing in the body of the acoustic.
Any of the damages listed above would need professional attention from a qualified luthier or repair shop. These things are impossible to fix, but can easily run up the tab on the overall price. Make sure you’re getting a good deal on the guitar if you know that there are structural issues that need repair hours.
The most common places for cosmetic damage on an acoustic guitar are the back from buckle rash, the lower waist from stuff in the pocket, and the bottom of the sound hole where the pick can hit the top if someone has a real heavy hand. These aren’t deal breakers by any means and superficial damage like this is perfectly ok and should be expected from a used acoustic guitar.
How Much Damage Is OK on a Used Electric Guitar?
Evaluating an electric guitar is much the same as an acoustic but you’re not as concerned about bracing inside the guitar.
Electric guitars are generally sturdier and hold up to knocks and blows better than acoustic guitars. For electrics, check the neck where the strings run over the nut. Especially on some guitars (cough Gibson cough), the angle between the neck and the headstock create a sensitive area that can break from getting knocked just right. Look at the wood here carefully making sure there are no cracks in the finish and the underlying wood looks to be in good condition. Typically you will see damage to the finish if there is underlying structural issues. Cracks in the finish are a dead giveaway that something isn’t right.
Carefully play every note on the neck and make sure that the frets are in good condition. Because electric players typically bend more notes, this constant bending can wear frets ultimately causing fret buzz. This is normal wear and tear, but something to make note of as a re-fret typically costs $300 to $400. Check out typical repair rates from Music Villa.
Plug the guitar into an amp and play through every configuration of the electronics. Play a chord and then sweep through the pots. Old pots will typically get a bit scratchy which isn’t uncommon and can be cleaned. Read: How to clean dirty pots.
Watch out for dead spots in the pot where the sound totally cuts out or jumps drastically. This indicates a bad pot that will have to be replaced. Again, electronics issues aren’t a total deal breaker when evaluating a used electric guitar, but that work typically runs $30 to $50 per hour.
Compared to acoustic and classical guitars, electrics are much more resilient when it comes to superficial nicks and dings. Whereas dropping a Strat might result in a small crunch in the finish and nothing else, dropping an acoustic guitar can cause much greater internal damage that can be hard to see.
Acceptable Wear and Tear
Acceptable wear and tear on a guitar is anything that is superficial and doesn’t affect the playability or functionality of the instrument.
Nicks and dings, these are the sign that a guitar is getting used and these have never bothered me much.
All guitars need some repair TLC, and it’s not uncommon for expensive instruments to need attention. Just because you paid $3000 for an American made guitar doesn’t mean you won’t need to get that guitar on the bench for a bit of repair work now and then.
Unacceptable Wear and Tear
Unacceptable wear and tear on a guitar is damage that is caused from being overly careless or not taking proper steps to ensure the guitar is getting the preventative care it needs.
All acoustic and classical guitars need careful humidity control to make sure that the wood is happy. Read more about humidity and acoustic guitars here. Drying out a guitar is a completely avoidable mistake that shouldn’t ever happen. Top cracks and seam separation are expensive issues that are completely avoidable. Read about everything you need to know regarding humidity and your guitar.
Dropping a guitar is something everyone has done at some point, but there are easy steps you can take to avoid this from happening. The most common is putting a guitar on the correct way when using a strap.
I have seen someone break their Gibson SG by smashing the headstock on the drummer’s cymbal during a show. In a monstrous clang, the headstock broke off the guitar and fell, strings still attached, to the floor. Everyone’s jaws dropped, and the look on that poor guy’s face is still clear in my memory. While this is a pretty specific example, this is the lesson I learned that day. Never smash a cymbal with the headstock of your guitar. You may think it looks cool, but ending a gig because you just smashed your own guitar isn’t the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
Repairing Finish Damage
Most bumps and bruises that occur on a guitar can be fixed by a bit of light finish repair. Depending on the type of finish, this can range from tricky color matching to easy spot repairs.
Nitrocellulose finishes are generally easier to work with as new finish that is applied with bond with the old finish, creating a seamless transition. Some leveling, wet sanding, and polish can typically hide any small nicks that didn’t damage the underlying wood.
Poly finishes can be a little bit harder as there will always be a small line where the old finish and the new repair spot meet. However, super glue acts as a great filler for polyurethane finishes and can create a pretty decent repair that is cheap and easy to do.
The hardest part about finish repair is typically the color matching, but if the guitar has a clear, or solid color topcoat, then the effort is generally not huge to fix some superficial damage.
A Note on Burrowing Gear
This goes for all gear that you might borrow from someone, but especially guitars. We all know how precious our guitars are to us, which means that there is a very short list of people that I trust enough to loan my instruments out to.
If you are borrowing gear from someone, take extreme care, and do not return something to them with any damage. Any damage to an instrument or piece of gear should be put there by the owner. Not the borrower.
When borrowing something, carefully go over the instrument with the owner and discuss the existing damage. It doesn’t hurt to write these down and take pictures. You don’t want to be accused of causing damage that was already there, and the owner should be compensated if you do end up causing some damage.
And if you do end up causing damage to someone’s piece of gear, always own up to it and offer to pay for the repair. Even if there are other nicks and dings. You should always be willing to make it right.
If you are borrowing gear, treat it as a loan from a store where any damage will force you to buy it at full price.
A Note on Damage Caused by a Guitar Repair Tech
This is a situation that no one wants to find themselves in. You take your beloved guitar to get worked on, and it comes back with a nick or ding that wasn’t there before. Ugh… how did that happen!?
Hopefully you have a repair tech or luthier that you trust and who you have gotten to know a bit. If you can, make sure to meet the person who’ll do work on your guitar and talk to them directly about what you want and what you’re hoping for from the repair work. Most shops will either have you talk to the tech directly anyway, or will be happy to bring the tech out to chat about the work you want done.
Having done repair work in the past, I always did my best to speak directly with the person or call them on the phone to clarify if I wasn’t able to speak to them in person. This rapport is important to building trust and getting the most out of the work the tech is putting into your gear.
While the trust is important, it is a good idea to take detailed pictures of your guitar before you bring it in to someone. Like borrowing gear, it is a good idea to go over existing damage before leaving your guitar behind. This way everyone is on the same page.
Mistakes happen but any repair shop, tech, or luthier worth an ounce of salt will be open, honest, and transparent about any damage that is caused when the guitar is in their care. They also should have insurance to cover scenarios like that. They should offer to fix the damage or have a qualified luthier fix the damage at no cost to you. Don’t settle for anything less than that. Their reputation is on the line, and they should do whatever is necessary to uphold that.
The Guitar is a Tool
Some damage is perfectly ok on a guitar, and should be expected if you’re playing it. If you’re so worried about making nicks and dings in your guitar that you don’t end up playing it, then you either need to buy a cheaper guitar, or stop worrying so much. Your guitar is a tool to make music.
Scratches or dents on a guitar don’t bother me because they’re proof that I’m spending time playing my instrument. To me, they’re a point of pride, and not something that gives me any heartburn. Regular use of an instrument will result in a few bruises here and there.
We should strive to be the guitar player that owns a well loved guitar. An instrument that is taken care of but also used. In ten years I want my guitars to all have some more dings, some more scratches, a little less finish, and the memory of ten years of music they helped me make.