Part of the fun of having a guitar passion is buying and selling cool guitars and getting to play and enjoy lots of different instruments along the way.
Unless you're an experienced collector, buying a new guitar can be overwhelming. There are a few simple things you can do to make sure you always buy instruments that will hold their value. Whether you're buying something brand new or looking for a vintage gem, the same rules apply.
Vintage Is Never Going Out of Style
It's my personal belief that now is the time to buy vintage if you intend to play guitar over a lifetime. You might have heard about how Gibson got busted a few years back for importing illegal lumber. Well the earth is not getting any smaller and its population is only getting bigger. The strain on lumber for guitars is already intense. Manufacturers have already started experimenting with alternative materials and composite woods. The world's resources are not expanding and this is going to drive up the value of old guitars. The best woods in the world for making instruments are already in the guitars of yesteryear.
So going the vintage route can be a great investment, and if you're willing to do some research, you can often find a good era for the guitar you want that also fits your budget. I couldn't afford a 1940s Gibson back when I bought my J-45, but I managed to find something affordable from 1969 that sounds a ton better than some of their more recent models.
Ok, with that being said about vintage instruments, there are a few things to watch out for when buying vintage or used instruments.
Just because something is vintage doesn't mean it's a good guitar. Even in the 1960s, particle board wood and laminates were ubiquitous. My 1969 J-45 is prone to getting a "Colorado hump" where the bridge sinks down into the guitar. Vintage instruments can be a great investment, but you have to take care of them, and you must understand the risk of that investment. Which leads me to...
Picking Your Budget
This is a crucial thing to do before you start shopping. You've got three options—new, used, or vintage. If you're looking for a $400-$500 guitar you're probably going to be better off buying something used. A new Mexican-made Strat, even with upgraded parts will never be worth more than a couple hundred dollars. So I recommend buying cheap on your first instrument and then saving up for something truly quality for each purchase after that.
If it's your first guitar, don't spend too much because you might not stick with the instrument. But after that first guitar you're better off saving up until you can afford a quality $1,000+ instrument. Don't get stuck in a rut of buying brand new $500-$700 guitars that won't hold their value. It's worth saving up longer to buy something that's a little more expensive but will last a lifetime.
I might sound partial to used and vintage, but new instruments can be great too. There's nothing like a brand new Gibson straight from Tennessee, but just weigh your options carefully. Like a car, most new guitars will immediately lose some of their value, and a lot of used guitars often sound better because they've already had some time to be played.
So here are my rules of thumb when setting a budget: don't spend much on your first guitar, buy the best guitar you can afford (and save your money up longer to do so), and don't be afraid to buy used or vintage.
Know Before You Go
It might sound obvious, but the easiest way to end up with a bad deal on a guitar is to get too excited about your potential new toy and buy it prematurely. If you really want to score a great guitar, you need to know exactly what you're looking for and be patient. Is it a brand new ES-335? A 1950s archtop? A Fender custom shop Jazz Bass from the 2000s? Set targets before you start looking.
Research Price Online
The vast reservoir of information that a Google search returns can be overwhelming, but there are only a few definitive resources that you need:
Reverb is a new site but it's quickly becoming a primary resource for gear. It was created by the guys at Chicago Music Exchange, and they edit the community closely to keep the quality high. It's basically an eBay with a better user experience and a community of quality buyers and sellers.
You still have to wade through a lot of crap on eBay, but you can't beat it for finding the true price the market will bear for a guitar. Always check here.
Vintage Guitar Magazine Price Guide
This an authoritative source on the value of old guitars. It's well worth the cost if you want a classic instrument, and I wouldn't buy a vintage guitar without consulting it.
There are lots of great guitar forums on the web. Spend some time browsing in the niche related to your target guitar and ask a few questions. The people in these forums can be a great resource.
The members of the /r/Guitar subreddit are a great resource. They don't really beat around the bush and tell it how they see it. If you have a question, throw it to the redditors and see what they have to say.
Visit a Guitar Show and Practice Negotiating
This requires knowing what you're looking for in advance and being patient enough to wait for a show in your area. If you get a chance to go to one of the really big shows like Guitarlington or Fall Philly, then you'll really have a lot of options.
Beware appraisals from guitar dealers. It's in the interest of these dealers to suggest that your guitar is worth what they'd like to pay for it and then resell for more. Definitely ask, because they are another resource for gauging what the market will bear, but take it with a grain of salt.
Start Your Search in Earnest
Now you're ready to buy something. You've done your research and you've set your budget. As you become a more experienced collector you'll be able to navigate the market easier and jump on opportunities quickly. If you're a novice buyer, I'd make sure to monitor the market for a while before even considering pulling the trigger. Set up alerts on Craiglist, eBay, and Reverb, and do a google search a few times each month. You can also use Google Alerts or Mention.com to send you an email notification anytime someone mentions your target guitar on the web. Visit a guitar show in your area, visit guitar stores in cities that you visit, and just be patient. Your guitar will come along.
Be Willing to Walk Away
I believe that sometimes you can tell when you pick up a guitar if it's meant for you. Sometimes you just have a connection with the instrument. Sometimes when I pick up new guitars I find myself playing new song ideas that are totally different than anything I've ever played. Don't discredit that feeling.
The internet can be a great place to find a guitar, but you've got to protect yourself and only buy something that you know you can resell immediately for the same price or send it back if you don't want to keep it. Don't hold onto a guitar that doesn't feel right for you. A better one will come along.
It's Worth the Effort
What I'm suggesting here is not for the feint of heart. It takes some real work and patience. But isn't that what your passion for guitar is all about? You'll be rewarded with an instrument that you paid a good price for, will retain its value, and will be a gem that your friends will pine after. While you're at it, treat yourself to a quality guitar strap. You don't want to spend a lot of effort in money on a great guitar and not complement it with a good strap. You'll thank yourself for years and years as you play a quality instrument.