The Do’s and Don’ts of Shopping for Guitar Gear

Buying a guitar or any piece of musical equipment early on in your endeavor into guitar playing can be a bit difficult and intimidating. With more options than you could ever possibly explore the fear of a wrong decision being made can be quite powerful.

It’s true that you should have a plan of action, and that you’ll want to prep yourself by getting informed on what you should be looking for and how you should go about finding it.

We’ll cover the best places to shop for gear and the places that I’d recommend avoiding.

1. Craigslist

I know it might sound strange, but if you don’t mind used equipment, and you have an active local Craigslist community, this is an excellent place to go after some guitar gear, for several reasons.

  • People on Craigslist will often take trades, and if you have used gear that you’re not using and don’t really want, you can often use it as a bargaining chip, or at least include it with a certain amount of cash to trade with someone who’s offering what you want.
  • The protocol is to always meet the seller in person, and exchange straight up cash for what you’re purchasing.
  • Price -- Obtaining guitar gear in this fashion can be one of the most economic methods, especially since a lot of people are just wanting to get rid of the items they’re selling.

2. Amazon

When it comes to guitar gear, think of Amazon as a much more organized and sophisticated version of Craigslist, at least in terms of the used items they offer. In my experience you will almost always find a better price on Amazon then any other online retailer. Here are a few reasons I recommend it.

  • Price: Once again, this is an option that will be particularly friendly to your wallet. Every time you search for an item, you’ll get a whole list of sellers (other than Amazon itself) selling that items both used and new.
  • Reliability: Even if you buy from a seller on Amazon you’re not sure about, Amazon cares a lot about their reputation, and they will help you out if something goes wrong. That’s not advice to be cavalier about making purchases online, but it should take the stress out of it. Also check with your bank about reimbursement for online fraud. Most banks will cover you if you make the purchases with their debit or credit card.
  • Selection: If you know the name of what you’re looking for you can probably find it on Amazon. They literally have everything, and it’s a place that you always want to check prices with as they’re usually going to have what you want at the best price.

3. Guitar Center

Staying in the spirit of used gear, Guitar Center takes trade-ins and then resells them, which helps you on two fronts. First, you can trade in your gear and get some credit towards an in store purchase. Second, you can find used gear in their stores and on their website at huge discounts. Here is a summary of the perks.

  • They have both store locations and a vast online presence. The prices will be similar either way. 
  • You can browse used gear online that is actually in their stores and they will ship it to you, so you can treat it like any other online purchase.
  • Guitars are like cars in the way they’re released, in that new models come out every year. I found an excellent 2005 PRS CE-24 for about half of what a more recent model would cost me, and it is every bit as good of a guitar. Finding these kind of deals is what makes Guitar Center an excellent option.

4. Musicians Friend

There are a wealth of online warehouse retailers, and at the end of the day, they’re all more or less the same. Musicians Friend is probably the most popular, and they do have a fairly wide selection of used gear. They’re the traditional safe bet, and if you’re wanting to spend money on new gear and not mess with the used stuff, they’re probably your best choice out of the online retail crowd for a couple reasons.

  • Size and reputation: This company has been around for a long time, and they’re one of the largest. If you buy from them your purchase is guaranteed, covered with a warranty and you’ll have customer support available if you need it.
  • Selection: Like I said, if you’re going to buy brand new and don’t mind paying the “new” price, than Musicians Friend has one of the biggest selections. What I like to do is browse their website to find something I like, than see if I can find that same item on Craigslist or Amazon for a better price.

Where NOT to Shop

With the guidelines in mind on where to shop and what to look for, I want to talk a little bit about the places you should avoid. It is perhaps the more worrisome topic, as people are often nervous they’ll overpay or end up with a less than satisfactory purchase and have no way to get reimbursed.

In truth, you don’t have quite as much to worry about here as you may think. Most outlets are honest and trustworthy and won’t leave you high and dry with a busted purchase.

However there are a few outfits that I would avoid entirely for various reasons, and I’ll cover them here.

1. Local Guitar Shops or “Mom and Pop” Style Music Stores

Now I know it sounds very “un-collective” of me to say this, and that you probably want to promote your local businesses.

To be clear I’m all for supporting local small businesses and feel free to do so. Just know that in this case, you’re almost certain to be paying more for the same items; in some cases 25-50% more than you would at the spots listed in the “where to shop” section.

Now I should point out that where I live in Harrisonburg Virginia, there is one local music store that actually has comparable prices to the online retailers, and to be honest I’m not sure how they do it. Stores and local businesses by their nature are more expensive to run.

You pay for store appearances, sales staff and general upkeep, whereas online retailers usually just run a giant warehouse. So as a general rule the small shops will have less selection and will have to charge more for what they do have. How the place here in Harrisonburg avoids that pitfall is beyond me, yet their prices are fine, and I do shop there occasionally.

If you have a local place and you want to gauge whether or not their prices are acceptably close to the online guys, just do your research and see for yourself.

You might find the exception to the rule like I did, but just know that in general, these places will add the expense of owning and operating a store to the product they’re selling.

2. Pawn Shops

Jeez, where to start. Pawn shops are by their nature shady, and unreliable. Again I’m stereotyping, and there are exceptions to the rule, but in general these places buy used music gear (among other things) from people for a fraction of what it’s worth, then sell it for nearly full price.

I suppose you could make the argument that it’s similar to Craigslist, but the difference here is what you pay, with little room to negotiate.

Pawn shops do their best to get full value for what they’re selling, and if you’re going to pay even close to full value, you should just buy your product new with a nice shiny box and owners manual.

Again, if you know a local pawn shop that is reliable and you have established a trusting relationship with those who run it, than you’re probably fine to shop there. However I wouldn’t recommend going in cold or using it as a starting point.

3. Ebay

This boils down to a little more personal preference.

To me Ebay is the pawn shop of the online world, and in my experience it is far more treacherous than say, navigating the used gear on Amazon. Scams are easy to come by and the auction format is one that I find particularly annoying and unreliable.

That’s not to say you can’t find great deals, but I’ve always found it easier to navigate the different Amazon sellers who generally have better feedback and are more established than your average Ebay seller.

If you’re an Ebay wizard and know how to navigate through the fog than you can probably find what you’re looking for, but again, I’ve never had a positive experience with Ebay and the tranquility and reliability that other online retailers offer is far less intimidating if you’re looking for a safe bet.

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