Internet auctions might have swept away many under-the-bed vintage bargains and put them out on the open market, but you can still find some hidden gems at the traditional second-hand haunts. When it comes to buying guitars at pawnshops, garage sales, and estate sales, however, the trick is twofold: first — you’ve got to find the gear; second — you’ve got to know how to discern the bargains, without getting stung by the clunkers.
1) Find the right pawnshop. Where pawnshops are concerned, one key to making the big finds lies in finding the right shop first. Main Street and big city pawnbrokers don’t usually let any quality goods go cheap: they’re in the business of making money, and even long before the Internet made market-price checks easy and instant, they knew the value of everything they received in stock. More out-of-the-way pawnshops, on the other hand, those in smaller towns and on back roads, might still carry some bargains, provided they’re not already hip to selling online.
2) Keep checking back, again and again. The other key is sheer persistence: Once you’ve found your treasure trove, you’ve got to stop in regularly to see what has come through the door, because the good stuff will go quickly. In any case, pawnshops, by and large, simply aren’t a great source of cheap vintage guitars any more. They know the names Gibson, Fender, Gretsch and Rickenbacker mean money, and if anything, they’ll overprice any instrument wearing these brands — however rough their condition, or limited their desirability — to avoid getting had themselves. That said, you might get some great bargains in B-list brands and accessories by keeping your eyes peeled, and the real gem might occasionally find itself on the wall.
3) Check your local listings. As for garage sales and estate sales, the first thing to do is also to learn where to look. Find out where these things are listed — local papers, online classified ads, trade papers — and comb the columns for hints of good gear. Anything listing “musical instruments” outright is a no brainer, and plenty of them will (estate sales in particular). But any sale that implies an eclectic mix of a wide range of goods might also be worth dropping in on.
4) Be early. Browsing hours for estate sales will usually be strictly regulated, but as far as garage sales go, as the old woman scouring he curbside for Delft will tell you, you can’t be afraid to be the early bird (someone’s got to get there first, right?). Get up early, and get there: If there’s a 1957 Martin D-18 leaning against a bag full of rusty golf clubs at 7 a.m., it’s not going to be there at 7:30 a.m.
5) Carry cash (and an amp). While larger estate sales might take checks or cards, you want to have enough cash in your pocket to take away the big fish from any garage sale now, rather than having to beg the seller to hold it for you while you find an ATM. Also, if at all possible, take a small practice amp along; unless an electric guitar is such a steal that you can afford to replace or repair all of its electronics without blinking, you’ll want to plug it in — for a quick strum, at least — before laying down the loot.
6) Know thy gear. Of course, finding the “bargain” is only half the battle. It isn’t a bargain at all unless you can discern its quality, authenticity and functionality. I’m not even talking about buying vintage guitars with any significant collector’s value; many other considerations come into play when shopping for guitars from the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s that might have values of $3,000 and more (WAY more, in some cases), and authenticating any of these should be left to an expert, or a trusted dealer at least. I’m talking about simply ascertaining that the guitar in question is worth at least the asking price, and ideally something less, and that means determining that it’s in good playing condition and not adversely modified.
There are still plenty of bargains to be had, but there’s also plenty of junk waiting to claim your hard-earned dollar. Equip yourself, and shop wisely. Happy hunting!