What is the most important factor to consider when buying a new or used guitar? You might think the answer would be price, brand, size, or tone – but you would be wrong. THE most important factor to consider when buying a guitar is its “playability” - or “ease of playing”.
If a guitar is not properly set up for playability it will be much harder to play than it should be. And, if that’s the case, the guitar probably won’t be played for long. Worse yet, someone new to playing guitar may think it’s something they’re not doing (instead of the guitar) that’s causing them to have such a hard time and quit playing altogether. Imagine trying to learn to ride a bike and you have no idea that the bike has a wobbly wheel and faulty breaks!
The #1 factor in determining a guitar’s playability is its “action”, which is the distance the strings are away from the fingerboard. If the action is high then the strings are far away from the fingerboard and your fingers need to push a lot harder to get the strings onto the fingerboard to make a chord. That is painful, especially for beginners, and it also makes it much more difficult to produce a good-sounding chord. These problems have caused many unsuspecting folks to simply give up on playing because it was just too hard.
High action is one of the most common problems with new and used guitars and many folks have absolutely no idea the guitar they just bought has that problem.
So how do you know if the guitar you wish to buy has high action? All you need are two nickels.
If you can slide two stacked nickels between the strings and the top of the 12th fret - the action is way too high. If only one nickel fits between the strings and the top of the 12th fret, then the action is good.
So what do you do if a guitar has high action but you still want to buy it? Ask the store or current owner to have a qualified repair technician make the necessary adjustments (and shame on any store for trying to sell a guitar with high action). If you are purchasing “as is”, then be prepared to spend additional money to correct the problem. Sometimes that will be a relatively simple repair that may cost about $50-$75, which is more common with new guitars. Other times it may be much more involved – and may cost hundreds of dollars to correct, which is more common with used guitars. The only way to know for sure how much money you will need to spend to make your guitar playable is to take it to a repair technician for evaluation.
We have been servicing guitars here at our shop since we opened our doors in 1966 and we are a Certified Service Center for Martin and many other major brands. Correcting high action is one of the most common repairs we see and when someone tries out their guitar for the first time after we’ve properly adjusted the action, their beaming face tells the whole story. Folks tell us time and again that it’s like they’ve been given back a brand-new, higher quality guitar that plays like a dream.
We want our customers to enjoy playing their instruments; therefore we always make sure that every new and used instrument we sell is properly adjusted for ease of play BEFORE we will put it up for sale. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Stop in, say hi, and bring along your nickels to see for yourself!
*12th fret –a fret is a thin strip of metal going across the fingerboard. You count frets starting at the headstock and working toward the body of the guitar.