Buying Guitars… Old-School Style.

Guest contributor Rob Roberge take us down memory lane, to remind us how it was like buying a second-hand guitar, before the internet.

The Internet has changed major aspects of life for everyone, of course. And it certainly, for our purposes here, has changed the way we buy and sell guitars. This may be a trip down memory lane for some of us. But I can no longer cling to any idea that I’m young. So, while this piece is about the way some of us used to buy used guitars and I suspect that if I do my job, a lot of you…of a certain age…may nod along.

However, for those of you who had the Internet from the start of your buying and selling lives, you might want to know how it was back in the day of classified ads and getting lost (no navigators!) on the way to the stranger’s house and having to call from a pay phone (I’ll explain pay phones later) at a gas station to get directions you would often write on your hand or inner arm.

Sounds exciting, no? Well…let’s pull back the curtain with this trip into the way back machine of guitar geekdom and the risks and thrills it used to entail.

Back in the day (which is what old people said back in the day), there were pretty much two ways to buy a guitar. New or used at a shop (many were even independently owned!), or bought from a stranger you’d contacted through their classified ad for the guitar you were already thinking of as yours on the drive over.

So, here are some of the buying experience perhaps some of us remember well. Or, as I often think in life (and often ask here), is it just me?

Some scenarios were so much more common back in the day…though some of this still exists. People buy guitars in person at a stranger’s house. So…some memories, tips, observations, pointers, and a display of my many pathetic neuroses. All in one!

There's always a guitar waiting for a new owner... somewhere

There’s always a guitar waiting for a new owner… somewhere

Quick thing to know. There is a difference between a Man/Woman Cave and a Cave Cave. It’s best to know the differences. In the days before there even was a name for a “man cave,” there were just rooms guys filled with their crap. And into those dank rooms did we venture because some guy had listed a Travis Bean for $250 (I’m old, ok?) and you would meet him at a door with no outside light, and he would take you into his domestic version of the sewers New York to show you the guitar if he could just god damn it, find wherever the hell I put the damn thing! It’s fun when strangers yell! When this anger rises, be aware. You may start to think there’s not even a guitar here. The guy tells you his studio is non-smoking (I’m kidding, that didn’t even EXIST in 1983…you never heard the phrase “non-smoking studio” until people…you know…actually stopped smoking in studios). Yet the “studio” is so filthy that it looks like in the time of a single guitar overdub, black mold would grow so fast all over your hands like it was time-lapse photography.

The thing is—the few of you readers out there who would have immediately left such a situation—you are the wise ones. But, as we all know, the wise among people with GAS are rare. And you might have missed out on some great guitars instead if you weren’t so much smarter than the rest of us. Wisdom sometimes has a downside.

So…that’s one kind of generic situation. There are variations on this. Some slight, some severe. I’ll only mention things entirely based on personal experience. Sadly, that means I can’t tell the story about getting ripped off in a guitar deal by Johnny Thunders…as it happened a buddy of mine. But that story kind of tells itself.

So—what are some of the possible issues when one buys (or used to) in person with the seller holding the home field advantage?

1) You’re buying from the guy you (i.e., me) liked on the phone, but now you’re growing slightly agitated…you had no idea, but he’s very rich…you have directions to his place…he gets richer and richer with every turn down a new street…houses turn to mansions, mansions turn to Citizen Cane mansions…your irrational resentment grows with every new street and avenue of opulence…damn! This guy is so rich he should GIVE YOU the damn guitar/amp…you enter…the guy is the nicest guy in the world…you remind yourself to be nice…so the guy’s rich…it doesn’t mean he clubbed baby seals in front of children to make his dough…lighten up on the guy…he has a room full of incredible equipment in mint shape. You’re not only jealous. You are now CONVINCED the price you agreed on was foolish because guys with stuff like this don’t get it by being on the bad end of a deal. Rich people don’t get rich selling under value and, besides, who likes the feeling you’re on the short end? That applies to them as well as me. I’d like to think if I were rich I’d be giving out guitars, amps, pedals, strings, and so on like they were stickers at a political rally. But…I’d probably be one of those clowns with a giant room of instruments that doubles as a humidor. Well, no. You have to keep those clean. So, that’s not really my…thing. Clean. Still, I would, I’m certain, not be the Robin Hood I just briefly imagined I’d be.

2) Buying from the guy who seems to have only lured you to his house to listen to how great he is. You find it impossible to play in front of him. You’re a sap. Insecure. It’s YOUR money, damn it. Stand up for yourself! You buy the guitar without barely even playing it, telling the guy you trust him and exiting as quickly as humanly possible. You’re a weak weak person. Hate yourself. Rinse and repeat. *

*This may have only happened to me. Your mileage may vary.

3) The creepy guy (and I’m using the male pronoun here on purpose, as I’ve never bought a guitar from anything but a normal human woman with no crazy warning signs…none of these issues…it’s surely happened…just not to me). May also be, the smelly guy. The smoky guy. The guy who really should wear more than underwear and black socks when he answers his door. The guy who offers you a hit. The guy who wants you to hang around. The (ghastly!) guy who says, “you want to take her for a test drive?” The enormously socially awkward guy who asks you if you want to stay and “jam” yet he shakes with the kinetic anxiety of one of those small dogs. You look around. Everything is a sign. A guitar neck. Part of his new project of making guitars with guitar necks and human skulls in a growing pile he keeps in the mud-room? You just know. The guy you just barely survived escaping. No one knows it, but you could have been just ended tonight and you vow to never, never, NEVER go to a stranger’s house alone ever again to look at a guitar. 

Unless it’s a really good deal and you can’t get someone else to come. We are, it should never be forgotten, fearless explorers. Or at the very least we are sick people with poor impulse control*

4) Buying from the friendly hipster guitar guy (in this case, it’s from a retailer). The curse of retail sellers—Their absolute assault of predatory capitalistic phony kindness. The kind of person who, when you find them following you for the third time, you want to scream, “Get the hell away from me! I’m freaked out. You confuse me! Why are you nice? Knock it off!”

When I was a teenager, the biggest guitar shop in CT was the oddly named “Brian Guitars” (no possessive…your guess is as good as mine). Whenever you went into the place, if you so much as picked up…well, a PICK, this guy would appear out of nowhere, wearing designer jeans, his hair permed, his face and personality remarkably like that spastic Muppet, Guy Smiley. You pick up, say, a Fender Heavy pick and from a burst of powder he would appear and say heeeyyy! That is a GREAT pick! I use those myself! Well, Brian and I seemed to have the same taste in everything, at least according to Brian. I’d pick up a pointy Ibanez just to hold it and see how those pointy 80’s metal players felt when they had to play a Chinese Star with a neck and strings on it.

“Heeeeeeyyy! That’s my baby. My number one at home!”

I’d pick up a Tele. And it would be Brian (I’m skipping all possessives with the man) favorite and he had ten at home just like it. “This is number eleven if you walk away, my friend!”

There’s no great narrative to take away from Brian Guitars except that, as we were leaving one day, I stepped in a rather enormous (I will save you any comparisons for scale, but…memorably large) pile of dog crap. So large I stepped in it with both feet after my second stride. My buddy, our drummer Steve, pointed to my shoe and put on his Brian-sales guy voice and say, “heeeey! That is some handsome shit on your shoes! That’s the exact kind of shit I have on all my shoes! You’ll love it!”

4) A little like, but somehow different answering the man cave guy’s ad. You answer the ad and it’s way more rural than you’d thought (which means, it’s outside the city…which means to City Boy you that it’s a setting for a Wes Craven film). You see farmhouses and a lot of trees—which means you see human sacrifice images in your head. You finally call for directions, and the guy’s got a hard accent and he’s difficult to understand, but you don’t want to sound like an asshat ugly white American and make him repeat himself, but you do so anyway, so you’re already pretty damn neurotic before you even see the place. You end up at his shack that looks like Darrell’s been living in it since season 7 of The Walking Dead. The line between the really frigging weird, from the I need to run for my life is a fine one. But…no risk/no reward. 

I got a good lawsuit era Les Paul at a deliverance-ish cabin once. Sure, it’s possible I could have ended up as a human skin vest. But we intrepid guitar geeks, as I can’t enforce upon you enough, are a rare and brave (and verging in and out of stupid’s borders) breed. 

5) You sit down to try an amp. The house is normal. A woman hands you a guitar to test the amp. You are, as always, nervous to play in front of a stranger. Other players probably aren’t. Maybe they are the one with the chops…go film yourself being so good it hurts other people’s feelings on YouTube, okay…this is for the rest of us. 

You grab the guitar. And. You freeze up. You, for the life of you, cannot tune the guitar. You can tune your own guitars. You have for decades. You can tune with your records, your friends, your bands by ear for 40+ years. Hell, you once tuned a piano in a studio (a, yes, chain-smoking studio…or, as they were known…a studio). But no barrier ever made holds back your walls of insecurities and you freeze. You’re awful. You’re horrified, without remembering this central fact of life: no one gives a crap. They’re too busy thinking about themselves and their life to give a crap whether you can tune the guitar they want to sell. They don’t care if they’re not selling it to Santana. But, you’re giving this person money. If it’s enough money, they will remember you fondly as “the person who bought my old Twin for a lot of money.” Maybe somehow the price favors the buyer (maybe the seller was in a rush, which always turns things to the buyer’s side). In this case, you will be remembered as, “that clown who couldn’t even tune a guitar who STOLE my Twin. Bastard.”

However, if you’re gifted with some core confidence and know how to handle yourself (i.e., if you are my polar opposite and move somehow comfortably through your days and nights), you make any situation turn to a smooth landing. You can’t tune the guitar? Big deal. You might grow slightly condescending and say, “I can’t buy an amp if I’m playing a guitar that can’t hold tune. Best of luck with it, my friend.” Or, if you’re like me… let’s hope you’re not, you’re left with the seller staring at you. Your only hope is that you intentionally and randomly tune the different strings in no relation to the others, tell the person you’re in a band that’s mostly influenced by Glen Branca, Captain Beefheart, and the sounds of jackhammers and taxi horns and just make hideous dissonant noise until finally staring ahead thoughtfully and saying…“I’m just not feeling it. Thanks, though.” 

6) The next hard life lesson in buying gear? KNOW THYSELF!!!!

For me? I always make the same mistake when I fall in love with the look of a guitar and am so blinded I forget fundamental issues of my playing. The pitfalls I always ignore that I need to remember. Be very careful with three pickup guitars. Be very careful with loving all the knobs. And not EVERY SINGLE GUITAR needs a vibrato!

I made the same mistake over and over because I fell in love with an instrument’s look. And look IS important…it’s actually crucial…none of us would be Eastwood people if that weren’t the case. Who doesn’t love a weird and beautiful guitar? But, then, I have to remind myself, I have to PLAY it if I’m going to enjoy it. Thankfully, there are a bunch of Eastwoods/Airlines/Harmonys and Danos and other funky beautiful stuff with two pickups.

Yet…I ALWAYS LOVE the look of three pickups. Then I play it (or, sadly, just bought it) and am reminded again that, in what I can laughingly call my “technique,” the middle pickup is nearly always exactly where I play solos and single lines . That pretty middle pickup is just in the way. And, of course, I feel dumber every time I do this. Maybe it won’t happen when I’m in my 60’s. Hope springs eternal. 

And, as I say, I just love the sight of a gaggle of knobs! I had what was truly, looking back, the perfect guitar for me. A solidbody with a single P90. It’s all I needed. But I’m guessing I traded it for something with more knobs than a PA. Because it was beautiful. Because it played so well. If only someone else had been playing it.

And, then…vibratos. Strat vibratos (even though I didn’t really like Strats…they didn’t have extra knobs and they had—damn them!—three pickups). For a while, I was throwing various vibrato systems on every (at the time) cheap old Chicago guitar I got. I put (along with hot humbuckers) a Bigsby on a 26” scale Kay Jazz II. To be fair, it was already hacked into, and it growled like a monster with a PAF copy. But…did it need a Bigsby? Well…it’s like Everest. It was a hard tail bridge. It was there. Of course it needed a Bigsby! 

Bring it back, Mike Robinson! Bring back the Kay Jazz II, but give it cool buckers and a totally unnecessary vibrato! Pleaaassse?

I have not healed from this. I recently bought a re-issue of the mid-70’s Telecaster Deluxe…a lovely mutation from Fullerton (or wherever Fender was at the tie…forgotten)—a Telecaster body with a Stratocaster headstock. Two Seth Lover Humbuckers, and—yes—a Strat’s vibrato system. Fewer than 100 of the original models had the custom option whammy bars. Fewer than a 100 of the re-issues have them. In total, ever, there are fewer than 200 of this model of Telecaster that have the Strat’s vibrato system. It makes them much more expensive. Of course I had to have that one. I never use it. Great guitar…but, I’d only use a Bigsby or Jazzmaster style and even then WAY less than I ever imagine when I get the guitar.

For nearly 40 years, I have toyed with the idea of adding a Bigsby to my 1969 Telecaster. Thankfully I’m both lazy, often broke, AND I do treat that guitar as sacred. It was my first truly great guitar. And I never sold it, no matter how broke or stupid I was. Really…in many ways, it’s my single triumph in 40+ years of buying and selling. It’s on its fifth set of frets. It’s a relic the way a guitar is supposed to be—the player lovingly beat the crap out of it over the course of decades!

So, my ’69 Tele escaped this vibrato craze of mine. But…over the years, I must have had 40 guitars with various vibrato systems in/on them. Though never, I’d like it noted, any dive-bombing ones. At least I had SOME restraint. But…well over 60% (I’m going light) of the guitars I’ve owned either came with or I added an “idiot stick” as a buddy of mine’s Tal Farlow-gigging father called them. He also, on hearing our first EP said to his son, “it sounds great, Rick. But who taught Rob to play with mittens?”

So…vibratos everywhere. I’m getting better. Yet there was a time I would have put a Bigsby on an acoustic guitar. A Bigsby front door knock! On a kitchen table! People would think it was a meat grinder, but I’d tell them, no…it’s the most incredible part of a guitar!…I would replace all kitchen cabinet knobs and pulls with Bigsbys. 

But, yeah. I don’t tend to use them.

It’s really best to know these things about yourself.

And now…in further offering my repeated issues with guitars, I have, as I touched on above, and with apologies to Mike: A PROBLEM WITH GUITARS WITH LOTS OF KNOBS. No, Mr. Robinson, it’s not your fault. You have made the world richer with very cool guitars with a lot of knobs. They are stunning. They play great until I try to solo (again, never the guitar’s fault). 

Buttons, I’m down with. Buttons, I actually adore. Because I love 60’s Italian guitars, so I’d better love buttons. Even volume and tone wheels I can forgive because I’m one of those really subtle players who pretty much never changes their volume or tone knob all night…I’m not one of “those” “guys/gals” with “great” “tone”…

Actually my tone’s fine…(Tweed Deluxe open full bore)…honestly, I think it’s a great tone, if neither nuanced or versatile…. But the little knobs on beautiful guitars. Good lord I love them. LOVE them. Then I knock four of them out of whack and when I go to solo I often have only a very quiet muddy bass…or whatever…I have ruined how it sounds, having fallen for my “ooohh! knobs!!!!!” fetish again and again.

But. The dictum KNOW THYSELF when it comes to buying guitars MIGHT lead to me avoiding guitars I think I can’t live without. However, if I truly know myself, I’m certain in the awareness that I will buy, for the rest of my life, cool-looking three pickup guitars with so many knobs the knobs and they have knobs next to their buttons and I’ll not only put a vibrato on everything, I’ll toss B-Benders on all the bastards too.

I will fall for all of this again. There are perhaps treatments for this condition. There is no cure. I’m not really sure there are even treatments. Enjoy the nice and reliable and clean world of buying on-line. Trust me. It’s safer, better, smoother. And non-smoking.