JAMS NOTES: Buying Online? Let's Avoid those Shady Sellers



Last year around the peak of the holiday shopping season I wrote a blog titled, “How to buy a Guitar”. A portion of that article included an excerpt on how to buy used gear. Evidently it didn’t help. Well, maybe it helped some folks, but there are still some of you out there that fall prey to bad customer service that stems from bad online retailers. STORYTIME…

This past week, a customer brought in a Martin Road Series guitar. The customer bought it from a certain large chain music store located in Ohio, an online purchase. Let’s pause here for a rant…

I don’t really like to call out businesses by name when they offer poor service. But you know what, sometimes you earn your reputation.  I can’t endorse buying used gear online from Guitar Center. It has to be one of the poorest online shopping experiences from an actual business. If you have ever shopped for used gear on Guitar Center you’ll find it lacking. Granted, there is a healthy supply of used gear on their website and of course the prices are fairly competitive. However, the listings lack details and consistency. For many items you’ll find very little detailed pictures of the item, many times there is one blurry dim picture. In addition, there’s no additional information. Typically, you are lucky to get a one sentence description of the product. So, if you are curious about the condition, specs, playability, or any other common questions about the gear, you won’t find them on the web page. Talk about a shot in the dark. Don’t be surprised when you order your gear and it falls short of your expectations. Avoid purchasing your gear from these places that keep details hidden. You are making an investment that costs hundreds of dollars, get the full details of what you are buying. Let's get back to our story...

So, the customer brings the guitar to us at JAMS and mentions that the guitar is really hard to play. So, I pull it out of the gig bag and immediately notice its neglected condition. The guitar is dusty and dingy and the strings are rusted. Feels more like a guitar that came out of someone’s garage than from a “professional” music store. Remember, this is a Martin guitar which cost multiple $100’s.  They obviously didn’t bother to restring it or clean it. My guess is they didn’t even bother to play it to inspect its condition.The next thing I noticed is the neck has a severe concave upward bow, about the worst I’ve ever seen on a guitar. It’s not uncommon for a guitar to need a truss rod adjustment, but with the condition of this guitar it was clear that it had been neglected. I wasn’t completely sure it would straighten without being warped. I warn the customer to return this to the Guitar Center. Let’s pause again for a side note….

So, what does Guitar Center offer when you purchase used gear from them? Apparently, nothing. When you purchase a guitar from GC expect nothing but the guitar, no set-up, no inspection, not even new strings. Just the guitar, and perhaps the description will mention a case or different accessory, but that’s it. I don’t know about you but I will feel better buying an instrument from someone who actually takes good care of it. Also, let’s have some pride, I would be embarrassed to sell a product that looked trash. It’s one thing to be an individually selling an item “as is” but as a business I would expect a professional experience.  So, when purchasing online, ask the detailed questions and request a professional inspection and a basic cleaning. That way you know the seller has actually looked at the item closely and can notice any major flaws that will negatively affect the condition of the instrument. If you don’t like the vibe of the seller then walk away. If they are not that motivated to help you buy the instrument, they are definitely not going to help if there is a problem down the road. 

So, I warned the customer about the condition of the guitar and convinced him to take the guitar and contact the GC he purchased it from to see if will assist him with compensation or a return. The next day, he came back to me with the guitar and a mesley $20 richier. This was an absolute shock to me that they only offered $20 to compensate for its condition. $20 does not even cover a basic restring, something they should have done in the first place. So he left the guitar with me to get the neck straight. Fortunately, after cleaning it up and restringing the guitar I was able to adjust the truss rod enough to make it straight and in proper playing condition. The scenario worked out for the customer, but too often I’ve seen neglected instruments brought to me with permanent damage. 

I picked on Guitar Center here because they were the seller in this case, but there are a number of businesses and sellers that consistently offer a poor buying experience. There are many Guitar Center’s and each one is owned and operated differently. Some are good and some are bad. Unfortunately, the good ones are lumped together with the reputation of the bad. I personally enjoy visiting Guitar Center establishments but I can’t say I would buy gear from them site unseen. I’ve heard too many stories from customers about poor customer service. Do some research into the business you are buying from. Unless you just want to have a miserable experience go with sellers that have built a good rep.

It’s super important to have the option to return gear when buying it online. If the guitar was found to have permanent damage the customer could have sent it back to GC. However, in my years of working at JAMS I have found most customers will not go through the hassle to return items. Even if there is a serious flaw many folks will overlook it so they don’t have to go through the process of a return. In our case with this customer, he was more than happy to pay me to have it fixed as opposed to send the guitar back to GC. Personally, there’s no way I would have accepted it. So what have we learned here?

Here’s my top 7 things to Check list before you buy used online:

  1. Make sure you see plenty of good quality pictures, and feel free to ask for more.
  2. Read the item description closely and multiple times.
  3. Make sure you check out the store policy, especially the return policy.
  4. Be willing to ship the item back (If you aren’t will to do so, just anticipate on being happy with your purchase no matter the end results)
  5. Expect to have a local tech set up a guitar. Even if you buy the guitar from a great dealer, transporting a guitar from different parts of the country can affect the guitar. Also, you may have your own preferences such as strings and tuning. Pay a tech to inspect your investment. We know what to look for and can get the guitar in premium shape.
  6. Buy from a trustworthy source.  You would think a Guitar Center would be good but…well, I call them the” Wal-Mart of music stores”. Enough said there. Reverb is an excellent choice as they have a 3rd party support staff ready to handle disputes. Sweetwater Exchange is an excellent option too. Let’s face the facts, anything Sweetwater is pretty good. 
  7. Check local first. It’s always good to see a product in person and buy it in person, using online as a last resort. Even if you pay a little more upfront, it’s better than saving money and finding a dirty secret. Do be careful from buying from individuals. Just because someone owns an instrument doesn’t mean they know how to use it or take care of it. Just make sure you know what to look for.

I guess I can’t complain too much. JAMS gets a lot of business from customers who purchase gear online. But we take a lot of pride in our business and make sure all the gear we ship online is in premium condition. Just frustrates me that everyone doesn’t have some level of pride. So keep buying gear, just be smart and prepared. 

Have you ever bought gear online and regretted it once it got to your door? Have you had good or bad experiences at a Guitar Center. I love to hear your experiences. Message me or visit the store and share. 

-Chad Dainels