Martin Guitar Online Buyer’s Guide

martin guitar headstockInexperienced buyers are naturally hesitant to send thousands of dollars to strangers, but high-end Martin Guitars are safely bought and sold on eBay all the time. How do you verify that an eBay seller is legitimate? How much is that Martin Guitar really worth? How can I pay safely online? What can go wrong with Martin Guitars? What's the best way to ship a Martin Guitar? This article offers useful tips for buyers and sellers.

How to Check Out Sellers of Martin Guitars

1.    Check eBay Seller Feedback - The easiest way to determine whether a seller is credible is to check their feedback on eBay. If other buyers have bought auction items from a seller before you—especially musical instruments—you’ll see that reflected in the auction listing along with the number of transactions. Click on the feedback statistics to read comments from buyers, and don’t dismiss a seller who has hundreds of successful transactions because a few complainers brought their score down a notch or two.

2.    Know What a Martin Instrument is Worth – look up completed auctions and check with online dealers to determine an instrument’s market value. Unless an instrument is extremely rare, chances are good that similar ones have been traded before.

3.    Ask Questions – eBay provides the ability to ask questions of sellers. If you’re unsure about details or if you want a seller to send some more photos or measure something, you can always ask. Most sellers are willing to accommodate reasonable questions from serious buyers.

4.    Warranties, Guarantees and Returns – Seller terms and conditions are plainly stated on eBay auctions. Most sellers will accept returns if an item is not as described. When it comes to musical instruments, an item may exactly as described but that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily love how it sounds. Ask the seller if they’re willing to offer a 48-hour trial period under the condition that you’ll pay round-trip shipping and refund the seller’s auction fees if you choose not to keep the guitar.

Paying for a Martin Guitar

Pay with PayPal or Use a Credit Card – This is your best insurance against fraud. PayPal and Credit Card purchases are guaranteed by your bank and eBay’s Buyer Protection Plan.

 Know What Can Go Wrong with a Martin Guitar

Original Warranty – Martin Guitars are warranted to be free from defects for the lifetime of the original owner. If you’re dealing with the original owner, you’re one step away from the original warranty. Before the guitar is sent to you, ask if the original owner is willing to have the guitar inspected by a certified Martin repair shop. If any of the problems described below pop up, these can be remedied at no cost to you or the seller. If the guitar is being sold “with papers and warranty,” but not by an authorized Martin dealer, be sure to ask what dealer’s name is on the warranty papers.

Neck Reset – Guitars have approximately 150 pounds of string pull constantly exerting pressure on the instrument. Over time, the guitar neck will eventually pull up, making the instrument difficult to play and less in-tune. A neck reset involves steaming apart the dovetail joint that connects the neck to the body, adding shims to restore the original angle, and then regluing the neck. The task is complicated by the fingerboard, which is glued to the top in front of the sound hole. A neck reset can cost $2–300—enough to turn a great deal into a disaster. Be sure to ask about the guitar’s playability. You can even ask directly whether the guitar needs a neck reset. Sellers who are unfamiliar with guitars won’t know how to answer, but you can always ask for a photograph of how high the strings lie above the twelfth fret.

Top Warp – As the strings exert pressure, the bridge can also tilt forward and the top can “belly up” behind the bridge. This causes tuning and playability problems similar to those caused by a neck that’s pulled up.

There are two ways to repair a bellied top. The traditional way involves removing the bridge, heating the top and removing the bridge plate—the piece of wood glued to the underside of the top under the bridge. An oversized bridge plate is then installed at the expense of tone and volume.

The second repair method is to use a JLD Bridge System. This is a unique, affordable sound post device that can be bolted in under the bridge without modifying the guitar. In many cases, contrary to what one would expect, the JLD System actually improves tone, volume and sustain.  You’ll hear plenty of skepticism from people who won’t try it because they already know they don’t like it. I’ve installed dozens of JLD Bridge Systems and I have one in my own Martin HD28VR that I installed as a preventative measure. Though Martin players are renowned traditionalists who often reject “modified” guitars, the JLD repair is far less damaging to the sound of a vintage guitar and far less of a true “modification” than a replaced bridge plate. Some buyers who are more interested in playing than collecting look for deals on guitars with bellied tops that can be fixed cheaply and easily with the JLD System.

When buying older guitars, be sure to ask for photos of the bridge shot straight across the top of the guitar. Also, ask the seller if there’s any bellying behind the bridge.

Top Cracks – In particular, watch for cracks that run from the edges of the fingerboard toward the sound hole. These can indicate that the neck has shifted backward—a major structural problem that also affects intonation. Other top cracks may occur naturally with the seasonal expansion and contraction of the wood, especially in locales where the humidity varies greatly between winter and summer.

Back and Side Cracks – Usually, you can tell the difference between impact cracks and cracks caused by expansion and contraction of the wood. Impact cracks may indicate other structural problems with the guitar. Expansion cracks generally run with the grain of the wood. They can usually be stabilized with small cleats of wood, and a good luthier may be able to repair some cracks so they’re invisible. Again, ask the seller to disclose and photograph any cracks, if they haven’t already done so in the auction description.

Truss Rods –Older Martins didn’t even have truss rods, and not much usually goes wrong with them, but a broken truss rod means you’ll have no way to adjust the neck for maximum playability. Occasionally, a truss rod gets overtightened and broken. Replacement is an operation that requires removing the fingerboard. Knowledgeable sellers will be able to check the truss rod for you. You can always make the point that a guitar with a broken truss rod isn’t “as described,” but anything you can check before you complete the transaction will obviously prevent problems and disagreements.

Finish – Martin Guitars are finished with nitrocellulose lacquer, a traditional varnish that’s been used by luthiers for a long time. A Lacquer finish must be built up slowly with several coats, and the finished guitar must hang in the spray booth for weeks while the lacquer cures. Many builders are switching to new water-based, high-tech finishes that cure instantly under UV light, but others (like C.F. Martin) prefer the look of lacquer, and the way it yellows slowly with age. Lacquer is durable and offers good protection for the wood. If not sprayed-on too thick, it does little to dampen the tone of the guitar. Lacquer’s Achilles heel is cold weather. You’ll see guitars that got left in a car trunk on a cold winter day. “Oh no! I forgot my guitar,” says the owner, who rushes out the next morning, brings the guitar into a nice warm room and opens the case. The frozen lacquer shatters and the finish is ruined. Lacquer can also be damaged by certain insect repellents. If the guitar has hazy, foggy areas in the finish (usually where the picking arm comes over the upper bout), it was probably brought to a campground picking session and exposed to mosquito spray. This won’t harm the sound, but it devalues the instrument—offering you either a negotiating point or a guitar you want to pass on, depending on whether your priority is playing or collecting. A final common finish flaw is belt buckle scratches on the back.

Refinished guitars are perfectly playable. In many cases, it makes little sense to salvage the tired finish on an old, resurrected guitar. However, the quality and originality of the finish are determining factors in a vintage guitar's value. Buy accordingly.

Headstock Repairs – The headstock is one of the most vulnerable parts of the guitar. Not only is it under tremendous pressure from the strings, it’s the thinnest, weakest part of the neck and it has a set of heavy tuning machines on it. Most headstock failures are directly related to traditionally bad guitar case design. The neck is only supported under the nut; the headstock floats free in the case. When the case falls, the weight of the tuning gears snaps the peghead off. Very few case manufacturers have awakened to the simple logic of building cases with padding around the headstock, so we have an ample supply of guitars with broken necks. A good luthier can do a pretty impressive job of making a virtually invisible headstock repair, but that depends on the break. Ask the seller to inspect the neck at the base of the peghead carefully.

Shipping Martin Guitars

Pad the headstock – Because of the vulnerability discussed in the last section, ask the seller to pack foam, rags or old t-shirts around the headstock inside the guitar case when shipping.

Detune the strings – Slacken the strings or remove them entirely. If you leave slack strings on the guitar, put a piece of cardboard or thin packing foam between the strings and the top to prevent scratching of the lacquer.

Invest in a shipping case – Heavy road cases are essential for touring bands, but they’re expensive to buy and expensive ship. A number of lightweight fiberglass and carbon fiber guitar cases are available, but they’re not cheap, either. The “Clamshell” guitar case is light, relatively inexpensive and surrounds most traditional guitar cases with a protective shell. One good thing about the Clamshell case is that you can use one for any guitar you travel with or ship. Keep the box it comes in.

Triple Box any Guitar You Ship – Should an instrument get damaged in shipping, shippers have very tight guidelines and specifications about what they’ll cover and what they won’t. If an instrument is not packed to their standards, you likely won’t get reimbursed for it. Remember how I suggested you keep the box from your clamshell case? Put the guitar in a traditional hard case with padding around the headstock and additional padding around the body if the guitar isn’t a perfect fit. Put your guitar case in the Clamshell case. Put the clamshell case in its original box.

Insure your shipment – (duh!)

Ship Overnight but Don’t ship FedEx – I have nothing against FedEx; they’re an amazing company, but if you read the small print on their website, you’ll see that instrument coverage is limited to a declared value of $1000. Regardless of what shipping service you use, spend a few extra dollars and ship overnight. This minimizes the amount of time your box spends standing in hot or cold warehouses, bumping over conveyor belts or sliding down chutes. Sometimes, the US Post Office offers the best deal.

Understand the risks of winter shipping – As discussed earlier, lacquer finishes can freeze. If you purchase a guitar from a seller in Minnesota, be aware that the instrument may spend hours in an unheated truck, get stored in an unheated warehouse and then sit for more hours on the tarmac waiting to be loaded onto a plane. If you spit during a Minnesota winter, it’s ice by the time it hits the ground. That’s really cold—cold enough to ruin the finish on your expensive guitar. Ask the seller if they’re willing to wait for an above-freezing day before they ship your instrument, or get on a plane and go pick up the instrument in person. Sometimes, the cost of a discount flight isn’t all that different from the cost of overnight shipping. Even if you’re forced to gate check the instrument, you’ll minimize the time and the number of people who handle it—and if anything happens, you’ll know who broke it.

Unlike stocks, bonds and gold, a Martin Guitar is an investment you can enjoy for years while it accrues in value. With well over a million Martin instruments in the hands of players and collectors, and about 3,500 available on eBay at any given time, Martin Guitar buyers have plenty of choices. Take your time. Ask questions. Thousands of Martin Guitars are bought and sold on eBay every week. Great guitars and great deals await smart buyers.