You know those stories you hear? The ones the gray-beards tell about buying a ’52 Strat for $50 in some pawn shop in Texas back in ’85 when no one knew any better? Those days are over. Guitars have become such a fetish object that even people who don’t play an instrument know that old guitars are worth a bundle. Heck, there’s even a vintage guitar investment fund. The secret’s out on old guitars and you’re very unlikely to ever get super-lucky on a vintage piece of kit. Of course, there are the imports, and while many of them are very good, most players (including me) feel that name-brand, American (or at least North American) guitars still have a considerable edge in terms of quality and reliability.
Here’s where the mighty partscaster rises to fill the void. Only here can you find a high-quality, American-made guitar with solid parts for truly low dough. Check out this tele, which was my first partscaster.
This blackguard had an ash body, maple/rosewood neck, Seymour Duncan pickups, a bone nut, and CTS pots. I would put this guitar up against any Mexican Fender and it cost me a modest $300. Now, you can get a Mexican Fender for the same price, but try getting that same guitar with Duncans, quality electronics, and a bone nut. The guitar also played and sounded great.
Unimpressed? Let’s look at Exhibit B.
This one has a flame-maple-topped ash body, Birdseye maple neck, Duncan bridge pickup, Fender Custom Shop neck pickup, Grover tuners, and excellent pots and switches. Price for this one? Just $300 again.
And again, this guitar was a fine player; light and resonant with a good blend of sounds. You can get a flamey guitar for a good price these days, but this one had top-quality components that you could never hope to get in a name-brand guitar for the price. If I have your attention now, let’s figure out how to buy one of these on the cheap.
Turns out that guitars are like food, you really want to buy local. Most of us head straight to Ebay for our used-gear needs, but this can be a bad move. Partscasters on ebay tend to be listed by cork-sniffers who hand-select every screw. These enthusiasts price their franken-strats at or above new guitar prices. It’s tough to blame them, since some of these guitars sell for the asking price. Consider this telecaster, which was recently listed for $997.
Aside from the questionable relic job, the auction doesn’t even say where the neck and body came from. Who’s shelling out $900+ for a parts-guitar on Ebay? I don’t know, but it ain’t me and it shouldn’t be you.
So where do we turn? Craigslist. Here’s the secret of my favorite local listing site: it’s populated by people who are too lazy for Ebay. I buy my guitars from Craigslist sellers who just want to get back some of their money without having to box and ship an instrument. These are the people you want to buy from, but it’s rarely easy or quick. Since I’ve been at this for a while, let me offer a few suggestions for getting the most out of your used partscasters.
Have patience. If you want to get into parts-guitars for cheap, you need to be in it for the long haul. If you want to just go out and buy one right now, ebay is waiting. But if you’re willing to see this buying and selling and fixing of instruments as just another part of your life as a musician, then you can expect big things. Eventually.
You need to look at Craigslist every day. It’s not as time-consuming as you might think. I live in a town of over 125,000 people, but the musical instrument listings are short enough to check in a few seconds. If there are other good-size towns or cities near you, look at their listings, too. Just have a quick look every day, and try to keep an open mind about what’s out there.
Have flexible expectations. If you want something super-specific, used parts-casters might not be your game. But if you can be a little flexible with your needs, there are all kinds of good things out there. For instance, after I bought the blackguard I discussed above, I knew I wanted another tele as a backup. It didn’t take long for this one to show up on Craigslist.
This guitar was in rough shape when I got it. It was filthy and unstrung. There were metal shavings stuck to the bridge pickup and the frets were toast. An even bigger issue for me was that it had a really thick, vintage-style neck. I had been used to slim, modern necks and I was really wary of trying to handle this baseball-bat. But hell, it was a tele, and I was able to talk the owner down to $100. As I was checking it out, I noticed some light Birdseye figuring on the neck. Not many cheap builders bother with Birdseye maple, so I thought it was worth a chance. Once I got the thing home and disassembled it, I found that the neck and body were both Warmoth, the gold-standard for after-market parts. The bridge pickup was a Duncan and the hardware was top-notch. This guitar was worth more than $100 just for the neck and body. Once I had it re-fretted and set up, I got another surprise. That thick neck was amazing. It supported my big hands in a way I had never felt before. Five minutes after plugging it in, I was flying up and down the neck. A few months later, the blackguard was gone and this beater had become my new number one player. Being flexible with my needs helped me bag my favorite guitar for only $100.
Now that we’ve laid out the basic ideas, you can start looking for deals. Next time, I’ll get into some of the specifics of inspecting a parts-guitar, asking the right questions, and haggling for the right price.
Rex Krueger is a musician, writer, and teacher living in Gainesville, Florida. Read his blog on all things DIY at nonamecustom.wordpress.com