5 easy ways to tell if an electric guitar is junk or not when in the guitar store
If you buy enough electric guitars, at some point you run into that "played and sounded great in the store, but then played and sounded like crap when I got it home" scenario. This happens to a lot of guitar buyers, and yes I've had it happen to me a few times. And remember, this can happen with any guitar regardless of how cheap or expensive it is.
Fortunately there are a few really easy things you can do while in the guitar store to determine whether a guitar is junk or not.
1. Bring a pocket flashlight
Ever notice that most guitar stores have dim lighting? There's a reason for that.
A standard trick many guitar stores do is purposely make the surrounding lighting dim so you can't see imperfections on a guitar. All lights are using pointing at the walls and not the floor, making it difficult for you to see finish scratches, body dents and other obvious issues.
Bring along a pocket flashlight and shine the light over every inch of the neck and body while sitting down with the guitar and inspecting it. If this makes the sales staff nervous and they try to distract you, that's a huge red flag that there's something wrong with the guitar they don't want you to see.
Which type of pocket flashlight is is the best? The higher the lumens, the brighter the light. Go for the one with the highest lumens rating and you'll get the brightest light. For example, if your pocket flashlight has a 1,000 lumens rating, trust me, that thing can throw some serious light. And they're not that expensive.
What's the bare minimum lumens rating that's any good? 100. Personally, I keep my minimum to at least 300 lumens, but a 100 will do the job if size of flashlight is a concern.
2. Look for obvious mismatched components
If from the pickups in the guitar there's one that looks newer than the others, that's a red flag because the guitar has been modified.
If from the knobs there's one that doesn't match the others, that's a red flag.
If from the pick guard screws there are some that are different than the others (remember, they're all supposed to be the same size), that's a big red flag because it means the guy who owned it before didn't even put it back together correctly after his "modifications".
If from the bridge saddles one or more doesn't match the others, that's a red flag because the set is mismatched and put together poorly.
3. Crank up the distortion to check for "scratchy" knobs
The easiest way to tell if the volume and tone pots are OK or not is to plug in the guitar, turn up the amp, add distortion, but don't play. Cycle through the knobs turning it from 0 to 10 and back again several times, and do the same for the tone knobs. You will instantly hear if the pots "scratch" at all. If they do, you know there's a problem and you shouldn't buy it.
Another thing you can do is the same test after lightly plucking the B string, because sometimes "scratchy" pots can't be heard unless there's some signal going through the pickups.
4. Check for hairline fractures at the nut
A cracked nut is one of the biggest reasons anyone trades in a guitar, because once that happens, a players just trades in the guitar in instead of repairing it.
Hairline fractures of a nut are especially difficult to see if the nut is black, and this is one of the instances where your flashlight will come in very handy, because you probably won't be able to see the crack without it.
Do new guitars sometimes have cracked nuts? It's rare, but yes it sometimes happens.
A note specifically concerning Les Paul style guitars: They are more likely to have nut issues compared to Strats specifically because of the way the strings are mounted after the nut. On a Strat guitar, the direction of the string after the nut is straight. On a Paul guitar, the direction is angled, and it's a very well known fact that causes greater nut stress. This is a big reason to always examine the nut closely on a Paul guitar before buying it.
5. Check for clicks and creaks
Sit down with the guitar unplugged. Do a 3-fret bend on the B string, then the same on the G string, then the same on the D string.
If you literally hear (and may even feel) the guitar clicking, creaking or making cracking noises, don't buy that guitar. The neck is either installed improperly, or something in the bridge isn't set up right, or the nut has problems.
If you hear "kinking" noises, that may just be old strings and you'll hear that come from the headstock end of the guitar. But if there are click/creak/crack noises from the body side of the guitar, just put it down and don't buy it no matter how bad you want it.
On guitars like Squier Bullet Strats, the click/creak/crack noises, should they be present, are almost always caused by the fact neck pocket was not cut correctly from the factory. And even with neck securely tightened at the bolt plate, this is an issue that can never be fixed. Remember however that this is not a universal problem with the guitar. Both my China-made Bullet Strat and Indonesia-made Bullet HH do not have any click/creak/crack issues whatsoever.
On guitars like Epiphone Les Pauls, click/creak/crack noises almost always come from the bridge, because a traditional Tune-O-Matic style bridge does "travel" (even on Gibson models), meaning it moves and at times will not stay put. This is fixable with the simple installation of a new bridge with set screws to eliminate the traveling issue. However, you are better off finding a Paul that doesn't have a bridge-travel issue, because why buy a guitar if it needs extra money spent right after you buy it just so it's playable?
A quick checklist specifically concerning STRATOCASTER guitars
I'm a Strat guy as most people know (both for Squier and Fender), so I'm fairly educated on how to spot problems with them, be they new or used.
Pinch a single-coil pickup between your fingers and rock it back and forth. It should barely move or not at all. If it easily gives way and can be rocked back and forth with almost no effort, the mounting springs are worn out - OR - the springs were replaced with tubing and it has worn out.
Push a single-coil pickup down towards the pick guard. If it sinks in easily, once again the tension springs are bad or it has tubing that wore out.
Whether a Strat is new or old, the pickups simply shouldn't move. Yes it's true they will always have some give to them, but if the movement is really obvious, that's a red flag that someone "modified" the underside with an "improvement" that obviously didn't work at all or was installed completely improperly.
Stripped strap button hole(s)
This one's easy. Examine the strap buttons. If the screw is sticking out, immediately point this out to a sales guy and request a screwdriver to tighten it. He'll let you.
If the screw won't tighten, the hole is stripped. Fortunately this is an easy fix as all you have to do is full the hole with wood putty, let it dry and set, drill a small pilot hole smaller than the hole itself and screw the original screw back in. It doesn't matter what the putty color is as the button itself will cover it easily.
The second way to check for a stripped strap button hole is to pinch the button with your fingers and attempt to twist it. If it moves easily, the hole is probably stripped.
You can use this as a bargaining maneuver to knock the price down of the guitar, because if the strap button hole(s) are worn out, that's extra repair you have to perform on the guitar after it's bought.
Remember: Traditional strap buttons on Stratocaster guitars are not supposed to move at all.
Check the back of the headstock for exposed holes
Again, this one is very easy. Look at the back of the headstock. See any exposed holes? That means the tuners were swapped out and it's most likely true the "cheap" ones were put back before the guitar was traded in.
This can be used as a bargaining maneuver to knock the price of the guitar down.
Check for cracked tremolo block
This specifically applies to older Squier Strats, although on rare occasion some Fenders suffer from this as well.
The only way to examine a tremolo block is to take off the back plate. Shine your flashlight in there and look for stress cracks on the block. If you see any, they will be easily visible right where the claw springs meet the block, and that tremolo block is junk and will need replacement.
Older Squier Strats have this happen often because they're made of zinc and not stainless steel or brass. It is an easy repair - BUT - you may have a difficult time locating a block that actually fits correctly as the American blocks usually never fit the Squier models.
If repairing the bridge system concerning the block, you may be better off buying a whole new bridge system, because after all, it's cheap and actually costs less than just the block itself.
Check for slanted bridge screws
I've seen this happen on brand new Squier Stratocasters in particular, and it's a very easy thing to miss. This particularly applies to bridges mounted with 6 screws on top (typically labeled a "vintage bridge" setup) and not the two-point bridge.
Look at all 6 screws. If there's any screw head that's not flush to the bridge and is slanted or leaning slightly, don't buy that guitar because the screw was not installed properly. It's not an easy fix either because you have to take the whole bridge off, fill the hole with the bad thread with wood putty, let that dry and set, drill a pilot hole and attempt to get the screw to thread itself straight on reinstallation. I say "attempt" because most of the time it simply won't thread straight and the same problem will come back again.
Why are slanted bridge screws a problem? Because it can cause creaking/clicking noises when bending strings or using the tremolo bar. Every time you bend hard using either method, the bridge will move slightly and make noises you won't like at all. In addition, it can cause finish cracks and chips over time where the bridge is mounted to the body.