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Buying a Yamaha Acoustic Guitar on eBay

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So, you have been browsing the Musical Instruments : Guitar : Acoustic : Yamaha category on eBay, and are about to pull the bid-trigger on what appears to be a very reasonably priced "rare, vintage, antique, famous red label Yamaha FG-76!"

If you pulled the trigger and won the item, you've been had; all the right buzz-words were in place, but Yamaha never made an FG-76.

This example sufficiently illustrates the need to gain a little knowledge of Yamaha guitars prior to jumping in with both feet. Great guitars and solid deals can be found on eBay - if you know what it is you are buying.

This guide is intended to assist you in making more informed decisions when contemplating buying a Yamaha Acoustic guitar. I'll give you some tips, tricks, and advice, point you in the right direction(s) for you to do your homework, and provide you with some generic information about Yamaha Acoustic guitars. I can't guarantee your buying experience will be enjoyable, but I can guarantee that if you use these tools, your odds of buying an enjoyable guitar will be greatly increased.

Disclaimers:

Yamaha produced several types of acoustic guitars: classical, folk, Spanish, acoustic-electric, etc. Some were mass produced, other handcrafted. Some models were built for export, others were made strictly for the Japanese market. Some models Yamaha's support staff (the guitar guru at yamaha dot com) can tell you about, while others remain a mystery even to them, their information deleted from the database or deemed too important to be revealed. By rough count, Yamaha produced no less than 770 different models - it is impossible for me to tell you specific information on each and every Yamaha out there.

My own personal area of expertise is in the mass-produced steel stringed "folk" guitars ... the FG series and their predecessors and successors. I don't do electric, and I wouldn't know a classical if it were to jump up and bite me. Nor do I claim to be an expert in the FG series; Yamaha's own support staff can't even make that claim. I am knowledgeable and willing to share. I buy and sell Yamaha's as a hobby and have learned, more often than not, the hard way. If you email me ... please don't hide your return email address ... eBay blocks my replies.

Crap Shoot:

Buying a guitar, any guitar, over the internet is a bit of a gamble. It's not like going to a music store and pulling one off the rack ... you can't see it, feel it, or hear it. Your only indicators of worth or value are the description, the pictures, and a working knowledge of the particular model. It is imperative, therefore, that one does one's homework prior to the purchase.

The first step to thoroughly research a particular model is to locate one and actually play it beforehand. Go forth and find the model you are contemplating buying - whether it be at a music store, pawn shop, thrift store, or a friend's house - and play the darned thing. Make sure that the model you are interested in is really what you want in a guitar.

What Drives Relative Value:

There are several tangible factors in determining worth: age of the instrument, quality of the construction, suggested manufacturer's retail price when new, condition of the instrument, number produced, and number surviving (rarity). And, there is one huge intangible factor - personal preference. People like what they like, and there is no accounting for taste.

Once you've locked in on a model and played a few of them, do your homework! If you have looked at and played a few at a reseller, you should already have an idea of retail market value. Retail price isn't a good indicator of what a guitar is really worth, it is more a function of what the dealer needs to get to cover his cost and overhead, plus some additional to make him happy. So how does one determine relative value?

Find out what others are saying about their guitar experience. There is a "reader review" section devoted to Yamaha Acoustic guitars, maintained on Harmony Central. Readers review and rate the various models, and you can get a pretty good feel for the prices they paid, and their experience and satisfaction levels.

Then, go straight to the horse's mouth. Yamaha maintains a (clunky) website. If you wade your way through the site, you will find a couple of useful links, one being a model number look-up. This link allows you to put in model numbers (Beware: this form is really picky as to how you enter the numbers! If you put in FG-150 it will return a "model not found" error. If, instead, you put in FG150 with no hyphen, it works.) and will return some limited information, most notably years of manufacture, and manufacturer's suggested retail price.

The second useful link is a multi-page informational brochure produced by Yamaha in thier downloadable Product Catalogs section. Page three of that brochure is a very informative chart entitled The History of the Yamaha Acoustic Guitar that gives you a flow-chart history of the earliest FG exports and their succession throughout the years. Model numbers, year(s) of manufacture, derivatives, design changes, and labeling changes are all a part of this chart.

Note: Beware this chart! There are errors on it. Most notably is the reference to the FG-210; the chart lists the guitar as a six string model. It is, rather, a slot-head twelve string.

Another note: The guitar guru at Yamaha (support staff) isn't a person, but rather several people in customer service. And, gurus they aren't. Don't rule them out as a source of information. If you ask, they will respond ... eventually. But I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the information they give back. Thay have very little information on the guitars Yamaha produced in Japan, for Japan, prior to export.

Look further at the chart and the MSR on the guitar archive, and look at all models produced in the same time span as the model you are interested in. One of the hottest selling older Yamaha's is the FG-180 red labels, produced from '69 through '72. Even junk ones are bringing relatively big dollars. In that same time period, Yamaha produced the FG-75 with an MSR of $109.50, the FG-110 at $99.50, the FG-140 at $95.00, the FG-150 at $129.00, the FG-180 at $130.00, and the FG-300 at $365.00.

All these are "red labels" built in Nippon Gakki, and are supposedly "better" then the other (later) labels. But, I'm seeing more 180's sell for higher amounts than the obviously better FG-300. The 300 is by far the superior guitar, made of better quality materials, and one of only two models that offered adjustable bridges. Yet 180's more often than not, will command more dollars.

Yamaha was producing guitars in Nippon Gakki for years before their first "red label" exports. These are older, rarer, and built with the same quality craftmanship of the red labels. Similarly, there are models produced in that time span, that were never exported. The FG-240 immediately comes to mind. If you find one of these, grab it, as it is rare indeed!

To further pin-point details, you need to dig a little deeper. Is my FG-150 one built in 1968 or one built in 1971?

Each Yamaha guitar has a serial number stamped on the back of the neck, inside the body of the guitar. It is viewable looking through the sound hole, where the neck meets the top of the guitar. The numbers are typically eight digits. The serial number on my FG-260 twelve-string is 30710583.

Yamaha serial numbers repeat themselves every ten years. The first digit in the number is the year; therefore, mine could be from '53, '63', '73, '83, '93', or 2003. That really narrows it down, no?

Going back to the historical chart in the product brochure, I can determine that the FG-260 was produced from 1972-1973. Mine then was produced in 1973.

The next four numbers, "0710," are the date of manufacture: July 10th. The last three are the "item" number. Yamaha is pretty closed-lipped about this one; were there 583 FG-260's produced on that date or in that year? Is it number 583? Out of 583? Or, out of 10 bazzillion? To date, I haven't gotten an answer, nor have I found non-Yamaha sources to narrow it down.

Now we have a specific age, we can see its historical predecessors and successors, we know its construction materials, we know its MSR price in then current dollars. What we don't know is how rare the guitar may be ... the number of guitars produced versus how many survived. And Yamaha isn't being very forthcoming. The best source I have found for determining rarity is...

No, I'm not suggesting you believe the listers - they have a vested interest in presenting their guitars in the best possible light. What I'm suggesting is that you watch the Musical Instruments:Guitar:Acoustic:Yamaha category on a regular basis, and note the number of listings for various models.

I have been watching this category on a daily basis for the past year. I have seen only a handfull of listings for an FG-260. I have seen hundreds of listings for the FG-230, the forerunner to the 260, many of which are listed as "rare". The truth is, the 230's were the first twelve strings exported by Yamaha, and they flooded the market. By the time they discontinued the 230 and began marketing the 260, there were fewer buyers in an already saturated market. Fewer 260's sold and, in comparison, they are considerably more rare.

The last tangible is "condition". Mint condition crap guitars are still crap ... good looking crap, but crap nonetheless. On the other hand, a mint condition FG-2500, handcrafted, built from 1970 through 1977 in very limited numbers, is absolutely priceless.

If you are buying a guitar as a collector, condition is critical ... you want "mint" and worse case scenario, will settle for "excellent. If you are buying a guitar to resell at a profit, condition is important. If you are buying a guitar to wail on, condition is of less concern.

What to Stay Away From:

I'm no luthier, so I stay away from the broken necked, cracked, "project" guitars, no matter how cheap. I similarly stay away from those "beat all to hell" guitars, although many of them play just fine. Those with holes drilled in them for electronic add-ons bother me as well. But the everyday scratches on the pick guard (that's what they are there for, after all), normal wear on the surface finishes, and the like are of little concern. Missing parts (bridge pins, tuners, strings) aren't a concern either ... parts are available and reasonably inexpensive.

What should concern you, no matter what buyer type you are, is the condition of the neck. All Yamaha guitars have an adjustable truss rod imbedded in the neck. The purpose of this truss rod is to counteract the effect of the string tension. The strings are perpetually trying to bow the neck; the rod's purpose is to counter that tension.

Unfortunately, many people view that rod as some sort of magical way to lower the action of the guitar, bringing the strings lower to the fingerboard. Yes indeed, you CAN lower the strings to the frets by cranking away on the truss rod, but you will probably trash a neck in the process! A non-functioning truss rod is worthless, and replacing one (or replacing the neck) on a relatively inexpensive instrument, is cost prohibitive. To learn more about properly adjusting truss rods, go to a site at fretnotguitarrepair.

The action of a guitar is controlled by a number of factors. The straightness of the neck (and its adjustable truss rod), the gauge of the strings, the height of the nut, the height of the bridge, and "bellying" of the top of the guitar where the bridge is mounted, all play a role. If the neck is bowed, the strings are higher than necessary. A minor adjustment of the truss rod to counter the bow, or lighter gauge strings will help. If the nut is too high, the strings are too high. If the saddle is too high, the strings are too high. If the top of the guitar has weakened and "bellied" outwards, the bridge is higher than it is supposed to be. Worse, if the bridge has lifted (become unglued), the action will be high (and the sound quality will be negatively affected).

Bowed necks, high nuts, and high saddles can all be inexpensively replaced or adjusted; in fact, when buying a guitar to play, expect to have a luthier professionally set it up to your playing style and tastes. Bellying and lifting bridges are more problematic. If there is visual evidence that the guitar has bellied, or the bridge has lifted, pass on that particular guitar.

Similarly, if there is any evidence at all that the neck has been repaired (cracked, broken, reset, re-glued), pass on the guitar. If it is a very high-end instrument, and the luthier who did the repairs was a quality craftsman, it might be worth the investment. If it's a run of the mill, mass-produced Yamaha, there are others of that same model out there without the risk.

So, how do we find out if a guitar has been repaired? Or the neck reset? Or there's visible evidence of bellying? Or if the truss rod works? First, scrutinize the pictures and descriptions in the listing. Second, ask for more pictures! Third, ask the seller questions! Good sellers won't hesitate to answer responsible questions and provide you with detailed pictures. If a seller refuses to answer, they have something to hide.

I recently called to the carpet a seller who was advertising his particular guitar as, "rare, from the '60's." The model he was selling was an FG-400 ... an entry level Yamaha, produced from '85 through '88. Needless to say, he didn't correct his ad, he didn't respond, and he took some poor buyer to the cleaners.

Smoke and Mirrors:

If you believe everything a used car salesman tells you ... well ... I've got a sweet '74 Pinto you might want. Similarly, you can't trust a word you read from sellers ... they have a vested interest in putting their items in the best possible light. It's not that they lie exactly ... at least not enough to put themselves in a position to have to do a refund, but they will "embellish" a tad. Below are some things to watch out for:

- "Vintage." It's all vintage - a 2006 guitar is vintage 2006.

- "Antique" Not all older guitars get better with age. Antique guitars that were junk when they came from the factory are still junk, just well aged.

- "Rare." The handcrafted Yamaha's are rare. The pre-exports are rare. The models that were never exported are rare. A few models that didn't sell well are rare. But, MOST Yamaha mass-produced exports are NOT rare ... they made a bazzillion of them.

- "Only played once!" ... and the rest of the time, it was used by the local Little League for batting practice.

- "Made by the master himself ... Nippon Gakki!" This one is my all time favorite ... Nippon Gakki is a manufacturing facility in Japan that dates back to the late 1800's.

Of course, rhetoric and salesmanship aren't the only things to watch out for. One of the most common deceptions is shipping and handling. Paying a reasonable price for a guitar, but paying an unreasonable shipping charge, with an unreasonable handling fee makes the purchase unreasonable. A well-packaged guitar and case can be shipped most anywhere domestically for under $35. Pay attention to the S&H on any listing, and question those you find unreasonable before you bid!

Bidding Tips:

There are three main types of bidders: serious bidders who know the value of an item and have a set price they are willing to pay, casual bidders who are hoping to steal a deal, and the truly clueless who have no intention of actually buying anything, but are hell bent on placing a bid.

As a seller, I am always thrilled to see early bids. These usually come from the truly clueless. The next round of bidding comes form the casual bidders who are hoping their low-ball bid will win them a guitar for pennies on the dollar. Again, as a seller, I'm thrilled to see either of these types of bids.

As a buyer, I want these bidders to go away. All they are doing is inflating the final purchase price, and ruining my chances, as a serious buyer, of winning this guitar at a reasonable price!

The real buyers, the serious, seasoned, and experienced bidders, wait. Patiently. They won't enter a bid, particularly an automatic limit bid that will interact with the curious and the clueless, and drive the price up further. You won't see their bids until the last few minutes and, many times, the last few seconds of the auction.

Learn from them. Wait. Patiently. Have the price you are willing to pay ... your maximum price ... entered and ready to confirm. Confirm it at the last possible second. If you win, congrats! If you lose, there are more Yamaha's out there.

What I Look For:

Unknowledgeable buyers are the target of sellers. Conversely, as a buyer, I'm looking for unknowledgeable sellers.

I recently saw a listing with a description that started with, "I dont know much about guitars, but ... ." That was enough to get my interest. The seller"thought" his guitar had been built in the late '70's. The chart told me that that particular model had been discontinued in 1972. I fired off a question, asking what the serial number was. Sure enough, the guitar was a pre-export model made in Nippon Gakki for the Japanese market and built in 1967. The seller had a $25 starting price, with no reserve. The guitar is worth every bit of $500 and sold for less than $100.

I look for listings with no gallery pictures, as these often get over-looked. I look for listings that don't include a model number in the title or in the description. Of course, I have to ask, but if they are stupid enough to list without a model number, perhaps they are stupid enough to neglect to post their response to my question or to edit their listing. I look for obvious misspellings ... selling an "accusstik guitar" usually means the seller doesn't know what they have.  I look for inexperienced sellers, although having a "0" feedback score doesn't necessarily mean the seller is ignorant about guitars.

I also key in on "Buy It Now" and starting bid pricing. You can usually get a good indication of what the seller is willing to let the guitar go for.

Summary:

The point is, know what you are buying. Do your homework. Talk to other guitar owners. Look for responsible sellers, and ask questions. Know what is reasonable to pay, pick an amount you are willing to pay, and stick to your guns. Show patience - chances are you don't have to have that guitar today or even tomorrow. There are plenty of them out there, so wait for the one that is right for you.

Ask that the seller ship the guitar with strings loosened, as the headstocks snap in a heartbeat if dropped while strung tight. Buy insurance. Use PayPal or a major credit card, where you have some recourse if the deal goes south or the item arrives damaged. And be prepared to pay for a professional set up when it arrives. With some knowledge under your belt, and a bit of luck, you just might buy an instrument that will give you years and years of pleasure.

 
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