GC Used Guitar“Open Box” is one of my favorite phrases. I love buying open box, refurbished, or used, at least when it’s something that doesn’t depreciate too quickly. Over the years I’ve had pretty good luck with used stuff, and I love not paying so much.

I’ve bought a few things used from Guitar Center, and I thought I’d let you know about it. Overall, I’m very happy with my experience, but that doesn’t mean it has always been easy.

I really can’t remember how much used gear I’ve bought from them over the years, but recently there are three items that stand out: my every-day acoustic Martin GPCPA5 guitar, my bargain-basement Ibanez GSR200 bass, and my newest acquisition, a Fishman SA220 “SoloAmp” amplifier.

The Good: Martin GPCPA5

I’ll start off with my best experience. My terrific mahogany Martin D-15 was getting banged up being my every-day and gigging guitar, so I wanted to buy something that I would worry a bit less about. A few visits to guitar stores for trying things out led me to choose the Martin GPCPA5 (“Performing Artist” series, which is code for “no-frills”), which is a fine sounding guitar that has a real spruce top and a lot of engineered wood everywhere else. It’s not very sexy, but it has a nice sound for the price, which is about $700 on the street.

I found one on the Guitar Center website, used for something like $550 (this was a few years ago, I don’t remember exactly), so I took it. A few days later, I picked it up at the store.

There was absolutely nothing about this guitar that would suggest that it was used. It was flawless. And it came with a case (I don’t think it was the authentic Martin case, as it lacked the Martin badge and seems a bit cheaper in construction, but it totally does the job). I could not have been happier, I totally felt like I’d gotten $150 off for nothing.

The Bad (though still pretty good): Ibanez GSR200

My next GC used-gear purchase was an Ibanez GSR200 bass. You can buy these new for about $200, but I saw one on the Guitar Center website for $130. I had it shipped to my house (shipping to my house cost the same as shipping to the store, which seems odd … or maybe not, as my later dealings with GC suggest their stores operate largely independently, but more on that later). I’d have to call this one my biggest disappointment, but all things are relative, and really this was only a disappointment when I compare it to the great experince I’d had with the Martin.

The bass definitely looked used: it had small scratches all over, and looked like it had led a hard life. The bass was sort of dusty and needed to be cleaned when it arrived. This thing was nobody’s pride and joy. Still, $70 off a $200 guitar is a big chunk of change, and I was really just trying to get a serviceable Ibanez four string at the lowest possible price, so I’d still call it a win.

The Ugly (again, pretty good): Fishman SoloAmp

For a couple of weeks, I had been trying to get my hands on a Fishman SoloAmp. A friend had heard one live and said that it had a great sound (it does), and I was just having trouble plunking down the money for something like a Bose L1 system.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a SoloAmp for sale (not within my budget, anyway). Fishman discontinued them for some reason, and even used ones were selling in the neighborhood of $1000 online (as I write this, I see one for sale, new, for $1600). One day, though, I was diligently scouring sites like eBay looking for one at discount and, lo and behold, Guitar Center is listing one for $550. Although I had a nagging fear that somehow I was reading it wrong (maybe it was just the stand for the amp?), I quickly pulled out my credit card and placed my order. It cost about $30 to ship, but still a good deal.

Within a week, the amp arrived at my home, carefully wrapped inside a cardboard box with a Gibson guitar logo on it. I couldn’t wait to try it out. Except that I had to wait, because there was no power cord. There was no instruction book, either, but you can get that easily off the Internet. Fortunately, the power cord was a common variety, and I had one on hand.

The amp sounds great, and it was in very good shape. It didn’t look quite new, and somebody put a sticker on the back that they didn’t entirely remove, but it sounds great, and the price absolutely couldn’t be beat. It was as good as I could have hoped. Except for one thing.

When the SoloAmp (or SA220) is/was new, it came with a very nice, padded, wheeled bag. Mine didn’t (though it said in the listing it would). As happy as I was with the amp and the price, I wasn’t going to be able to go down to Target to get a comparable bag for it.

So, I called the 800 number and talked to the customer service rep, who was very cool about the whole thing. He called the store in the midwest that he said actually sold it, but they said they didn’t have it. He looked around (as I did, on eBay and such) to see if alternatives were available. After 45 minutes or so, and a couple of call backs, he had nothing. He told me if I wanted to pursue it, I had to call the store that sold it. So I did.

I spoke there to the customer service manager, who was also cool. He told me that they didn’t have the bag, and that they never had the bag. It took a little bit more effort than you’d think for me to explain that since they sold me the bag, the fact that they didn’t have one was really more their problem than it was mine. He told me that the amp was a return from a store in the south, and maybe that store had the bag. I have no idea how that sort of thing happens, but whatever. He said he’d check with the other store and give me a call in a couple of days.

After a week of silence, I called him back. No bag in the southern store. He offered to give me a couple of bucks to compensate me, but it wasn’t very much money and it seemed unlikely that I’d ever be able to find one of those bags on my own, so I pressed my case a little more. He said he’d try again.

A few minutes later, he called me to tell me that the southern store had found the bag and he’d send it along. I was highly doubtful that this was actually going to work out, but OK.

Three or four days later, a box arrives at my house with the bag inside, and it looks as good as new. Still not fully able to believe it, I packed up the SoloAmp and confirmed that it was, in fact, exactly what I needed. I was pretty well stunned.

So, what’s the takeaway? On the one hand, I got some great gear at really excellent prices. On the other hand, the quality of “used” gear varies quite a bit from item to item (and the little photos on the web don’t really show the little imperfections) and getting that bag for the amp required a lot more time and effort than it really should.

If you are inclined to try this yourself, I have a couple of words of advice:

  • Make sure you have the right item. There can be a lot of variations for instruments and equipment, and you need to make sure that the item offered is exactly what you think you’re getting, or else that bargain might not be such a bargain.
  • Save off the product listing. Print the web page or otherwise find a way to preserve it. Once your purchase is recorded in their system, you won’t be able to see it anymore. In my case, nobody doubted that the listing for the amp had said a bag was included, but if they had, being able to show them the listing would have been important in getting satisfaction.
  • If you live close enough to a Guitar Center, have the item shipped there. That’s what I did with my Martin guitar. Had there been any problems, I could have worked directly with the staff there to get it worked out (or, worst case, gotten a refund, I suppose). If you have the item shipped to your home, and there’s damage, it’s always a possibility that someone will claim that you had damaged it and they weren’t responsible. (Let me say that everyone I’ve dealt with has been really cool and I’ve never had a problem, but why risk it?)

All in all, I’m happy with my Guitar Center experience. The like-new condition of the Martin guitar and the awesome deal I got on the Fishman amp more than outweigh the unimpressive presentation of the Ibanez bass and the extra phone calls and nagging I had to do to get the bag for the amp. Next time I need something. I know where I’m going to look first.

PS: In case you’re wondering, I’ve also sold a couple of guitars to my local Guitar Center. The people there were easy to work with and their offers were fair but not terrific. Then again, I had a sense of how much they discount the used gear (both from my experience and the wall of used guitars up in the store) so I think it was pretty clear that they weren’t lowballing sellers to make a lot of profit off them. Next time I have something to sell, maybe I try eBay or something just to see, but I really don’t have a problem going back to GC — I think they’d give me a fair deal.