A wise step while looking for used electric guitars would be to collect as much information about the instrument as possible. This should include knowledge about the serial number of the instrument, in case you want some additional information about it from the manufacturer, the modifications done to it, like replacement of pick-ups, strings, change in paint and so on. Secondly, it is important for you to ask (if buying from a private seller) why he wants to sell his guitar and if he purchased it new or used.
Check the Condition of the Guitar
There are three designs in the body of an electric guitar - solid body, semi-hollow body, and hollow body. Your selection of the body depends on your playing style. As a beginner, you do not have to bother too much about the body, and hence can begin by selecting a solid body. Once you are thorough with basic lessons and ready for advanced learning you can choose some other body for your guitar.
The neck is the most important as well as the moat delicate part of an electric guitar. Firstly, you will have to check for any damage - like a crack along the neck or the area between the neck and the head. The point where the neck joins the body of the guitar is also important to check for cracks as it might result in the complete breaking of the guitar. Some scratches here and there on the surface or the finish of the instrument are not a major concern as they don't affect the sound quality. But cracks that have gone deep into the structure will definitely amount to a bigger problem in the sound and you may have to replace the neck. Also, if the neck is a little warped or bowed do not include the instrument in your selection list.
Apart from the above concerns, you also need to check out the types of guitar necks and choose the appropriate one. Basically there are three ways in which the neck is connected to the body - set neck, bolt-on neck, and neck through the body. The first type of neck is glued to the body permanently. Gibson guitars are a perfect example of set neck guitars. These models are quite expensive as compared to others and are also difficult to repair. The second type, i.e., the bolt-on neck, is attached to the body with the help of bolts or screws starting from the back of the body and penetrating into the back of the neck. This neck attachment reduced the production cost of electric guitars and brought them in demand, since the bolts could be easily adjusted or even replaced. Fender guitars are seen with this method of neck attachment. The third type is neck through the body, wherein the neck is an integral part of the body constructed out of one single piece of wood or several pieces laminated together. The selection of an electric guitar also depends on the convenience of placing your fingers on it and moving from one fret to another. There are a few standard neck profiles from which you can select a suitable profile for yourself for ease in playing. These profiles are termed as C-shaped, U-shaped and V-shaped neck profiles. The shape of the letters roughly correspond to the shape of the profile.
There should not be any buzzing in the strings while playing the guitar - whether plugged or unplugged. The strings should also not go mute in between. The correct way to check the strings is to play the guitar before purchasing. It will help you identify any rattling or buzzing in the strings. If the guitar is used for a very long time you might notice rust on the strings and even slight breaking.
A bridge is a part on the electric guitar that supports the strings, connects them to the body, and transfers the vibrations of the strings to the body to produce resonance and sustain. There are two basic types of bridges; stoptail or fixed bridges, and tremolo bridges. While fixed bridges are permanently attached to the body, tremolo ones are movable. With tremolo bridges you can bend all the strings at a time to attempt variations in notes, however, it can cause the guitar to go off-tune at times. Hence, many players prefer stoptail bridge which offers more controlled, in-tune and sustained notes. Consider all these factors and decide on which type of bridge your guitar should have.
Check the Sound Quality
The word action here refers to the distance between the strings and the fret board. Ideally, the strings should be closer to the board, so that they can be pressed down easily to fret the notes, but not so close that they touch the board. If the strings are close enough to the board right from the head to the bridges, you can say that the guitar has a good or the correct action.
Scale length is the distance between the bridge and the nut. The point between these two parts is where the string vibrates. Scale length is a vital component of an electric guitar or any fretted instrument for that matter, because it affects the tonal quality as well as playability of the instrument. The two very common types of scale lengths are Fender scale 25-1/2" (longer scale that provides higher string tension and a trebly sound) and Gibson scale 24-3/4" (shorter scale and easy to play, which provides lower string tension and produces a little thick and less trebly sound). There are other scale lengths as well, but these two are the most preferred ones.
Intonation is the accuracy of the fretted notes produced from the strings. For setting the intonation of the guitar, bridge saddles (the points on the bridge supporting individual strings) are moved either closer or away from the fret board till the octave on the 12th fret and its harmonics are equal. If an electric guitar is off-tune or is set in an incorrect intonation, the chords played at the bottom of the neck sound correct but the same chords played higher on the fret board sound a little off-tune. Another important thing is to check if the guitar is able to hold the tune for a few hours once set, or if you have to keep setting it frequently. When checking this though, keep in mind that every musical instrument needs intonation setting done from time to time. Make use of digital tuners to check the intonation for an accurate result.
Pick-ups are magnetic devices that sense the musical vibrations of the strings in an electric form and pass electronic signals to the amplifier as well as speakers. There are two types of pick-ups - magnetic and piezoelectric - and both produce different sounds. It is very important to check these pick-ups while buying the instrument because they are pretty expensive to replace. If you are buying an electric guitar for yourself, then it is quite easy to examine the pick-ups. However, if you are purchasing it for someone else you will either have to take the person along with you or should know exactly what style of playing he/she prefers. The number of pick-ups also vary according to the model of the instrument. For some models there are two pick-ups - one close to the neck that produces a thicker sound and the other close to the bridge to get a treble sound effect. Some electric guitars also have a third pick-up in the middle, which adds to the sound blending combination.
Where to Buy?
Retail music stores are the most approachable destinations for buying used things. The people working there are well acquainted with the ins and outs of musical instruments and are able to give right suggestions. If you have access to such a local store nearby, do make a visit. If not, get in touch with a private seller, provided you ask all the questions mentioned in the introductory paragraph. Do not hesitate to voice your queries regarding the instrument and satisfy yourself before making the purchase. After all, it's a one-time purchase and, of course, an important one in your music career. Another important point to note is the amplifier used for the electric guitar. When you are testing the sound quality of the guitar, use a quality amplifier available in the shop or borrow one from your friend. If the amplifier is not good it definitely affects the sound quality of the guitar. Nowadays even the Internet has become a great source for buying used stuff. Craigslist, eBay and other such sources are good options to check out.
A used electric guitar is a good option against buying a new one, not only because it costs less, but also because as a beginner you don't have to invest too much just for trying your hand at it. Furthermore, if you are amongst the few lucky buyers, you might get a piece that is rare or out of production. Lastly, take your friend or someone knowledgeable in this field along to make the best buy.