A version of this article originally appeared on Landr.
It’s buyer beware. So buyer take care.
Nothing beats the feeling of finding that piece of gear you’ve wanted forever. I’ll never forget buying my first synth. I rode the train three hours round trip and carried it all the way home on my lap.
The person I bought it from was very helpful. He showed me how it worked, some of the presets, and how to operate it. He even printed off the manual for me. The price was negotiable and he gave me a great deal as long as I “promised to make music with it.” I was more than happy to oblige.
Even though there’s a million awesome free VST plugins out there, nothing compares to getting your hands on a real piece of gear once in a while. But buying used gear can be a nightmare if you’re not prepared – something I found out very quickly.
I’ve bought all sorts of gear since then, but no purchase has been as smooth as my first time. Some gear hasn’t worked, some has needed major fixes, and some has even been full of cat hair. I guess you could say I learned my lesson the hard way. But over time I’ve figured out a checklist that I go through every time I buy so I don’t get burned by a shady deal.
Here are my seven essential steps every shopper should follow when buying used gear.
1. Know what you want and what you need
So you’ve decided you need a new toy. The excitement is starting to build. But remember: everyone wants all the gear in the world. But do you really need it?
Getting into buying used gear means doing your research. Figure out if it’s gonna be the best tool for your project. Try to hear how it will fit in your process. I sometimes even download the VST plugins that are modeled after the gear I want to see if it will be a fit.
Get to know exactly what that gear is gonna do for you. This will help you avoid buyer’s remorse when you get the instrument home and it doesn’t do what you thought it would.
Set a budget and stick to it. If you have a realistic budget, your chances of being let down are a lot lower. So count those pennies.
2. Spec it out
Now that you know your budget and what you’re in the market for, you’re ready to start shopping. It’s time to learn all the specs.
Some of the key facts you need to know are:
- what the gear should sound like
- common problems or breaks
- how much they cost new
- approximate resale value
Does that synth you want tend to have a burnt out display? You should know. Is $200 a good price for that drum machine? You should know that, too. Sites like Vintage Synth Explorer and Synth Mania are great for finding specs on older gear. Even bigger manufacturers like Yamaha, Moog, and Fender are still happy to answer questions about older gear as well. Don’t hesitate to reach out to their support to get some info.
Knowing about what you’re buying will give you all the right questions to ask when you start shopping around. Don’t get hosed because you didn’t have the facts.
3. Buy from the best
Okay, so you finally found the perfect instrument. The price is right, and you’re interested in buying. You’re getting so close. But first you’ve gotta know the seller.
When you’re shopping for gear, do your best to know who you’re buying from before you commit. If you’re buying from a shop, make sure you have all the info you need to make a smart purchase before you go in. If you’re using eBay or other gear marketplaces like Reverb, study the seller’s history, comments, and rating. It will give you a good idea of whether or not someone is legit.
Craigslist or any other local classified services are great places to find used gear as well, but they don’t often supply users' past sale information. If that’s the case, then look for ads that give you the most information possible. Sellers that are up front about condition and usage tend to be more trustworthy.
Hot tip: avoid ads that don’t provide a picture of the actual instrument. If it’s a picture from the web, or there’s no picture at all, something fishy is going on.
4. Ask the questions
So the seller you found seems legit. The price is in your budget and things are shaping up well. You can almost hear the sounds echoing through your studio already. But first, ask heaps of questions! This is the number-one key for not getting ripped off.
Not sure about something? Then ask! You’re the buyer and you’re entitled to ask a lot of questions. If you’re purchasing on the web, ask for as many pictures as possible. You should inspect every nook and cranny. Or better yet, ask for a video of it being played. It’s as close as you’ll get to actually being there. So make the most of it.
Buying through the web can be very sketchy. Get as much info as you can before you pull the trigger.
Hot tip: gear that uses batteries often has corrosion issues if it's been in storage for a long time. So always check.
When buying in person, you should ask just as many questions. Find out how it was used, how much it was used, where it was stored, and how the owner maintained it. Ask about any issues it’s had in the past, if it has been repaired, and where that person bought it from. Ask if he or she played live with it or ever toured with it. These are all good questions to ask so you don’t end up buying a lemon.
5. Plug it in
It’s finally time to go see it. You’ve been counting down the minutes. You’re itching to buy and bring that puppy home. But does it even work? The only way to know for sure is to plug it in, turn it on, and play it before you buy.
This is good for two reasons. The first reason is that you’ll figure out whether it actually makes sound or not. Don’t just turn it on and off again. Play something on it. Test absolutely everything. If it has 91 buttons, you should push all 91 buttons. If you aren’t able to try it out, then you shouldn't be buying. Don’t settle for the classic “I don’t have speakers right now” excuse from the seller.
The second reason is so you can actually hear it. Sometimes the sound isn’t what you expected. If it’s not for you, then be honest. Don’t be afraid to say no. Take your time. Check all of the problem areas that you researched before you came to look at it. This is your one and only chance to make sure it’s in good shape.
6. Haggle, but be fair
You checked and everything works. It sounds amazing. You’re vibrating with excitement. But keep your cool. There’s one step left, and it’s mega important: negotiating a price. Ask yourself, “Is the price right?” If it’s not, then don’t be shy to haggle effectively. Have a price in mind and aim for it.
Try to get a sense of how far the seller is willing to go with the price. If the ad says "price firm," don’t try too hard to get a few bucks shaved off. But if you arrive and find out that it’s in poorer condition than you thought, or the price doesn’t match the quality, then make an offer you think is fair.
Haggling is a lot more effective in person because you can negotiate based on the condition of the gear a lot more easily. Keep in mind that when someone is selling gear, they either need room for new gear or need the money right away. Use those two facts in your favor when it comes to bargaining.
7. Stay in touch
You finally lugged your shiny, new prize home. But suddenly something doesn’t work like it did before. Or you’re having trouble booting it up. Who do you turn to? This won’t always work, but if a seller is friendly enough, ask if you can keep in touch after you buy.
This will help with any questions that you have once you’ve brought the new gear home. Certain gear can have some finicky issues. No one will know them better than its previous owner. So ask politely if you can stay in contact.
Most musicians are nice, right? So there’s a good chance he or she will be happy to help out. Stay in touch to make sure you get what you paid for.
Avoid getting GAS
Now that you’re comfortable buying used gear, don’t overdo it. GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) can be a big problem. The best way to avoid GAS is to make the most of what you have. Become a master of your gear and push it all the way to its limits. And always remember: gear doesn’t make good music, people do. So use your gear limitations as inspiration. Buy new gear only when it’s absolutely necessary.
Another way to avoid GAS is to trade gear instead of buying new stuff. If you have something sitting around that you don’t use anymore, then trade it for something better. Gear value is always relative. Just because you don’t need it anymore doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t. Trust me, your studio and bank account will thank you.
Enjoy for best results
Used gear is a great way to save money and diversify your sound. Use these steps to make sure you don’t make a bad deal. And let us know some of your used gear stories, good and bad. We wanna hear about all your gear-buying adventures.
So get out there, find something that’s right for you, and make new music today. Happy hunting!
Scott Parsons is a full-time music enthusiast and semi-professional pinball player. Editor at LANDR.