It recently struck me that I haven't provided any beginners advice to a very popular way of buying a uke - going down the used or vintage route.
In the current economic climate, it is of course clear that many people are finding times tougher on the pocket and generally being more careful with how they spend. So can you get a saving going down the used ukulele route? Well you certainly can, but be aware of the pitfalls. Below I discuss the three main options you can consider. In respect of all of them, in the vast majority of cases you can find some great instruments, but as always - BUYER BEWARE!!
That is to say, buying direct from the seller of an instrument through direct contact with them. Perhaps they posted an advert in the local newspaper, on Craigslist, or on a forum, but you have found yourself a listing for a ukulele that looks like a good deal.
As I say to anyone buying a brand new instrument, the same applies here - do your level best to actually see the instrument before you part with any cash. Look it over extremely carefully and, of course, play it! Firstly, with an instrument of any age that is used (though particularly with vintage gear) you want to be looking for damage, or old damage that has been repaired. Go over the whole of the body, top, back and sides for signs of cracks or dings. Little dings are normal and we all get them on our instruments. If it is just a few dings which are cosmetic, it's then up to you as to how you negotiate that into the price you are willing to pay. But keep an eye out for more serious damage - splits, gaps, signs that the bridge has been re glued in place, or obvious amounts of filler on a previous split. This is a tough area to be absolutely sure on as a very well fixed repair by a skilled luthier is something to behold - a well repaired instrument will give you no worries whatsoever, but a bad repair - different story. Ask the seller about the history - if you find some damage, ask about it, who repaired it and how. If they tell you they re-glued the bridge themselves with super glue after they dropped it down the stairs, obviously, move on!
Look inside the body for more signs of damage or repair that may not have been so well hidden as on the outside too! Get a torch in there if you have to!
Move on to the neck. Hold the uke at the headstock and look down the neck to the bridge. Is it straight, and can you see all of the fret tops? Are the fret tops set well, and in the case of old instruments are they overly worn? On very old instruments, wear to the fingerboard is to be expected, and so long as every fret works cleanly with every string (and, I mean, check this with a tuner!) then you will be ok. Flip the neck over and examine the back, particularly around the heel, and where the neck joins the headstock - any signs of a break that has been re-glued? Again, a good repair is nothing to worry about, but ask.
Are all the tuners ok, do they work, do any of them look replaced, or are they splitting?
So, aside from looking for damage - how does the ukulele play? Is the action playable? Bear in mind that with very old instruments, all those years of tension means that the neck will naturally have started to raise. Over the years, this raises action, and then then can be adjusted by dropping the saddle a little. How much saddle is left on the instrument? If you have a very old uke in your hands and the saddle is only just protruding above the bridge mounting, it's clearly been adjusted about as low as it can now go. The only next step is to have the neck professionally re-set. Get out your clip on tuner, and check the tuning at the nut, and to confirm that the notes are the same at the 12th fret. Go further, check various other fret positions - do they all fret cleanly? Most of all, how does it sound and feel to you - only you can answer that question.
Of course, the above assumes that you are able to see the instrument, but I appreciate many of you need to rely on having a uke shipped - this is where you need to be much more careful. I would want to see many many photographs of the ukulele if I was spending some serious money. Perhaps even ask for a sound sample!. Ask the history - be a nuisance. Bear in mind that there are scam artists out there - on the good ukulele forums such as Ukulele Underground, they have a rule in their marketplace that any photos of the uke in question must include a piece of paper in the shot with the date written on it and the name of the forum member. This stops people just trying it on with stock photos they have grabbed from ebay and trying to pass the uke off as their own.
If you are having a ukulele shipped, try to pay with PayPal (its safe) and ensure the uke is sent insured, well packaged, and ideally in a case.
And remember - if it seems to good to be true, it probably is.
BUYING FROM A STORE
Your safer option (though still with some pitfalls) is buying through a store who deal with used or vintage ukuleles. My advice above applies here too - if you can actually get to the store to try the instrument out, I would urge you to do so.
If you can't do that - check the provenance of the store - who are they? Ask on the forums if anyone else has used them to ensure they are not a fly by night operation. There are obvious well known names out there such as Elderly who stock used gear, and with those people you should be fine. Again, ask for as many photographs as you can and for any details of damage or repair and how it was fixed. Good dealers will probably know much of the history on newer instruments, particularly at the higher end (and may have fixed themselves), but bear in mind on very old vintage gear it would be unreasonable to expect the dealer to know much about the full history. The comments above about shipping and insurance apply here equally - don't take the risk!
One other sort of store I should mention here is an potential interesting source for a uke - the antique shop or flea market. Even at car boot / garage sales I have walked through you occasionally see instruments. In these cases, buying is a total minefield, and if you are prepared to take a chance then go for it. Remember though, it is a real chance. The sellers may have simply picked up the instrument from a house clearance, and are unlikely to know much about the instrument. It may have no strings meaning you can't really check how it plays either. Look it over very carefully, and Buyer Beware!
THE HALFWAY HOUSE - EBAY
I couldn't write this post without a mention of what must be the biggest marketplace for used gear in the world - Ebay. I have both bought used instruments from Ebay, and sold some of mine also. I call it a halfway house because whilst it is, in the main (shop sellers excluded) a private marketplace, Ebay provides some more of the security buying from a well known shop brings.
This is a very popular choice for those wanting to buy an instrument for a better price, and the listings are full of ukuleles for sale. The vast majority seem to be the bottom end ukes, as sellers try to jump on the bandwagon, but hidden within the noise are a range of very nice ukes too. Sadly, the ukulele boom is working against those wanting to buy used for two reasons. First, if the ukulele is a decent one, you can expect to have a lot of bidding competition. Secondly some dealers are looking to cash in on the boom, and are setting reserves or buy it now prices which are, in my opinion, unrealistic. As with anything on ebay, do your research, set yourself a limit and don't be tempted to go over it! There are more fish in the sea!
Check the feedback of the seller and the quality of the listing. Someone who cares about the instrument will go into lots of detail about the history, any damage, and provide lots of good photographs. Beware the listing that is simply a one line with a blurry photograph. Sure, it may be a bargain in disguise from a seller who doesn't know any better, but do you want to take the chance.
Paying with PayPal will again provide you with an extra layer of protection, and ensure that the uke is well packed, ideally in a case, and insured. Even better, if you can pick it up - do so. If you arrive and the ukulele is clearly not in the condition it was described as, walk away.
So in summary, buying used can be thrilling and fun, and there are certainly some bargains to be had out there. Like anything though, there are chancers and scammers too, so be careful and trust your instincts.
And finally - what about buying an instrument that is listed as damaged? That may sound crazy, but it depends what it is. If I saw a 1960's Kamaka with a busted bridge or split headstock for the right price I would certainly consider buying it. That is to say, if I worked out the rough cost of getting a good luthier repair, added it to the price of the instrument in it's damaged state - then why not?