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Buying or selling a used instrument takes time, dedication and research. The market is littered with instances of people getting ripped off or failing to get the price their instrument warrants. With this in mind, it’s worth taking note of a few key steps that will optimise your chances of a successful purchase or sale. By empowering yourself with knowledge, you can maximise profit and minimise disappointment.

Buying instruments online is popular but presents its own challenges

One of the most popular methods of instrument sales is through dedicated online sites. In the last decade, Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree have emerged as popular options for buying and selling used instruments.

“Anything that doesn't have seller fees is attractive, which is why Facebook Marketplace & Gumtree are popular,” says Bristol guitarist Graham J Nicholls, who buys instruments for profit or to trade on for something with “a certain sound or rarity” that he really wants. “Facebook Marketplace has a really easy-to-use listing process, which really helps for buying and selling quickly, and some of the national selling groups are also helpful to go beyond local.”

Sites such as eBay and are also useful if you want to sell internationally. But bear in mind there is a 5% fee for every item sold on while eBay takes on average 10% to 15.55% of the final selling price in fees.

Be transparent about what you are selling

One of the drawbacks of buying online is that buyers often won‘t get to see or play the instrument before purchase. Consequently, buyers need to check the seller’s feedback ratings for trustworthiness, ask questions about the instrument and request detailed photographs. 

“Ask for videos and photos showing the serial number and the features so you can verify the instrument is legit,” advises Nicholls. He urges buyers to look online for the same model of instrument to check specifications and features. This process helps when gauging value, he says. “You'll see what the average lowest price is and whether top-end prices are legitimate due to excellent condition or rarity, or simply people setting unrealistic expectations.”

Nigel Pulsford (second from left) of Bush, seen here performing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Show in 2001
Nigel Pulsford (second from left) of Bush, seen here performing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Show in 2001. Photo: NBC / Getty Images

Honesty is key when selling online, so any dings, cracks or faults should be photographed and detailed in the listing. “Be as honest as you can with the description of the instrument,” says Nicholls. “Provide clear pics and if possible a video showing the guitar is playable, or whether the amp or pedal works. If you don't know about the instrument, be honest. You really need to ensure that people know what they are buying, to avoid lengthy disputes or refunds. Be prepared to wait for a sale and be courteous with questions.”

Always try to play an instrument before purchasing

As all musicians know, no amount of photos or videos can substitute for actually playing an instrument. So always endeavour to try before you buy. Decide how far you are willing to travel to view an instrument and input those distance parameters in your Facebook Marketplace or Gumtree search settings.

If you meet the seller in person, be prepared to haggle, particularly if the instrument has faults that weren’t listed. Between 10% and 20% is the ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to negotiation.

Spotting the scammers

Scammers abound on sites such as FB Marketplace and Gumtree. One common scam involves the ‘buyer’ using a stolen credit card to pay you more than the asking price, then notifying you of ‘the mistake’ and asking you to refund the remaining amount. When the credit card is reported as stolen, the payment in your account is reversed, leaving you with nothing.

Fortunately there are numerous red flags to identify scammers on Facebook Marketplace. The first is to check their Facebook profile. If you don't see a profile picture, image banner, or previous listings, then the seller is probably a fake and trying to scam you. Another red flag involves the seller asking you to move to an alternative messaging app. If this happens, simply refuse and stick to the Facebook Marketplace for all communication. 

When it comes to making or receiving payments, BACS or cash are always the safest options. “I don’t accept wire payment type arrangements or the scams whereby people tell you a courier will bring the money once you’ve dispatched the item,” says Nicholls. 

Needless to say, ensure that payment goes into your bank account before dispatching the instrument. Pack the instrument carefully and take photos showing the process and fully packaged item. This will help to settle any dispute if the courier damages the item in transit. 

Selling instruments through shops and dealers

Buying and selling instruments online is time-consuming, which is why many musicians prefer to sell their instruments via a trusted and specialist shop or dealer. The shop’s fee – commonly a 20% plus VAT mark-up – reduces the profit, but handing over the responsibility for the sale can have substantial benefits, particularly when it comes to vintage instruments.

“People tend to trust shops more than people,” says Nigel Pulsford, guitarist with 90s rock band Bush and former owner of Vintage ‘n’ Rare Guitars in Bath. He suggests buyers should really do some groundwork before parting with their money.

“Don’t buy without researching the seller, the instrument and obviously the price first,” Pulsford explains. “Without taking a guitar to bits it’s very hard to ascertain what is original and what isn’t. But when you buy from a reputable shop they can guarantee the originality of the instrument.”

The same level of provenance applies if you are selling through a shop. “So suddenly your instrument is being endorsed by the shop that is selling it for you,” he says. “The beauty of selling through a shop is that they can take the stress out of the deal for you.”

Nick Woodward, partner at the Bristol Violin Shop, advises anyone buying a bowed string instrument from a shop to always try it in the acoustic setting where it will be played.

“If a shop or dealer won’t let you take it away to show a teacher or to try it in the acoustics you are used to – an orchestra, a pub, a church or whatever – then I would avoid them,” he says. He also cautions against buying online. “You can buy a new guitar or metal flute online and be pretty sure of what you are getting. Bowed string instruments are a whole other thing.”

Preparing your instrument for sale in a shop

For anyone selling through a shop, it pays to ensure that the instrument is in good playing order. “We will only sell instruments that are set up to our standards and have refused to sell some that have not been,” says Woodward.

It’s a view echoed by Pulsford. “It’s worth making your instrument look presentable before you bring it to a shop,” he says. “Give it a clean up, change the strings and make sure it plays okay. Turning up with something looking grotty, feeling sticky with rusty strings won’t endear you to the shop and will be reflected in the price as someone at the shop will spend time cleaning, polishing, setting up and restringing the guitar.”

Be realistic about your expectations

Pulsford says people who sell instruments via a specialist retailer need to be realistic about what they hope to achieve.

“It’s worth considering how desirable the instrument is. Some guitars can sit in a shop for five years. If you’ve got a vintage Les Paul or Strat in original condition you’ll probably sell it very quickly. Something more modern can take longer. There’s no hard and fast rule. If you want to sell it quickly then it must be priced attractively, and unfortunately that means selling it for less.”

Insurance against damage and loss in the process

There is a common assumption that anyone selling an instrument through a retailer is insured for any damage or loss on the premises. This is not always the case. The seller should always be insured and keep the policy running until the instrument is sold and they have received payment.

The MU’s preferred broker Hencilla Canworth confirms that MU instrument insurance, underwritten by Allianz Insurance PLC, covers theft or damage except if stolen by shop staff. However, some policies may not give sufficient protection. 

Back in 2020, the MU received reports of a few MU members losing their instruments without payment after a shop went into administration. One member, who asked not to be named, advises all musicians to check their insurance policies. “Before you even put one foot inside the shop, the insurance needs to be rock solid. Make sure you’re covered for all eventualities. I was perhaps very trusting and I didn’t check it. I just presumed.”

There is no one singular approach when trading instruments. Buying or selling through a shop, privately, online or at an auction all have their pros and cons. But whichever route you choose, the chances are that the greater your commitment and diligence, the better the outcome. That way, you’re more likely to secure a sale or purchase at a price that satisfies both parties.

Photo ofNeil Crossley
Thanks to

Neil Crossley

A journalist and editor who has written for The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Financial Times. Neil also fronts the band Furlined.

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