broken guitarLearn how guitar warranties work and what they cover.

One of the advantages of buying a brand-new guitar rather than a used one is that it will come with a warranty—most often described as a “limited lifetime warranty.” You may wonder, however, what “limited lifetime warranty” really means, what kind of damage and repairs it covers, and whether it adds value to your instrument or will bring you some peace of mind.

As proprietor of a shop (Hoffman Guitars in Minneapolis, Minnesota; hoffmanguitars.com) doing warranty repairs for most of the American manufacturers, as a builder who offers a warranty, and as a “recovering attorney,” I have thought about this quite a bit. Not surprisingly, the answers are complicated. Let’s take a look at how warranties typically work, what’s covered, and how to go about getting this type of work done.

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READ YOUR WARRANTY

The first thing to do is to read the manufacturer’s warranty, which should be included in the paperwork that comes with the guitar. While there are legal requirements covering warranties (both federal and state laws apply), generally speaking, the manufacturer has broad freedom in determining the scope of the warranty. The most important aspects of a warranty’s terms are how long it’s valid, what is covered or not covered, and whether it is transferable to a new owner.

The length of a guitar’s warranty varies from company to company, but very often the term is the lifetime of the original owner (my shop has performed warranty work on Martin guitars that were more than 50 years old). Some are for shorter periods: often one, five, or ten years.

FOR ORIGINAL OWNERS ONLY

It is important to note that most warranties are only extended to the guitar’s original owner, which is usually defined as the name on the sales receipt. A guitar bought as a gift can be registered to its recipient, but it has to be done immediately after the purchase. Once a guitar is sold to a second owner, the warranty generally no longer applies, although there are occasional exceptions (which will be spelled out up front in the warranty information).

Because of this, it is important that you register your guitar with the manufacturer after you buy it. In most instances, if you have not done this and can’t otherwise prove that you are the original owner of the guitar, you will not get warranty coverage. Registering your guitar will require either a sales receipt from an authorized dealer or information from that receipt.

This means, for example, that buying a used guitar with a blank warranty registration form will not get you listed as the original owner. Registering the guitar is simple and can often be done by phone or online. At most you will have to fill out a card or form and return it to the manufacturer.

WHAT IS COVERED?

Generally, a warranty covers only defects in workmanship and materials. In broad terms this means items that are under the control of the manufacturer. Typical examples will be a bridge or braces coming loose or a malfunctioning pickup. Sometimes guitars include parts (such as electronics) that are not built by the primary manufacturer, and these may have a shorter warranty period than the rest of the instrument. In some cases, these parts are covered separately by their own manufacturer.

WHAT IS NOT COVERED?

Normal wear and tear, such as dead or broken strings, fret and finish wear, etc., is not covered under warranty. It probably goes without saying that abuse is not covered either. However, while some abuse is obvious (stepping on the guitar, bullet holes, and so on), certain kinds of abuse may not be so obvious, including weather-related issues such as cracks due to low humidity and finish damage caused by exposure to cold. Most warranty descriptions specifically exclude these causes.

Unless they’re part of a larger issue, standard playability issues such as action adjustments are rarely covered because each player is likely to have different requirements for action. However, there are some instances where a manufacturer may agree to pay to have the guitar readjusted to factory specs, especially if it has somehow changed significantly and is still relatively new.

Some issues may fall into a gray area. For example, while neck resets are often covered, many manufacturers feel that after some (indeterminate) time, neck resets fall under the heading of normal wear and tear rather than being a defect. Many finish issues—such as softening of the finish due to contact with vinyl guitar straps or insect repellent—are not covered. However, since there are rare cases where finish damage may be covered, it never hurts to ask your local warranty service provider or the manufacturer.

WARRANTY WORK

Many manufacturers authorize selected local shops to do their warranty work. In most cases, this is an advantage for the owner, because it saves the cost and avoids the risk of shipping the guitar back to the manufacturer. Another advantage is that your local shop can help assess the instrument and determine if the work you need is covered by the warranty.

This prevents the risk of returning the guitar to the manufacturer only to find out that the work is not covered. Generally speaking, I recommend contacting your local dealer first. Since they have to assess the guitar’s issues before getting the warranty service authorized, this will save some time. In most cases, if the guitar is registered, this authorization is quick.

Some manufacturers limit the dollar amount of work that can be done in the local shop. If the work exceeds this amount, it will have to be returned to the manufacturer. This is not necessarily bad—if a guitar needs major work, the factory may be the best place to do the repair, and in some cases, the manufacturer may decide to replace instead of repair your guitar.

BEWARE OF MODIFICATION

If your guitar is still under warranty, you might want to avoid doing any major modifications to it, as some alterations may void your coverage. General work such as a setup typically won’t be a problem, but things such as removing the popsicle brace in a Martin or replacing the bridge plate with a different wood (or size) will almost certainly void the warranty. If your guitar suffers structural damage, be sure to have the repair performed by an authorized shop, even if the work isn’t under warranty, because it might otherwise compromise future claims.

THE VALUE OF WARRANTIES

Do warranties offer value for guitar buyers? I certainly think so, as my shop bills guitar factories well into five figures for warranty work we perform every year. This is real money that the owners of the guitars don’t have to pay. But it is also important to be realistic and play by the rules.

A manufacturer is unlikely to do $1,000 of work on a $500 guitar, so don’t expect an unreasonable amount of work to be done to your guitar. If you make sure to register your instrument right after its purchase and you understand what’s covered, a warranty will help give you the peace of mind that results from knowing the manufacturer is standing behind its product.