Cheap vs Expensive Bass Guitar: What’s The Difference?

Cheap vs Expensive Bass Guitar: What's The Difference? | integraudio.com

There’s always an endless debate about whether or not there’s a difference between expensive and cheap bass guitars, especially regarding sound quality. 

Of course, many will argue that the sound of the bass is in your fingers, which is correct. Bass players approach the instrument differently, and only musicians who study the style of other players are likely to get close to that sound being referenced. 

Considering that tones can differ based on how a bass player approaches the instrument, is there a difference between cheap and expensive bass guitars? While brand plays a role in the price, can we expect a wide disparity between the higher-end models and the budget-tier instruments? 

What’s the  difference between a cheap and expensive bass guitar? 

For the most part, the noticeable difference between cheap and expensive bass guitars is the brand. A hefty price tag goes to paying for a brand’s innovations, experience, and decades of craftmanship and prestige, on top of the high-quality components used on each instrument. 

But there’s also more to the brand that causes a huge price difference. For example, the build will be just as crucial in determining the price of an instrument. This reality holds, especially with the different instrument series that brands have. 

An expensive bass guitar would use more premium parts than its cheaper counterparts. These include select tone woods, quarter-sawn necks, and even hand-wound pickups. The finishes on these guitars are also specialized, sometimes even one-off finishes being made.  

A cheaper bass would also use tone woods, but not necessarily the best ones. These basses would also use more mass-produced parts, which help drive the cost of the instrument down. The finishes on these basses are the more common, wherein you may expect some blemishes in some spots. 

To help you visualize these differences, let’s look at two common cheap versus expensive comparisons: The Squier Classic Vibe Precision Bass and the Fender American Vintage II 60s Precision Bass. 

Components
Squier Classic Vibe Precision Bass
Fender American Vintage II 60s P-Bass
Body
Poplar 
Alder 
Neck 
Maple Neck 
Maple Neck 
Neck Profile
C-Chape 
1963 C-Shape 
Fretboard
Indian Laurel Fretboard with Pearloid Dot inlays
Slab Rosewood with clay dot inlays 
Radius 
9.5 inches 
7.25 inches 
Scale 
34 inches
34 inches 
Fretwires
20 Narrow-tall fret wires
20 Narrow-tall fret wires
Pickups 
Fender-designed Alnico split-coil pickups
Pure Vintage Precision Bass Pickups 
Bridge 
Vintage-style nickel-plated bridge
Pure Vintage Bridge with threaded steel tailpiece 
Tuners 
Vintage-style nickel-plated Tuners
Pure Vintage Tuners 
Strings 
Generic Nickel Plated Strings 
Fender Nickel Plated Strings 
Finish
Polyurethane
Nitrocellulose 

Looking at the breakdown of the two basses, you’ll notice that the Squier Classic Vibe Precision Bass uses cheaper alternatives to the standard woods that Fender uses on its instruments. Fender, meanwhile, maintains its tried and tested wood combination on the American Vintage II Precision bass to keep close to the brand’s tradition in building instruments.

While there are more premium options for wood and hardware (e.g., quarter-sawn necks, third-party pickups), using more traditional woods allows Fender to maintain the same craftmanship and legacy from its past while keeping the retail price justifiable. 

The tones you can get from the Squier Classic Vibe may have a little difference in sound quality from the Fender American Vintage II. Mostly, they should sound close, but different factors affect the sound. 

A Squier Classic Vibe could unlock its potential if the amp sounds good. A cheap-sounding amp may still make the Fender American Vintage II sound good, but not at its full potential. 

Exploring the American Vintage II 1960 Precision Bass | American Vintage II | Fender

Another factor here would be the player. They say that tone is in fingers, and that’s true. Each bass player has a different sounding attack on the strings, which could cause differences in the sound quality. How one bass player slaps will sound different for another. Remember that bass players approach a song and the instrument differently, so your mileage may vary regarding the tones you can get from these instruments. 

Can a cheap bass sound good? 

A cheap bass can sound good, provided it is properly set up so that the bass player using it will feel comfortable playing it. When a cheap bass is comfortable enough for any musician to play, the player using the instrument will likely get at least decent tones from it. 

Getting a bass setup entails adjusting the instrument according to the user’s playing style. You want the string height to be enough to fret comfortably and still not buzz. The frets should not be sharp, too, as this can affect the bass player’s performance when running around the fretboard. 

A good example of a bass that’s cheap and sounds good is the Harley Benton PB-20. It might be cheap, but with a good setup, it will play decently. 

Harley Benton - PB-20 SBK

As it is, the Harley Benton PB-20 has good components, considering its price. This bass features a basswood body, maple neck, and amaranth fretboard. Compared to the Squier Classic Vibe, the basswood body is already a plus point for Harley Benton, the same wood used on more expensive brands, such as Ibanez. 

Since the body plays a factor in the tone you get, the material used by Harley Benton already shows its potential to be a working musician’s tool. 

The measurements on the bass are also close to what Fender uses, making this bass an alternative for anyone who wants an instrument that can withstand abuse without spending too much. 

It could, however, use an upgrade in electronics to bring out its potential. Replacement parts, such as pickups from Tonerider or Seymour Duncan, will do wonders for this bass. 

Aside from upgrading the components of your bass, you can also consider getting a good bass amp or a good bass preamp to help you improve the tone of your bass. Your sound comes out from them, so having a reliable unit can improve the sound. 

Photo by Keagan Henman on Unsplash

Can an expensive bass sound bad? 

As mentioned earlier in this article, a setup will do wonders regarding playability, even for the most expensive instruments. It will be hard to get good tones if a player is uncomfortable with the setup. When an instrument is properly set up, it will lead to better comfort that inspires musicians to create. 

Expensive instruments like the American Vintage II often come with a factory setup. It’s a basic setup with generic specifications, but the meticulous player will look for a particular level of comfort. 

Another factor that can cause an expensive bass to sound bad is badly-installed components. Defects are sometimes unavoidable, which can cause an electric instrument to sound bad. For example, even expensive basses may have cold solder joints or improper pickup height. These could be easily fixed, though. 

Expensive instruments will also sound bad if handled badly during shipping from the factory. Mishandling, such as not having the proper temperature, can cause the neck to warp during shipment. While a luthier can still fix warped necks by straightening them, it’s not cheap to remedy them, as it entails dismantling the neck to straighten it. 

Can expensive basses have manufacturing flaws? 

Like any other mass-produced instrument, expensive basses are still prone to flaws, particularly with the finishes. Even if you spend a thousand dollars on bass, there’s still that small chance of having inconsistent paint jobs or blemishes, whether from the factory or from mishandling in shipping.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of cheap bass guitars? 

Cheap bass guitars have their share of advantages and disadvantages. Understanding what to expect when you buy a more budget-friendly option will help you make an informed decision about the cheaper alternative. It is still a hard-earned investment, even if you only spend a few hundred dollars. 

Pros of cheap bass guitars 

Cheap bass guitars have the edge of being more affordable. You also get a lot of options in the market, so there’s nothing much that can limit you except for your actual budget. What’s even nice about getting a cheap bass guitar is that they are excellent platforms for modification. The PB-20 by Harley Benton is a good example, as it has good wood but doesn’t cost much. 

If the brand doesn’t matter, there are gems in the cheap bass segment that have good features at a fraction of what you’ll spend on an expensive bass guitar. A good example of this would be the Harley Benton Enhanced MP-5EB bass. 

Harley Benton Enhanced MP-5EB Bass - Sound Demo (no talking)

The MP-5EB is a five-string bass with high-quality components that you’ll normally expect on more expensive instruments that range in the thousand-dollar bracket. 

  • Body and Neck 
    For its body, it uses an alder body with a Canadian Hard Rock maple neck and Macassar ebony fretboard with white block inlays.
    Compared to the Squier Classic Vibe, this bass is cheaper by a few dollars, yet the wood it uses is almost at par with what Fender uses. 
  • Hardware and Electronics 
    This bass also comes with stainless steel frets, which the Fender American Vintage II doesn’t even have. There’s also a Black TUSQ nut, a great upgrade from the usual bone nut. 
    The MP-5EB also uses active circuitry with a 2-band EQ. Even the cheapest five-string from Fender won’t get you this kind of circuitry. 

So how does Harley Benton get away with pricing cheap but high-quality components? 

The brand name plays a role here. Harley Benton, known as Thomann’s in-house brand, is designed to cater to a more budget-friendly market. Their instruments are outsourced, whereas Fender has its factory exclusive to them. 

Cons of cheap bass guitars 

The disadvantage of cheap bass guitars is the inconsistent quality. What might sound good out of the box might be different for a different guitar, even if they’re the same model and series. One PB-20 might not be good out of the box compared to another guitar made on the same day. 

That said, if you plan to buy a cheap bass guitar, you may need to cycle through different guitars to find the right one. 

What are the advantages of expensive bass guitars? 

Considering the hefty price tag of many high-end bass guitars in the market, one would expect a lot of benefits and little to no downsides to it. But truth be told, it’s not all good and nothing bad, even with expensive bass guitars. 

Pros of expensive bass guitars 

The advantage of expensive bass guitars is you can expect higher-quality materials to be used. Granted that there are some flaws, even with the most expensive mass-produced instruments, you can still expect a high benchmark for quality. Often, the flaws you expect are only minor or can be easily remedied. 

If you expect almost zero flaws, your best option would be to get a custom shop or one of those pre-order basses, such as the Fodera basses. 

Cons of expensive bass guitars  

Expensive bass guitars cost way more than their budget-friendly counterparts. Often, you’d expect them to cost at least five times more than entry-level instruments. However, they’re big investments too, so if you plan to get one, you should be able to make the most out of it. 

Another disadvantage would be that they are still prone to manufacturing flaws. So you can expect some uneven paint jobs or bad wiring, but these could still be remedied. 

Conclusion: 

There’s nothing wrong with spending more on an instrument. After all, this is your workhorse for gigs and recording, and you want to have the best sound possible. 

But there’s nothing wrong if you go for a cheap bass guitar if that’s all you can afford. You can, later on, upgrade parts to improve the performance. Likewise, you can use any imperfections or discomforts you may encounter as a way to allow yourself to improve your playing. 

At the end of the day, the best bass is the one you can afford. 

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