In part 3 of “Cheap vs. Expensive Guitars”, I will take a look at an aspect of build quality that many people overlook when choosing an electric guitar: the electronics.
Perhaps even more so than with acoustic guitars, it’s fairly easy to find a good electric guitar for comparatively little money, making the choice between that high-end electric guitar and the budget electric guitar all the more difficult. As I stated in the previous post, manufacturing a budget guitar will involve some corner cutting. In other words, production costs have to be brought down to offer a lower price to the consumer.
One place that the makers of budget electric guitars cut production costs is with the electronics. And like how well glued the bridge is on an acoustic guitar, the quality of the electronics on an electric guitar is something many people will not take much notice of until they need repair work.
Budget electric guitars usually have inexpensive pickups and lower-quality wiring harnesses. They tend to use lower-quality wire, control pots, switches, and output jacks, and sometimes the quality of the actual soldering work can be less-than. I’ve actually worked on a number of budget guitars where a critical wiring connection was simply never soldered.
So, what’s the downside of this particular corner cutting? The control pots, switch, or the output jack found on budget guitars will likely need replacement very quickly—sometimes in a matter of months. By contrast, those more expensive electric guitars use better components all around, and the quality of the soldering work is almost universally better. It’s not uncommon for the electrical components in higher-end guitars to last many years—even decades in some cases—without replacement.
But there’s good news if you opt for the budget guitar. Replacing a bad control pot, switch, or output jack is usually a very easy and inexpensive repair. If you like the overall tone of a budget guitar, the money you save in initial purchase price won’t be significantly offset by the need to replace one of these components later on. Suddenly having an electrical problem can be annoying, but if you’re willing to deal with that possibility, many of the budget electric guitars on the market are a great value.
The pickups are a separate issue. Pickups are relatively expensive, and the cost to replace a set of pickups can be as much as half the purchase price of some budget guitars. However, pickups rarely go bad. Most of the time people replace pickups because they are dissatisfied with how they sound. The fact is that while some budget guitars often have what I would call “cheap” pickups that produce a thin, bland sound, many budget guitars today have really good-quality pickups, and there is often no need to replace the pickups for better tone.
If you’re trying to decide between that higher-end electric guitar and something more budget-minded, you may actually be quite happy with the budget guitar. Just keep in mind that you may have some minor electrical repairs in your future.
I do want to offer one caveat, and it pertains to the electronics on budget electric basses. Those often have a little gremlin that can soon create some real disappointment. I’ll cover that in part 4.
If you’re interested in trying your own wiring repairs, it’s important to learn to solder well. Check out this video from Stewart MacDonald on getting good solder joints.