In this final installment of “Cheap Vs. Expensive Guitars, I’ll talk about electric basses.
In the last post, I talked about an aspect of guitar build quality that many people overlook when choosing an electric guitar: the electronics. Electronics are one place that the makers of budget guitars and basses will reduce production costs to offer their product to the consumer at a lower price.
Budget electric basses have the same electronics issues that budget electric guitars have, but many of them have a little gremlin inside of them that can make certain electronics repairs more prohibitive and costly: active electronics.
Electric basses, whether budget or high-end, often come with active electronics allowing a range of tonal adjustments not possible with the more conventional passive wiring schemes. These active electronics are powered by an onboard battery (usually a 9-volt) that is activated when the cable is plugged into the bass’s output jack.
The trouble with active electronics is that the circuit board that allows these extra tonal functions is often integral to the control pot. That means that if the control pot or the circuit board itself goes bad, the entire unit sometimes has to be replaced. And because the makers of budget basses tend to use lower quality electronic components, these active circuits are prone to earlier failure, whereas the components in the higher-end basses tend to last much longer. Often these circuits can be repaired, but sometimes they need to be replaced.
Unlike the more conventional passive wiring schemes, the active circuits on budget basses can be comparatively expensive to replace. It’s not uncommon to pay $60 or more just for the replacement part. Once you add labor to install the part, you could be looking at a repair bill close to $80 or $90. That can be a significant amount of money considering you may may have paid as little as $300 or $400 for the bass.
Does this mean those budget basses are a bad value? Not at all. Let’s face it, even if you wind up paying to replace the active circuit in a budget bass, you still haven’t spent the money that a higher-end bass would have cost, nor is it likely that you’ll be replacing that circuit repeatedly. In all my years repairing guitars and basses, I never had to replace the active circuit on the same instrument more than once.
High-end basses can have a different issue that is worth mentioning. Not only can the higher-quality active circuits on these need replacing as well, those circuits tend to be more complex and can be much more costly to replace. That’s to be expected. But because these components can be so long-lasting, occasionally, by the time you need a new circuit, your particular bass may have gone out of production. If that happens, a replacement circuit may no longer be available from the manufacturer. That can leave you scouring the guitar forums or eBay for a replacement part.
If you’re choosing between a budget bass or a high-end bass, keep in mind that you may not only have the same inexpensive electronics repair issues that are common to the passively wired instruments, if the bass you choose comes with active electronics, you may be repairing or replacing that more costly circuit as well.
Here's a video of someone successfully repairing the active electronics on a pretty high-end bass. Whew! This would have been a pretty expensive circuit if the whole thing needed replacing.