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Cheap Hardware and Keeping Costs Down


a2k
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For my current/first build, I went all in. EMG active preamp, hipshot bridge and tuners, graphteq tusq nut, schaller strap locks, etc. All in, I dropped easily $600 on parts before I even got any wood. After wood, random router bits, a whole array of finishing options I'm not going to use, and other stuff, I'm easily in over $1000. I don't regret it - I'm really happy with how the build is turning out, I'm learning a ton, and this is a bass I hope to play. But if this is going to be sustainable, I need to trim down the costs on future builds.

Last night while planning out my next project, I was poking around Amazon.com to price hardware. I started to notice that there are quite a few cheap alternatives to the brand names they sell. For example...

I don't want junk, but I also don't want to pay a premium for a brand name. Anybody have experience with these low cost options? Are there certain parts where going cheap is okay, while others where it's a no-no? Are there certain cheap brands people have had good luck with? Any other ideas on how to keep costs down without sacrificing on the end result?

I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

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Funnily enough, not long after completing my first build I asked the very same question here on the forums.

IME there are areas where price won't make that much difference provided you treat the product correctly, and others where the cost of a premium product is justified.

Can afford to go cheaper:

  • control knobs
  • wood screws (provided you correctly size the pilot hole in the wood you're inserting it into)
  • neck mounting ferrules
  • plastic binding
  • plastic pickguard/control cavity cover material
  • wire
  • string ferrules

Pay the extra:

  • pots, control switches and jack sockets
  • fretwire
  • tuners and bridges
  • tools
  • truss rod
  • stuff that has moving parts under high loads (eg, double-locking trem, trem springs)

Could go either way based on subjectivity...or luck:

  • pickups
  • inlay material
  • nuts (prefab or blanks)
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I agree with what has been said here. What I can add is that it is worthwhile considering whether the cheapy parts you're looking at can be later upgraded to better ones without modification. Often, finding a part that is a slavish copy of say a Schaller, is a good thing. If the parts don't work out for you as-is then you have an upgrade path. For example, the tuners on my 7-string are all Wilkinsons patterned after yes, Schallers. They work as well as I need them to and the option of upgrading is there.

Another way of looking at it is that you can have cheap stunt hardware on hand. Those crap tuners might not be good on an instrument however they work well during a build to confirm sizings without breaking out the good stuff. They can happily get a bit of dust, fingerprints and even scratches on them. This exact same thing applies to screws; have sacrificial screws on hand to establish threads so when you fit the real deal you're in no danger of the driver slipping and damaging the part.

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I have been think a lot on this subject also and I think that I agree with what pros is saying. 

On my 2 builds that I have going on right now, my first one while I haven't gone the super cheap route (gotoh tuners, Hipshot bridge, Seymour Duncan pickups, making my own cavity covers, string blocks and odd and ends)  I was able to keep the whole total after wood around $500 but on my second build the guy I'm doing it for wanted to spare no expense, expensive wood, prs pickups ($160 a piece wtf?!?), schaller tuners I'm already in the $1000-1100 range. There's no way I could do this on my own dime so I will be buying cheap parts for the future for builds and just upgrading after the guitar is finished, then those parts can be passed onto the next build. 

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It comes up every few years and is worth repeating. We do this to get a better guitar than we could buy and for the satisfaction of creating the instrument. If we want cheaper instruments we may as well buy them. $100.00 parts bin guitar building contests not withstanding.

Even if you buy cheap hardware with the plan to upgrade later, you actually end up spending more in the end because you bought two sets of hardware.

Much can be saved lumber wise by buying larger pieces and nesting your parts to get the most out of it. Adjust the construction methods to use off-cuts for neck laminates, stringers, headstock wings and heels.

I don't like cheaping out for pickups because they have the single most influence on the way the thing sounds on the actual body of the guitar except the strings. No sound without strings.:) But you don't have to buy $400.00 boutique sets either. I understand Iron Gear makes very good pick-ups for very good prices, and like Tim said, I've always heard Guitar Fetish does too.

SR

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I am asking part of this question in a current build. I am building two identical guitars, except one will have a $150 TV Jones pickup, and the other will have a $35 GFS pickup built to the same specs and going after the same sound. I am really curious to hear the difference between the two.

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Thanks everyone for the thoughts and comments. I was hoping (but not expecting) to hear "yeah, those $7 bridges and pickups are amazing!". I'm tempted to order a few cheap parts just to inspect them - if I do I'll report back. 

 

5 hours ago, 2.5itim said:

There's no way I could do this on my own dime so I will be buying cheap parts for the future for builds and just upgrading after the guitar is finished, then those parts can be passed onto the next build. 

Having someone else pay for parts is a good solution! I'm not ready to build for others yet, but that's something I'd like to work toward. 

9 minutes ago, killemall8 said:

I am curious to see what it is you are spending 600$ on. You may be better off shopping on ebay.
I can get brand new EMGs for 200$ a set,
HIpshot locking tuners for 55$ shipped

Hiphot bridge for 55$ shipped
then all the little stuff is less than 50$ total.

Here are the big ticket items that I ordered:

Shipping costs aren't included (I was able to get free shipping on some - but not all - of the stuff that came via Amazon). I'm also not including various things I purchased but decided not to use (stainless steel fretwire, for example). I didn't always search far and wide for the best price, but I don't think I significantly overpaid on any of the bigger ticket items (I do question my decision to buy knobs at $8 each). 

I know it's a lot of work to go through this item by item, but I'd be very interested in hearing about alternative material options, vendors, or even design strategies that would have resulted in a lower cost build.

And again, I don't regret any of the material decisions from this current build. But if there's a way to get a similar result for less $$$ (or cut corners in places that really don't affect the end product), I'm all for it. 

Thanks again!

Aaron

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A bridge for $7 I would expect to be pretty awful - poor quality casting or machining, plating or paint easy to chip or tarnish, machine screws easy to strip or round the heads over. Unless I was try to prove a point in experimentation I would avoid using one on a build that mattered.

7 bucks for a set of P-bass pickups - who knows? If you didn't expect too much from them they could be OK. They could have skimped on shielding and potting the windings, making them prone to pick up noise and be microphonic in high gain situations. But then again, would you run your P-bass through a Boss MT2 Metal Zone pedal? The tonal characteristics of pickups are largely subjective, so they could sound amazing for the price, or like complete doodoo depending on who you ask or how lucky you get.

Cheaper can also be a function of where you live. Here in Australia a lot of the big ticket items are notoriously high in price. 9 times out of 10 I can get the same thing on Ebay from the US for significantly less, even accounting for currency exchange rates, Paypal fees and shipping. The Hipshot stuff is a little bit cheaper on Ebay, but the prices you've quoted seem about what I'd expect to pay as a small-time hobby builder (from here, anyway).

EMG prices you've got actually look pretty good.

The dome knobs you've linked to are very similar, if not identical to ones available on Ebay from numerous Chinese sellers for a fraction of the cost. Most will offer discounts on larger quantity listings. I've used many and have yet to have an issue with them.

The truss rod looks very similar to those sold by Allparts or WD Music, or indeed Chinese Ebay sellers. It's a very standard construction. Not to say the Chinese Ebay ones are the same quality as those sold by Allparts, but it's highly likely that the Allparts ones are also made in China and they simply pick out the visibly dud ones before selling the remainder to the public. It's possible that you could buy a batch of 5 from Ebay, test them all before installing them, and even if you had a failure rate of 40% you could have spent less than buying the same thing from a bigger supplier. I'd personally go with a reliable source first for such a critical component, but am willing to take a calculated risk occasionally.

Fretwire I'd buy in bulk from a regular supplier (Stewmac, Allparts etc).

Straplocks - check Ebay again. But again, I've bought regular over-sized strap buttons from China with no issues.

Jackplate - I'd probably buy a sheet of blank material and make my own. Probably works out to the same price and I'm left with mountains of raw material afterwards to make more plates with.

Graphtech nuts I personally haven't seen cheaper anywhere, so you've probably paid about the same as what any other non-commercial buyer is paying.

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1 hour ago, KnightroExpress said:

I'm with Scott on this one. I build guitars because I want something that I'll love, and good quality hardware is a big factor for me. I'm not saying that it's necessary to buy the most expensive stuff you can find, but if you're going to spend hours and hours creating something, why cap it off with junk?

I'm with you on this. No interest in wasting effort and money on junk. The target I'm working toward is a quality goal, not a price point. Price and quality don't always go hand-in-hand. I don't have any experience with the low-cost stuff and was hoping there are some good alternatives, especially for the parts that cost > $50 (bridge, electronics, tuners).  

I'd hate to tell my kids "sorry, I can't help with your college, but I sure did build some really nice basses while you were growing up!"

It sounds like the consensus is for the 'simpler' stuff like knobs, screws, plates, etc. there are some options to save a few bucks, But skimping on the critical load-bearing, tone-affecting, and otherwise playability impacting parts is risky. @curtisa's summary on the second post seems really helpful. 

I do plan on doing a little hands-on research. I'll probably stay away from the $7 bridges, but there may be some alternatives to the $90 bridges. If I figure anything out, I'll share it here. 

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Many of the instruments I build are experiments in bringing ideas to reality as proofs of concept. My '51 P-bass is a keeper hence why it is kitted with Hipshot parts. The design is great and I'd recommend it to any bassist, including the hardware choice.

Some instruments might benefit from a hardware upgrade, however I am of the opinion that I'd rather build a new instrument under that hardware instead. It's another opportunity to refine and progress building skills rather than go back over old ground. I'd like to make another Saber 7-string for example, however I would elect to make the body from scratch and improve bits here and there.

Hell, look at @psikoT's GOTY winner from a couple of years back! That is testament to the fact that boutique hardware is not always a requirement for stunning builds. When something is fit for purpose, everything else on top of that is just gloss.

And money.

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Some woods and parts are highly overpriced sometimes... for instance, an ebony fretboard is much more expensive in USA than in Europe, due to import duties and other legal stuff.

A 3rd grade ebony fretboard cost less than 4€ here:

http://www.madinter.com/wood/fingerboards/third-b-guitar-ebony-fingerboard.html

while you have to pay 25€ for the same stuff here:

http://www.stewmac.com/Materials_and_Supplies/Bodies_and_Necks_and_Wood/Electric_Guitar_Bodies_and_Necks_and_Wood/Unslotted_Fingerboard_for_Guitar.html?pref_currency=E

I remember my mom going to the market in the other corner of the city just to save some cents... I kinda do the same, cause my budget is usually very limited, so I spend a lot of time looking for some bargains before making any build.

Although this time I got crazy and spent about 800€ in goodies... ^^  woods, parts and tools. No misery this time.

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Sorry, that face looks like I said something stupid, but I would not even think on buying just one board online. We were talking about the price of articles, delivery hell deserves its own topic. However, there are shops where you can't order less than 200€, like tonewood.es, so spending more than 250 in order to avoid paying for the delivery is not that crazy IMO.

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No offence meant! I checked out what their minimum shipping fee is for small orders; that's often a key decision-maker simply because it easily doubles the cost of an item. Madinter are a large vendor, so it seems they are not set up for smaller orders that hobbyist and enthusiast luthiers may make. Whilst I would love to take in a couple hundred Euros of fingerboards and other stock, I don't have anywhere near that money in the budget at the present. In fact, I am currently negotiating a small business loan to help improve the studio setup for ProjectGuitar.com, part of which will of course be stock for the teaching aspect.

Guitars & Woods in Portugal (likely a reseller of Madinter stock) are a fine little outfit. They've really grown over the last couple of years and their prices are excellent. They're definitely going to be a regular source of stuff over the coming months. I recommend them highly for anybody buying basic items within the EU. Perhaps not fretwire (Jescar don't seem to want to sell much over here) but definitely the stock basics. Unlike Madinter, et al. they don't have a minimum courier fee of around €25. Those shipping fees soon add up.

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4 hours ago, Prostheta said:

Guitars & Woods in Portugal (likely a reseller of Madinter stock) are a fine little outfit. They've really grown over the last couple of years and their prices are excellent. They're definitely going to be a regular source of stuff over the coming months. I recommend them highly for anybody buying basic items within the EU. Perhaps not fretwire (Jescar don't seem to want to sell much over here) but definitely the stock basics. Unlike Madinter, et al. they don't have a minimum courier fee of around €25. Those shipping fees soon add up.

I discovered them because the article you have here in the site, really nice shop... I bought some tools and thingees there last week! :)  I found their veneers very interesting and relatively cheap. Shame I already ordered at Madinter before having a look at it, cause they have very nice woods, and ready to use.

 

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Even though it's a relatively-minor aspect of the build in terms of cost, I think that anybody who foresees making many builds should consider buying the tools and materials to make their own truss rods. The simplest are of course single-acting compression rods, however with a little investment it is not unfeasible to buy a small gas torch, brazing supplies, hacksaw, taps/dies and bunch of files to make your own dual-acting rods. Beyond that, it's even possible to make your own U-channel box-section rods.

I touched on this in the PRS CE recovery thread that I am penning an article on double-acting single rods. Exquisitely simple the same as single-acting single rods, but very very efficient at what they do.

Cheap import rods aren't really a saving as such. The manufacturer doesn't care whether they are a quality product, and the resellers just hope they didn't get stiffed with a crap batch of shitty welds/brazing. It has been known for adjusters to break the weld or simply to strip out. Things integral to a neck shouldn't get cheaped out on, since they more or less write off an entire neck. Good truss rods, or ones that you personally can guarantee are of a sufficient standard are your insurance policy.

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I agree on the truss rod thing- the one cheapo rod I purchased (years ago) snapped on me as I was doing an initial setup. 

 I'm very interested to read your article on double-acting single rods, as I've actually been looking into fabricating my own PRS-style rods. My vision is essentially a pair of tapped barrels lying sideways within the neck, each threaded opposite of the other. I'm looking forward to seeing how far off-base I am (or not!)

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That's exactly it. The difficulty that I have in front of me is that little to no good information exists on these. I neither want to half-ass it (rather, whole-ass) nor base it on faulty presumptions. I need to test and work out whether that configuration would work best within a curved slot, flat slot and/or one that lays close to the back of the neck or not. Knowing how PRS do it would be useful as a guideline. I very much suspect that a flat slot which sits deeper at the heel end is best. I need to scrutinise it.

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