I wasn't aware of it before moving but there are some companies here in China that will do a one off custom instrument for the same price as a beginner level instrument sells for in the UK. Having said that, the choices of wood are limited to maybe 6 species (ash, alder, maple, mahogany, ebony and rosewood) and the quality of pickups can't be trusted totally. But they'll do pretty much anything you ask for within those constraints and you're free to replace whatever you don't like in terms of hardware or electronics with stuff you do.
One week in April, my wife and I were thinking about business ideas and she suggested I look into setting up my own bass brand using a Chinese based supplier. I told her that the biggest issue with doing that was quality control, that there were loads of youtube videos out there about people who had ordered instruments through Alibaba or Aliexpress and encountered mixed results. Often there were issues with the quality of finish, the electronics and workmanship. But I did a bit of digging around anyway and found a company that, after contacting a sales rep, claimed to offer pretty decent results - Shenzhen Grand Technology Co., Ltd. HQ in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. After talking to the sales rep online, I decided to commission a couple of samples (one through neck bass, one maple based archtop) just to see what the workmanship was like. I put down a deposit and was told to wait around 40 days for delivery.
Around forty days later, the instruments weren't ready, apparently due to COVID. Although lockdown in China lifted months before, I agreed to another wait. Eventually the guitar was ready, I received photos prior to delivery and instantly spotted issues with glue bleed from the body edge binding into the wood...why they had to use black glue is beyond me but...whatever. By that point there was nothing that could be done short of restarting another build. I took delivery of the guitar and sure enough, the usual issues were there, the neck joint had been finished twice and there were drips in the poly that hasn't been flatted out. Nothing that a bit of flatting down with 400, 800 and 1200 grit wet n dry couldn't sort and I had a polishing kit for my drill already with me for final buffing. The frets hadn't been dressed and while they seemed to be installed securely, the crowns were fairly inconsistent but nothing a decent levelling and crowning couldn't sort. I had StewMac radiussed sanding blocks, fret crowning files and 250 grit silicon carbide sandpaper for that, too. The pickup had also been mounted too far from the strings as well, adjustment would leave holes in the side of the fingerboard but hmmm it was a sample so I had no plans to sell. Apart from that, the woodwork was pretty good and overall, the guitar had a nice supple feel to the strings that reminded me of a PRS SE I'd played in Hong Kong a couple of years before. A rough diamond of sorts, although more Django in sound than George Benson even with flats on.
Time passed and after some reminders, they sent through a photo of the bass neck being put together and I immediately spotted that they hadn't used maple and mahogany in the 5 piece laminate, as had been agreed. The engineer had put together a 3 piece laminate of just maple - which made me wonder what the guy building the instrument was using for reference. So they had to start again, meaning the countdown to delivery had to be restarted.
Time rolled on until mid July when they sent me through pictures of the bass after it had been finished in black. It looked OK, nothing jumped out at me as a glaring error. So I paid the rest of the outstanding balance and was told to expect delivery in 10 days. Ten days came and went, I was told they wanted to do some extra checks for quality and I'd be really pleased with the bass. Another ten days came and went, they said they wanted to do some last minute tweaking before it was shipped. I grew a bit suspicious at that point and asked them what had gone wrong. But they reassured me everything was fine and I'd be impressed with the quality.
Eventually I was told the bass was ready to be shipped and it would take 3 days to arrive. The courier actually delayed things by another two days due to flooding but the bass was delivered from their factory in northern China.
What was promised was something close (but not identical in body shape) to this but basically the same construction - alder wings (no maple cap), 3x maple, 2x mahogany laminated through body neck, ebony fingerboard:
What I received was this.
As you can probably imagine, my first reaction was WTF is that red thing?
It's a kill switch, came the reply. It was in the reference photo they claimed - they sent me a photo with the "button" circled.
That's not a button, I pointed out. That's a control knob for the piezo pickup in the bridge. I asked why they had drilled a massive hole for it in the bass since sending photos through for approval (below).
And anyway, the button was non latching so to be used as a kill switch it was necessary to keep a finger on it. So yeah...it kills the playing because you can't use your hand to pluck the strings.
But things got more interesting still. The three band eq. was actually two band, one of the controls (mids) was a 'Producer Knob'. The active passive switch didn't work either, it worked like a kill switch when passive mode was engaged. So someone didn't bother to install the electronics properly and check they worked.
But the biggest surprise was the neck.
The nut width was 48mm but the string spacing at the nut was 37mm which is normally found on basses with a 45mm nut width. So it meant there were 2mm gaps at the edge of the fingerboard to overcome when reaching for a string. Pretty awkward you'd think, but oh no there was more.
The neck was 25mm thick at the third fret.
Let's put that into perspective, the necks on all my other basses are somewhere between 19 and 21 mm thick. By comparison, those extra couple of mm made the neck feel like a telegraph pole. Possibly even fatter than a 51 p-bass and goodness knows they're big enough. The total amount of extra wood in the neck also gave the bass serious headstock dive.
Because the bass was through neck construction, it would not be straight forward for anyone to put right.
To get the fingerboard edges to come in by 2mm each side would mean either sawing the wings off so the whole neck could be presented to a belt sander in one pass, or belt sanding as far as possible up the neck joint and then using coarse sandpaper and a sanding beam to get the edges of the fingerboard around the upper 7 or so frets to come into line with the rest of the fingerboard by hand sanding. To address the big red button either a new lower wing or, at the least, a laminated top on the lower alder wing (ideally maple) is needed.
So at the moment, I've claimed that they haven't kept their promise on what the would deliver and asked for a full refund. They've admitted fault but countered that if they did anything else on the bass, they'd lose money and offered $30 compensation which I've rejected. The matter has now escalated to their management, as if they're going to change their mind.
We did pay via Alipay on the understanding there would be some back up if things went pear shaped - a bit like Paypal. My wife said that we could claim 50% of the cost back. But after we took a supplier of cabinetry and a double glazed sliding door for our new apartment to disputes, my wife discovered Alipay seem to be favouring the seller in disputes and don't want to be involved with matters of quality.
We are still going to try Alipay but their disputes process seems about as reliable as a Chinese musical instrument manufacturer.
The reasons why things ended up like this seem to be down to a basic lack of skill and experience on the part of the 'engineer' who made the instrument and constant pressure at the factory to maintain production volume. Short cuts, possibly even mistakes were made in the rush to get the bass out the door even after all those delays. And the factory is insisting they don't take a loss on it despite these mistakes, despite clear failures in their Quality Control.
The factory claims to have quality control procedures in place, they even claimed to have run the bass past the member of a famous Chinese band 'Beyond' for checks before shipping as well as other people in the factory. I pointed out that there was a massive, useless red button that had been missed during all these QC checks and consultations. How could they demonstrate QC was working when a glaring deviation had suddenly appeared on the bass between approval and delivery? It was later revealed that the QC with the band member from Beyond wasn't actually in person so it seems doubtful that they saw the instrument.
It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to trust the QC control assurances of this manufacturer or their quality control. The engineer working on my instrument was not trained properly and the General Manager doesn't appear to be very interested in customer service or reputation, just short term profits. It's a stark contrast to overseas companies. Even when you consider all the shared experiences of ordering Chinese made instruments on youtube, they're actually a load more positive than my experience. The main issues were fretwork, electronics and finish. Those owners on youtube didn't discover any big, red surprises on delivery. This is inspite of me being in the same country with access to the same legal system. At the moment, I 'think' I'm still in negotiation with them although it appears I'm being ghosted.
The best solution would be for them to fix the neck and hole for the red button in the lower wing. This is what any company outside China would do. I've told them they don't need to refinish the bass, I'll do that after I've completed reshaping the body further and making sure the surface is properly sanded and prepared for finishing. I'll also have an opportunity to make it a bit less Yamaha looking.
In the meantime, the bass has been relegated to the guest room wardrobe until I'm in a position to do something about fixing it - either by finding someone who can do the work or by getting access to a wood workshop with a band saw, belt sander and clamps. And, no, I'm not going to be exploring any more business ideas. Paying for other people's mistakes is too expensive.