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The law of diminishing returns, Tonewood and other folly’s


tegs07

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There have been a couple of interesting threads (to me) recently about instruments, their construction, marketing and value. Some points such as the materials the instrument is made from (tonewood - or to give it a less contentious name simply wood commonly used by luthiers) seem to incite foaming at the mouth. The other element for contentious debate is value and what is required for a company to achieve that value (marketing).
 

I think most people would agree that technology, a cheaper manufacturing base  and production workflow has improved to such an extent that no working musician really needs to spend more than £400 on an instrument. If we get rid of marketing costs behind a brand this would probably drop to nearer the £200 mark.


Does this seem a reasonable conclusion?

If so why do we pay more, particularly if we are in the camp that dismisses any tangible benefits of wood choice and other similar incremental upgrades and also dislikes brands and the marketing and endorsement required to build those brands?

Edited by tegs07
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To make my position clear I just think instruments are beautiful things and I am a sucker for good packaging so would happily pay more even though I know it’s basically pointless.

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This post is remarkably similar to a Youtube video I watched recently where a guy compared a Squier Affinity Jazz to a Classic Vibe, a Fender Vintera and a Fender US, highlighting the diminishing returns the higher up the price point you go.  Having played or owned all of the above, I tend to agree with him.  A £400 bass should last you a lifetime with the build quality nowadays.

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2 minutes ago, acidbass said:

This post is remarkably similar to a Youtube video I watched recently where a guy compared a Squier Affinity Jazz to a Classic Vibe, a Fender Vintera and a Fender US, highlighting the diminishing returns the higher up the price point you go.  Having played or owned all of the above, I tend to agree with him.  A £400 bass should last you a lifetime with the build quality nowadays.

Hi yes there is a thread here about it but wanted to move the debate away from Fender as it immediately gets the usual Fender are overpriced dross and Adam Clayton plays bass like a donkey  type comments. If endorsement and materials used are not relevant should we all really just get a Cort?

 

Edited by tegs07
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I've got a custom Sei, not cheap, and a Squier Jazz, cheap. One doesn't play or sound better than the other but obviously with the Sei it's made to my custom requirements and that's going to cost. And the Sei's attention to detail is way beyond the Squier but that doesn't make it sound better, it's just nice to have.

I think what I object to is something like the Wal bass that's currently up for sale at £6500!! There's no way a bolt on neck, solid wood bass is worth this (don't get me wrong,  they're great basses, I've owned a few, but they're not actually worth this kind of money). 

If I went to a luthier to have a bass made I don't think it would be possible to make it cost that amount no matter what spec I ordered.

As for the £400 theoretical limit, well, my Squier now has custom pups, huge improvement, custom electronics, and a new bridge and nut! Diminishing returns of investment but does sound better than stock (sounds great actually) and way less than a Wal.

Edited by Boodang
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47 minutes ago, tegs07 said:

There have been a couple of interesting threads (to me) recently about instruments, their construction, marketing and value. Some points such as the materials the instrument is made from (tonewood - or to give it a less contentious name simply wood commonly used by luthiers) seem to incite foaming at the mouth. The other element for contentious debate is value and what is required for a company to achieve that value (marketing).
 

I think most people would agree that technology, a cheaper manufacturing base  and production workflow has improved to such an extent that no working musician really needs to spend more than £400 on an instrument. If we get rid of marketing costs behind a brand this would probably drop to nearer the £200 mark.


Does this seem a reasonable conclusion?

If so why do we pay more, particularly if we are in the camp that dismisses any tangible benefits of wood choice and other similar incremental upgrades and also dislikes brands and the marketing and endorsement required to build those brands?

 

I agree with the general premise that anything over £500 or thereabouts is mostly vanity but if people want to spend thousands on an exotic looking bass which gives them pleasure to look at then theres no harm in that is there. There are some exceptions though for example a graphite neck which has a way more uniform response than any wooden neck is going to add another £500 to your base cost. Given the choice I would never play another wooden neck bass again but there are other logistic and cost factors at play.

Edited by bassman7755
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I disagree. 

Sure you can buy a decent instrument for £400 but it's more than that.  If you want something like all Hipshot hardware and Nordstrand pickups (for example), you're already looking at that budget, even on a mass produced CNC bass. Decent parts cost money.

If you go to a luthier then you're also paying for their time and skill, like any other tradesman.

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8 minutes ago, Doddy said:

I disagree. 

Sure you can buy a decent instrument for £400 but it's more than that.  If you want something like all Hipshot hardware and Nordstrand pickups (for example), you're already looking at that budget, even on a mass produced CNC bass. Decent parts cost money.

If you go to a luthier then you're also paying for their time and skill, like any other tradesman.

 

I think the argument is not that you arn't getting value for money in terms of input time and materials but rather that the actual sound and playability improvements you get from these expensive nice-to-have bits and bobs generally just not in proportion to the extra cost (by quite some distance usually).

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A CNC machine in China, a CNC machine in the USA. With the same materials and parts what is the difference in quality?

 

But as with @Boodang and their Sei's, my Shuker's have been built to my custom designs and body measurements, and will last a lifetime :) 

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29 minutes ago, Doddy said:

I disagree. 

Sure you can buy a decent instrument for £400 but it's more than that.  If you want something like all Hipshot hardware and Nordstrand pickups (for example), you're already looking at that budget, even on a mass produced CNC bass. Decent parts cost money.

If you go to a luthier then you're also paying for their time and skill, like any other tradesman.

So would you say your in the camp that incremental improvements from trusted manufacturers known for their use of decent materials and attention to detail are worth the extra outlay. £400 may get a perfectly usable bass that would do the job for which it is intended but the additional attention to detail and finesse are missing?

Edit: For what it’s worth my feeling is that each change to a bass whether wood choice, electrics, pickups, strings used etc will have a slight impact on the sound of the instrument but after a certain price point it doesn’t make any sense other than on an aesthetic level or in terms of how desirable the instrument is which is where marketing starts to get very important. 

Edited by tegs07
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It really depends what you are looking for from a bass (or any instrument come to that).

 

If all you want is something that is easy to play and produces low notes that fits into a typical rock/pop/jazz arrangement/instrumentation then a Squier P or J will probably be fine. They're made to a 60 year old design that is barely changed over the years, and whose USP was they could be produced as cheaply as possible using 1940s technology and relatively (compared with your typical acoustic instrument) unskilled labour. These days, the CNC machines in the Far East, can churn out identical instruments in their thousands at a unit cost Leo Fender could not have imagined back in the 1940s.

 

However not everyone wants that. They may want features that are harder to make, or simply things that might suit them, as musicians, perfectly but are by no means anywhere near the mainstream. All these things start to add up, especially when you consider that an instrument may only have a potential user base that can be measured in hundreds (and maybe less) rather than 10s of thousands.

 

For instance I play the Bass VI. The Squier version is available at £400 which is very good VfM for what is essentially a niche instrument. However the narrow neck doesn't suit my playing style (and ability). I could probably spend a year practicing some more so that I can get around this limitation, and be boring on stage, making sure I don't play any bum notes, but I'd rather be using the time to be writing more songs. So instead I bought the Eastwood copy of the Shergold Marathon 6 which is roughly £1200 (mostly because the production run is in the 100s rather than 10,000s). Playability for me is much better than the Squier and it sounds fine. However it's a bit boring to look at and since I play live I'd like something that looks a bit more interesting. Also I'd like to be able use it with the Roland modelling system. All of a sudden I'm in custom instrument territory. The Bass VI form my preferred custom maker with all the features I want will be in the region of £7,000.

 

I could put in the hours of practice and make do with the Squier, but if I can afford to make my life easier and more interesting why not?

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A knackered £50 upright piano is about right for my playing, but can I appreciate the refinements of a 10 to 20 grand, er, grand? Yesss.

 

And if I had the space and money, would I buy one? Of couuuurrrse!

 

And will I still sound ropey af? Yes yes yes – but with a biiiig smile on my face :party:

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I think the law of diminishing returns definitely applies, but can't you apply that to pretty much anything?

 

Having worked in music retail for nearly a decade, I can say that the cheaper basses are better than they've ever been, representing amazing value and choice.  Have I ever played a £400 bass that sounded or played as good to me as one of my personal basses - no, not even close, if I'm being honest.  Whether that's some internal justification going on I couldn't say,  but my main basses despite being in the "high end" category  have been in my possession for long enough as not to owe me anything, so I'd like to think not.  In fact if I could find a £400 bass that sounded and played as well, and I knew would be reliable and consistent year after year,  gig after gig, I'd get it and recoup some of my original investment in current no. 1 for what I suspect would be a small capital gain! 

 

Regardless of if it cost £100 or many times more,  I'll take any bass that will allow me to indulge in my passion; it's just given my personal set of priorities, the value I place on the pleasure I get from music,  and to be frank - without wishing to sound like a tosser - my reasonable competence on the instrument, the ones that work for me best simply  happened to cost much more. 

 

"Value" is so subjective that it feels completely aimless trying to define it on a bass forum! I guess it's fun to try. 

Edited by Mokl
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11 minutes ago, Mokl said:

I think the law of diminishing returns definitely applies, but can't you apply that to pretty much anything?

 

 

Yep. Consumables and often slightly different and critical components are definitely so... nobody should be over applying the law of diminishing returns when buying tyres or brake pads for instance. 

 

Basses though, over a couple a hundred quid they're luxury items so very much diminishing returns.  They're Veblens. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veblen_good 

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I recently upgraded from a £350 Sterling SUB stingray to a £1000 Sterling Ray35. The quality of finish on the expensive one is much better and the sound is quite a bit better which I think is due to the better pickup and preamp rather than wood. 

If I wanted the biggest improvement in tone for least cost, I'd go for new speakers in my cab. 

If I wanted the least improvement for maximum cost, I'd buy some super expensive gold cable.

Everyone knows real tone is in the balls anyway.

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8 minutes ago, SteveXFR said:

I recently upgraded from a £350 Sterling SUB stingray to a £1000 Sterling Ray35. The quality of finish on the expensive one is much better and the sound is quite a bit better which I think is due to the better pickup and preamp rather than wood. 

If I wanted the biggest improvement in tone for least cost, I'd go for new speakers in my cab. 

If I wanted the least improvement for maximum cost, I'd buy some super expensive gold cable.

Everyone knows real tone is in the balls anyway.

I can’t speak for 5 strings but the jump between an Indonesian SUB and a Ray34 is fairly substantial. The next hop to an Ernie Ball less so. Can’t comment on wood choice in terms of tone but my US made Ray is definitely pretty.

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2 hours ago, Mokl said:

Having worked in music retail for nearly a decade, I can say that the cheaper basses are better than they've ever been, representing amazing value and choice.  Have I ever played a £400 bass that sounded or played as good to me as one of my personal basses - no, not even close, if I'm being honest. 

 

A friend of mine is a pro who is paid by a company to endorse a couple of brands of basses that costs around the £400 mark and he constantly tells people / posts on social media that these basses are just as good as expensive brands / best he's ever played, etc. A couple of times I have picked up one of his basses (a jazz bass copy) having just played my Xotic bass (a jazz bass copy that I paid £1.6k for secondhand - about £2.3k new). Are his basses as good as mine? Nowhere close! My basses are streets ahead in terms of sound, playability and construction. When he plays his basses they sound OK because he is a decent player and I am sure that I could play one on a gig if I had to, but mine are just so much nicer to play and sound far better. 

 

Is my bass four times as good as his? Probably not, but you pay a bit more for a better instrument and you can tell the difference. 

 

Edited by peteb
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22 minutes ago, tegs07 said:

I can’t speak for 5 strings but the jump between an Indonesian SUB and a Ray34 is fairly substantial. The next hop to an Ernie Ball less so. Can’t comment on wood choice in terms of tone but my US made Ray is definitely pretty.

 

I may be wrong but I think the Ray35/Ray34 use the same wood as the US Ray. Pickups and bridge are different though. 

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I own the worse bass in the world..  literally. A 70s Jedson that actually couldn't be made any cheaper without falling apart. For a laugh I put an EMG MM pickup on and it sounds awesome..... plays awful though! 

What I've learnt from this, well... pickups are an important part of the sound and craftsmanship is an important part of the playability of the instrument. 

CNC machines certainly make craftsmanship easier to achieve at lower costs, it's just the more special you want it the more the cost.

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19 minutes ago, SteveXFR said:

 

I may be wrong but I think the Ray35/Ray34 use the same wood as the US Ray. Pickups and bridge are different though. 

The US ones go to town on the necks too. They are really very good. 

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1 minute ago, tegs07 said:

The US ones go to town on the necks too. They are really very good. 

Edit: Is the pendulum now swinging in favour of better materials and attention to detail makes a better bass?

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35 minutes ago, SteveXFR said:

 

I would like a US Stingray but I'm in need of an amp upgrade first.

 

If you shop around you can pick up secondhand US Stingrays pretty cheaply. 

 

Edited by peteb
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