Aria CS-25, CS-250, TA-100
When so many Japanese guitars are treated to a high gloss sheen, brass parts, luxury fittings, et al, it's an initial shock to see that the lower priced models in the down to earth Cardinal range have had all the non-essential trimmings shorn away.
The 250's finish is a simple satin one that leaves the wood grain showing through, the neck is a bolt-on type and the shape has been almost rough hewn from a three-piece ash body.
Both the six string and bass are similar in outline to the twin horned Gibson SG, but with an exaggerated lift to the upper horn. The finishes are walnut, or in this case an unexciting Padouk Red.
Yet Aria haven't stopped experimenting, nor have they failed to attend to the finer details. The six string features a newly developed tone circuit dubbed "click control", and both guitars have attractive extra touches such as felts fitted between strap button and body to prevent the metal gouging into the wood.
The CS-250 has twin humbucking Aria pickups and a chromed bridge. The strings feed in through the back of the body and over the individual saddles, each with intonation and Allen keyed height adjustment (two Allen keys are provided in the case that comes with the guitars).
This click control is a neat device, built around each of the tone pots. At the centre of their travel is a dead spot; turned clockwise it acts as a standard tone control, depriving the guitar of its treble; turned anti-clockwise and it gradually fades out one of the coils in the humbucker. So the sound changes from a thick humbucker at the dead spot to a clankier single coil at the far end. In practice, the degrees of change in between are too subtle to detect and it's only at the extremes that the difference is really obvious. But a gold star on the wall chart for Aria, who've found a way of reducing the forest of switches that can clutter their guitars.
The click control is handy when using both of the pickups. A humbucking neck pickup and a single coil bridge one gives a pleasant balance twixt a bassy bottom end and an edgier top. Juggling with the amounts of each, and switching in the out-of-phase option, provides a host of different tones.
In general I preferred the CS-250 for rhythm work as the Aria pickups didn't have quite the depth for lead playing. But if you like to strop out the odd funky chord here and there, the Cardinal handles that nicely. £160
And as for the Cardinal bass — well, it doesn't need a strap — it should have a leash! It's a wonderfully gutsy instrument, and though it has only one sound, it does that one very well.
The single pickup is halfway between the chromed bridge and the start of the fretboard that runs to 22 frets. The maple neck is medium scaled and straight, barely varying in width from nut to body, and since the strings are already close together, that makes it fast and easy to swap between them for nifty licks.
This Cardinal's action was low and lacked some of the rattles found on its six string compatriot; very twangy, very metallic and ideal for crunchy stuff though less successful on smoother, mellower lines. The tone control, which could have helped, only dimmed the treble and seemed powerless to affect the basic bark.
The finer talents that distinguish more expensive instruments weren't around on the Cardinal. The sustain was adequate, but not overpowering and again the pickups seemed lacking in depth. But it wasn't short on spirit, though that degree of poke could be too brittle for some players.
It lacked a thumb rest, but if you've got fairly long fingers you could hook your thumb over the deeply waisted body. The light ash construction and long headstock combined to make the Cardinal a touch top heavy, and I also found the machines on this and the six string to be loose at times.
But in both cases Aria have made worthy efforts to help out the hard up among us while retaining the philosophies behind their more expensive guitars. The Cardinal range is certain to be extended. £147
If, as I suspect, the Japanese are aiming to start a new trend in semis and full bodied electrics, then this is cosmetically a fine start.
This is tradition down the line, a latter-day 335 style looking resplendent in cream binding round the edges (back and front) and up the neck plus a host of gold-plated or brass fittings, imitation mother-of-pearl and abalore inlays.
Two f holes are also edged in cream, an imitation tortoishell scratchplate hovers by the gold Aria humbuckers and black pickup surrounds, and even the truss rod cover has a brassy gleam about it.
Strangely, Aria have kept their best piece of wood hidden. The carved, laminated maple body presents a lightly figured tobacco sunburst face to the world. Round the back is a glorious example of ribbed maple, sending fingers of shade into the centre join.
Aria have gone for a mahogany neck with two maple inserts, stretching from the glued joint at the 19th fret (22 in all) to the tip of the headstock. The sunburst finish is repeated and the fretboard looks like Macassar ebony carrying a slight rosy grain and high square frets.
I'm in two minds about the bridge. On one hand the designers have given each saddle a deep groove to sit in, ensuring they don't rattle around. The boo-boo is in placing the intonation adjusting screws directly under the strings as they pass on to the tail piece. This, coupled with the very small cross heads makes them awkward to adjust.
Enough eyeballing, what does it feel like? Well, surprisingly heavy.
No denying that the deep cutaways lay the top frets open to hungry fingers, but the question is what to do with your thumb? The neck is medium to thin and has a shallow rear profile. It doesn't curve out to fill your hand, so it might be slightly better suited to "thumb on the back" merchants.
Sad to-say, the real disappointment lies in the sound. Somehow the Titan doesn't have the character of tone to match its handsome face.
It is bright, precise, penetrating, and demonstrates all the flavours of the electric Eighties. But there's no real depth, and though its tail pickup has a lively spitting feel, again it's lacking in body. Essentially the Titan has a transparent and young sound. What it needs is a touch of maturity and some insides to the note.
It's a beautiful guitar and Aria owners happy with their present tone will have no problems with the transformation. Players who've never been too keen on them may be won over by the looks but not the twang... £430
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Review by Paul Colbert
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