When this guitar arrived at E&MM's penthouse office suite, one of the girls played a trick on me. (Shame on you; you know who you are!) "My brother's just bought this guitar," she said, looking innocent, "could you check it out before I send it on to him?"
"That's a coincidence," I thought, falling for it fret, string and plectrum, "I'm supposed to be reviewing an Aria guitar later on this month. This one will give me an idea of what they're like."
Several minute's happy strumming later, I reported that the guitar was fine, but how on earth could her brother afford a guitar like that? I include this story not to destroy my credibility as a non-gullible guitar reviewer, but to illustrate three important points. I had put this guitar in the £300-£400 bracket; instead, for £224.60 including VAT you not only get a guitar that looks good, sounds good and plays well, but also a plush lined, fitted case and even a curly jack to jack lead! We are definitely talking about value for money here.
Secondly, Gigsville (Aria's importers) are fast movers. The guitar arrived long before I expected it would, which doesn't guarantee such fast service for everyone but is at least indicative of good organisation down there in Heston.
In the three years they have been importing Mr Arai's guitars — spot the anagram — Gigsville have gained an enviable reputation for thoroughly looking over every guitar before sending it out. While the TS-400 didn't leap out of the case into my arms and start playing itself, it didn't take long for me to get used to it. As it happens, the bridge was slightly out when I checked the intonation, but I hadn't noticed this whilst playing and the setting up was exemplary in every other respect.
In case you were wondering, the letters TS stand for Thor Sound, a designation that isn't explained in Gigsville's literature. If it means that a god-like being with a hammer appears at your concerts and threatens the audience to make them clap in time and sing along with the choruses, then I for one want no part of it. Actually I suspect it's a reference to the guitar's sound, which tends to be weighty and powerful rather than cutting or incisive, but more of that later.
First of all, this is a good looking guitar; it isn't obviously based on any well known American designs, but Aria haven't had to resort to odd angles and sharp bits that stick into the player in order to be original.
Instead, the body is comfortably contoured and well balanced, and the cutaways allow ample access to the top frets. The fingerboard is rosewood, which I find much warmer and more pleasant to play than squeaky clean lacquered maple, and there are 24 frets.
Twenty-four fret necks are becoming more and more popular nowadays, a move which I approve of; you're not going to use that top E in every song, of course, but it's handy to have it there when you need it. The guitar is finished in an attractive brown sunburst which I would have called violin finish, but Aria modestly describe as Japan brown. Walnut and metallic blue are available as options; if the latter is the same finish as used on the Gerry Cott model, I don't want to see one without a stronger pair of sunglasses being provided.
Don't be fooled by the maple and walnut stripes; this guitar has a glued on neck, a good move in view of the scarcity of suitably long pieces of wood. If you would prefer a real neck through body construction, rather than 'go faster' stripes, the top of the range TS-600 will oblige. This guitar also sports an ebony fingerboard, and an active preamp and tone control built in.
As many guitarists are now aware, mass is a great aid to sustain, especially in the bridge area. There are many other factors of course, but Aria have made a step in the right direction with a rather interesting bridge construction; they have avoided brass nuts and other tomfoolery in favour of making the bridge as heavy as possible, and joined to the body as well as possible. Many electric guitar bridges are still thin bits of metal screwed on to the body; Aria's is a hefty chunk which is actually inset into the wood.
Another feature of this bridge is that it has two distinct ways of anchoring the string ends; either by keyhole slots, or by passing the strings through holes in the back of the body. The slots are handy for quick restringing on stage, and also enable the reuse of old strings with curly ends in an emergency. The other advantage of having two anchoring methods is that it enables the player to alter the feel of the strings to suit his or her preferences; passing the strings through from the back lengthens them and subtly alters the whole character of the guitar.
The scale length is long, a little over 25½", and the strings supplied were quite lightweight, ranging in gauge from 0.046" to 0.009". The guitar arrived with the strings in the slots, and like this, was ideal for string bending and other metallic guitar heroics; alternatively the light action would make it easy to pound out barre chords all night without getting cramp in your forefinger.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to restring the guitar with the same strings since their curly ends wouldn't go through the holes in the back, and I wasn't about to buy a new set of strings just to experiment with. From my experience, a longer string length stiffens things up in quite a different way from using a heavier gauge set of strings; the only way to find out if you like this is to try it out when you fit new strings. In general, stiffer strings are good for fingerstyle and for very fast playing since they don't flop about so much under your fingers.
Back to the bridge; there are six string saddles, one for each string, and each individually adjustable for intonation and height. Intonation (string length) adjustment is by cross-point head screws, while string height (action) is adjusted with a small Allen key which is supplied by the thoughtful Aria people. They also give you a bigger Allen key to fit the truss rod, which isn't such a good idea; indiscriminate truss rod adjustment can damage your neck. Beware!
The machine heads all worked smoothly, the nut was accurately cut and didn't stick, and there wasn't a single sharp fret end anywhere on the fingerboard; ten out of ten for the mechanics of this guitar.
There are three knobs and four switches on the guitar's lower bout. Master volume and the pick-up selector are in just the right place and work well; no problems there. The only advantage I can see in having two tone controls, however, is in being able to predetermine a different setting for each pickup used separately; when both pick-ups are on, there is total interaction, and both tone controls do the same job.
One of the small toggle switches puts the pick-ups out of phase when both are on together, and gives the familiar 'hollow' sound; the other two give parallel or series connection of the coils in each pick-up. As is common with these dual sound arrangements, parallel connection tends to sound more strangled than a coil tap, but has the advantage of being hum cancelling while still giving some treble increase.
As I've already suggested, treble is the one thing this guitar lacks, although it's easily put back with the amplifier controls; maybe the active circuitry of the TS-600 is better in this respect. The sound is smooth rather than cutting, although the pick-ups are really quite powerful; I measured 10 volts peak to peak output when playing loudly.
I was able to obtain a good acoustic strumming sound, and a creditable jazz sound. The appearance of the TS-400 is such that it won't look out of place playing such music, unless you get the bluer than blue version of course; and then you add a bit of overdriven amplifier distortion, its whole character changes. The sound becomes warm and thick, ideal for heavy metal and similar assaults on the senses; if you want to be a little more creative, the guitar is responsive enough to follow where you lead.
Before we leave the controls, the knobs are quite a surprise; they look just like black plastic — it's only when you touch them that you realise they are in fact metal! An example of the inscrutable Japanese sense of humour, perhaps?
The lead supplied with the instrument is fine, and has dismantlable plugs fitted rather than the moulded on sort, which makes it easier to repair if necessary. The jack socket is on the side of the guitar where you can't see it — black mark for that — although it does have a neat recessed surround to keep plug marks in the wood to a minimum. When you come to plug the lead in, however, a slight slip-up becomes apparent; it's normal to put the right angled plug into the guitar, but because of the recess you can't do this. To summarise then, the only fault with the electrics is that the right angled plug has to go at the amplifier end... If any of you use those effects boxes which dangle off the guitar itself (and usually drop out of the socket in the middle of your ace solo) they won't fit either, which can only be a good thing in my opinion.
There are four guitars in the Thor Sound range, from the previously mentioned TS-600 down to the TS-300 which has a bolt-on neck and a phase switch only; no dual sound. The TS-500 is a mixture of the 400 and 600, as you might expect; it is basically a TS-400 with the addition of active circuitry, and may be worth considering if you have a little more money to spend.
The main features of the TS-400 are value for money and attention to detail; if I call it characterless, that is meant as a compliment. Distinctive, exciting guitars soon become a nuisance when you want to deviate from what they do best; with the Aria, it's easy to forget the guitar is there and just concentrate on the music. After all, that's what it's all about isn't it?
Review by Peter Maydew
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