Yamaha BB1600/Aria 5-string
A-RAZZLE-and-a-dazzle... here come Japan's latest, all decked out with gold parts, holding their piggy snouts high in the air as they swagger past, cocking their snooks at me, so to speak. Well, that was how they struck me at the time. The one from Yamaha is sleek all-black and gold, with a dusky brown fingerboard and a certain softness to its ample proportions.
Then the sharper-looking character from Aria, with strange angles, narrow waistline, and metallic red suit, punctuated with gold hardware and loaded with five strings.
"Zap!" they shouted.
But now it's time for inspection. When the first note is struck on the Yamaha BB1600 it becomes clear that there is a certain "breeding" at work within, although the general layout of the guitar couldn't be more run-of-the-mill.
Tonal character is red blooded with a juicy sounding treble end, and a well balanced harmonic content occasionally gives the impression of a kind of compressed reverb. This suggests good matching of wood stock — the neck feels quite dense and notably free of dead spots, and the strings vibrate very cleanly beneath the left hand.
High-ratio, open-backed machine heads enable accurate, steady tuning for strings that are anchored to the body by a Precision-type bridge assembly. This is a little uninspiring, but I suppose it does the job, and at least it has grooves to keep the barrels in line. The truss rod is adjusted by an Allen key at the body end (as is the Aria's).
Fretting of 2mm gauge is well set on a medium grain rosewood. The neck is comfortable to play and slick to hold and, being a conventional design, is secured to the guitar body at the heel by four large screws.
Yamaha's bass pickup is split, Precision-like, and sounds very plump. The treble pickup is bar-shaped, with a long razor-edge magnet offering a piping kind of tone reminiscent of Jazz Bass pickups. Both are mounted on gold base-plates and are controlled by passive circuitry: two volume knobs and one for top cut. The control cavity is painted with liquid screening (I hope) and noise and buzz are negligible. Output is via a side-mounted jack socket. Pass...
Here, in Fireball XLS red, stands a five-string bass. The neck of the Aria is wide (and relatively shallow), measuring 4.5cm across at the nut, and increasing to 6.5cm at the body end; the scale is 34in. Compared to the Yamaha, the body has smaller dimensions but the overall balance of the guitar is better maintained, the headstock showing less tendency to dive. The latter is compact, and carries four machines on one side with the fifth mounted opposite, à la Music Man. Machine heads are closed-back and in ever-present gold, and they are excellent. Rosewood, of a darker hue than before, is used for the fingerboard; fret gauge is less than 2mm, and covers two octaves.
Although I appreciate that it takes time to learn how to play five strings, I couldn't help but feel that some of the details of design have been melded together a bit crudely. The action at the nut is set without much thought given to its effect on playability, and as a consequence the string tension presented to the left hand is too stiff and high in some areas of play, making chords more difficult than they ought to be and normal runs not as much fun as usual. A different choice of strings might help here, but my overall impression is that more attention needs to be paid to basic string layout.
The purpose-built bridge assembly is a chunky brass one that seems very efficient. The barrels are provided with guide tracks, though they remain unscored. This means that, laterally speaking, the strings wander until they settle their own positions, scotching the possibility of adjusting string spacing at this end of the works. Of course, one could cut slots into the barrels...
Let's listen to the sound. Each (presumably humbucking) pickup is wired to its own dual-concentric knob, the uppermost control for volume and the one below for top cut. Two small coil-tapping switches sit between the controls and nearer the bridge is a third switch, selecting bass, treble or both pickups.
The knobs and the smaller switches seem rather a long way from the right hand, and indeed the controls could, I think, be better grouped. Passive circuitry is used and screened with foil. Mild buzz was sometimes encountered, but overall noise is unnoticeable.
I found the sound quality a little disappointing. A couple of combinations gave quite good results especially if a plectrum was used, but on the whole the bass end is lightweight and lacking in authority, and the treble response sounds harsh and unrefined. Sustain isn't a selling point on this guitar — maybe the strings were old?
A five-string bass is a tough instrument to design. It falls between two stools — guitar and bass-guitar. It occupies unspecified musical territory, a situation where questions about desirable playing techniques abound. Is there a "correct" method? The Aria attempts to crack the nut, but seems to lack reference points from which to draw purpose. It ends up confused and, in the case of the sample reviewed, not very exciting to listen to.
The Yamaha is a decent bass with a sense of pedigree. The pickups are quick to respond, and the guitar feels good to play, returning clear, versatile sound of a rich, resonant quality.
With a flurry of lightning bolts they were gone, leaving the air alive with a faint smell of ozone...
YAMAHA BB1600 bass: £449
ARIA 5-string bass: £484
Review by Andrew Bodnar
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