Retro-Rama 1960s Aria Diamond

IN ALL THE TIME I HAVE BEEN WRITING THIS COLUMN, this is one of the most unusual basses I have come across.

IN ALL THE TIME I HAVE BEEN WRITING THIS COLUMN, this is one of the most unusual basses I have come across. Nashville session bassist Kevin “Swine” Grantt bought this recently, and when he brought it by to show me, I knew I had to write about it. Usually, there is a ton of available information about almost any musical instrument—but this bass appears to have sprung out of a black hole. There are a few things we do know about it, starting with the Aria brand name and the MADE IN JAPAN plate on the back.

Aria was founded in 1953 by Shiro Arai, and began as an importer of classical guitars. In 1960, the company began contracting outside manufacturers to make guitars, and in 1964 Arai began a long-term relationship with instrument manufacturer Matsumoku. Around that time, the company name changed to the more familiar Aria. One of Matsumoku’s trademarks was a three-piece laminated neck. That, along with the tuners and trim, leads me to believe that this bass was made sometime in the late ’60s as part of Aria’s “Diamond Series” of hollowbody instruments.

The mystery deepens from there. The headstock says DIAMONDS, but the label inside the body uses the singular DIAMOND and has a blank space where the serial number should be. (Perhaps this was a prototype that never went into full production. If you know the answers to some of these questions, let us know!)

Regardless of the mysteries involved, this incredibly lightweight bass is one cool axe, and is in fantastic shape. The original fiber case that came with it fits this unusual shape perfectly, as well. The 30" short-scale neck is slim, yet chunky enough to feel solid. The action has crept up a bit with time, but it’s still very playable, and there is a trussrod for tweaking the neck angle.

The large, asymmetrical double-cutaway body has a Dali-esque shape, and the red-to-black sunburst finish is a notch above most “ cheap” import basses of the era. The “mother of toilet seat” headstock, complete with a faux jewel, is reminiscent of certain ’60s Italian basses that were influenced by the accordion-making tradition of its builders. The pickguard and pickup surround, made from the same pearloid material with rosewood trim, give this bass an art deco flair that the angled bridge and minimal trapeze tailpiece complete nicely.

The single pickup is well placed to get plenty of warmth, and it has a sweet, surprisingly full-range tone. The real bonus is the wide sweep of the tone knob. Turned full up, it has a pleasant top-end plunk; in the middle it starts to mellow out, and when you turn it all the way down it’s a free ride to dub-land. The fact that the body seems to be devoid of any bracing or sustain blocks makes amplifying past a modest level a guaranteed feedback generator. The resulting howl can be harnessed to some degree for interesting effects, especially with the tone knob on zero, which can creates a sonic boom of serious bottom end.

In the ’60s, most Japanese basses were copies of American or European designs. The Diamond Series was perhaps an early attempt by Aria to create its own identity, and this bass certainly achieves that. By the mid ’70s, led by Matsumoko design engineer Nobuaki Hayashi (aka H. Noble), Aria began to move away from derivative designs and created many interesting and innovative guitars. The company continues to prosper today.

The lesson to be learned from this rare beast is that just when you think you’ve seen it all, something like this comes along and reminds you always to expect the unexpected!


Retro-Rama 1989 Washburn AB-45 Prototype

THIS MONTH’S FLASHBACK COMES STRAIGHT out of the late-’90s “MTV Unplugged” era, when acoustic bass guitars were all the rage. While this style of bass has its roots back hundreds of years ago in Spain, later emerging as the Mexican guitarron and being reinvented in the Ernie Ball Earthwood bass, Washburn was the company that really put the ABG on the map in the 1980s. Since then there have been many variations on this theme, but the AB-45 was definitely state of the art for the time.

Retro-Rama: 1984 Steinberger XL25 5-string

HARD AS IT MAY BE FOR SOME OF US to believe, it’s been almost 30 years since the Steinberger bass turned the electric bass world upside down with its unique look and hi-tech tone. Coming to the bass world from a design background, Ned Steinberger arrived armed with a vision to reinvent the basic concepts of creating an electric bass. The first Steinberger bass hit the scene in 1980, and was an immediate sensation—and subject of debate— among bass players worldwide. Appearing at the dawn of the MTV era, the first wave of Steinbergers seemed to be everywhere throughout the ’80s. The Dixie Dregs’ Andy West and reggae bassist/producer Robbie Shakespeare were two early players of this innovative instrument, giving some indication of its global reach.

Retro-Rama : 1973 Hagstrom Swede

HAGSTROM WAS FOUNDED IN ALVDALEN, SWEDEN IN THE 1920S by 19-year-old Albin Hagstrom. The company initially specialized in making accordions, and business grew steadily through the ’30s and ’40s, despite the economic turmoil of World War II. In addition to building musical instruments, the company also operated a large chain of music stores throughout Scandinavia. By the late 1950s, Hagstrom jumped into the burgeoning guitar market in a big way and successfully marketed their instruments world wide through various distributors, including Selmer in the U.S. 

Retro-Rama :1983 Spector NS-2JA

THE 1970s WERE A HEADY TIME FOR electric bassists and bass builders alike. The musical and technical innovations of the ’60s had been absorbed into the mainstream, and the dawn of the decade saw the bass taking an increasingly large role in the direction of contemporary music—even before disco hit in the mid ’70s. During this same time a new generation of builders began to spread their wings as well, and by the end of the decade many forces were at work to reinvent and refine not only the role of the bass, but the instrument itself.