Our trusty Collins English Dictionary describes an aria as “an elaborate accompanied song for solo voice,” which didn’t necessarily help guide our thoughts on the latest guitar to hit the UK from the Japanese company.
More fittingly for our purposes, Wikipedia called it an “expressive melody.”
When company founder Shiro Arai switched the spelling of his company’s name from the self-titled Arai in 1956 to Aria in 1958, he knew about this description, and it has probably helped business in Western and European countries since then.
He modeled some of his earliest guitars on Fenders, but like many Japanese manufacturers in the second half of the 20th century, he was able to build products of equal quality or better for much better value. This doesn’t mean Shiro Arai cheated his way into guitar making: the knowledge and inspiration he drew from Kohno guitars and traditional Japanese instruments taught him well, and the same great attributes feature in each Aria today.
Today we’re looking at a low price offering from Aria - the 111. Based on the 100 series, this range has been a must-try for first-time guitar owners recently. The MTN designation on the review copy stands for Matte Natural, which boasts a blonde-like spruce top that is clean with plain figure.
On an entry-level guitar, we find a natural shade more attractive than sunburst designs, which can usually look quite cheap, but without the Tobacco or Cherry Sunburst options in hand to compare, it would be unfair to determine the quality of the sister 111s against the MTN.
You can’t expect a guitar of this price to feature much better wood, and a parent or guardian would hardly want to invest in something more aesthetically pleasing for more than the £169 this would set you back - especially if their keen teenage musician has shown little care for prized possessions in the past. It does the job on the immediate eye test.
The auditorium size appeals to players who don’t have massive experience with acoustic guitars. The sapele back and sides are a good choice for an entry-level guitar that you want to last a long time. It resists wood decay, and over the years becomes richer in colour - with the added benefit of not adding much expense.
It is easy enough to get your playing arm around the body to strum comfortably. There is no cutaway, but if you are transferring from an amplified electric guitar and want to learn some of your favourite band’s songs as a beginner, any Smells Like Teen Spirit perfectionists will appreciate the bigger sound. A full body means it is more difficult to make use of all 20 frets as anything past 14 will require a new hand position unless you boast spider-like fingers. But if you can reach the top end, the quality of the rosewood fretboard means you can hit clean notes and play chords well beyond 12.
The mahogany on the neck is surprisingly attractive, with a decent lustre making it almost a shame that it won’t be visible to an audience. It is nice to see fret markers inlaid on the neck as well as the fingerboard to aid beginners, who often require reminders of where they are. The head is a smart shape and features the Aria logo.
Vintage machine heads are tastefully done and not too garish against the rest of the guitar. They could be a little bigger to ease turning, but don’t pose any problems and can be tightened using a small crosshead screwdriver should they loosen over time.
It’s a pleasing guitar to play. Too many acoustics in the sub-£200 price bracket have frets that aren’t shaped smoothly - to the point where you avoid playing certain chords to avoid cutting your finger. Aria’s 111 makes you wonder why lower-priced instruments can’t be made to at least be comfortable.
The quoted nut width is 43mm - we measured it closer to 42 - and this could have been a bit smaller, if only to give younger guitarists with smaller hands an easier start, but for an accomplished player it presented no problem. A single guitar strap nut means you would have to attach the other end to the head of the guitar - which can make it difficult to balance when you are standing up - but one could be added with ease.
It particularly suited funkier playing: We loved hitting low notes then strumming higher melodies in the rhythm of James Brown. It could be expressive on slower songs with similar playing styles, like upbeat Jack Johnson numbers. And while the lower strings didn’t appreciate hammer-ons as much as the top end, you could get away with tapping or thumbing a bass-line if sparsely used.
Whether you’re buying your first guitar, picking one up for a beginner, or simply want a decent second acoustic to mess around with, this will be more than up to the task.