Guitar Stories #1

Aria Pro II YS500


Stephen Barker

2021-06-25 4 min read

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a guy called Colin, he said he had a couple of guitars that had were being brought out of storage and he needed them setting up so he could jam with his old mates once they all had their Covid jabs.

“I've got this Les Paul type guitar I ordered from a catalogue in 1980, it was my first guitar” Immediately I'm thinking low output single coils under a humbucker cover, maple plywood, bolt on neck, cheap tuners, the kind of thing that many of us started out with, you know Kay, Antoria, Satellite, ... “I was thinking about a set-up and some upgrades” he said. “Okay, bring it in, I'll see what I can do.”

So Colin brought it over to the shop and plonked a guitar case on the counter. I opened it up and realised just how the 'first guitar' comment had lead to to make the wrong assumption. When I opened the case I was presented with an example of what made the British and American public look beyond the US giants Fender and Gibson.

Inside the case was a 1980 Aria Pro II YS500 in near immaculate condition. Not a 'lawsuit' guitar, but a unique design with a mix of familiar and original features. All solid maple/ash body, neck through construction, tensionable machine heads, brass nut, 24 fret rosewood fingerboard, Super Distortion style MMK-45 pickups, six position tone selector and coil split … a top of the line offering from Japan.

I was a little confused as to why Colin had said it came from a catalogue, I guess he didn't mean a mail-order catalogue type because the original guarantee card stated it was purchased from Salop Music in Shropshire, 05/05/1980. He told me they had commented that it was the very first they Aria they had shipped to the UK and if this was an example of what they could expect from Aria, it was going to be a game-changer. At the time you might have put that down to sales patter, but how true those words were. You have to put your mind back to a time when Made in Japan was a break with tradition for buyers in the UK. At the same time, there wasn't much choice when it came to home-grown guitars here in the UK so unlike cars and motorbikes which had a firmly established but faltering industry. European made guitars were either poorly made or out dated, American guitars were for the pros or fortunate sons … Japanese guitars with somewhat misleading sounding brands were kicking an open door.

Gibson were ahead of Fender in this race as they already had a production relationship with Japan through its Epiphone brand dating back to around 1970. In the '70s they went from producing sub-par budget guitars, to decent guitars for the Japanese market and reasonable guitars for export to excellent guitars for the US and UK markets. The pattern was make the better stuff for the Japanese market and a lesser product for the rest of the world, I suppose to keep primacy for the US made stuff. That fact that Gibson/Epiphone utilised the pre existing production facilities in Japan (Matusmoku and Terada) was a double edged sword, or should that be samurai sword? The Japanese brands they were working with learned a lot about the expectations of the British and American markets and were able to out-do them. Anyone not wedded to the US brand connection, could get a superior instrument for a great price.

One of the issues that plagued Japanese engineering in general at this time though, was the use of poor quality recycled metal. This was especially true of cars that were known to rust badly. When it came to servicing Colin's YS500, I may have been experiencing a little of that, as it took me 4 hours to strip and rebuild the bridge due to every screw being rusted in to place. After carefully removing all 18 screws and either recutting or de-burring the internal and external threads with a tap and die set followed by a good coating of oil I was able to reuse all the original parts.

Now, with a good set-up, new set of strings, the bridge overhaul and chemical restoration of the switches and pots, this YS500 is rockin' again.

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