The vintage Diamond models offer kitsch—and a strange charm.
I’ve had so many guitars pass in and out of my house that I often forget some of the cool little gems that I’ve owned. And I mention gems because, during a recent pawnshop crawl, I happened upon one of the cool, old Aria Diamond guitars with the rhinestone “gem” inlay. Finding these Diamond guitars back in the day was like hitting the guitar lottery! You just felt lucky with a diamond-head guitar.
Most players probably associate the Aria and Arai name with high-quality electrics from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Some of the later Aria Pro guitars are the stuff of legend and were made with the finest wood by the finest builders in the city of Matsumoto. But of course, I flock towards the kitschy diamond. Give me the cheap stuff!
I actually met the owner of Aria, Shiro Arai, back in 2015 when I visited the Aria factory. There was a small retail store/museum out in front, and as I entered, there was Arai plucking on a classical guitar. We began talking and sat there for a few hours in a lounge area. Guitar playing was a passion for him, and unlike many other guitar-factory founders, he could actually read music and was an accomplished player. He also had several vintage classical guitars displayed there, and man … did he have a cool collection. He also smiled a lot, which is a quality I look for in people these days. He was living a joyful existence, surrounded by the things he loved.
Aria guitars were always decent instruments out of the box, and that was mainly because, as a player himself, Arai felt it was important to have good quality control and good setups from the factory.
Arai started his company back in 1956 as a general import/export business, but soon he was focusing almost exclusively on guitars. He even became the Japanese importer of major guitar brands such as Framus, Guild, Rickenbacker, and Epiphone. Aria guitars were always decent instruments out of the box, and that was mainly because, as a player himself, Arai felt it was important to have good quality control and good setups from the factory. As a youth in the ’80s, I used to see tons of Aria guitars, and they seemed rather popular.
Using Aria as his company brand name, Arai utilized the famous Matsumoku factory for just about all his electric guitars. The earliest Aria electrics appeared around 1966, and several models featured the ultra-cool diamond logo, complete with a faux gem! From the get-go, Aria guitars were almost all copies or models that drew design inspiration from Gibson, Fender, Mosrite, Höfner, and Rickenbacker. But hidden at the low end of the price range was the strange 1532T. With an offset design, a sweeping lower bout, and exaggerated double cutaways, the guitar was unlike any other Aria guitar. This weirdo lasted into the 1970s, when almost every Japanese electric maker was focused on copies.
The 1532T has 21 frets and a Gibson scale. Aside from the body design, most of the components are standard Matsumoku fare. The two pickups are fine-sounding units—powerful single-coils that sound phenomenal. It’s operated with one volume and one tone knob, and its pickup switch is a 3-way toggle. The adjustable bridge works well, but sometimes has some sort of hard-plastic string guides. What really shines on these 1532T guitars is the tremolo, which was used on this model and the Mosrite copies (dubbed as the 1702T). Among the 1960s Japanese electric guitar makers, tremolo units were not that great as a whole. But this unit on the 1532T is fantastic, with great touch sensitivity and return (maybe it was those plastic bridge saddles?).
I think I’ve only owned a few other Diamond guitars, but that recent pawnshop visit reminded me how fun it is to find cool, old stuff. You gotta get out there, people! Maybe you’ll hit the lottery? You never know.
A Thoroughbred Marshall Prepares for Its Next Race
This JTM45 is an amp of which rock and blues dreams are made on.
So often in the world of guitar and amp design, the earliest innovations are hard to improve upon. Companies spend years and countless dollars trying to tweak the formula just to wind up back where they started. The Telecaster still looks virtually the same 75 years later, and Marshalls are still the gold standard for classic rock ’n’ roll amplification.
This 1966 JTM45 might be the “holy grail” of Marshall heads. For most of 1965, the JTM45 featured the block logo design. This example sports the newly introduced and now familiar script Marshall logo. This is also the second full year of the black levant Tolex still found on Marshall amps today. Later in 1966, the small-box 50-watt Marshall heads would replace the JTM45s, making these amps relatively short-lived in their original incarnation, despite all their early adopters. Original examples like this are incredibly hard to find in the States, especially in excellent, stock condition.
With a gold plexiglass front panel and white back panel, this amp certainly has the looks, but as with most things in life, it’s what’s inside that counts.
Off with its hood! Here’s the power tube and transformer array in this 56-year-old tone machine. It’s a simple but potent mix.
The folded-end aluminum chassis features the early style lay-down power transformer with a top-mounted voltage selector. A pair of KT66 power tubes complements three ECC83 preamp tubes and a GZ34 rectifier tube, delivering the singing, sweet sustain you hear on countless records. With two channels and high and low inputs for each, the amp offers several distinct sounds, including the popular choice produced by jumping the channels with a patch cable, to combine the best qualities of each. (The bright channel has a bright cap on the volume pot and a second cap bypassing the 270k mixing resistor, FYI.)
“The previous owner is a Nashville sideman who has backed up legends like Hank Williams Jr. and Jimmy Hall.”
The 2x12 combo configuration of this amplifier is thought to be the type of amp Eric Clapton used for the so-called “Beano album” with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, officially titled Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton and released in July 1966. Pete Townshend and other players had been using Marshall amps live for some time, but it was Clapton’s combination of a PAF-equipped 1960 Gibson Les Paul and a JTM45 amp, as well as his insistence that the engineers of the recording session pull the microphones back and allow him to turn his amplifier up, that introduced the world to what these amps could do. Soon all the guitar greats on the London music scene were flooding Jim Marshall with orders. Clapton’s early successors in the Bluesbreakers lineup, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, also used Marshall amps for their times in the band, forever linking the sound of a Marshall amp to the British blues explosion of the 1960s. Soon you could hear Marshalls on nearly every record coming from England, and subsequently in the recordings of generations of guitarists around the world that they inspired. Classic albums by Humble Pie, the James Gang, AC/DC, Jeff Beck, and ZZ Top all demonstrate the 45-watts of solid power of a JTM45. Even today, no studio would be complete without some kind of plexi-era Marshall.
As often happens with plexis, at some point a tech hand-wrote the ohm-output position numbers on the white rear plate of this vintage Marshall.
This amp walked into our store some time ago and has been in our private collection since, but it’s now for sale. The previous owner is a Nashville sideman who has backed legends like Hank Williams Jr. and Jimmy Hall. Its condition reflects its status as the prized possession of a working musician. It’s been played but very well maintained and is in pristine running order. These were built to last, and this amp has performed faithfully for many years.
In the endless pursuit of tone, so often it seems the sound many of us are chasing is the sound of this amplifier. No matter how many pedals claim to nail it, or how many boutique amps copy the circuit, there is simply nothing like plugging into a plexi-panel JTM45. These amplifiers are in many ways a musical instrument unto themselves and have no doubt inspired and shaped guitar-centric music for 60 years.
Guitars, Cars, and Becoming the Genuine Article
What’s does a Shelby Cobra and a vintage Les Paul have in common? And what comes next?
Dave was minding his own business, waiting for the traffic light to turn green, when the driver in the next lane got a little crazy. It was a lovely day—the kind of bright Saturday when you might want to roll the windows down and just go for a drive. The guy was waving his hands and motioning to make eye contact. He clearly thought that a busy intersection was a good place to have a conversation with a total stranger. Because Dave is a very friendly and outgoing guy, he played along and engaged. His new friend only wanted to know one thing: “Is it real?” This wasn’t the first time someone had asked the question. It came with the territory when you were in public with a genuine early-1960s Shelby Cobra.
Despite racing success and an outsized reputation, the Cobra enterprise wasn’t a slam-dunk, and there were quite a few points where the whole thing could have gone south before it actually did. In the end, the Cobra only lasted a handful of years. Most sports-car fans know that there are a myriad of small builders who make replicas of the legendary Shelby creation—that’s usually what you see on the road today—but very few examples of the original cars, now worth millions of dollars, are routinely out on the town. So, it’s understandable that when fans spot what appears to be the real deal, they might want to confirm their suspicions. Not everyone cares, but if you are a member of the tribe of motorsports, it’s pretty exciting.
The same sort of queries get tossed out in the guitar world, which readers of this column know is a parallel I like to point out. The most obvious example is probably the 1958-1960 Les Paul Standard “Sunburst.” Similar to the Cobra, the ’burst was made for only a few years, and is recognized as the best of the breed. Another similarity is that both icons became desirable not just because of their incredible performance, but by the legendary owners who wielded them while attaining their own fame.
It might be a stretch, but I happen to think that the car and the guitar are also similar in other ways. Both are known for their power and appearance, and the fact that they’re not for everybody. But the allure remains so much so that Ford (who provided the motors for the Cobra) and Gibson continue to trade on the name and reputation created by a small number of originals made long ago. It has to be said that Gibson does a much better job of recreating the experience than Ford, though.
Both icons became desirable not just because of their incredible performance, but by the legendary owners who wielded them while attaining their own fame.
Of course, there are hundreds of examples of the same kind of thinking in the musical instrument industry. My own roots in the “modern vintage” angle stemmed from attempting to fill a void in the marketplace when the big factories abandoned production of their golden-age instruments. Since that time, musicians have rediscovered the sound, feel, and romance of gear from decades past. What might have been seen as business suicide back then, has proven to be a workable model today—and not limited to the guitar industry either.
The idea of paying homage to the glorious roots of guitar-based music by emulating the looks and the sounds of the past, while employing modern advances in manufacturing, is everywhere. From the obvious reissues of amps, guitars, and effects, the same playbook is being applied to digital simulations of speakers, microphones, and outboard recording gear. If you don’t want to throw down for the real thing, buy a simulation!
For certain, there have always been products that ignore nostalgia and attempt to push boundaries. Stages, studios, and bedrooms are chock full of merchandise that may or may not live on for future consideration. Some fade into obscurity while others become entrenched in the new vocabulary of music making. It’s hard to know which ones will persevere to take their place alongside the icons we love. But like the story of Dave’s Shelby Cobra, I’ll bet a lot of it depends upon superior performance, with a big dose of artist association. Shelby’s reputation is certainly bigger than the actual enterprise, which ironically has added to the lore. They say the cream rises to the top, but a lot of luck doesn’t hurt.