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This article was originally published in issue #14
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It's the present giving season, but can you safely buy a very cheap guitar for a beginner? And what if you want an acoustic for yourself but cash is hard to come by? We gave Tom Quayle Aria's new AF-15 and told him to forget everything he knows about playing guitar…
As a guitarist at the beginning of your musical journey, picking the right starter instrument can make the difference between a few months of frustrated misery or a lifetime of musical enjoyment and participation. Back a couple of decades ago it was very difficult to pick up quality instruments at a price that didn't involve significant investment for the beginner. Poor fretwork, shoddy laminate woods and bad set-ups were the norm across much of the industry but things have changed a great deal and standards have risen a lot in recent years.
Aria's offering for the starter market is its AF series, clearly named to inspire and offer hope for those taking their first steps into the world of guitar playing. The AF15 is perhaps the most appealing of the range with its incredibly low price, small body size and attractive design and is available in four finishes. Our review model came in a natural gloss but two sunbursts and black are also available.
The AF15 is constructed from all solid woods, a fantastic achievement at the chosen price point! Clearly we're not talking high-end tonewoods here but the construction is of a high quality with no obvious corner cutting to speak of. Looking inside the guitar you can see that the bracing and finishing is all very clean with no wood shavings or splinters sticking out anywhere, matching the quality of the outer finish. The back and sides are made from basswood, which, whilst not being the most obvious choice for an acoustic guitar, keeps costs down and works surprisingly well. With very little grain to speak of, the back and sides appear very plain but this isn't the biggest concern for most beginners anyway. The top is solid spruce and looks great with quality binding and an attractive rosette around the sound hole. Catalpa is used for the neck (I've never heard of it either) as a replacement for the much more expensive mahogany and works very well in this regard, offering an attractive and solidly constructed neck with a rosewood fretboard offering 20 frets. Finally, a rosewood bridge and chrome, die-cast tuners finish the design, giving an attractive guitar that will appeal visually to beginners and more advanced players alike.
Out of the box the factory set-up was very good but the action was perhaps a little too high in the upper register of the neck. I don't really see this as a problem though as in the lower register playability was superb with a very comfortable neck that would suit smaller hands very well indeed. Since most beginners will be spending ninety per cent of their time down the lower end of the fretboard the higher action shouldn't put anyone off and can of course be adjusted as required with the truss rod. Other than that, playability is as good as some guitars three times the price with chords and scales being easily executed without much effort. Tuning stability remained good throughout my playing abuse and the plastic nut appeared to do its job admirably with no sticking or grinding during tuning.
Tonally, the AF15 is very surprising with a loud and full-bodied sound that belies its beginner status. Most guitarists would have loved to achieve a sound like this from their first guitar and it's great news that this can be had at a price below the average decent restaurant meal! This guitar is dynamic and responds very well to pick attack for single notes or strumming. The sound is warm but doesn't have over pronounced mid-range or a dull top end. The solid construction means that there are no rattles or buzzes coming from the body, a problem that can plague other starter guitars and thanks to those solid woods the tone will only improve over time.
It's amazing what can be achieved in the guitar industry now for such a small price. This is a great time to be a starter guitar player as the range of quality instruments has vastly increased over the last decade offering guitars that really will inspire new players for a lifetime. The Aria AF15 is one such guitar and represents a fantastic option for both the beginner and the guitarist looking for a second or even third acoustic to have around the house for parties, basic studio work or practice. I can't recommend it enough and would put it as a serious option for anyone looking for a great first guitar this holiday season.