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This article was originally published in issue #19
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Metallica original bassist, the late Cliff Burton, was one of the champions of Aria's hugely successful SB basses back in the 1980s. Now the Japanese manufacturer has launched a replica of Cliff's own bass. How does it stand up after 30 years? Tim Slater assesses the legend.
Aria's SB basses pretty-much dominated the 1980s and were favoured by an impressive host of semi-professional and professional bassists encompassing a huge range of musical styles. Among the most exciting of these was a young Californian bassist named Cliff Burton whose playing demonstrated astounding dexterity, power and intensity. When Burton was invited to join Metallica in 1982, the whole band even moved - at Burton's insistence - to his native San Francisco as he was unwilling to relocate to Metallica's original home base of Los Angeles, such was the high regard in which his four-string skills were held!
Cliff Burton, who can be heard on Metallica's first three albums, Kill 'Em All, Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets, died in 1986 when the band's tour bus skidded off the road while they were on tour in Sweden but his musical legacy is honoured with this reissue of his favourite Aria SB-1000 bass, which was launched at NAMM earlier this year, actually being unveiled by Cliff's father, Ray Burton, who has been actively involved in this reissue project.
Cliff Burton favoured two basses during his professional career, a Rickenbacker 4001, which he didn't find robust enough for life on the road, and the Aria SB-1000. The Aria duly features Burton's favoured black finish, topped off by handmade sold brass parts finished in 24-carat gold plate!
Besides the classic symmetrical pointed headstock profile, the Aria Black 'N' Gold SB-1000 also features the traditional neck-thru design that was a trademark of the original models. The neck is made from a seven-ply composite of maple and walnut and runs the entire length of the body, flanked by a pair of solid alder 'wings' that form the upper and lower horns and bouts. Besides being incredibly strong and stable, the laminate construction reflects the tendency for laminates to be fairly heavy, our review bass certainly felt pretty sturdy, but the virtually heel-less neck joint also demonstrates one key advantage afforded by neck-thru designs: superb playability.
Access to the upper reaches of the two octave, 34" scale, 24 fret rosewood fingerboard is pretty much unlimited, while the SB's superb balance virtually guarantees that most of the sensation of weight is relieved when the bass is balanced on a decent strap. The fingerboard features the distinctive mother of pearl oval and cat's eye shaped inlays, whilst a facsimile of Cliff Burton's signature can be found inscribed on the rear of the headstock.
In my opinion, the gold-plated solid brass hardware looks a bit dated but then again we are looking at an instrument that is designed to reflect a very particular period of musical history, plus it does look very cool against the otherwise virtually all black finish!
This particular version of the SB-1000 features a passive humbucking pickup that is wired to a coil tap switch. The coil-tapped sounds are typical of high quality Japanese basses from the '80s, the output is very even across the entire frequency range, with no noticeable prominence given to either the bass, mid-range or treble. Sounds a bit boring? Well, it isn't so bad when you consider that the lack of relative peaks makes for a very stable and consistent sound. The overall tone is a maybe little too well defined to truthfully describe it as sounding 'vintage' in the accepted sense but it is very warm and punchy, nevertheless. In full humbucking mode this SB develops a more aggressive sound with much more individual character. The evenly balanced frequency spread is still there but the passive humbucking MV-V pickup does the business without sounding too bloated or overblown. Bassists who enjoy whipping out a furious solo a la Billy Sheehan or Cliff Burton should find a willing ally in the SB's abundance of natural sustain. Check out the video!
Whether the user is playing fingerstyle, using a pick or laying down a furious two-handed tapping frenzy, the SB feels like an excellent platform for the bassist who is as comfortable in the limelight as they are helping to hold down the low end whilst the lead guitarist does his thing at the front of the stage.
The acid test of any signature instrument isn't really whether it does what the player it's named for wanted. That's fine for tribute bands but what makes a successful signature model (think Les Paul) is whether it stands on its own two feet as a contemporary instrument and the Aria certainly does, thanks to its excellent build quality, superb playability and fine sound.
Sadly, all this comes at a hefty price, notwithstanding the deluxe hardshell case included in the price. Japanese-made instruments are no longer cheap, as they were back in the '70s and '80s, and this Aria, beautifully made as it is, competes head-on with specialist-built basses from some of today's top custom makers. It may be that Aria is calculating it will appeal to the collector's market and perhaps it will. It comes with a certificate of authenticity, signed by Ray Burton and Aria's Toshi Matsumura, so that seems to be where the company is pitching it. But if you weren't a collector or a serious Cliff Burton fan, you might wonder whether a stock Aria SB bass might do almost as well for a lot less money.
All the same, this is a fine instrument, and if Metallica and Cliff Burton are your thing, it's one you can't ignore.