Electric guitars made using composite materials are not a new idea, but the Dutch company Aristides thinks it might have finally come up with something that overcomes 'if it ain't wood I don't want it' prejudices. We askedTim Slaterto try out some drastic plastic.
There is a very good reason why guitar designers who experiment with man made materials over conventional timbers routinely fail to win over the majority of mainstream guitarists. History is dotted with talented new guitar designers who have subscribed to the belief that in order to attain credibility space age materials always go hand in hand with futuristic designs. Bond, Steinberger and Parker Guitars have all had their turn at shaking up the rather staid guitar industry but despite some genuinely interesting products, their moment in the sun was comparatively brief. Mind you, even those staunch traditionalists at Gibson had a stab at changing the game with the resin/wood hybrid Sonex of the early 80s, but this guitar wasn't really anything more than a short-lived, bolt-on neck Les Paul variant - and besides which it was also pig ugly, so no cigar there!
Still, still this isn't to say that guitars made from composite materials cannot work. They can and often do perform brilliantly but in a world dominated by a handful of universally recognized shapes, it takes guts to admit that guitarists might buy into the concept more readily if only they had something safe and non-threatening to encourage them.
Enter Aristides. Dutch acoustic engineer Aristides Poort founded the company in the 1990s and its MO hinges on a thru-neck design fashioned from a new composite material which the company calls 'Arium'. After studying how wood cells react to vibration, Poort and his team, working with the Technical University Delft, developed Arium as a more stable alternative to wood. Whereas timber's natural resonance is dependent on various issues, like its density and moisture content, Arium is totally unaffected by any of the above. Consequently, changing atmospheric conditions will have zero effect on Arium, so shouldn't affect the guitar's tuning stability.
Describing Arium, Aristedes says: "Arium is a material produced from different special resins and microscopically small vibration sensitive glass particles.
A wear-resistant cover made of glass and carbon fiber protects the sensitive mixture when it is inserted in its Aluminum mould.
"The material has several advantages as compared to wood: wood cannot vibrate in the direction of the fiber and it therefore forces sound waves to resonate only two-dimensionally. Arium in contrast, has no fiber structure and it vibrates three-dimensionally, which does not only extend the sustain considerably, but also enhances the acoustic sound volume.
"As it does not contain any water, it is more stable than wood, it reacts less to temperature fluctuations and humidity, has a conspicuously more stable tuning, and requires less maintenance."
So, what's it like in action? That the 020 produces a very impressive natural sustain is indisputable but where this guitar really scores is that it looks and plays, well, just like a 'proper' guitar! Despite a couple of small recessed contours moulded into the 020's body, the double cutaway shape looks and feels very sleek. It combines a soupcon of Gibson LP double cut with the merest hint of PRS or possibly Yamaha MSG but the bottom line is that this guitar immediately looks at home nestled among the other instruments in the guitar rack.
Good quality ancillary hardware and conventional circuitry also help the 020 to feel and sound like an otherwise traditional electric guitar. There are no daft digital displays indicating wind speed or how fast you are playing, just a set of Hip Shot Griplock locking tuners located on the modestly appointed three-a-side headstock, a Graph Tech low friction nut, a conventional rosewood fingerboard fitted with 22 medium jumbo frets and a pair of covered Seymour Duncan humbuckers, linked to a standard three-way selector switch, a rotary tone control and a rotary volume that doubles as a push/pull coil tap.
The 020 weighs-in at 3.5 kilos (7lbs), which is fractionally lighter than many US Standard Fender Stratocasters. Slung around the neck on a guitar strap it feels just the right side of 'solid' without starting to get uncomfortable. The 10-inch radius rosewood 'board offers a good compromise between a comfy vintage curvature and the more bend-friendly modern radius and again, there is nothing about the 020's feel to suggest that there is anything high-tech going on beneath the gold finish.
Sound-wise, the Seymour Duncan TB-4 bridge humbucker and SH-2N neck pickup make a very workable combo, offering a good blend of muscular rawk authenticity and smooth bluesy richness, with the extra 'honk' factor courtesy of the coil tap circuit, which is common to both pickups. Coil tapped tones are not to everyone's taste but the decision to include them is a good idea in this context, because it adds perceived value to the whole package without being too obvious or gimmicky.
Overall, the 020 sounds like a very well-appointed modern electric guitar, the unusually generous sustain being the main thing that sets it apart. Arguments about how it would stand on a tour of the tropics (or just a flight from Anchorage to Florida!) is something we can't do more than speculate about, but you have to assume it's notthatmuch of a problem with conventional instruments, or there would be no touring musicians! Which brings us to the real problem here. The long and short of it is that this guitar, from a relatively unknown maker, is going to cost you the sort of money you'd expect to pay for, say, a Les Paul Custom or a high end PRS. It succeeds as a viable guitar whilst concealing its space-age construction beneath otherwise conventional features but we're not quite sure it offers enough advantages over its traditional rivals to justify the price. There are cheaper versions than the gold-finished model we tried, but the bottom line is that an Aristedes 020, even in black and white, will still cost you just under $4,000.
We really struggled over how to rate this guitar. There is absolutely nothing at all wrong with it and it stands comparison with the big brands. But it's unlikely to have their resale value, nor do we feel that it offers sufficient obvious advantages to warrant the price. In the end, though, we decided it still deserves four stars as a fine instrument in its own right.