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The banjo reviews database is here to help educate people before they purchase an instrument. Of course, this is not meant to be a substitute for playing the instrument yourself!

6872 reviews in the archive.

Aria: B-800 «Country Joe»

Submitted by Applesnake on 8/17/2007

Where Purchased: Bologna, Italy

Year Purchased: 2002
Price Paid: about 450 (€) (bought USED) historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

Since I laid my hands on it this banjo turned out to be a wild beast and for some time I tried without success to figure out how to tame it in order to coax a tasteful tone, but it didn't take long before realizing its potential. This Aria is a crackerjack packed with lots of punch and cutting power so it doesn't need to be picked hard to make notes jump out. Its most impressive feature is a cannonball 4th string, amazing thing for a raised head banjo whose tone ring is backed by a multiply rim drilled for bracket shoes: all the sweetness and the 'throaty' formants of the best archtop tone are there along with the right amount of depth. Head tension plays a key rule; at about F the instrument just starts to open up as the low string growl can be heard yet a hollow, echoey ring tends to peek through playing and up the neck the clarity diminishes to a blunt, unsympathetic tone. At a shade below C, the other extreme for practical purposes, both quickness and sweetness increase furthermore but all of the low end and part of the volume is lost. The right tension lies in the middle, between A and A#, where the tone is consistently even throughout the whole compass while retaining a good snap and the bass notes reach one's rib cage. The instrument, heavier than average, came with a post-EPA Remo Weatherking head (still fitted) which despite being very snappy imparts an annoying springiness to the sound envelope, and a passable bridge a bit on the skimpy side showing a noticeable sag. Indeed the correct setup for this banjo requires an equally slim bridge, only taller and stouter.

Sweet spots and many shades of sound are at one's fingertips just by shifting the right hand up and down, this alone is surprising. When played right over the last fret the sound is rather hollow and maximum sweetness is obtained picking over tone ring's inner edge. Cranking the tailpiece brought no noticeable changes in color given its limited pivoting range, but a minimum tension is required to effectively tame unwanted overtones.

Definitely not too pleasant near the bridge unless replacing it with a heavily thinned and hollowed one driving a thicker head. Playing at less than 1" from it doesn't make for a more piercing sound since the tone becomes harsh, thumping, and brittle. In other words, a careless attempt to sound like Ralph Stanley leads to poor signal to noise ratio.

Sound Rating: 8

Setup

Although setup was far than optimal at the time of my purchase, this banjo is rather easy to adjust. All parts are precisely machined apart from the cheesy wooden pip which I eradicated as I set out to dress the well worn frets: a tiny bone nut now replaces the 5th fret's end, cut off in the process. Before that the 5th string rode too high, sounded muffled and noted sharp. Also the neck to pot angle was rather shallow. Indeed the heel appears to be cut for ½" tall bridge thus requiring a bit of work. Unwilling to deface it I opted for a wedge shaped shim, keyed for the upper lag bolt, made from three overlapping steps of .02" marine plywood shaped to profile and carefully contoured to abut the pot in a most intimate way. That pitched the neck back just enough for one of my custom 11/16" bridges compensated for the third string and fast action. Apart from such a shortcoming, critical areas as neck to pot joint and rim to ring fit were already flawless.

I'll replace the head as soon as I care (I guess that a 5-Star, somewhat firmer than the classic .007 Remo, may further improve the tone) while later on the banjo will undergo a full refret job after applying tension to the truss rod and planing the fingerboard because at the moment its single action rod is barely tightened, verging to a backbow induced buzz avoided by a perfunctory fret dressing done after neck pitch correction. My choice of gauges for three-finger style is .009 - .011 - .013 - .020 - .009 yet I'm eager to try out other combinations on this banjo which I reckon needs a tad of restraint anyway.

Setup Rating: 5

Appearance

With a snazzy red/yellow sunburst on white maple laced with gold plating, two-leg engraved (not stamped) armrest topped by a unique peghead shape closely resembling the Gibson All American's, the B-800 is nothing short of flashy. Not exactly my taste but I don't mind too much either. Three-piece (centerstriped) neck with checkerboard purfling beneath cream binding. 6-ply 23/32" thick rim, sturdily built with no visible gaps between layers. Although generally regarded inferior to a 3-ply rim, I've played on many a Gold Star or even earlier Ibanez with more or less the same configuration up to 9 plies and sound-wise there was nothing to regret. Flame maple resonator with checkerboard purfling and cream binding on sidewall's top and bottom, twin purfling rings on the back. The instrument is finished in nitrocellulose lacquer, well laid and polished to a mirror gloss. This alone sets this banjo apart from many mass produced 'cheapies', although I don't go mad for the transparent red/yellow sunburst à la RB 800 on natural white maple: I wish they had put on a more sober hue (e.g. amber, honey, sienna, dark tobacco sunburst) or left it unstained just like the rim, the only wooden part with clear finish. In my banjo I found a neglibile finishing flaw on the resonator wall where a hardened drop of lacquer overlaps the cream binding which ends up being covered in a haze of red pigment, but with no damage. It can be easlily spot sanded and polished.

Neck and rim wood is AA-grade, and resonator's is AAA-grade. The excellent shaping and finishing contributes to this 'real thing' feel. Slender neck profile, rosewood fretboard with modified wreath pattern inlaid in white pearl (no inlay at 17th). On the black veneered peghead the gorgeous inlay work is a pearloid veneer. Plating is definitely a low point on this instrument. When I bought it, gold was already oxidized or worn on armrest, top of tension hoop, brackets, tailpiece, even on the tuning pegs, where it faded to a dull patina decidedly not up to par with aged nickel plating look. Resonator lugs, bracket band, shoes, flange, and tone ring show no signs of wear. An oddity, easy to come by at that, is two inverted position markers with the "Country Joe" nameblock at 22nd fret while the actual position inlay with corresponding side dot at 21st. Such a misplacement is common occurrence among many Asian banjos and I suspect that while at the factory they supposedly do know well what goes where since as a rule other mid to pro grade models from the same maker appear to have the correct pattern, perhaps these errors are intentional, maybe in order to make their lesser grade instruments almost identical to the American made ones to the eye of the casual buyer yet easily recognisable to the expert's. It's a sleazy speculation on my part yet I couldn't find any down-to-earth, logical explanation to date: this oddity still occurs long after the banjo business world suggested or supplied correct templates to Pacific Rim manufacturers so I can't understand why so many Asian banjos, including those sporting ornate inlays, are plagued by wrong patterns (unrelated to the long debated 9th vs. 10th / 14th vs. 15th fret markers on many antique banjos) which at times apply even to higher grade fretboards inlaid with genuine pearl or abalone so that apart from very few exceptions - notably recent Asian made Fender and Gretsch banjos - lesser grade masterclones stand correct up to second octave's flatted seventh save following a guitar pattern from then on: unless math proves wrong, 10th fret + 12 (an octave apart) equals to 22nd fret, not 21st...

Appearance Rating: 8

Reliability

Craftsmanship is good and solid, although I'll never understand the presence of a drilled-out bracket band: 24 bracket shoes are bolted through the rim and apparently the thick metal band beneath them is there only to protect the wood. Obviously this prevents the shoes from digging dents in the rim under tension, but why not bolt them to the band and leave the rim untouched? Is this done on purpose too, in order to class this banjo further apart from those with real bracket bands? We'll never know. Tuners are standard Asian planets (Gotoh / Ping), reliable and very smooth, with pearloid buttons. Standard sized rim hardware, bell brass ring, all metal parts are first rate.

Reliability Rating: 9

Customer Service

Does it ever exist? Both Japan and U.K. Aria websites are devoid of any useful informations and the Japanese site's list of discontinued products doesn't list any banjo either so I never laid my hands on any printed catalog until recently when I found out an old ad of their professional banjos depicting B-800 and B-900 side by side. The Asian banjo market, often outsourced and currently undergoing a radical upscale with some brands featuring strict supervision by designers and developers, other than being rather obscure doesn't offer much of a clue about this. Factory specs and their reference catalogs change year after year often dropping a model, changing features to the same model or introducing one that in the course of the previous season was in production by another maker, or just sold under another name. It's wiser to sort such instruments by wood type, construction patterns and choice of hardware rather than by brand name.

What's the age of this banjo? Early seventies, as the previous owner claims my B-800 to be made in 1971, or early eighties as reported in an old datasheet I found on the web? Who was the official dealer? According to the small label behind the peghead it was made in Japan, thus long before production cost forced manufacturers to move plants and toolings in Korea and subsequently in China. Newer Arias are indeed made in China but the logo has since then changed too while quality as a whole in their Korean made SB series from the Nineties somewhat dropped to the average standards of modern Asian mid-level masterclones.

To date this makes my instrument about 35 years old. All in all, who cares? It's only an almond-eyed hunk of wood and metal, not a 'real' banjo made in its homeland... Dig? :-))

Customer Service: 1

Components

Very good parts, both wood and metal. This banjo doesn't suffer from the commonest manufacturing flaws and assemblage hassles that diminish too many Asian instruments. Shallow 'U' profile throughout makes the neck really comfortable to play on. The fretboard is dead straight and correctly set with just a hint of radius (i.e not truly flat), so are the well crowned and polished medium size frets. Very little filler around the inlays. Bone nut (good) and ebony pip (already replaced). All metal parts are in excellent working order and the neck shows no warping or wobbliness. The brass tone ring is a hefty 40-hole raised head thus not the diecast pot metal rings degrading too many Asian banjos which otherwise show solid design and fine workmanship. A minor nuisance was the four-hump clamshell tailpiece lid, rattling against the plate due to the spring being bent and stuck inside its slot so that the lid could neither fully open nor stay put. The tension knob hole seemed stripped too (I was mislead by excess play) and the tailpiece could not be set properly. For many years it did nothing other than attaching strings until I found out how to take it apart, straighten out both pivot shaft and lid spring, and put it back in pristine conditions. This dispelled the former idea of replacing it with a Presto or a Straightline I had when I first wrote this review.

Components Rating: 9

Overall Comments

Definitely a very good banjo - period. Rather awkward to approach either: it's a broad toned archtop which, unlike small sounding ones, doesn't forgive at all sloppy picking. As I said, a wild beast (the nuances of its timbral range are commanded by a shorter than average picking area) brimming with character and far more demanding for the right hand than one can expect from the average archtop, let alone than a flathead. This rewards the player with an unexpected mellowness ready to turn into a vicious bite in merely 5-inch span. Being not too dry by nature, optimal setup is mandatory in order to achieve good note separation without losing expression or giving way to brash sounds.

Almost without knowing, this banjo has been a wise purchase. When I bought it I've been called for some theater work; my main flathead was taken down for various repairs and this fine instrument crossed my path in a shaft of luck. Fourteen years later I finally proceeded to give my B-800 a thorough overhaul as I resumed practicing three-finger style after a decade plus of a newfound acquaintance with the ole five string and a full fledged involvement toward advanced clawhammer techniques.

From the scant information I could retrieve on the web I guess Aria produced very few B-800's along with the even more gorgeous, chrome plated B-900 «White Pegasus», making the duo a limited series of fancy archtops presumably made for European market. In other words it's slowly becoming a vintage piece so I sure wouldn't be happy if it was stolen although it's not my main banjo which is a flathead Iida rebrand built in Nagoya in 1980. I simply love archtop tone which is supposed to be brighter and maybe less 'masculine' than classic flathead tone but also less tubby and much sweeter. I just happened to buy this banjo right when I needed one ready to play.

I'm not planning to part with it either. The more I play it the more I relish it: it's definitely a keeper. Maybe one day I could think about selling it if someone will offer me a top class archtop Japanese banjo of the same period and comparable value that proves better by far than mine. My B-800 may feel gnarly and a bit uneducated until one learns how to coax the best tone out of it; on the other hand it delivers all one could possibly ask from a professional banjo in terms of depth and expression, plus it can unleash a sheer power I couldn't find in many banjos of nobler strain.


Updated August 2016, following basic setup.

Overall Rating: 8

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