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The Shiro Arai/Matsumoku Story (so far)
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Shiro Arai and Shrio Arai Co.
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In The Beginning
The Arai Co. was originally founded by classical guitarist Shiro Arai sometime in the early 1950s as an importing company which expanded in the mid 1950s and began manufacturing classical guitars. Electric guitar production began around the turn of the decade and the Aria and Aria Diamond names were adopted. Offerings at that time consisted of various solid and hollow body guitars loosely influenced by western designs such as the "Bison" and "Jaguar". Arai Co. also manufactured a number of re-brands and components distributed by other importers. Evidence of this can be seen in the design and construction of such brands as Univox, Conrad, Lyle, Domino, Maxi-Tone, Pan, Arita, and a number of others.
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The Copy Era
As fate would have it, Shiro Arai decided to attend the 1968 NAMM show in the US and was greatly impressed by the American designs on display there. In 1969 the first Japanese-produced LP copy debuted, and no, Hoshino was not involved. Copies of other American designs were not long in coming. The "Japanese Invasion" had begun! Most copies were still of entry-level quality and incorporated bolt-neck design. This was soon to change, as Arai Co. would be joining forces with another Japanese instrument company which would change the direction of these instruments forever.
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The Arai-Matsumoku Alliance

In the early to mid '70s Arai joined forces with traditional Japanese instrument manufacturer Matsumoku, and hints of Matsumoku's beginning involvement can be seen in some of the Aria models around this time including the appearance of set necks and sealed tuners. (If anyone has any information regarding the history of Matsumoku please contact me!).There was a general push during this time to improve quality, and the intention may have been to compete directly with the American guitar makers. In 1975 Arai launched the Aria Pro II line, produced by Matsumoku which included set neck copies of the LP Custom, LP Standard, and by 1975 included copies of the SG, S*****caster, T***caster, P-Bass, J-Bass, a Ricky Bass, ES175 style jazz boxes, ES335 style jazz boxes, and a copy of the Ripper Bass. Direct copies began to wane towards the end of 1977 primarily due to the lawsuit threat by Norlin against Elger/Hoshino.
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A note about the "Lawsuit"
It is a common misconception that the famous Gibson/Norlin lawsuit was filed against a number of Japanese companies. It is also commonly said it was over the exact copying of American designs. Neither is true. The lawsuit was filed by Norlin (Gibson's parent company) against Elger/Hoshino (Ibanez's American division) over the use of the "open book" headstock design which Norlin claimed as a Gibson Trademark. It was not over the exact copying of body dimensions or construction. These guitars were metric! Don't believe me? Just try putting your Gibson stop-tail posts in one of those "exact" copies! When's the last time you saw a bolt-neck genuine LP Custom?

The lawsuit was not "won" by Norlin, but settled out of court. Most of the Japanese companies, as a precautionary move, turned away from close copies but many still offered their "version" of the classic American designs with at least minor departures in design and appearance.

Often I see the term "lawsuit" tossed around rather freely. Most often it is either hype to raise the price of the copy someone trying to sell, or they simply don't know what the "lawsuit" was all about. Too often it really isn't a lawsuit model at all. DON'T FALL VICTIM TO THE HYPE! I see a lot of this in on-line auctions and on-line guitar dealers advertisements. I have seen guitars go for much more than they are actually worth simply because the purchaser has fallen for the hype or actually didn't know what constitutes a "lawsuit" model.
Remember, the best customer is a well informed customer.

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Enter the "New" Aria Pro II - A New Identity
Arai, like other Japanese manufacturers had begun bringing in skilled engineers and popular players to influence the design of their guitars. The "new" Aria Pro II line was designed by H. Noble (Nobuaki  Hayashi), and produced by Matsumoku. Quality was improved considerably and the models sported unique and innovative designs. Many models came stock with phase/series-parallel/coil-cut switching not commonly found on other guitars. Other innovations included active power boosts and unique tone circuits. Matsumoku's attention to quality and construction techniques soon began to attract people's attention and the line had easily jumped from entry-level to intermediate and even pro quality instruments.
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At the top of the line were the PE Prototypes which appeared in 1977. Many of you have seen some of them as the PE "Masterpiece" or "The Aria Pro II". Many other high quality models were introduced, and for a decade, the Aria Pro IIs continually remained at the top of their class! Other notable models were the Thor Sound, Tri Sound, Noise Killer, Cardinal, and RS series (some of which are pictured here in the GG).
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Matsumoku not only produced the Aria Pro II guitars but a number of other well known brands such as Vantage, Westone, Electra, some of the Japanese Epiphones, and the Japanese Washburns. The most notable of the Vantage line were the VP and VS series incorporating many of the same electronics features as the Aira Pro IIs. A number of neck-thru models of extremely high quality were produced and still command prices worth respect. Electra production began in the mid '70s and also bore the same high quality and features but took electronics and decoration one step beyond. Features such as active power boosts, active EQ, MPC on-board swappable effects, fancy inlay work, and even faux tortoise shell binding appeared on a number of models. The MPC models (a complete line by itself) were unique in that up to two effects modules actually plugged into a compartment on the back of the guitar and were controlled through the use of universal controls on the front of the guitar. Modules could be swapped at will and a number of modules were available.
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Westone (as well as Electra) were distributed in the US by Saint Louis Music. Westone was also distributed in the UK and some models actually debuted there before they hit US soil. The two most impressive of the Westones in my opinion were the Prestige and Session II. Quite a few different models were offered including the Spectrum series, Dynasty, Dimension, Concord series, Pantera series, and Raider to name a few.
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A number of other guitar brands were also manufactured by Matsumoku, some documented and some not. As time goes on, some are spotted and at least partially identified. Such is the case with the mysterious Skylarks. The Japanese Washburn Wing series as well as the Japanese Epiphone Scroll can be credited to "Uncle Matt"!
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Production continued at the Matsumoku plant until the latter part of 1987 when, due to production costs, manufacturing was moved to Korea. Shortly after, the Matsumoku plant was sold to Singer and all guitar production ceased. If I understand correctly, the plant was destroyed some years later in a natural disaster (earthquake I believe).
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Several of the names survived or have been revived originating from Korea and the UK. Aria Pro II and Aria as well as Vantage and Epiphone are now produced in Korea. Westone has been revived and several models are available in the UK and sport much the same looks as the Prestige which it is modeled after. Aira/Aria Pro II continues to live on and the model line has changed and expanded considerably to meet present day demands. The TA, FA, and PE series are still alive and kicking!
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May "Uncle Matt" rest in peace! "He" will be fondly remembered by those of us who still play "his" guitars! At least some of the names he created live on today and with any luck, will forever.
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Sources:
1996 VG Magazine: The Different Strummer By Michael Wright: Aria Guitars, From Classicals to Classics, Part II
Guitar Stories Volume One by Michael Wright published by Vintage Guitar Books
Electric Guitars, The Illustrated Encyclopedia published by ThunderBay Press
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