Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Aria Distortion Sustainer RE-102 (1975?)

Aria, a brand that is mostly known in the stompbox world for their 80s Dual Stage Series (which happen to be some of my favorite vintage effects), initially began manufacturing pedals in the mid-70s with their RE Series. Releasing different types of phasers, boosts and distortions, arguably the greatest of them all was the RE-102 Distortion Sustainer.

Aria Electronics (aka Arai & Co. Inc.) has an interesting history when it comes to effects. In 1968 they released their first pedal, an unlabeled OEM version of the infamous Sekova wedge fuzz. The following year they released another OEM series, this time built by Thunder Electronics, that utilized the Royal Fuzz and Wah/Fuzzes. And finally, under the Aria Diamond label they contracted Maxon/Ibanez to build another set of Fuzzes and Wahs, which are probably recognizable to even the casual pedal collector.  

All of this jumping around does make sense for the time, as Aria had been a guitar brand since the mid 50's. And just like countless others in the late 60s, they decided to dive into the burgeoning pedal game in the easiest way possible, by paying to have their logo slapped on someone else's creations. 

That is of course until the mid 1970s...

In 1974(?) Aria released a new line of effects known as the RE Series. No longer outsourced, and going with the trend of the time (lead by brands like MXR, Univox and Maxon), they featured enclosures with a smaller footprint. And while they initially came in a generic yellow-colored project box, Aria quickly wised up and switched over to a much cooler custom metal enclosure that had a textured black paint job similar to Electro Harmonix. 

*One odd fact to note is that Aria not only began building their own pedals at this time, but they completely flipped the script and began licensing them out to other brands! There was even at least one Royal branded pedal, in addition to a few other notable OEMs like Arbiter and Vox.

So how good was the RE Series?

Their phasers aside, the first distortion effect they put out was called the Distortion Booster. It was much closer to an overdrive / Distortion+ than a full-on fuzz. Cool, but unfortunately nothing to write home about. 

Then came the Power Booster, which was pretty much exactly what it sounds like. And while it's not going to take the place of your Uni-Drive any time soon, it does do a nice job of slamming the front of your amp (i.e. an LPB-1). 

And finally a Treble and Bass boost were both added to the mix. Again, no Rangemasters here, but both pedals accomplish what it is advertised.

So this brings us to the first real fuzz in the RE Series; the Big Muff-inspired RE-102 Distortion Booster. *this release date is a bit of a mystery, but my best guess is 1975, and at the very earliest, late '74. It featured a modified Triangle Muff circuit that removed both the recovery gain stage and the tone control found in a typical Big Muff. This created a beautiful, crunchy and wooly fuzz that sounds like a lower gain Muff going into a dirty tube amp. To me it's closest sonic cousin isn't even a Muff at all, but one of my other favorite fuzzes, the Italian Vox Distortion Booster

So after completely nailing a very cool interpretation of the Big Muff you would think that Aria would just have stopped there.

But obviously they didn't, because released at the very same time as the RE-102 was the RE-203 Super Fuzz Sustainer.

This was essentially the same exact pedal, but contained the missing tone control portion of the circuit, complete with a "Tone" pot (just like a real Big Muff!).

Unfortunately in doing so it did affect the overall sound a bit. The Super Fuzz Sustainer lacks in both the volume and gain that the Distortion Sustainer seems to kick out in the final turn of the knobs. And it is precisely in this spot where the real Muffy magic happens.

So while the cooler looking, bigger boxed, better named pedal (that also happens to be much more common) is fun, it just misses the mark on BIG fuzziness and playability. 

What is really cool/interesting is that both pedals share the same circuit board. But even though the Distortion Sustainer was first in serial numbering, it actually uses the RE-203 board and not the other way around!

Another thing to note about the board is that they both have a series of unused holes. Which raises a couple of questions: 

-Was there a 4 transistor/true Big Muff version that has just not surfaced yet? 

-Was it a financial/business decision where they decided they could get 90% of the way there and save some cash on less parts? 

-Was yet another 3rd party responsible for this Aria line, and did they produce a "true" Big Muff for someone else???

It also could very well be nothing. 😂

What is true is that by the mid 70s Japan was flooded with Big Muff style pedals. Brands like ElkGuyatone, Mirano, Sekova, and Ibanez all had their version of the circuit. And while most of them took a more straight-up approach, Aria and Guytone where the two stand-outs, with their modded lower gain offerings.

I'm definitely more of a "more gain is better" kind of person when it comes to fuzz. But when done well, a pedal can really shine in the lesser of extremes. And the Aria Distortion Sustainer is 100% that.

If you happen to come across one, don't hesitate because they are not easy to find. But they are pretty damn awesome when you do!

thanks for reading,


  1. That Jet Phaser pedal is the lead guitar sound of “Who’s that lady” by the Isley Brothers?

    1. Oh that's awesome! I had no idea. I can hear it now that you mention it though!