The 12 most desirable Epiphones from the Thirties through the New Millennium
By Alan di Perna
From the moment in December 1927 when Epaminondas “Epi” Stathopoulo officially changed the name of his musical instrument manufacturing company from the House of Stathopoulo to the Epiphone Banjo Corporation (later shortened to Epiphone Inc. in 1935), the company seemed motivated to outdo their main rival, Gibson. The rivalry probably existed well before then, but as Epiphone eventually transformed its primary focus from building banjos and mandolins to guitars, the competition between the two companies became increasingly evident. Almost from the very beginning of Epiphone’s guitar production efforts in 1928, there was a synergy between the two brands—somewhat adversarial at first, but also with considerable admiration on both sides.
Epiphone’s guitar production expanded rapidly during the Art Deco Thirties, and the company quickly became known as a preeminent maker of jazz archtop guitars. Gorgeous and stylish, these instruments lived up to their big city, aristocratic names—Broadway, Emperor, De Luxe—in every way. The rivalry between Gibson and Epiphone significantly drove the evolution of archtop acoustic and electric guitars during this period. For example, when Gibson introduced the Super 400 in 1934, which featured an 18-inch body and was Gibson’s largest archtop at that time, Epiphone responded by developing the Emperor, which boasted an 18 1/2-inch body.
Epiphone also had a geographic advantage thanks to the company being based in the heart of New York’s vibrant music scene, where they had better access to the leading performers of the time than Gibson did in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Epiphone’s factory and showroom at 142 West 14th Street in Manhattan became a hangout for the city’s top players, who regularly turned up for Saturday afternoon jam sessions hosted by Epi and his siblings Orphie, Frixo and Minnie, who were also involved in the family business.
One of the guitarists who frequented the Epiphone showroom was Les Paul. Although his name would later become closely associated with Gibson, Les was very much an Epiphone player early in his career during the Thirties and Forties. He even did some of the work on his pioneering solidbody electric guitar prototype, the Log, at the Epiphone factory.
“The great players like George Van Eps, Carmen Mastern and Freddie Green all had Epiphones,” Les recalled. “A lot of the great players did back in those days, when you really had to thump out the rhythm. That was the sound we all craved.”
Like most other American guitar companies during the Forties, Epiphone persevered but struggled due to shortages of materials and other economic challenges caused by the United States’ involvement in World War II. Epiphone suffered an even bigger setback when Epi died of leukemia in 1943 at age 49. His brothers Orphie and Frixo carried on the business for the next few years, but eventually Frixo moved to Ohio in 1947 to start his own new company. When Frixo died in 1957, Orphie’s interest in running Epiphone seemed to die as well.
Ironically, it was Epiphone’s biggest competitor, Gibson, that breathed new life into the company. Ted McCarty, who became president of Gibson in 1950, played a significant role in bringing Gibson back from the reversals and doldrums of the war years. As the design genius behind the Gibson Les Paul, Flying V, Explorer and ES-335, McCarty successfully ushered Gibson into a new golden era.
Shortly after Frixo’s death, Orphie called McCarty and offered to sell the Epiphone company to Gibson for $20,000. McCarty was initially interested only in Epiphone’s upright bass-making business, but when he found out that the price included everything, including the tools, fixtures, work in progress and even the company name, he decided to establish Epiphone as a subsidiary of Gibson. The same energy that had once driven the Gibson/Epiphone rivalry now blossomed into a beautiful partnership, and through McCarty’s leadership Gibson gave new life to Epiphone that still continues to this day. Epiphone’s new solidbody and thinline electric models complemented Gibson’s range of electrics by filling in gaps or exploring alternate approaches, and Epiphone’s flattop acoustic line expanded to provide lower-priced alternatives to Gibson flattops without sacrificing quality.
As current Epiphone president Jim Rosenberg recently pointed out, “the merging of Gibson and Epiphone turned out to be one of the landmark events in pop culture history.” The new breed of Epiphone instruments helped fuel the game-changing sound of the mid-Sixties British Invasion. Prominent use of Epiphone gear by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and other U.K. hitmakers made models like the Casino, Riviera, Sheraton, Rivoli and Texan an integral part of rock and roll’s DNA.
And it’s been that way ever since. Celebrity association, benchmark craftsmanship, beauty of style and killer tone make vintage Epiphone instruments from every era highly collectible, not to mention a savvy investment. Thanks to their relationship to Gibson, both as a fierce competitor and as an eventual partner, the quality of most Epiphone guitars is comparable to their Gibson counterparts, yet on today’s vintage market the Epiphone models are priced significantly less, making them great bargains for players and collectors alike. Here are some of the most sought-after vintage Epiphone classics.
1928–31 Recording Model E
Although the Stathopoulo family built numerous guitars on a custom order basis ever since Anastasios Stathopoulo first opened shop in New York City in 1903, they did not offer standard production guitar models until Epiphone introduced the Recording Model series in 1928. Recording Model guitars were based on the ornate look of the company’s popular Recording series banjos, with pearloid headstock veneers displaying etched neo-Classical scrolls bearing the company’s name and Recording Model designation. Recording Model guitars are also instantly recognizable by their lopped-off cutaway on the body’s upper treble bout. All were offered in both concert size (13 1/2 inches wide) and auditorium size (15 1/2 inches wide.)
The Model E was at the top of the Recording series, sporting a carved spruce top. Features are not particularly consistent, but generally the 1930-31 Model E guitars are actually slightly less ornate than their 1928-29 counterparts, which is perhaps a reflection of the Great Depression that commenced with the stock market crash of 1929. The Recording Model guitars were discontinued in 1931, which makes the 1930-31 Model E the most evolved iteration of Epiphone’s historic first dedicated foray into the guitar market.
1935–40s Masterbilt De Luxe
As the big band era got underway in the Thirties, Gibson and Epiphone competed for jazz archtop supremacy. The Epiphone Masterbilt series—the very name is a riff on Gibson’s Mastertone and Master Model instruments—made its debut in 1931, with the De Luxe at the top of the line. The De Luxe and other Masterbilt models underwent major redesigns in 1935. Created to compete with Gibson’s legendary L-5 archtop, the retooled De Luxe boasted a big, 17 3/8-inch lower body width and Epiphone’s newly developed Frequensator tailpiece. It’s far more ornate than the L-5 or any other Gibson archtop of the era, with a generous amount of binding, fan or cloud fretboard inlays, and Epiphone’s iconic “tree of life” headstock inlay. Collectors also value the hand-carved, quartersawn, bookmatched Adirondack spruce tops and highly figured maple back, sides and necks on De Luxes from this prime pre-WWII era.
For many, these instruments represent the apotheosis of Epiphone archtop design. The Masterbilt De Luxe was produced in much smaller quantities than Gibson archtops from the same era, making these beautiful guitars highly collectible.
1948–57 Emperor Regent
Epiphone’s Emperor model first appeared in the mid Thirties, another product of the jazz archtop “size wars” that raged during that era. It was a marketplace riposte to Gibson’s Super 400, sporting a colossal 18 1/2 inch body width. Outranking the De Luxe, the Emperor took its place at the top of the Epiphone line. The model evolved over time to include a cutaway iteration, the Emperor Regent. One of the great jazz archtops, the Emperor Regent represents a high point in Epiphone’s post World War II output. Most collectors rank Emperor guitars from the Thirties as Epiphone’s most desirable archtop model, but for many the later cutaway Emperor Regent models are even more desirable from a playability perspective.