Epiphone Guitars: The Story - Renegades from the Get-Go
A Bit of Background
The initial Epiphone brand was established in 1873 by son of a Greek timber merchant Anastasios Stathopoulo. Unwilling to follow his father into the family trade, Stathopoulo began to make lutes, violins and traditional Greek stringed instruments. Shortly after which, he was to start a new life in Turkey with his family and it was here that he opened his first instrument factory. Moving to Queens, NY in 1903, Stathopoulo continued with the manufacturing of his instruments in a workshop with his family living upstairs. As the years went on, the company was dubbed A. Stathopoulo, and its increasing popularity among the community allowed Stathopoulos to afford to build a warehouse on 247 West 42nd Street NY for manufacturing and repairing all musical instruments.
The Birth of Epiphone
Sadly, the year of 1915 brought the untimely demise of Stathopoulo and at this time, the luthier’s 22 year old son Epaminondas (Epi) took control of the business. With the help of his brother Orpheus, Epi continued to carry the company forward, renaming it to the ‘House of Stathopoulo’ in 1917, and together they began revising the product line. As the market was shifting in the post-war era, other manufacturers were struggling to keep up but the House of Stathopoulo was blossoming. In 1924, Epiphone launched its Recording Series of banjos, the Concert, Deluxe and Bandmaster. Models like the Emperor proved to be very successful and the company gained endorsement from popular musicians like Carl Kress.
In an attempt to compete with rival Gibson’s L-5 guitar, in 1929 Epiphone produced a series of recording guitars. These happened to be rather unsuccessful due to their small size and weak volume compared to the L-5. After the disappointment of the recording guitars, Epiphone released the Masterbilt range in 1931 to rival Gibson’s similarly named Master Model Range. In manufacturing the Masterbilt range of guitars, Epiphone’s objective was not to mimic the Master Model Range, but to annihilate it.
From the 1930s onwards Epiphone was in constant competition with Gibson, who at the time was their main rival in the entire guitar market. In the relentless battle of producing larger and grander guitars, this rivalry brought on the release of Epiphone’s top-of-the-line Emperor which, followed by the DeLuxe, Broadway and Triumph models in 1936, proved to Gibson and the world that Epiphone meant business. As the Epiphone brand was growing, so was its number of endorsers, musicians like Al Caiola and Harry Volpe were, at the time some of the more popular Epiphone players.
With additional competition from firms including Rickenbacker, Epiphone was forced to expand their market and introduced the Electar Series in 1935, featuring individual polepieces on the master pick-up, which resulted in optimum output. The release of the Electar series, hit hard Epiphone’s competitors and in the summer of 1937, it was reported that the company’s sales had doubled.
Tragically during the aftermath of World War II, Epi had passed away from leukaemia leaving the thriving business in the hands of his two brothers Orphie and Frixo. Losing Epi, who was evidently the engine behind the brand, Epiphone began to develop cracks in its foundations and despite the release of more products such as the Texan acoustic (1942) the company’s imperfections became clear during the late 40s. The fact that the brothers were not getting along was manifested in the quality of products, affecting the company’s sales and also its reputation.
In 1957, at the height of its struggle, Epiphone offered to sell its bass business to Gibson, who was at the time under the umbrella of The Chicago Musical Instrument Company. Interested in taking over more than one division of Epiphone, Ted McCarty, then Gibson’s general manager wrote in a memo that year, the Epiphone brand would be renewed and a new series of instruments would be produced. Thus, Epiphone was absorbed by its rival, Gibson.
Many believed that the buy-out would result in Epiphone guitars becoming “sort of almost Gibson” guitars. Surprisingly though, this was not the case as Epiphone appeared to have developed three different identities. Gibson decided to utilise Epiphone in making budget versions of their more expensive models, such as the Les Paul range. Using less expensive materials, such as epoxies in replacement of the more expensive wood glues, and hard, quick to apply polyester resin instead of nitro-cellulose lacquer. In addition to the Gibson-like guitars, Epiphone was now manufacturing revised versions of their previously popular models like the Emperor, Triumph and Deluxe and also a line of never before seen brand new guitars including the Sheraton and Moderne Black.
Epiphone Trots On
Possibly the most popular guitar produced by Epiphone whilst under Gibson was the Casino. The thin-line hollow-bodied electric guitar, made famous by legends like The Beatles, Keith Richards and Oasis’s Noel Gallagher, is still as popular among musicians today as it was when it was released back in 1958.
With the rise of the Folk music era in the early 1960s, Epiphone re-launched the Seville Classical guitar, shortly followed by the Entrada, Espana and Madrid models. The 12-string Bard, smaller Serenader, flat-top Troubadour, cut-away Casino and many others were all released during the early 60s, putting Epiphone back on the top of every buyers list.
The late 80s saw the release of Epiphone’s new PR Series of square shouldered acoustic guitars and a new take on The Gibson J-180 acoustic. The 80s also accommodated the return of a past favourite, the Sheraton II and Epiphone’s modern versions of the Gibson Les Paul, SG, Flying V and Explorer.
The 90s, Epiphone, who was beginning to once again be recognised as an individual leading brand as apposed to a follower of Gibson, unleashed the limited edition range of Riviera and Sheraton guitars among others, which became known as the Centennial Series, honouring 100 years of Gibson. Manufacturing for this range took place in the US, and was the last significant batch of American-made Epiphone’s, others were produced in Korea.
Epiphone Icons and Uprising
The late 1990s introduced the Epiphone jumbo series, which held many significant signature models; the John Lee Hooker Sheratons, the John Lennon 1965 and Revolution Casinos and undoubtedly the most recognisable Epiphone to date is the Noel Gallagher signature Supernova. Gallagher actually performed with a Sheraton guitar with a custom union jack paint job, and Epiphone released the Supernova with an option of the union jack design. Some other notable Epiphone's are the Riviera P94 played by Nick Valensi of The Strokes, and the Coronet and Casino, favoured by Pete Doherty of Babyshambles and The Libertines.
Reinforcing its position in the acoustic market, Epiphone released its Elitist and Masterbilt ranges in the turn of the century which were followed by yet another iconic guitar, The Paul McCartney 1964 USA Texan, reintroducing us to yet another big name from the company’s past.
Epiphone is continuing to grow both as a company and in terms of reputation and favourability among consumers. The international demand has lead to the firm opening a production factory in China.
The current Epiphone catalogue provides more diversity than ever before; with every type of guitar a musician could actually want. The traditional designs which are now over 80 years old, are still extremely desirable today, which simply displays the extraordinary styling, playability and sound quality in these “antique” instruments.
Although being taken over by the guitar giant that is Gibson, and producing extremely similar products to its parent company, Epiphone has still managed to remain individual and stay true to the original spirit composed by the Stathopoulos.
"Gibson is a traditional company; Epiphone is more of a renegade. It marches to the beat of a different drum. Always has." David Berryman - Gibson President