Epiphone: A History
Epiphone is one of American's oldest and most revered instrument makers and since 1873, Epiphone has made instruments for every style of popular music. The name evokes both history and the spirit of invention. Epiphone has been an audible (not to mention visible!) presence in every great musical era from the mandolin craze of the early 1900s to jazz age guitars of the 1920s. From swing era archtops through post-war pop, jazz, r&b, and early rock n' roll. From the "British Invasion" to heavy metal, punk, grunge, and thrash. And now, in the 21st century, new Epiphone technical breakthroughs such as the ProBucker™ pickup, series parallel switching, built-in KillSwitch™ pots, the Shadow NanoFlex™ and NanoMag™ pickup systems, and premier acoustic/electric guitars with the eSonic™ preamp have brought the historic name to a new generation.
The story behind Epiphone's improbable rise from a small family repair shop to a world-wide leader in the manufacture of quality instruments could easily be transformed into the great American novel. But our story is true.
The Epiphone tale begins in the mountains of Greece and threads its way to Turkey, across the Atlantic to the immigrant gateway of Ellis Island, and into the nightclubs, recording studios, and coast-to-coast radio broadcasts of Manhattan in the 1920s and 30s. It's the story of craftsmanship passed from father to son and the ceaseless American drive for innovation. Just a decade after Epiphone published a 46-page catalogue that included acoustic archtops, flattops, basses, electric guitars, banjos, and amplifiers, the company would be bankrupt and sold to a longtime rival, Gibson. Today, Epiphone is once again an innovator in guitar and instrument manufacturing.
The variety of musicians that walk through Epiphone's history is equally remarkable. Jazz greats like George Van Eps, country pioneers like Hank Garland, bluesman John Lee Hooker, and scores of mandolin, archtop and steel guitar players used Epiphone instruments daily over nationwide broadcasts. There are unlikely heroes and tinkerers in the Epiphone story too, like guitar pioneer Les Paul, who worked nights in the Epiphone factory to create "the Log", his primordial version of what would eventually be called the "Les Paul." Beatles' bassist extraordinaire Paul McCartney choose an Epiphone Casino as his first American made guitar and John Lennon and George Harrison quickly followed. The Casino appeared on every Beatles album from Help through Abey Road. And today, Epiphone can be heard on albums by Gary Clark, Jr., My Chemical Romance, Joe Bonamassa, Zakk Wylde, Machine Head, Dwight Yoakam, The Strokes, Slash, Jeff Waters, Paul Simon, Radiohead, The Waco Brothers, Lenny Kravitz, and Paul Weller.
If a time machine could transport today's Epiphone players to Epiphone's Manhattan showroom of 60 years ago when it was a gathering place for all the Big Apple's best players, the generations would agree that Epiphone has always been the House of Stathopoulo, and today is still innovating, still delighting musicians, and still frustrating competitors with daring designs and superb quality.
"Epiphone always made a good guitar," Les Paul once said. And that after all, is what all musicians are looking for.
The opening chapter of the Epiphone story begins roughly 130 years ago in Kastania in the mountains overlooking the ancient city of Sparta, Greece. Family legend tells that in 1865, Kostantinos Stathopoulo left Kastania and journeyed to Magoula in the Eurotas valley to register the birth of his son, Anastasios. Little else is known of the family until 1873, around the time of Anastasios's 12th birthday, when the Stathopoulo family left Greece for the coast of Turkey where they settled in Smyrna, a bustling seaport with a strong Greek immigrant population of merchants and craftsmen. There, Kostantinos established himself as a lumber merchant. Kostantinos would often take Anastasios with him on work trips throughout Europe, where the boy observed his father's trade and learned about tonewoods. During this time, the family established a store in Smyrna selling and repairing lutes, violins and bouzoukis. By 1890, Anastasio's local reputation as a talented luthier was providing enough business that he opened his own instrument factory. He married and started a family. His first son, Epaminondas, was born in 1893, followed by Alex, Minnie, Orpheu and Frixo.
High taxes imposed on Greek immigrants under the Ottoman Empire made life difficult for the Stathopoulo family and at the age of 40, Anastasios boarded a ship to the United States. Public records from 1904 list A. Stathopoulo living at 56 Roosevelt on Manhattan's Lower East side, home to many other Greek and Italian immigrants. Once in America, Anastasios continued his instrument trade. He quickly assimilated the pace of American business practices. He filed his first and only patent March 25, 1909 for an Italian style bowl back mandolin. Anastasios's instruments now carried labels in English:
of all kinds
of musical instruments
Patentee of the Orpheum Lyra
New York, 1911 U.S.A.
Epi, as the oldest child was known, easily merged into American life, attended Columbia University, and graduated with honors. With Anastasios crafting and selling his instruments on the ground floor and family living upstairs, the line between work and home life became increasingly blurred. Epi and Orpheus ('Orphie') were soon helping out in the shop, now located at 247 West 42nd Street.
Epi was only 22 when Anastasios died. As the oldest son, Epi was charged with keeping the business going. Already a keen student of his father's work and eager to establish himself in the marketplace, Epi replaced the old instrument label of his father's with a new one: "The House of Stathopoulo, Quality Instruments Since 1873." Already an amateur designer and inventor during his father's apprenticeship, Epi now took a lead role in the company and was granted his first patent for a banjo tone ring and rim construction - 1,248,196 given to E. A. Stathopoulo.
At his mother's death in 1923, Epi assumed ownership of controlling shares of the business. He phased out most of the old world style mandolins and introduced the Recording line of banjos, then the most popular instrument in post-World War I America.
The Recording line was listed in advertisements alphabetically: Recording (A) at $125, the Bandmaster at $200, the Concert at $275, and the De Luxe, which sold for $350. Epi continued to expand as his business and reputation for quality work grew. The family acquired the "stock, goodwill, and modern machinery" of the Farovan Company instrument plant in Long Island and incorporated. Epi gave the now growing business a new name-Epiphone. Epiphone referenced not only his own name, but the Greek word for sound-phone. It was also an echo of the Greek word epiphonous, meaning one sound on another, the son building on the dreams of the father.
Epi took the title of president and general manager and announced in trade publications and advertisements that "the new policy of business and all interest will be devoted to the production of banjos, tenor banjos, banjo mandolins, banjo guitars, and banjo ukuleles under the registered trademark name of 'Epiphone.'"
Epi retained most of the Long Island factory's skilled workers. Production increased. Quality improved. Ornate banjo models were introduced in 1927 including the Emperor tenor banjo ($500), the Dansant ($450), the Concert Special ($300) and the Alhambra ($200). Business was good and the Stathopoulo brothers, with Orphie now serving as Vice President, moved the company to 235-237 West 47th Street.
By 1928, The Epiphone Banjo Company were making banjos for Selmer/Conn and the Continental Music line of stores, a major distributor of instruments. In 1928, Epiphone also introduced their first line of acoustic guitars to compete with the company that Epi determined was Epiphone's greatest rival, Gibson.
The Recording Series
The Recording series of acoustic guitars, like the banjo line, were each identified by a letter ('A' through 'E') and were notable for their unusual body shape. The instruments combined spruce and laminated maple and were available as an archtop or flattop.
The Recording guitars were not initially a success. One problem was a lack of celebrity endorsement. The other was a lack of volume. The Recording guitars were too small and arguably too ornate, particularly in comparison to the size and volume of Gibson's popular L-5, which was introduced in 1922 and had quickly become an industry standard. The L-5 had projection, tone, and complimented rhythm sections with a tuneful timbre and snare drum like attack.
Though banjo sales remained steady immediately after the stock market crash of 1929, Epi was keenly aware that archtop guitars were becoming more popular and that his main competitor in quality and design was Gibson. In 1931, the Epiphone Banjo Company announced the introduction of the Masterbilt line of guitars featuring seven carved top, f-hole style archtops ranging in price from $35 to $275.
It wasn't hard to see the L-5's influence on the new Epiphone line. Epi's guitars had similar f-holes, pegheads, and even a similar name to the Gibson Master Model range. Epi did continue to distinguish his company with model names that musicians could easily remember and be proud to own.
The Epiphone Masterbilt line included the De Luxe ($275), Broadway ($175), and the Triumph ($125). The De Luxe, according to advertisements, featured a "carved spruce top, flame curly maple back, violin construction throughout, large "f" holes, black and white binding and sweet resonant tone."
Throughout the 1930s, the rivalry between Epiphone and Gibson would veer from friendly sparring to all-out guitar warfare. Gibson retaliated with a new archtop design in 1934, increasing the body width of its existing models and introducing the king-sized Super 400 (named after its $400 price tag). Not to be outdone, Epi replied the following year with the top-of-the-line Emperor, which raised the stakes with a slightly wider body and a provocative advertising campaign featuring a nude woman holding an Epiphone archtop. In 1936, Epiphone struck again, increasing the size of its De Luxe, Broadway and Triumph models by an inch making them 3/8" wider than Gibson's archtops and one of the most distinctive instruments on the market.
By the mid '30s, Epiphone guitars were considered to be among the best in the world, and Epi himself was enjoying the patronage of the most respected players on the scene. Epiphone went inter-continental with a distribution deal with Handcraft Ltd. of London, and a new showroom opened at 142 West 14th Street in a seven-story beaux-arts style building near Little Italy.
The new building included an advertised "state-of-the-art" research and development laboratory. The Epiphone showroom on the first floor was both the company's headquarters and a hangout for musicians. On Saturday afternoons, Epi would open display cases and let the leading guitarists of the time artists like Al Caiola, Harry Volpe, and Les Paul, jam as people listened for the sidewalk.
Epi was also aware of the success of Rickenbacker's electric steel guitar models. In 1935, Epi made his move with the introduction of the Electar Series (originally known as Electraphone). Among Epi's unique design features included individually adjustable pole pieces on the Master Pickup. The Electar line furthered the reputation of Epiphone as an innovative brand. By the late '30s, sales had doubled. Collaborations between Epi and other companies became more frequent. In July 1936, Epiphone showed off several new models at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, including an electrified piano created with the Meissner Inventions Company in Milburn, New Jersey. Epiphone also began selling amplifiers after meeting electronics enthusiast Nat Daniel, a friend of Les Paul's. Daniel perfected an innovative push/pull wiring design, which today is a fixture in many amplifiers. Epiphone reps heard Daniel's amps and hired him to build chassis as well as new designs. (Daniel would go on to start the Danelectro line of guitars and amps in the 50s).
By the end of the '30s just prior to America's entry into World War II, the rivalry between Epiphone and Gibson showed little sign of abating. In 1939, the two firms introduced similar 'pitch-changing' Hawaiian guitar designs, a precursor to the pedal steel. When Gibson introduced a line of violins, Epiphone struck back with a line of upright basses. It took the outbreak of the World War II, the scarcity of key materials, and the virtual shut down of guitar production around the world to ring the bell on the rivalry.
The war changed everything. Before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Epiphone was a consumer favorite and industry leader. By the end of the war in 1945, the company had lost its greatest asset when Epi died of leukemia. Epiphone shares and control went to younger brothers Orphie and Frixo.
Problems emerged slowly at first. Epiphone continued to clash with Gibson, each introducing electric cutaway versions of their top archtops. Pickups continued to be refined and players continued to appear onstage with Epiphone guitars. From the outside, it seemed to be business as usual.
But cracks soon appeared both on the production line and in the boardroom. The Stathopoulo brothers argued over the future of the company and in 1948, Frixo sold his shares to Orphie. The company's reputation for craftsmanship and innovation that Epi had built in the '20s and '30s did not survive the war years. Tastes were changing and Epiphone's products seemed traditional and out of step. The Epiphone factory moved from Manhattan to Philadelphia in 1953 to avoid a union clash but many of the company's craftsmen refused to leave New York.
EPIPHONE AND GIBSON
In the early '50s, Epiphone's former champion and favorite late night tinkerer Les Paul became a household name with a television show, a radio program, and chart-topping hits, all played with his name-brand Gibson Les Paul. Les had been perfecting his solid body guitar design in the Epiphone factory and when Fender emerged with their Telecaster, Gibson President Ted McCarty made Les Gibson's first solid body electric guitar endorser.
As Epiphone's fortunes continued to decline, Les suggest McCarty reach out to Epiphone. McCarty took the advice and reached out to Orphie, expressing Gibson's interest in Epiphone's critically acclaimed upright bass division which Gibson had not picked up again after World War II. When Orphie replied in 1957, McCarty was offered the entire Epiphone company, including the remaining inventory of the Philadelphia factory, for $20,000. McCarty accepted on behalf of Gibson. The Stathopoulo family was out of the instrument business.
Though McCarty's original intention was to bring the Epiphone bass models into the Gibson catalogue, by 1957, he changed his mind. Instead, as McCarty wrote in a memo that year, the Epiphone brand would be revived with a new line of instruments.
McCarty's marketing plan was to offer Gibson-made Epiphones to dealers who were keen to win a Gibson contract, but had not yet proven themselves as profitable dealers. (The right to sell Gibson models was hotly contested between dealerships at this time). It was the perfect solution. Dealers would get a Gibson-quality product without treading on the toes of dealers who already sold the Gibson line. The entire Epiphone operation was relocated to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Epiphone was back in business.
A NEW BEGINNING
Epiphone wouldn't stay in the shadow of Gibson for long. When a new line of instruments started filtering through to dealers in 1958, it became clear that the two brands now had three separate identities. On one hand, Epiphone now listed budget-conscious versions of existing Gibson models. Alongside these models, however, were also recreations of classic Epiphone designs such as the Emperor, Deluxe and Triumph along with a selection of new designs like the semi-hollow Sheraton, the solid body Moderne Black, and flat-top acoustics like the Frontier, whose square-shouldered body style was a first for any instrument from the Gibson Kalamazoo factory. Combined with a new line of amplifiers, it was clear that Epiphone designers were quickly establishing their independence.
The grand unveiling of the Epiphone line took place at the NAMM trade show in July 1958 with the electric Emperor as the flagship model. The show itself would generate orders of 226 guitars and 63 amps, a modest return. Over the next few years, Epiphone would sell 3,798 instruments in 1961 and by 1965 account for 20% of the total instruments shipped out of Kalamazoo. Even more impressive was the prestige of the guitars themselves. In the early 1960s, the Epiphone Emperor cost significantly more than the top-of-the-range Gibson Byrdland, while 1963's deluxe flat top Excellente, was $100 more than the J-200, and made of rarer tone woods.
The early 60s brought the explosion of folk music, and Epiphone was ready to cater to it, introducing the Seville classical guitar (with and without pickups) in 1961, as well as the Madrid, Espana and Entrada models. In 1962, Epiphone listed a twelve-string, the Bard (on which Roy Orbison composed "Oh, Pretty Woman" and "Only The Lonely") along with a smaller version, the Serenader. In 1963, the Troubadour, steel string flat top guitar was introduced.
The strength of the Epiphone acoustic range was matched by the electric line, the most famous of these was the double-cutaway Casino, first issued in 1961. When the Beatles appeared playing Casinos around 1966, it appeared like Epiphone's recovery was assured with a new identity and the world's biggest pop act as their biggest fans. The catalog now listed 14 electric archtops, six solid-bodied electrics, three basses, seven steel-string flat tops, six classical, four acoustic archtops, three banjos and a mandolin.
The early to mid-1960s were boom time for Epiphone, with unit sales increasing fivefold between 1961 and 1965. But the rise of foreign-made copies in the late '60s took over 40% of the Epiphone/Gibson market share and closed many companies down entirely.
There were other problems. Gibson's Ted McCarty had retired to run Bigsby. Budgets were cut. Gibson's parent company, CMI, was bought in 1969 by the Ecuadorian ECL Corporation, a beer company, and Epiphone found itself in a predicament. It was now perceived to be secondary to Gibson but could not sell instruments cheap enough to compete with inferior, foreign imitations.
Before the sale to ECL, the possibility of producing Epiphone product in Japan had been taken under consideration and by 1970, Epiphone production in the United States shut down and moved to Matsumoto, Japan. However for the first few years of production, Epiphone guitars made in Japan were actually rebranded designs already produced by the Matsumoku Company. The Epiphone line was now a virtual orphan in the guitar world.
Models gradually improved. In 1976, Epiphone introduced the Monticello, a series of scroll-body electrics, the Presentation, a new range of flat tops, and the Nova series of flat tops along with the Genesis solid body line. By 1979, the Epiphone product list was gathering speed, with over 20 steel-string flat tops and electrics.
EPIPHONE IN KOREA
In the early '80s with the rising cost of Japanese production, Epiphone relocated to Korea in 1983 in a collaboration with the Samick Company. In 1986, three Harvard MBAs; Henry Juszkiewicz, David Berryman and Gary Zebrowski, bought Gibson/Epiphone from ECL/Norlin. Reviving Gibson was the first priority for the new owners, and with Epiphone making less than $1 million revenue in 1985, the 100 year old company was once again set aside.
But new owners Juszkiewicz and Berryman soon identified Epiphone as a sleeping giant and travelled to Korea to decide how the company could be pushed to match the success of other Asian brands like Charvel and Kramer. As they absorbed Epiphone's pedigree, models were revived and new production techniques started getting results. Soon, sales were growing again.
By 1988, the Epiphone listed a new PR Series of square-shouldered acoustics along with an interpretation of Gibson's J-180, several classical guitars, a banjo, and a mandolin. There was also a solid selection of Gibson-inspired models like the Les Paul and SG, new archtops like the Howard Roberts Fusio, and a revival of the Sheraton.
TAKING ON THE WORLD
By the 90s, the Epiphone line offered 43 different models across a range of styles and budgets. Gibson President David Berryman opened an Epiphone an office in Seoul and appointed Jim Rosenberg as product manager, and set about re-introducing Epiphone to the world as an innovative guitar maker.
The creation of an office in Seoul turned out to be a major turning point for the new Epiphone as engineers and luthiers collaborated to re-make the company. During this intense re-organization, Epiphone product changed beyond all recognition. Factory processes were assessed and refined and Epiphone's own engineers took a hands-on role in the development of pickups, bridges, toggle switches, and fret inlays, as well as unique features like the metal E logo and frequensator tailpiece. Financially and emotionally, Epiphone invested everything into these new models. And the marketplace responded.
By the time of the 1993 NAMM show, a new range acoustic and electric instruments debuted to great reviews and customer response.
In 1993, a limited run of Rivieras and Sheratons were produced in Gibson's Nashville factory, with the company's Montana plant also building 250 Excellente, Texan and Frontier flat tops. These Epiphones were only intended as a special event but the public reaction prompted Rosenberg to reissue more classic designs.
Those who attended the 1994 NAMM witnessed the re-introduction of Epiphone legends like the Casino, Riviera, Sorrento, and Rivoli bass. In the months that followed, word spread, and a diverse range of artists, from Chet Atkins to Oasis' Noel Gallagher signed up to be part of Epiphone, a confirmation that Epiphone was still a great instrument company.
Epiphone was arguably just as successful in the late '90s as at any point in its history. The Advanced Jumbo Series and several important signature models were released including the John Lee Hooker Sheratons and the Noel Gallagher Supernovas, both a critical and popular success. The John Lennon 1965 and Revolution Casinos matched unbeatable authenticity and quality and reunited Epi with one of the greatest artists of all time, underlining the company's own re-emergence as a music legend.
In 2000, Epiphone introduced the Elitist range and strengthened its position in the acoustic market with the acquisition of veteran Gibson luthier Mike Voltz. Voltz's contribution greatly to Epiphone's re-development reviving the electric guitar and the reintroduction of the Masterbilt range along with the 2005 re-issue of the Paul McCartney 1964 USA Texan.
International demand for Epiphones was so high that the company opened a new factory in China in 2004, the first time that Epiphone had its own dedicated factory since the merging with Gibson in 1957. Epiphone now had its own staff supervised by in-house managers and luthiers with control over product design, manufacturing, and customer service.
Today, Epiphone has something for every player in every genre. Working musicians prize Epiphone for its affordable versions of Kalamazoo factory favorites and new models like the Wilshire Phant-o-matic and the Ultra III. Collectors of vintage guitars snap up the authentic Elitist reissues of the Emperor, Casino and Excellente. Epiphone quality rivals that of any guitar manufacturer in the world, while rock 'n' roll fans delight in the company's signature models like the Marcus Henderson Apparition, the Zakk Wylde ZV Custom and the Joe Bonamassa GoldTop. Regardless of budget, ability or musical leaning, today's Epiphone has it covered.
Perhaps even more important, Epiphone has retained the pioneering spirit of Epi Stathopoulo. Epiphone is still a company that thrives on risk while always delivering a great instrument. In the words Epiphone President Jim Rosenberg: "Epiphone is still the House of Stathopoulo. We're designers. We're players. We're mavericks. And, we're passionate about everything we do."