Curator of the Dutch Archtop Guitar Museum in the House of Stathopoulo
There is no shortage of vintage archtop collectors. However, Ruurd Feitsma stands out as a singular curator of an equally singular collection, the Dutch Archtop Guitar Museum, which predominately features rare Epiphone archtop guitars made in New York City in the 30s and 40s. Ruurd is as enchanted by the golden age of the House of Stathopoulo as we are, and his collection is priceless. Mr. Feitsma stopped by Epiphone's new headquarters in Nashville where he admired our showroom and even some of Epiphone's more modern creations, too. But the focus of our conversation was Epiphone's own classic archtop collection and 1932 Triumph, which he strummed in admiration throughout our interview.
In your research, have you discovered any manufacturing or repair ledgers for Epiphone from the 1930s?
No. And that makes it more mysterious. For some reason Epiphone didn't record all their repairs. Gibson recorded everything that came back to the factory but Epiphone didn't. You couldn't bring a guitar to your local luthier on the corner because it didn't exist. And the guitars were expensive and had a life long guarantee. Not on your life but on the guitar's life (laughs). There's a difference! It was a very expensive instrument for those days. And if there was something wrong, they had to send it back to the Epiphone factory.
For instance, I noticed my L5 had been back to the Gibson factory (in Kalamazoo, Michigan) between 1932 and 1940 five times. That's because Joe Spann, who wrote the book about Gibson, can see in the ledgers. He can look it up. But that doesn't exist for Epiphone--that we know of.
The old stuff has craftsmanship. You can see it. I think there was probably 20,000 Epiphone acoustic archtops made in 25 years. That's about it and maybe less. Sometimes they put in a new label over the old one after repairs. Or the label might be gone but there might be a dye stamp. And sometimes you'll have numbers on the foot of the bridge. I have a 1936 Emperor and the f- holes are different. It was all for the looks. A broader top will give a better bass response. I have a Deluxe from 1933 but it has a label from '36. So it went back to the factory. But what they did, I don't know.
How did you discover Epiphone archtops?
I saw one in Holland. It was an Epiphone. I thought: 'what a beautiful guitar." So I bought my first archtop. I liked it very much--the looks, every thing about it. So I did some research and got more interested. And 25 years later, here I am.
There was not a lot of research done at that time you started collecting.
Well, Jim Fisch (author of Epiphone, the House of Stathopoulo) came out with that book and that was a great help. Then I saw the other models. I bought some others on the internet. Then another came and another came and now my house is filled with guitars.
Were Epiphone archtops from the 30s consistently well made?
Yes, I think so. They had to be loud to be heard by the other band members. According to all sources, it was a major builder of factory-built archtops for many years--even bigger than Gibson because Gibson only had one model--the L5--in the late 20s. And then in 1932, Epiphone hit them with seven archtops. Then you had the 18" guitars and so on.
Do you have a personal favorite?
No, not really. When you collect, you see all the beauty in the low-end guitars as well. Even on a low-end guitar--where the back is not carved, no truss rod, no ornamentation--it's still a beautiful guitar. And when they stand beside each other--13", 14", 15"--they're all beautiful. And all very good quality.
How about the finish--is that consistent?
Yes. But I've been to George Gruhn and he had an old L5, which had a varnish finish like a violin. Those are beautiful, too. I believe it was from the Lloyd Loar era.
Do we have anything in our Epiphone collection you don't have?
Oh yes. A tenor. But I don't do tenors. My house is too small (laughs). I only do 6-string archtops. I've seen the Super 300s, which I prefer over the Super 400s because there's less ornamentation.
What guitars are you currently looking for?
There are a few. There's a Tudor I don't have. I bid on it, but I missed it. There's another collector, Tom Shaughnessy, and he's collecting Epiphone's also. I offered $9,000 or $10,000 but I didn't get there. There's no difference between a Broadway, a Deluxe, and a Tudor--just in the ornamentation.
Do musicians visit you to check out your collection?
Oh yes. Most of the time, they want the Emperors because they want to record with them in the studio and they want to play with it on stage. So, I give them out on loan and then I get updates on records they've made and so on. At the moment, there's Count Basie Band in Holland. The director is from the States, so the guy phoned me and I said, 'come on over and try one out.' I would have liked to have seen them play but my flight was already made to the States so I missed it.
What differences do you notice between--say--the Gibson and Epiphone guitars or the different Epiphone models?
You have to be a better player than me. But you never know. I had an Emperor for sale because I had a better Emperor from the same time. It was all wrong. It had a Johnny Smith neck on it. There was glue marks on the body. But it sounded good.
But the guy who wanted an Emperor tried it and said 'this is good!' So he bought it! A real player doesn't mind cosmetic problems.
How many Epiphones were imported to Europe during the 30s and 40s?
In those days, almost nothing. They weren't shipped. In the 50s, a lot of guitars were made in Holland for Martin--thousands of them--but they were low-end guitars. It's kind of strange because the original home to expertly made guitars was Germany and Czechoslovakia in the late 1800s. But of course in the old days, it was all classical music. Then, you could make a living making bows. We know a lot of the early guitar players from Holland and Germany were also woodworkers, too.
Are there more Epiphone collectors out there besides you--and us?
Hard to say. Tom Shaughnessy collects a lot but he's busy. He told me 'I'm a racer, not a writer.' I told him make the most of your time, then.
Have you found any other Epiphone information about the factories or employees?
Very little. We were very fortunate that Jim Fisch found as much as he did. If we knew how many people worked at the factory we might be able to guess how many they could have made. But at least now there is a connection between my museum and Epiphone. I think there should be a connection between the two and on my side I have a lot of data and patterns, different headstocks and fingerboards. So now if someone gets a vintage Epiphone archtop, there's a place to look it up.
Are there any super rare Epiphones you've encountered?
Yes! There's a guy in Holland who has Super Deluxe and there's only one. It was never in a catalog but it was in an ad in Metronome magazine. If we didn't have one, we would not know that it existed. He plays it all the time.
Send us some photos!
I will. Maybe you can re-make it someday.