The low down on Epiphone's best-kept secret
Epiphone is known worldwide for guitars like the Casino, the Masterbilt series, and the Wilshire. And over the last decade, Epiphone has even re-shaped the image of the Les Paul from an expensive, vintage classic to a modern, affordable, and progressive guitar with USB inputs, on-board tuning, and coil-splitting.
But for many longtime Epiphone fans and guitar aficionados, the secret hero of the House of Stathopoulo has been the bass guitar.
For the first half of the 20th Century, Epiphone was a leader in manufacturing a wide range of instruments including guitars, banjos, mandolins and archtop jazz guitars. During that time, Epiphone's greatest rival was Gibson, a rivalry that carried on through several music eras including big band jazz, western swing, honky tonk, and early rhythm and blues.
After World War II, Epiphone was faced with reinventing itself to accommodate the new era, an era where big bands had virtually disappeared and the electric guitar was the new, cutting edge instrument. Epiphone had built its reputation on acoustic instruments and without Epi Stathopoulo (who died in 1943), the remaining family members struggled to reinvent itself. Though Epiphone's first attempts at electric archtops did not catch on in the market place, Epiphone upright basses still sold well.
Meanwhile, longtime rival Gibson had discontinued their line of upright basses. When Gibson's new Vice President Ted McCarty, a longtime fan of Epiphone, went looking for a solution, he decided to take his friend Les Paul's advice and offered to buy the Epiphone line of basses from the Stathopoulo family. The Stathopoulo family had other ideas.
"Originally, Gibson's Ted McCarty was interested in purchasing Epiphone's upright bass line for Gibson," said Epiphone President Jim Rosenberg. "But the Stathopoulo family instead offered McCarty the entire company. Les Paul helped bring the two sides together because Les always loved Epiphone and he didn't want to see it go under. Les always said, 'Epiphone made a good guitar. And they always kept Gibson on their toes.'"
So, on May 10, 1957, McCarty purchased the Epiphone company along with its tooling, parts inventory, copyrights, and designs from the last surviving members of the Stathopoulo family, who then retired from the music business.
"The merging of Gibson and Epiphone in May 1957 turned out to be one of the landmark events in pop culture history," said Rosenberg. "It paved the way for innovations that are still part of our lives today. Epiphone started designing electric basses and getting them in catalogs and out to dealers."
Many of those early basses like the Epiphone Newport and the Rivoli were not big sellers at the time. But among rock and rollers who grew up in the 60s, Epiphone basses were valued precisely because they weren't Fenders or Gibsons. "I loved Epiphones--they were a little less expensive, they had a great sound, and because they were different, I always thought they were cooler, too," said E Street Band bassist Garry Tallent. The Rivoli especially is now considered a collector's item for its association with John Entwistle of the Who and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, who used his Rivoli during his brief stint in the Yardbirds and in the studio throughout the 70s.
Sheryl Crow is also a fan of Epi basses as is her longtime bassist, Robert Kearns who founded Cry of Love. "When I was in a band called Cry of Love, an Epiphone rep gave me a Rivoli Bass which was a reissue at the time. I loved it and kept it for the longest time. Ever since I always gravitated towards those kind of basses and I've always loved Epiphones--vintage and new.”
Interestingly, Epiphone still carried upright basses in its catalog as late as 1962 including The Artist, The Professional and The Studio. Both were likely assembled from parts brought to the Kalamazoo, Michigan factory from Epi's former homes in New York City and Philadelphia.
Today, Epiphone's modern line of basses includes custom designs and rock and roll classics that have something for every player and every style--from progressive jazz to alternative rock. Epiphone carries the most diverse line of electric basses in the business over four distinctive categories--Hollowbody, the Thunderbird style, the SG style, and classic Tobias or "Toby" Basses.
Epiphone hollowbody basses have been heard on albums by Amy Winehouse, the Allman Brothers, Jack White, the Stone Roses, and many more. And the hollowbody style of bass has probably never had a more articulate champion than Jack Casady, whose own signature model is in regular use by a wide range of artists including Echosmith, Sheryl Crow, and Paul McCartney bassist Brian Ray.
"You know, I'm always chasing that sound. I'm chasing the more acoustic sound but with the articulation of an electric instrument. That was my philosophy in developing this," Casady told Epiphone. "With the long scale neck and a single pickup in the sweet spot that has that full harmonic range, I thought it was a very versatile instrument that engineers would love and would not have to mess with."
The Jack Casady Bass features Casady's JCB low-impedance pickup, a 34" scale, a Mahogany neck, Maple body, and a three-position transformer to shape the frequency response.
"I worked with J.T. Riboloff to develop that pickup and we went through maybe 20 or 30 different prototypes before we were able to 'ok' what was finally put out on the market," said Casady. "And one of my concerns was that it was one thing to do a custom version but I wanted to make sure the production version held up. So every year, I get two new basses of whatever the production line is and take them out on the road and play them so I know the quality is right up to snuff."
Dominic Davis had played a Jazz-style bass on Jack White's first solo tour until he discovered the Epiphone Jack Casady which has since became his sole electric bass on the Lazaretto world tour including appearances on The Tonight Show and Conan.
"I love the Jack Casady because it gives you that quick decay that an upright has. I have a lot of hollowbody basses, but most of them are short scale like a Hofner. The Jack Casady plays like one of those, but stays in tune and feels like all of my other regular scale basses. Plus, it's versatile. My other hollowbody basses sound great, but they only have one sound. The Jack Casady really gives you a lot to work with. I highly recommend it with flat wounds."
For more about the Jack Casady Signature Bass, be sure to read our interview with Brian Ray from the Paul McCartney band, Emmylou Harris bassist Chris Donohue, and our special interview with Jack Casady in honor of his 70th birthday.
The late great Allen Woody was also an early champion of the new generation of Epiphone basses.
"Woody knew a lot about instruments and about guitars and basses, instruments in general and why they sounded the way they did," Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes told FlyGuitars.com. "You know, he was just an avid collector and student of what made instruments tick. He was always thinking about what type of wood, what type of pickups, what type of finish, anything that could improve the sound."
The Rumblekat features Woody's original design including a chambered Mahogany body, NYT™ mini humbuckers, and a 30" scale length. Woody passed away before the formal release of the Rumblekat but a portion of the proceeds from the sale of each bass goes to the Savannah Woody Educational Fund.
The Viola Bass, inspired by Paul McCartney's original "Beatle bass," has most recently found a fan in Jack Hayden of The Strypes. Like the Jack Casady and the Rumblekat, the Viola's hollowbody design is perfect for bassists with a melodic, lyrical style who also want a round, solid low-end tone. The Viola features NYR™ and NYT™ mini humbuckers, a Maple body and neck, and a 30.5" scale.
The Thunderbird Bass, first issued from the legendary Kalamazoo factory in 1963, features a unique "reversed" zig-zag body design and an equally distinctive headstock that was created by legendary automotive designer and visionary Ray Dietrich. Dietrich was enlisted by the Gibson/Epiphone Kalamazoo factory to bolster the electric guitar line. The Thunderbird was quickly embraced by rock and rollers in the US, UK, and Europe, and today is still a rock and roll classic.
"I had a non-reverse Epiphone Thunderbird I played when I was with Lynyrd Skynyrd and I loved it," recalled Sheryl Crow bassist Robert Kearns. "I wish I still had it. If we had had instruments available to us back then when I was a kid like Epiphone has today--affordable with a great tone--it would have been so much easier. You know, the kids have it easier today!"
Epiphone Thunderbird Basses share the same historic design, each with unique features.
Featuring two TB Plus™ humbuckers, a hard Maple neck, Mahogany body, and a 3-point fully adjustable bridge.
Available in both 4-and 5-string versions with a master volume, Hi and Low EQ, and blend controls.
Featuring historic Gibson TB Plus™ humbuckers and available in Vintage Sunburst or Alpine White.
The Thunderbird IV Goth Bass puts a new twist on an old favorite featuring a Pitch Black finish. With TB-Plus™ bass humbuckers, a hard Maple neck, and Pitch Black body finish and hardware.
It seems incredible in hindsight but in the early 1960s, the Kalamazoo factory, home to both Epiphone and Gibson instruments, ceased production of the Les Paul guitar and in its place, created the "SG" design. With the Les Paul (temporarily) out of the picture, the SG style took over and during the early 60s, the classic SG bass was the historic factory's sole electric bass offering.
But the "SG" bass was by no means a cast-off. Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones, Cream's Jack Bruce, and The Who's John Entwistle all made the "EB" style bass a hit-maker. Epiphone carries on the tradition today with the same classic styling along with some modern updates.
The entry-level "SG" bass with a pro sound, look, and feel. Featuring a Sidewinder™ humbucker pickup and classic Cherry finish.
Featuring both a Sidewinder™ humbucker and a classic NYT™ mini humbucker for more high-end punch and individual tone, volume controls for each pickup, plus a cool 60s style three-position pickup selector switch to shape the frequency response. Available in Ebony and Cherry color finishes.
Epiphone and Tobias team up to bring back this classic design, once again putting cutting edge sounds and designs in the hands of musicians everywhere. With its roots in the original designs of Michael Tobias introduced over 10 years ago, the "Toby" brought real innovation to bassists hungry for something that reflected modern playing styles. Today, the classic Tobias-designed ergonomic body shape is loved by bassists for its finished’ sound that has all the punch of an upright with all the clear detail of an electric.
Featuring Tobias TBR™ and TBT™ single coil pickups, a pickup blend control, knurled all-metal knobs, and a low profile fully adjustable bridge. Available in Ebony and Alpine White.
Featuring two Tobias TBT™ Dual Rail Humbucker pickups and an Active Tonexpressor™ Bass Enhancement Control which enables bassists the option of making creative blends. The Active Tonexpressor™ is also a powerful ally on stage when you need to make fine adjustments to cut through dense mixes. The Active Tonexpressor™ uses an easy-to-change 9-volt battery. Available in Trans Red, Ebony, Walnut, and Vintage Sunburst.
All the classic Tobias Tone as a 5-string! Available in Trans Red, Ebony, and Vintage Sunburst, with Tobias SCR™ Split-Humbuckers and the Active Tonexpressor™.
Visit Epiphone's Bass Page and go low into the details and stories of each Epiphone bass and find your favorite at your Authorized Epiphone Dealer.