The building blocks of the House of Stathopoulo
When Anastasios Stathopoulo moved his family, (including his oldest son Epaminodas nicknamed "Epi") to New York City from the Turkish coastal town of Smyrna in the early 1900s hoping for a better life and a chance to continue his modest instrument business, Anastasios certainly would never have imagined the Stathopoulo family name would live on into the 21st century--let alone become one of the largest and most respected instrument makers in the world.
Today, the modern Epiphone instrument company is based in Nashville, Tennessee and its state of the art headquarters serves as the hub for a vast network of distributors, artists, designers, retailers, and factories. At the center of this modern hub is the Epiphone Historic Collection, an ever-growing ensemble of the history of Epiphone instruments from the 1900s through 1957 when Epiphone was purchased by Gibson and moved from the east coast to Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Visitors to Epiphone's home in Nashville will see evidence of the company's history on display everywhere--in the lobby, in meeting rooms, but especially Epiphone's new showroom where most of the Historic Collection sits right along side an example of every modern Epiphone currently in production. Vintage De Luxe's, Broadways, Zephyrs, and Royal's live along side Casinos, Les Pauls, Jack Casady basses, and Texans. The Historic Collection serves as an everyday reminder of Epiphone's long history as both an innovator in guitar manufacturing and a canny provocateur, ever ready to challenge and befuddle other manufactures.
The Epiphone Historic Collection began with the purchase of renowned Epiphone collector Jim Fisch's priceless collection of Epiphone banjos, archtops, amps, advertisements, photographs, and business papers that traced the Stathopoulo's long journey from Greece to New York.
Though the center of the Epiphone story inevitably revolves around its near-mythical founder, Epi Stathopoulo--showman, rebel, and raconteur who held court with the great jazz players in 1930s New York--the Epiphone story also includes an equally intriguing group of personalities like Les Paul, jazz legend George Van Eps, amp designer Nat Daniel who went on to form Danelectro, and star salesman, designer and one-man showman Herb Sunshine.
The heart of the Historic Collection centers on Epi's stewardship of Epiphone from the early 20s through the beginning of WWII, during the time of Epiphone's most heralded instruments including the original Masterbilt series and numerous flat tops and archtops that regularly battled Gibson guitars for supremacy (including the 18" wide Emperor).
As luthier Rober Benedetto wrote in the introduction to Jim Fisch and L.B. Fred's landmark book Epiphone, The House of Stathopoulo: "During the productive years of the New York Epiphone Company, the guitars were purchased by one type of individual: guitarists who judged the instruments on their own merit, as musical instruments and nothing else."
Epiphone purchased Jim Fisch's collection in 2007 and today, it remains a labor of love for Gibson President Dave Berryman who continues as its main curator and champion. But finding those vintage Epiphones is not always easy since Epiphone owners--both yesterday and today--are notoriously loyal both to the brand and to their own instruments.
"We've managed to build a collection of 50 pre-Gibson ownership instruments dating back to the early 1900's," Berryman told Epiphone.com. "Our oldest is a 1910 harp guitar, which is very cool. And it's not unlike the original Orville Gibson harp guitars. The similarities are just amazing over the history."
"The heart of the line in the pre-'57 is really the hollow bodies, the jazz boxes and all the different varieties, with the Emperor, Zephyr Deluxe, Broadway, Triumph and a long list of artist models that Epiphone made when the factory was located on 14th street in New York City. That era was very rich and we've tried to build a collection that's representative of all those key models. And we're not done yet. We had a good start with procuring the Jim Fisch collection... At the time we acquired the collection after his passing, it was really the most representative collection of pre-1957 Epiphone instruments anywhere. And we've been building on that slowly so it's been a labor of love."
In America, Epiphone is clearly the outstanding collector of its own history, but overseas, Epiphone admirers are just as passionate. Ruurd Feitsma stands out as Epiphone's most singular European collector as the curator of the Dutch Archtop Guitar Museum, which boasts an admirable Epiphone collection.
"The old stuff has craftsmanship. You can see it," Feitsma told Epiphone.com during a recent visit to Nashville, "I think there was probably 20,000 Epiphone acoustic archtops made in 25 years. That's about it and maybe less. 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."
Some of the highlights of the Epiphone Collection in Nashville include early pieces from the Epiphone Banjo Company like the mid 20s-era Banjo Mandolin that featured Flame Maple sides, a maple neck, a Rosewood fingerboard, and a pigskin head.
By the end of the 20s, the modern guitar era had clearly begun as both Gibson and Epiphone began to manufacture a dizzying selection of flattops and archtops. Epiphone instruments from this era are still highly prized not only for their tone but also for their original profiles like the 1930 Recording 4, which featured a carved top and ornate pearled inlay.
Smaller archtops like the 1932 Triumph Masterbilt and 1933 Zenith Masterbilt were just as popular as larger archtops like the 1932 Broadway and the rare 1935 Ideal Zenith. Like today, the first generation of Epiphone flattops and arcthops were made with classic tone woods like Spruce and Rosewood fingerboards. And famously, Epiphone's long running duel with Gibson led to wider and wider archtops like the Soloist Emperor and the De Luxe.
"When we got the collection it was about 30 pieces," said Epiphone's Scott Harrison who works with Dave Berryman to maintain the collection and find missing instruments. "For the most part, we're sticking to pre-1957 instruments, though we've seen a lot of curious pieces that came out of Kalamazoo (The original Gibson factory) that were a composite of parts that pre-dated the acquisition."
"Apart from appointments, Epiphone guitars were built with traditional construction techniques. They did a great job, too. We see similar bracing, construction, and materials between the two manufactures. But just as with Gibson, you'll see odd parts in the same line of models due to shortage of materials and substitutions. When we consider reissues, we'll look inside them to note bracing techniques and make measurements, and it's easy to spot the nuances of the various craftsmen who worked on them. One of the coolest acquisitions recently is the matching 6-string to the Harp Guitar. Those were never advertised in an American catalog. We eventually found it in a Greek instrument catalog."
Because of the scarcity of Epiphones on the vintage market, the Epiphone Historic Collection is a priceless link to Epiphone's past. Unlike most American guitar companies, Epiphone has barely scratched the surface in reissuing its storied past which means millions of Epiphone fans around the world have only had a glimpse of the long history of the House of Stathopoulo. However, that might change in the near future. Stay tuned.
"Whatever Gibson did, Epiphone had to out do 'em (laughs)" said David Berryman. "They had to make it bigger! Epiphone always pushed the envelope. And we've continued to do that over the years."