From Manhattan to Michigan to Nashville
Throughout 2017, Epiphone will celebrate its 60th anniversary as part of the Gibson Family of Musical Instruments, its one time rival and now partner in groundbreaking instrument design and manufacturing for over half a century.
On May 10, 1957, Gibson President Ted McCarty--a longtime fan of Epiphone--purchased the Epiphone Company along with its tooling, parts inventory, copyrights, and designs from the last surviving members of the Stathopoulo family, who were retiring 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," says Epiphone President Jim Rosenberg. "It paved the way for innovations that are still part of our lives today. It's hard to imagine John Lee Hooker, The Beatles, Oasis, Gary Clark Jr., or dozens of other artists without their Epiphones."
From the 1920s through the early 1950s, Epiphone--led for decades by its founder Epi Stathopoulo-- was a leader in making a wide range of affordable professional instruments including flattop and archtop guitars, electric Hawaiian guitars, banjos, mandolins, amps, and some of the first electric guitars--even an electric piano! Epiphone's offices and factories in Manhattan kept the company at the center of the growing music business where artists like Charlie Christian, Eddie Lang, and a young Les Paul were at the vanguard of a new generation of players merging jazz, blues, classical, and folk into vibrant new forms of American music.
Under Epi's guidance, Epiphone fostered a fantastic reputation among new artists working in radio and in recording studios and many of them made regular visits to Epiphone's showroom to try new instruments and jam for passers by. During this time, Stathopoulo's sole rival in producing professional and competitively priced instruments was Gibson, located in the sleepy college town of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Epiphone and Gibson rivalry--both friendly and fierce--carried on through several music eras including early Vaudeville, big band jazz, western swing, and rhythm & blues. After Stathopoulo's death in the early 40s, his brothers Orphie and Frixo struggled to keep up with changing times as acoustic instruments were replaced by both archtop electric and solid body electric guitars like the Les Paul. Ted McCarty originally was seeking to bring Epiphone's upright bass business to Gibson but quickly realized that bringing the brand into the Gibson-fold would not only increase the prestige of the company but would also allow Gibson to increase its number of dealers both nationally and abroad.
Today, both Epiphone and Gibson players are enjoying an era of creativity and excellence reminiscent of what the Kalamazoo factory produced starting in the late 50s and 60s. Almost from the instant Epiphone took up headquarters with Gibson at the factories on Parsons St and Elenor St, Epiphone and Gibson began issuing what are now considered the most iconic electric guitar designs in pop history. Side by side, Gibson Les Paul Standards now worth up to $200,000 were glued, wired, and finished next to new Epiphone designs like the Sheraton and the Wilshire. Les Pauls that wound up with Keith Richards and Eric Clapton were made under the same roof as Casinos destined for The Beatles and the Kinks, or Texans bound for Paul McCartney and Peter Frampton. The "Jumbo" J-200s bought by Don and Phil Everly were built next to the Epiphone Excellente acoustic guitar that found its way to Washington and a young Loretta Lynn. The 60's era 12-string Riviera archtop that Paul Simon plays on stage and Joe Bonamassa's vintage 335 share the same wood, the same machine heads, the same finish, the same pickup wire, and the same dedication to excellence that today is found in critically acclaimed Epiphones like the Sheraton-II PRO and the Masterbilt Century Collection.
Les Paul, who shared a long history and friendship with both companies, always stressed in interviews that during this era there was little difference between a Gibson and an Epiphone. "They were identical guitars except they changed the names on them," Les told Epiphone.com. "So (on) the Gibson line they used the same wood, the same guys building them, the same fretboards, the same everything. They made minor changes between an Epiphone and a Gibson. So if you saw a flattop coming (out of the factory) and it said Epiphone it was the same guitar as the Gibson one."
To celebrate our 60th anniversary together, Epiphone will be releasing Limited Edition acoustic and electric guitars and basses and also go behind the scenes in our factories to see how Epiphone instruments are designed, built, finished, and inspected. We will also go deeper into the strange story of how the two rival companies joined together and how easily the once-in-a-lifetime merger could just as easily have never happened.
In the meantime, stay tuned to Epiphone.com and read our features on the history of the Epiphone Casino, Epiphone acoustic and electric basses, the Coronet, our look at the life of Les Paul, and the critically acclaimed new Masterbilt Century Archtop Collection featuring videos by Margo Price, Lucinda Williams, Billy Bragg, and many others.
"Les always said, 'Epiphone made a good guitar. And they always kept Gibson on their toes,' said Epiphone President Jim Rosenberg. "Together with Gibson, Epiphone continues to make history and fulfill Epi's wish to make world class instruments affordable and available around the world."