Dave Berryman: The Epiphone Interview

On January 14, 1986, during the era of popular music when the electric guitar had been pushed aside by keyboards and synthesizers, Henry Juszkiewicz and Dave Berryman, two entrepreneurs who had met in graduate school, purchased a struggling guitar company called Gibson. Thrown into the bargain was another guitar company owned by Gibson since 1957--Epiphone.

While Juszkiewicz and Berryman went to work putting Gibson back into shape--improving quality, distribution, and dealer relationships--the new owners also began to slowly unravel the long history of Epiphone, the House of Stathopoulo. In the process, they discovered they had a diamond in the rough with a history of producing groundbreaking instruments and a story unlike any other in the history of American instruments. They also discovered that Epiphone's greatest rival in the guitar business had been Gibson and that Epiphone fans from all generations had a fierce loyalty to the brand despite its long and rocky history.

Epiphone.com talked with Gibson President Dave Berryman about the early days of the "new" Epiphone and their radical idea of producing an affordable, professional instrument available to anyone, anywhere around the world.

We spoke with Dave while he thumbed through Walter Carter's new book, The Epiphone Guitar Book, edited by Tony Bacon ("I love the layout--the blend of instrument shots, historical catalogs, and promotional information.") and looked back on Epiphone's tentative first steps back in the market place.

You bought Epiphone 27 years ago in January of 1986. Did you wake up the next day and think: "Uh oh, we haven't bought one company--we've bought two?”

We didn't realize that at first. Epiphone was a jewel that was basically hidden within Gibson. It was there, but it was way under-developed. I'll give you an example of what the situation was like. Gibson, under the management of Norlin, came down from Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1974 and built the Gibson factory on Massman Drive here in Nashville. So from 1974-84, this Nashville facility was making all of Gibson's solid body electric guitars: Les Pauls, SGs, Flying Vs, and Explorers.

Meanwhile, all the acoustic guitars, mandolins, banjos, and hollow bodies were still made in Michigan. In 1984, to save costs, Norlin closed the Kalamazoo plant and moved the rest of production down here. They sent all the remaining production equipment down to Nashville and just left it on the floor of the factory! But they didn't bother bringing down the people--the expertise--who knew how to use the equipment and build those instruments. So if that was their attitude with Gibson, you can imagine how they felt about Epiphone (laughs)! They didn't care about Epiphone at all. Epiphone was lost.

In 1984, Epiphone consisted of just a handful of models, perhaps 6 or 8 models--that were imported, at that time, from Korea. Not a lot of time and effort was spent on Epi. It was just a support line to Gibson and sadly the only models that they had in the line were lower cost versions of Gibson models. That was it. And they were offered in just a very few colors. And options? Nothing!

So, yes--we also had Epiphone, this other company--you're right--but we weren't in a position to do much with it yet because it was a question of, where do you spend your time? On the Gibson side, there were so many things that were wrong. Sales had dwindled because the company under Norlin had really lost touch with the market and they weren't really addressing the needs of artists or consumers.

So to turn the business around, we really had to concentrate on rebuilding Gibson, getting the quality right, getting the pricing right, and getting the volume up. And then, we had to work with dealers to support those products, deal with those issues, and then expand globally, not just in the USA. That took several years of attention. And in that period from '86 to '92, we could only spend a minimal amount of time on Epiphone, much to our disappointment.

It really wasn't until 1992, when Epiphone was broken out as a separate stand-alone dedicated operation, that things started to change. As you can see from Walter's book, we didn't even have a catalog at that point--just sales brochures.

When Epiphone broke off as its own division, is that when you began to discover the history? At that point, before the Internet, there wasn't much literature written on guitar companies.

Right. Once Epiphone was separated from Gibson as a division and as an operation--physically--Epiphone finally had dedicated employees that could focus on the business. And at that point in time, Epiphone started to really develop. Because those people--and it was a small team of people--were totally focused on learning the history of the brand, learning what made it great, and going to Asia and working with the factory. They had an enormous task to build up volume and build the brand up and teach dealers about the rich history, embody that history into the products, and build for the future.

Back then, the idea of an affordable professional guitar didn't exist. Was that your intention for Epiphone when you began building the brand again?

Honestly, we didn't have an appreciation for the rich history of Epiphone until we got into it. The first order of business was to increase the business volume because we were up against some bigger competitors that were doing much higher production volume in the Orient than we were. But we saw an opportunity to separate our product from the competition because at that time, you just had a handful of manufacturers making all the competitor's brands. And they used essentially the same components.

We needed to separate our product from the competition. Well, how do you do that? We got into--literally--every component that went into our instruments. We wanted to develop proprietary hardware, pickups, plastic parts, potentiometers--every component that went into the instrument; we wanted to make it better. And once we made it better, we wanted it to be used exclusively on Epiphone products. In doing that, we got involved in reaching back and researching Epiphone's history and all the innovations that Epiphone was instrumental in developing over the years.

That's how Epiphone developed their brand in the old days. That's how they competed with Gibson back in the 1920s, 30s, '40s, back in the heyday of the big box guitars, before amplification, when bigger guitars were considered better because they could be more easily heard above the other instruments in a band. Epiphone was always known for making a bigger instrument than Gibson. Whatever Gibson did, Epiphone had to out do 'em (laughs). They had to make it bigger! Epiphone always pushed the envelope. They invented the 7-string guitar, the Frequensator tailpiece, and many other guitar innovations. And Les Paul himself worked on guitars at the Epiphone factory. The key is, Epiphone has this history of innovation and we were able to get back into that as we developed better hardware and better electronics.

We had to do this because the first thing we heard, both from dealers and consumers, is "well I love Epiphone because you guys got great pricing. But the first thing I do is I rip the pickups out and put Gibson pickups in." And we just hated to hear that. So we had to make a better quality product. We viewed every instrument we made as something professionals would want to buy and make a living with playing ---every single day. But it took some time. We had to find out who made all these parts and it wasn't easy.

I imagine the last thing the big companies wanted was a major guitar company that made it's own parts.

Yes, the big companies that were doing the business for all the brands in Asia didn't really want you dealing with these venders. So we had to find smaller independent factories that were started by guitar guys that loved making guitars and were engineers in their own right. We'd find them and say: "Let's go to the component manufacturer together, introduce us, and then we'll start a relationship to develop improved components that are superior to everything else that's available in the market."

And then, you were not only the owner of the company, but you were also becoming an expert on every facet of guitar manufacturing.

Right. What started out as a pretty straightforward business trip--going to the factories that make the product and going over the details--became more involved since we were spending time with the component manufacturers and developing better parts. It made for some very long trips and spending a lot of time in the Orient. And we've continued to do that over the years.

For many, many years--I would go over to Asia with our Epiphone team, five or six times a year. You have to spend time there to make things happen. And as our relationships got better there and as we developed our engineering talent here in the U.S. as well as in Asia, Epiphone set up its own manufacturing operation in China in 2002. That took a decade of travel and working with all our independent factories on developing our brand. Remember, the bulk of the Epiphone line features set necks, like Gibson, so it's much more difficult to make and takes more expertise and skill. But it was well worth the effort because it yielded constantly improving product quality, production reliability and superior performance that was being noticed by many players and consumers. People were telling us, "Wow, your Epiphone product has come a long, long way."

And was that new Epiphone factory supervised by Gibson trained luthiers?

Yes, the two China factories that we've developed have USA people that are Gibson trained --from the main Gibson factory--and who have worked many, many years with Gibson. They know the Gibson way of making quality instruments. Those folks are instrumental in managing the facilities there. But we've developed talented people in China, too--managers, engineers and workers--and cross-trained them with our folks from Gibson as well.

The history of Epiphone's jazz era instruments are well documented but it seems like Epiphone fans are now finally discovering the great electric instruments from the late 50s and early '60s.

Yes, and that's what we're trying to recreate now. We think the real identity of Epiphone extends well beyond making great Gibson shaped product such as Les Pauls and SGs at popular prices. We think the unique personality of Epiphone is in these instruments that have different shapes and unique characteristics.

We talked about the '20s, '30s, '40s, when Epiphone was Gibson' main competitor--and a very viable one at that. But then under Gibson ownership, especially in the mid '60s, Epiphone developed their own identity pretty quickly with the Sheraton, the Wilshire, the Rivera, and the Casino--that's the tone that Paul McCartney fell in love with.

Now, you see collectors getting excited about that era of Epiphone, too. And I know that their enthusiasm is an indication of the development of the brand. People want those instruments not only because of their heritage, but also because they are great instruments.

Artists are also recognizing that if you're going to put your name on an instrument, Epiphone is their first choice for creating an instrument that's not only professional and affordable, but that's available worldwide.

That's correct, and our artists have recognized that. Actually, many Gibson artists have several Epiphones as well. They love the product--and they love the way it performs. Our artists are very conscious about their fan base and want their instrument affordable by virtually every guitar player. And that's pretty cool. Our quality and playability have come a long way, and I would put Epiphone instruments up against anybody's.

The Epiphone line has expanded to include every genre of music. Was that a new concept when you started out?

Yes, there really wasn't a brand with the breadth and depth of instruments that we developed at Epiphone. We cover every genre of music with our instruments. And there are still many opportunities for our product expansion, which, I think, will play out over the next few years. We have some very exciting product planned for Epiphone that will really get our fans excited about the future.

You've been collecting vintage Epiphones over the years. That's a difficult endeavor since it's rare to see a vintage Epiphone for sale.

Yes, that's correct. I think that's a result of the number of instruments actually made and the fact that the owners don't want to give them up. We've managed to build a collection of 50 pre-Gibson ownership instruments dating back to the early 1900's. 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 years 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. Jim was the co-author of the first book on Epiphone, The House of Stathopoulo, along with L.B. Fred, and he amassed a great collection himself. 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.

The Gibson-Kalamazoo Epiphone era--with the Texans, Casinos, Rivieras, Sheratons, Coronets and Wilshires--that's a whole other era that we've tried to also acquire.

Are there particular instruments from the Kalamazoo era that you're looking for?

Well, there are a few of them. Of course, my two personal favorites are the '63 or '64 Casino and also the Texan, because of the historical significance of the guitar and the great tone they have.

Paul McCartney loves his original Texan and Casino. Many people know he composed and recorded Yesterday on a Texan. However, many people don't know of his love of the Casino. In talking to Paul many years ago at the debut of The Beatles Love by Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas at the Mirage Hotel, Paul said to me: "Now I know you're one of the principals at Gibson--and I love Gibson--but I gotta tell you, I've always been particularly fond of the Epiphone instruments. I'm the first Beatle that bought a Casino. John and George had to get Casinos when they heard mine. It's my favorite guitar."

And Paul has said that many times over the years. It's just so satisfying to hear an artist of his incredible stature telling you that his favorite guitar is an Epiphone Casino. That's truly amazing. You can't get much better than that.