This year, Epiphone--the House of Stathopoulo--celebrates its 140th anniversary as the premier instrument maker for working musicians young and old. With a new headquarters in Nashville and over a decade of player and critical acclaim, Epiphone is poised to fulfill founder Epi Stathopoulo's vision of making affordable and beautiful instruments available to everyone around the world.
Epiphone is also one of the oldest instrument companies in the United States. Its roots trace back to Anastasios Stathopoulo, who began his apprenticeship as a luthier in 1873 when his family moved from Greece to the coast of Turkey. Anastasios immigrated to America in the early 20th century with a goal to carry on the family tradition of building and repairing instruments in his new country.
Stathopoulo's children would indeed follow in his footsteps. His oldest son, Epaminondas--known as Epi--would prove to be the most daring, with a flair for invention, a keen sense of his times, and a love for the irreverent humor and soulful insight he heard from the musicians who crowded the Epiphone showroom in Manhattan for jam sessions.
Epi was as much a showman as a businessman and the Epiphone showroom featured an instrument display set up in a street level window where passers by would not only see beautiful archtops, mandolins, and banjos, but could also watch guitarists like Al Caiola, George Barnes, and young Les Paul from Wisconsin trading licks.
Epi was so taken by Les's talent and personality that when Les told Epi of his daring idea of building a solid body guitar, Epi immediately saw an opportunity and offered Les the use of Epiphone's factory for his experiments. There, Les made his first solidbody guitar, the Log, from an Epi archtop. Les's experiments became the early prototypes of the Les Paul solidbody guitar. In fact, Les's main guitar for all of his hits with Mary Ford in the late '40s and '50s, like "Tiger Rag" and "How High the Moon," were made on guitars Les fashioned at Epiphone.
Like Les, Epi Stathopoulo loved to experiment and he had a grand vision for his company: Epiphone would make professional, affordable instruments that would appeal to any musician and could work with any style of music. Musicians--not trends--would inform the company's designs. His larger-than-life personality and relentless passion for excellence had a galvanizing effect on the business and the music of 20s, 30s, and 40s.
And even a decade after his death in 1943, Epi still casts a shadow over the company. When Epiphone merged with one-time rival Gibson in 1957, Epi's brother Orphie, who took over for Epi after his death, made Gibson's Ted McCarty promise that a framed photo of Epi be on display at all times in Epiphone's new home. Today, Epi's photo still hangs in Epiphone’s newly opened headquarters in Nashville.
If Epi could see his namesake company now, he would be awestruck by the size and scope of his family business. Yet today, discussions at Epiphone about guitar design still revolve around terms like tonewoods, magnets, and tuning ratios--that would be familiar to anyone who worked for Epiphone in Epi's time.
That's because the art of making an instrument still requires old world tools, thrift, muscle, and most importantly, an idea.
Today, wood and metal may be cut to exacting standards in ways Epi could never have dreamed of. But turning a guitar into an instrument is still a fundamentally hands-on endeavor.
Though we don’t anticipate resurgence popularity for the bowlback mandolin (never say never), many of the instruments that Epi championed--the Masterbilt line first introduced in the '30s, and electric basses and guitars--are still what Epiphone is about today.
Epiphone's 140th anniversary is not only a chance to reaffirm our commitment to excellence to our fans. This anniversary is also an opportunity to take you behind the scenes and show you the care and intense work that goes into making every Epiphone instrument--all of which happens in our new building in Nashville that for the first time in half a century, unites all of Epiphone's various departments under one roof, just as it was in Epi's day.
Here at Epiphone in Music City, USA, what starts out as a sketch becomes a 3-D drawing, and then a prototype, and finally a production model that is tuned, tested, adjusted, and shipped after being assembled and delivered directly from one of our own state-of-the art factories.
Epiphone's new headquarters in Nashville encourages an open dialogue between departments. And just as in Epi's day, the best ideas often come not in an office but while talking with peers in the hallway, over coffee, or jamming in the showroom. Many of our employees are artists and luthiers themselves. And Epi's example is still our guiding principle: make it great, make it affordable, and build it to last.
Today, Epiphone has something for every player in every genre. Working musicians prize Epiphone's classic reissues of Kalamazoo factory-era favorites and for cutting edge models like the Wilshire Phant-o-matic, the 339 Pro, and the Les Paul Ultra III. In the 21st century, Epiphone quality rivals that of any guitar manufacturer in the world, and rock 'n' roll fans delight in the company's limited edition signature models like the Tommy Thayer "Spaceman" Les Paul, the Zakk Wylde ZV Custom and the Joe Bonamassa Goldtop.
The modern Epiphone is the culmination of three distinct eras. The first, helmed by Epi Stathopoulo, was an era rich in musical diversity, and vintage collectors today prize nearly all of the instruments from Epi's time. Epi had the uncanny ability to anticipate the future of popular music. Before his death, Epi anticipated the electric piano, the pedal steel, the push-pull electric amp design, and a hybrid carved top/plywood upright bass design that would eventually become the #1 upright bass in popular music in the late 40s' and early 50's.
When Gibson and Epiphone merged in 1957, the rivalry became a brotherhood--linked but also competitive. This second great era for Epiphone, which lasted for nearly a decade, saw the Gibson/Epiphone factory in Kalamazoo produce over a dozen guitars and basses that are now considered priceless by vintage collectors including the Casino, the Texan, the Wilshire, the Sheraton, and the Riviera. During this time, Epiphone again became the working musician's favorite creative tool whose fans included The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Page, The Who, Johnny Winter, Roy Orbison, and the Beach Boys.
And today, vintage Epiphones continue to make history. Nirvana, Paul Weller, Oasis, Paul Simon, Tristen, Duke Robillard, and many others have counted on their classic Epiphones. Even Paul McCartney still uses the Texan and Casino that he bought in 1964. "If I had to choose one electric guitar," said McCartney describing his Casino to Guitar World, "it would be this."
The third great era for Epiphone--and its true spiritual and industrial rebirth--began in 1986 when Henry Juszkiewicz and David Berryman bought Gibson and Epiphone from ECL/Norlin. Although reviving Gibson was the first priority for the new owners, they soon realized that Epiphone was a distinct brand all its own and they now had--in fact--two great companies for the bargain. But in an era when all guitar companies were struggling, was there still an audience for Epiphone?
By 1988, Epiphone began to revive and launched the PR Series of square-shouldered acoustics along with an interpretation of Gibson's J-180, several classical guitars, a banjo, and a mandolin. In an effort to excite new players, Epiphone also released models like the Les Paul and SG, new archtops like the Howard Roberts Fusion, and a revival of the Sheraton.
President Jim Rosenberg first joined Epiphone as a product manager in the early '90s. "At the time, I was going to be one of the company's first dedicated product managers," recalled Rosenberg. "Frankly, I expected to be involved with the Gibson brand. However, as it turned out, I was assigned to Epiphone. At first, I was a little disappointed. But, I soon recognized that there was a tremendous amount of potential with Epiphone. Now I can't imagine doing anything else"
By the 90s, the Epiphone line offered 43 different models across a range of styles and budgets. Gibson President David Berryman opened an Epiphone office in Seoul, with Rosenberg as product manager, and set about re-introducing Epiphone to the world as an innovative guitar maker.
"Dave and I spent a lot - I mean a LOT of time in Asia visiting suppliers and building relationships," said Rosenberg. "Most of those relationships we still maintain today. Relationships with people that have a passion for success, for guitars and for Epiphone. We could not have done it without them."
By the early '90s, word about the new Epiphone spread, and a diverse range of artists, from Chet Atkins to Oasis' Noel Gallagher, signed on.
And though Epiphone was arguably just as successful in the late '90s as at any point in its history with the John Lee Hooker Sheraton, the Noel Gallagher Supernova, and the John Lennon 1965 and Revolution Casinos, it was decided to turn up the heat and reevaluate the entire process with the bold idea of making Epiphone the king of affordable, professional instruments. It was a new concept but the audience was out there. And since every Epiphone instrument now included a lifetime guarantee, Research and Development took up the challenge to make this goal possible.
"When I started with Epiphone in 1993, we didn’t have the logistical support, man-power or dedicated facilities we have today," says Director of Operations, Scott Aisenbrey. "We've really come a long way and we could not be more excited about our new Nashville facility. Our new facility allows us additional room for growth, provides a great work environment for our employees, and will allow us to provide our customers with an increased level of customer service and satisfaction."
Richard Akers, head of Epiphone's Research and Development since 2000, set out to both refine and rediscover Epiphone instruments. "As a kid growing up, I remember how hard it was to find a good quality guitar at an affordable price," recalls Akers. "Our goal from the beginning was that there should be an Epiphone instrument for everyone, from the kid starting out to the professional gigging musician that demands the best."
In past decades, before Epiphone took on either designing or carefully overseeing all hardware and electronics, the quality of vintage guitars could vary wildly. So when re-creating a vintage classic, the challenge often became how to make a new design on the inside that looks and functions like the original part.
Over the last decade, Akers and Epiphone used cutting edge technologies to make breakthrough developments for Epiphone guitars like digitizing vintage guitars for Epiphone's critically acclaimed reissues of the Casino, Wilshire, and Genesis, as well as the new Matt Heafy Les Paul Custom and Les Paul Custom-7 signature model. Epiphone also developed PCB mounted pots and 'quick-connects' for the PRO series wiring, which proved to be both reliable and flexible. Every part of an Epiphone received enthusiastic scrutiny.
"I spent months redesigning our 3-way toggle switch from the ground up," said Akers. "I worked closely with a metallurgical laboratory here in the U.S. to ensure that all the materials used were correct as well as carefully considered all design aspects of the switch. Our new 3-way toggle is as good as any on the market. "The LockTone™ bridge hardware, for instance, is now a patented tailpiece and bridge locking system that provides several decibels of increased sustain over traditional hardware. Our patented No Spin output jack is another example of an improvement that is exclusive to Epiphone guitars."
As new Epiphones garnered critical acclaim and sales, Akers and the Epiphone team next turned to the heart of the classic Epiphone sound--great pickups.
Since the early '70s, boutique pickup designers had identified key elements of late '50s and early '60s hum buckers and mini-hum buckers and had put various recreations on the market. Though not every boutique idea was great, their impulse was noble enough. But what constitutes "vintage" was always a hornet's nest of opinion since hand-wound pickups were at the mercy of the person winding them.
Vintage Epiphone pickups had a great reputation, especially among hardcore bluesman like Johnny Winter, Magic Sam, and Jimi Hendrix, who used their Epiphones to discover the many combinations that could result from volume and tone control. Akers decided to combine the best boutique pickups ideas and the best vintage pickup designs and make them affordable and easy to reproduce. The results were the Epiphone ProBucker and Alnico Classic Pro pickups.
"I'm really excited about these pickups," says Akers. “They were completely designed here in Nashville and tooled from the ground up at a new factory dedicated to high-end pickup production. The pickups use only the highest quality components and are based on the most sought after humbuckers of Gibson's history. I spent many, many hours making sure these came out great and I am really happy with the results."
Epiphone's loyal fans have waited longer than most for historic reissues so reintroducing classics like the Sheraton, the Casino, and the Riviera, was a priority as the new Epiphone gained momentum over the last decade.
"More and more, we want to offer our fans unique Epiphone innovations and models," said Rosenberg. "The reissue of the 1961 Casino with the redesigned and improved Tremotone™ vibrato is a perfect example of that."
Akers and everyone at Epiphone were thrilled at the results. And the last decade of both critical and fan acclaim shows that the hard work was worth the time and effort.
"The manufacturing process is held to exacting specifications based upon the historic model and manufactured to exceedingly high standards," said Akers. "Recreating these instruments has been one of the most enjoyable ongoing projects I have been involved with over the last several years. I've had the opportunity to see and play a lot of great old guitars. In my opinion these are some of the best guitars we've built since the 60s."
The last decade has produced an extraordinary variety of instruments that can be heard in studios and on stages around the world. The Jack Casady Signature Bass, for instance, has become one of the most iconic basses of our times and is used by a wide range of artists including Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, Gary "Mani" Mounfied of the Stone Roses, and Brian Ray of Paul McCartney's band.
"My primary instrument is the one that I get the most variety of tone out of, the Epiphone Jack Casady bass," said Casady. "That's the one that I strive to use the most. And it's an instrument that I want to play, I pick it up and I'm always happy with the way it sounds."
Emmy Award winner Jason Ringenberg, leader of the genre bending Scorchers, and known today to most fans as Public Television's Farmer Jason, has been an Epiphone artist since the early '90s. "I count on Epiphones every day. They're not fussy. No matter what the situation, a plane ride in a freezing cold cargo hold or the back of a van, I know that night they'll be ready to play. I trust them. They never let me down."
For everyone at Epiphone, the last decade of success and the opening of the new Epiphone headquarters in Nashville is both a tribute to Epiphone's loyal employees and the fulfillment of Orphie Stathopoulo's wish to see the House of Stathopoulo see Epi's dream of making a beautiful, professional, and affordable instrument live on.
"Back in 1992, following one of the first Epiphone sales meetings that I participated in, one of our reps at the time said, "the world doesn't need Epiphone," recalls Rosenberg. "While he was the only one that said it, I suspect that at the time others were probably thinking the exact same thing. After all, they already had Gibson. That statement has since become somewhat of a legend around here as well as a constant reminder of how far we've come and a continuous challenge to make guitars that our customers not only need but also love."