As part of our 140th Anniversary celebration, Epiphone.com reflects on the House of Stathopoulo's steady climb back into the limelight during the 1990s and 2000s as the working musician's favorite instrument maker. One can argue Epiphone has gone through more change and growth under the stewardship of current Epiphone President Jim Rosenberg than at any other time in its long history.
For 50 years, Epiphone was Gibson's #1 rival before the two merged in 1957. Over the next decade, Epiphone produced what are now considered some of the best instruments of the modern era including the Epiphone Casino, the Texan, the Sheraton, and the Riviera. But from the late '60s until the mid '80s, Epiphone--and much of the industry--struggled to find a place as musical tastes shifted.
Today, Epiphone is more like the Epiphone of the 1930s---innovating, shaping trends, and making hits. Epiphone's new headquarters in Nashville is state-of-the-art, and the company is firing on all cylinders with critically lauded reissues and fan-favorite signature models. Epiphone.com talked with Rosenberg about the long road home and what's in store for Epiphone in the future.
What was Epiphone like when you started and what kind of challenges did you have?
When the new owners acquired Gibson in 1986, they recognized that Epiphone had huge potential. But, I think their first order of business was primarily restoring Gibson's image and strength. Once that was on track, they hired me in 1992 to focus solely on Epiphone and soon after, established Epiphone as a stand-alone division within GMI. At that time, Epiphone had a recent history of struggling sales and a lack of focus on quality and design. Most sales people and retailers had little or no desire to sell Epiphone. On the production side, we had just a couple of independent or "OEM" suppliers and a small line-up of products that was not very exciting and had no real advantage or differentiation over our competition other than they were authorized LP and SG guitars. It was bleak on the surface. But once you started to dig down, it was clear that there was gold. The gold was Epiphone's illustrious past and all it really needed was some renewed passion and attention.
Dave Berryman talked about how Epiphone got involved in designing and manufacturing all the components in an Epiphone instrument. How do you see Epiphone's influence on the industry?
In 1992 and earlier, I think most imported brands, including Epiphone, were not really taken seriously- even by many of the companies that owned them. Obviously they enjoyed the sales revenue and certainly strived to increase it, but frankly I don't think the real passion or commitment was there. To really make it work, you had to dedicate a huge amount of time in Asia, at the factories. You had to be there, often. You had to communicate with them on a daily basis. You had to build relationships that went beyond that of a customer-supplier. You had to be a partner. You had to believe that you could make a great guitar regardless of the factory's location. I think that's how we may have changed or at least tweaked the industry's thinking. Our competitors saw that what we were doing was working and most recognized that if they didn't also up their commitment to their imported guitar lines, they were going to get beat. As a result, I'd like to think that we helped raise the bar for not only Epiphone, but all imported guitar brands.
Take us behind the scenes a bit. How is an Epiphone guitar made today?
I have given many customers from all over the world tours of our own Epiphone factories in China. Most of these customers have also been on tours of many of the guitar factories in the USA. Almost every single person comments how surprised they are that our Epiphone production is very similar to USA production. For me, that's not surprising because when you come right down to it you can't really significantly change the way you make a good guitar. There are processes, procedures, machinery and a discipline that have to be maintained. Certainly, spraying lacquer versus polyurethane is different. And scraping binding with a razor blade is different from taping off binding before you finish it, but in general it's the same and a labor of love regardless of where the factory is located.
What are Epiphone's plans for the future?
Simply put, our plans are to continue to improve and to continue to expand upon unique Epiphone innovations and models. We have our own history, a real history that cannot be denied. How we continue to build upon that, I cannot say specifically. But I do know we're not going to rest because we have an obligation to our 140 year legacy and millions of Epiphone fans to provide the best, most affordable instruments day in, day out. And, under the umbrella of Gibson Musical Instruments, we can continue to do that for another 140 years or more.
For Epi fans who are unsure where Gibson ends and Epiphone begins, is there a cliché about Epiphone we can debunk once and for all?
I think the most misleading cliché I hear is that Epiphone is a "cheap" Gibson. To me, that's like saying Toyota is a cheap Lexus. First, the word cheap implies inferior quality. Epiphone guitars, like Toyota cars, are some of the best, most reliable products made. And I don't just say that. I know it. We diligently track and review our quality and performance. For example, we are currently at a less than 0.5% return rate. That's incredible. If our quality was not consistently great, how could we offer a lifetime warranty? Also, we interact with retailers, consumers and artists every day. Consistently, the feedback we get from them is that they cannot believe how good our instruments are. And that includes everything from fit and finish to electronics to playability. In reality, if that was not the case there is no way so many professional musicians including Zakk Wylde, Dave Navarro, Jeff Waters, Robb Flynn, Jack Casady and more would put their name on our product and proudly use our instruments. Second, Epiphone has been part of the Gibson family for 56 years now. How can there not be a shared history and similarities? But even so, Epiphone's history of and contribution to guitar design and innovation is unquestionable*. And today, we have so many unique Epiphone models and features in our lineup; from our Wildkats, Masterbilts and Swingsters to our acoustic guitar preamps, Ultra-III electronics and LockTone™ hardware. So while we do offer affordable instruments, there's nothing cheap about them. And while we are proud to be part of the Gibson family of brands, we will continue to march to the beat of our own unique 140 year heritage.
* If you're not familiar with Epiphone's history, pick up a copy of Walter Carter's new book, "The Epiphone Guitar Book" which covers Epiphone's complete history from 1873 to present day. Books are available from your local music retailer or by visiting Halleonard.com.