Jim Walker: The Epiphone Interview

Last month when Epiphone reintroduced the Ltd. Edition Genesis Deluxe PRO, one of our oldest fans, Jim Walker, a former Director of Marketing for the MI division of Norlin Instruments and a pivotal figure who became an "ad hoc" R&D designer for Epiphone when it was under ownership by Norlin, reached out to say hello. Jim designed the original Genesis with help and encouragement from Bruce Bolen of the Gibson R&D team. To show our appreciation to Jim, we sent along a new Epiphone Ltd. Ed Genesis PRO ("I love it!") and spoke with him about what Epiphone was like in the 70s and how the original Genesis came about.

Tell us about your background. How did you get started in designing guitars?

I'm a classically trained composer. I did my undergraduate work at Boston University, and my master's at the University of Chicago. I was privileged to have studied with no less than 4 Pulitzer Prize winners, and that was at times an entire study in and of itself. During my graduate years and a few prior, I did summer gigs at a local music store and had the incredible good fortune to meet up with a gentleman by the name of John Montgomery, and a little later on, John McHugh.

John Montgomery was, at the time, doing instrument repair work at the store. He was a seasoned craftsman, and an awesome cabinet builder. If the tool wasn't available, he made one. I began to help out as available time allowed, and he became a wonderful, if quirky, mentor.

Jim Walker: The Epiphone InterviewOne day, he was contacted by one of our retail clients and was asked if he'd be interested in building a guitar or two. He said yes. That client at the time went by the name of Northern Prairie Music. In addition to offering the repair services, which were sub-contracted to us, they also sold vintage instruments. The owner of the store was Paul Hamer. The instruments which we began to build for him were Hamer Guitars. Not on any grand scale, but we did pick up steam over the next several years and Hamer Guitars began to make a name for itself. We remained, and have over all these years, mostly anonymous. But the craftsmanship spoke for itself, and to this day, that has left us with our greatest satisfaction.

When I finished my graduate work, my intentions were to teach at the college level. There was a total glut on the market then, and my choice was to accept work almost on an ad hoc basis--filling in for leaves of absences--or move on. I chose to move on, and the serendipity of that was that it landed me at Norlin Music.

I joined Norlin Music in the late 70's. It was a megalith. There was really no dimension of musical instruments that they didn't represent. At the time, the total operation was represented through 3 separate divisions: MI (which included such brands as Gibson, Gibson Accessories, Epiphone, Moog synthesizers and Pearl drums); the B&O (band and orchestral division), and the Lowrey Organ division.

My involvement was as Director of Marketing for the MI division. My focus in development came first with Epiphone. There was something of a philosophical duality going on at the time. If this was a "feeder" brand, what exactly were we feeding: original designs, or copies of Gibson designs? My thinking was that we should feed something original to the brand, but with the same exacting standards that we brought to the Gibson brand.

What was you relationship like with Gibson R&D?

I enjoyed a great relationship both with our existing Epiphone vendors and our Gibson R&D team, which was then spearheaded by Bruce Bolen, who I still consider a dear friend after many, many years. With a great deal of trust, I was privileged to take on some of this development work on my own, in something of an off-campus, ad hoc environment. These efforts included my trusted colleagues John Montgomery and John McHugh.

And so, within a very short period of time, Genesis was born. The first truly Epiphone-design made for players of the day that was designed not to copy a Gibson design, but to have its own distinct personality.

As for Gibson, I'd have to say that my concern from market research was that a lot of young, would-be Gibson players were growing up not even really knowing the brand. That led me to taking a 6-month leave of absence from the company, and designing the first branded guitar course on the market: the Gibson Guitar Course. It was 14 interactive half-hour guitar lessons and was represented on Sony's introduction of their first videodisc technology. We sold it to hundreds of retailers, and it began a new era of interactive technology and a new awareness of the Gibson brand.

Tell me us about Epiphone in the '70s and what was their process for designing and introducing a new model?

Well, in retrospect, I still consider that Epiphone was at that time something of an endangered species. I think that it was a brand that had become neglected. There was an attitude that it had become a reliable, second-best brand. But if you were to look back at the numbers, that gap was dwindling, which is what most markedly sparked my attention. Something needed to change.

As I mentioned, Epiphone, at the time, was one of a lot of brands under one roof. I'd have to guess at least 60% of our corporate and field sales staff--combined--were musicians. That was a very tough audience to which to play. There was a lot of passing around of new product internally.

I took on responsibility for Epiphone development--though always in concert with Gibson R&D--but increasingly as the holder of the vision. I established during those years a QC facility in Seattle where we could QC every instrument that came into our domestic distribution and that could be inspected before distribution to our domestic market. This saved us untold dollars, but also took the quality standard way up from what it had been.

Who else worked on the Genesis design with you?

Jim Walker: The Epiphone InterviewThe design of the Epiphone Genesis was mine. Those who worked on it with me were John Montgomery and John McHugh, both of them extraordinary luthiers in their own right. I will never forget their work and their selfless dedication to bringing something forward that was fresh and new, and most importantly, extraordinarily playable, with a sound that the line had never known. But I don't want to diminish Bruce Bolen's R&D team during this era. Quite the contrary. To this day, I admire them for their innovations, and their willingness to win or fail based on their beliefs.

Was the Les Paul an inspiration?

No question, yes, but the Les Paul couched in another form. Something that could maybe smoke one, and do it with both a smile and a nod to a masterful design.

Who was the Genesis targeted for?

I targeted the Genesis to a young player who aspired to own something of the same quality of guitar as a Gibson. That, to me, was at the time what should have been the whole point of Epiphone; an original brand that resonated with young players. One which was affordable, and one which could give them reason and encouragement to make the music that they wanted to play, proudly. I knew that it was a versatile instrument, and I knew that in time, it could begin to restore the image of the brand to something that would re-establish the relationship that the two brands had upon acquisition; healthy competitors--in different price points--but each with exceptional quality and their very own distinct personas.

What was the reaction to the original Genesis?

The reaction within the company was exceptional. It was fresh, new and had a lot of features and playability that were, quite frankly, foreign to the electric Epiphone line of the time. Retailers loved it.

The reaction across both brands to a coil-tapped instrument that could bridge the world's two most famous guitar sounds was, at the time, exceptionally promising to a wide audience. Coil tapping in those years was not unique to Genesis, at least as I recall. I am admittedly sketchy on this, but what my memory does serve is that I wanted that "cross-platform" capability in this series of instruments. We were very focused on achieving that kind of capability in those years.

What do you think of the new Ltd. Ed. Genesis Deluxe PRO and how does it compare to Epiphone models from the 70s?

I think that this re-issue is a real contribution to the heritage of this series. The looks are great. I am honored to have received one in a Midnight Ebony finish. The setup is great right out of the box and it plays great. I like the addition of the push/pull volume knobs for independently coil-tapping both pickups, love the veneer overlays, and most of all-- because it was mostly a visual play on words--the elimination of the on-top jack placement. Do I still love the headstock design? Yes, I do. Genesis, as our original ads stated, was not a guitar for shy people. It did, and continues to engender, very strong reactions about its aesthetics.

Overall, I think that it's something that can still, after all these years, stand up to a Gibson design, which was my initial intent. I have very fond memories of a time where we experimented a lot. The differentiations between models were inherently about sonic variations that the design afforded.

We need to continue to experiment, across all of the brands that we revere, as manufacturers, and as consumers what these products can be. Call it Gibson. Call it Epiphone. Hopefully, we can have enough differentiation in our minds to call it a continued healthy competition. Two brands, each with their own vision. It is what I worked for. It is what I hope that the future brings.

If the Genesis had been a huge hit, was there a next step in the design?

I'm not sure that I would have taken that design anywhere further. Continuing to take it all forward to me would have meant continuing to develop more original designs. More new thought to take the line into the future that I believed it so richly deserved. Genesis, it seems, has stood the test of time. I am forever grateful for that, and quite honestly more than a little confused at times at its following.

Have you had a chance to look at the current Epiphone catalog?

Quite honestly, I have a bit. I really see a lot of opportunity for a great future for the line. It's for people with vision. That's what life is all about, and a musical life is no different.

Jim Walker: The Epiphone Interview

Do you still design?

I have a lot in my head, but no current venues in which to pursue them. One of my personal goals is to take an Epiphone Genesis Bass design and outfit it with Gibson RD Artist Bass electronics. That just suits my ears and my love for Bruce Bolen, who pioneered that Gibson/Moog partnership so many years ago. It's another example of the experimentation that we were so engrossed with during those years. Critical successes? Maybe not so much. But moving forward, yes.

Thanks for speaking with us, Jim! We’re so glad your reached out to us.

Thank you so much for this opportunity, and most importantly, thanks for the opportunity to talk about times past, but times which I hope have helped to build at least some small part of a foundation upon which this marvelous brand can continue to not only endure, but thrive.