The Winter NAMM conference begins this week in California. The National Association of Music Merchants (now) bi-annual get-together is not only a debut-ball for new designs and vintage reissues but also an opportunity for everyone in the business to check out the competition and try to get a handle on what's happening in the wild and whoolly world of instrument mercantile.
We can't wait to give you a sneak peak at the House of Stathopoulo's new instruments for 2014. As you might suspect, we've been keeping the lights on very late at night. But in the meantime for those of you who think cutting edge instrument design stopped at 1958, we're here to remind you that Epiphone has been using NAMM to ruffle feathers and freak out competitors for 80 years.
In the mid '30s, Epiphone guitars were considered to be among the best in the world and Epi Stathopoulo, the Walt Disney of instrument design, was enjoying the patronage of the most respected players on the scene. Epiphone went inter-continental with a distribution deal with Handcraft Ltd. of London in the early 30s and a new Epiphone showroom opened at 142 West 14th Street in a seven-story beaux-arts style building near Little Italy. The new building included an advertised "state-of-the-art" research and development laboratory. The first floor was both the company's headquarters and a hangout for musicians who jammed on Saturday afternoons in a window display set up at streel-level. The leading guitarists of the time like Al Caiola, Harry Volpe, and a young Les Paul jammed as people listened from the sidewalk. Walter Carter, the author of last year's excellent history of Epiphone, The Epiphone Guitar Book, today does something similar from his shop in Nashville, Carter Vintage, which is always well stocked with classic Epiphones.
In 1935, Epi introduced the Electar Series (originally known as Electraphone) of Hawaiian guitars, going full-tilt in competition with Rickenbacker, who were leading the field in taming an electronic pickup that wouldn't blow out every window on the block. The Electar introduced unique design features including individually adjustable pole pieces, something that would become common on both P90 pickups and humbuckers. The Electar line furthered the reputation of Epiphone as an innovative brand and by the late '30s, sales had doubled. Today, an Electar steel guitar is still an A-quality instrument and can easily hold its own against all comers, modern and vintage.
Collaborations between Epi and other companies became more frequent, too and in July 1936, Epiphone showed off several new models at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, including an electrified piano created with the Meissner Inventions Company in Milburn, New Jersey. Epiphone's now legendary archtop models, the De Luxe, Broadway and Triumph, grew wide by an inch, making them 3/8" wider than Gibson's archtops and one of the most distinctive instruments on the market. Epiphone also began selling amplifiers after meeting electronics enthusiast Nat Daniel, a friend of Les Paul's. Daniel perfected an innovative push/pull wiring design, which today is a fixture in many amplifiers. Epiphone reps heard Daniel's amps and hired him to build chassis as well as new designs. (Daniel would go on to start the Danelectro line of guitars and amps in the 50s). The NAMM show of 1936, held in the middle of the Great Depression, must have been a site to see with Epiphone leading the way in electrifying virtually every instrument you could put your hand to.
Today, the arrival of the NAMM Conference still puts musicians all around the world in a great mood. And since so many great vintage models are still worthy of reissuing with a few modern improvements, the conference is no longer just about breaking ground. Maybe it's still about getting down to the heart of the matter: what do people want? Do you tell us? Or do we tell you? Stay tuned and get ready.