Reviving Epiphone Classic for the 21st Century

The new Masterbilt Century Archtop Collection has been hailed by critics and fans with much the same enthusiasm as the original line did in the early 1930s. One of the most intriguing models for many is the Masterbilt Century Olympic, whose smaller size belies an instrument that has surprising projection and a full, balanced tone.

The new Masterbilt Olympic™ was designed much like the original and delivers the same robust sound across the fretboard, which has always been a hallmark of the Olympic. In a recent interview with Epiphone.com, GRAMMY™ winner Dave Rawlings remarked on the similarities of the new Olympic to his prized vintage model and discussed why the Olympic has been his main (often only) instrument on stage for two decades.

"Mine is a '35," Rawlings told Epiphone. "I know that at the time I found it, I had it in my head that I was interested in trying to find an instrument that would sit in a little more of a mid-range part of the tonal spectrum. Like a Dobro™ or a mandolin, as opposed to a dreadnought lead guitar. I thought it would potentially be more versatile—that you could get away with dreadnaught licks on a smaller instrument."

Rawlings said that it's rare to find an instrument like the Olympic that has consistent volume in all positions across the fretboard. "On my little Epiphone, the low E open has about as much volume as something high up the neck on the top E string. It's incredibly balanced. And I had never played a guitar before where I would be soling and I'd find a spot and say 'ugh, it's no good here.' That guitar (the Olympic), however good it is, is good across the board so it gives you a tremendous amount of freedom when you're playing. You don't have to worry about what register you're in."

Since all vintage instruments go through a myriad of changes in their life, Epiphone.com visited Richard Akers and Scott Harrison from Epiphone's Research & Development team to find out what went into recreating the Masterbilt Century Olympic for the 21st Century player.

You were able to inspect vintage Olympic archtops up close. Did you find that the vintage models were consistent from year to year?

Richard Akers: All of the instruments I have had the privilege of examining from this era in Epiphone's history were well-built, high quality instruments constructed from superior quality woods and materials. While the consistency from instrument to instrument varied more than is the case using modern manufacturing procedures, it was more a matter of individual nuance—the unique stamp of the builder involved with the hand work on the instrument. These differences were subtle.

Scott Harrison: As Richard said, each offered their own individual tonal characteristics, which are all equally desirable depending on your style of music. I just got back for the IBMA Awards Show in Raleigh and the Olympic were a big hit with the Carter Family devotees.

The original Olympics were certainly hand crafted by any measure. Modern technology, with the advent of CNC machining and such has certainly had an impact on all instrument construction these days, although many aspects of construction, such as the binding process, have changed surprisingly little over the years.

Were there any unique challenges to amplifying the Olympics?

Richard Akers: The biggest challenge related to amplifying these and in fact the entire Masterbilt Century Collection was to provide a great live tone required for the modern player but to do so with a subtle understated execution that honors the vintage vibe of the line. Voicing the preamp to accentuate the incredible and unique tone of these guitars was pretty straightforward. A lot of thought was given to maintaining the vintage sensibilities of the instrument without sacrificing the necessities of the modern player and requirements of live performance. The point at which we arrived at—I think—represents a great balance. The tone of these instruments plugged in is simply stellar without detracting from the vintage vibe of the guitar visually.

Dave Rawlings has remarked his vintage Olympic is incredibly balanced across the fretboard. How does that happen in a smaller guitar?

Richard Akers: Archtop acoustics are known for having an evenness of response and punchiness not found on most flat tops. Due to the parallel bracing, floating bridge and trapeze style tailpiece, the forces acting on the top and hence vibrational patterns are much different than those on a flattop. This gives the archtop acoustic a unique voice. The Olympic in particular, due to its smaller body size, tends to have a more midrange-focused tone that blends well within certain band settings and is well suited for many styles.

Having a smaller bodied archtop coupled with a standard Dreadnaught acoustic is a powerful combination that provides a tonally balanced attack. As a good example of this Dave Rawlins and Gillian Welch use this interplay between the two instruments masterfully. The punch and midrange focus of Dave's 1935 Olympic cuts through and balances Gillian's playing and tone perfectly. As Dave once said, "The blend of Gillian's guitar and my guitar is an arrangement in itself. My guitar playing is built to work with her guitar playing. Without her, I don't know what you'd have left of me." The Olympic has a great tone alone but also is fantastic with other guitars in carving out a unique tonal space.

When you studied vintage Olympics—from their first production in 1933 until the late 30s, did you notice any significant design changes or improvements that you incorporated into the new Masterbilt Century Collection?

Richard Akers: There are numerous changes that appeared in the vintage Olympic archtop over the period it was in production. The most meaningful change was an ever-increasing lower bout. In 1931 when the model was introduced the lower bout was a very narrow 13". By 1937 the lower bout had increased to 15.25". There were a number of other minor cosmetic changes appearing over its history but the increase in body width is the most significant.

Scott Harrison: But overall they remained fairly consistent. So apart for the addition of the electronics and the unique design appointments that were available in the Olympic's first year of production, we tried to keep to the spirit of the originals.

Read more about the making of the Masterbilt Century Collection here and be sure to read our interview with Dave Rawlings. Visit the Masterbilt Century Archtop website for more on the Collection including artist profiles, performances, and reviews, and see our nearest Authorized Epiphone Dealer and bring a piece of history home today!