Guitar expert Walter Carter's The Epiphone Book, is the first modern in-depth history of the full story of Epiphone--the House of Stathopoulo--from its earliest days in New York where Les Paul had his own workbench to its historic days in Kalamazoo and now home again in Nashville.
The story of Epiphone includes the greatest names in show business from Les Paul, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones to today’s top stars like Slash, Alabama Shakes, 2019 GRAMMY nominees Matt Heafy of Trvium, James Bay, and Gary Clark Jr. Carter's previous works include The Gibson Electric Guitar Book and Gibson Guitars: 100 Years of an American Icon. Carter also served as the historian for Gibson Guitars. Epiphone.com spoke with Carter in Nashville from his new shop, Carter Vintage.
For a lot of guitar fans, there's a bit of mystique to Epiphone. Seemingly against all odds, it has not only survived, but its spirit as an upstart, (which goes back to Epi Stathopoulo), remains intact today. What did your research turn up that surprised you?
Although I was aware of the loyalty that many guitarists have had for Epiphone through the years, it was somewhat of a surprise to find that level of spirit within the Gibson company. In the 1960s, Andy Nelson was so gung-ho for Epiphone (he designed the Excellente, among other models) that Ted McCarty saw him as a threat to the Gibson brand, and Andy's enthusiasm probably cost him his job. In the 1970s, Bruce Bolen and other long-term Gibson employees made Epi much more of a cutting-edge company than Gibson was. And then there was (and still is) Jim Rosenberg, the ultimate Epi evangelist. Of course, my "research" on Jim was actually first-hand experience, my desk was right outside his office in 1993, but I was surprised even back then to find someone so completely dedicated to the Epiphone brand.
What were some of the differences between Gibson and Epiphone when Epi was running the company in the 20s, 30s, and 40s?
Before World War II, there was a fundamental difference in management between Epiphone and Gibson. Epi Stathopoulo was a musician who had regular contact with New York's finest guitarists at jam sessions at the Epi offices. Gibson, since 1924, was headed up by Guy Hart, an accountant, whose only contact with top musicians would have been when they made an out-of-the-way trip to Kalamazoo. Although Gibson was fiercely competitive, I think Epiphone was better positioned geographically as well as in management to take market share away from Gibson, but the war changed everything. Epi died and Gibson was acquired by Chicago Musical Instrument Co.
Do you think had Epi lived, Les Paul would have taken his solidbody guitar design to Epiphone?
Epi had a relationship with Les Paul, but so did Gibson. It's impossible to know if Epi would have jumped on the solidbody guitar, but he did have a track record of identifying a changing market (from banjo to guitar in the late 1920s) and re-inventing his company to cash in on it. It's easy to imagine a surprise attack of solidbody Epiphones released on the market, just as Epi did with his archtops guitars in the early 1930s.
How much separation was there between Gibson and Epiphone when the companies merged in the late 50's? Was Ted McCarty involved with shaping the new Epiphone of 1958?
There were no separate R&D or design teams for Gibson and Epiphone in the late 1950s. The Gibson ES-335 and the Epiphone Sheraton, for example, grew out of the work of one design group. The differences between Epiphone and Gibson models were decided on the basis of marketing. The marketing-driven concept is clear in a 1958 outline of the new Epiphone line that included a square-shouldered dreadnought and the instruction to "copy Martin d'naught size." Ted McCarty was heavily involved. The document outlining the new line was the product of a meeting between McCarty, his sales manager and the sales manager of the parent company (CMI).
You must have played a lot of Epiphones from all eras during your research. Does anything unique stand out in regards to older Epiphones compared to other vintage models you've played?
Epiphone's prewar acoustic archtops are among the best of that genre. They're every bit as good as the rival Gibsons but they have a different sound. It's easy to see how a Ford-or-Chevy kind of loyalty could have developed among players of that era. The Epis of the 1960s are pretty much as you would expect, having been made side by side with Gibsons. The electric imports of the 1970s are always an adventure. If you pick one up with no pre-conceptions and take a few minutes to find its "voice," it's usually a rewarding playing experience.
What stands out about new Epiphones compared to vintage models?
The quality of the new Epiphones is impressive, and the quality-to-price ratio is phenomenal. There is a lot of inconsistency among vintage Epis. Not all of them are great, and many of them will need significant repair work to bring them up to the performance standards that today's guitarist expect--and get--from a new Epiphone.