As Epiphone's supervisor for R&D for over a decade, Richard Akers has been riding in the front seat during the remarkable and transformational rebirth of the House of Stathopoulo. Working together with Epiphone team members, Richard oversaw the (literal) nuts and bolts dismantling and rebuilding of every facet of Epiphone instruments. The result has been a steady stream of critically lauded instruments, endorsements from the best artists in the world, and most importantly, the continued and unprecedented devotion of generations of Epiphone players around the world. As part of our ongoing series celebrating Epiphone's 140th anniversary and the opening of the new state-of the-art headquarters in Nashville (Epi's first dedicated building since the early days in Manhattan), Epiphone.com spoke with Richard about what it takes to design a world class instrument.
For the first time in decades, Epiphone and Gibson Brands have a new and energized leadership team. Do you also feel the same sense of renewal to push forward with new designs and revisit Epi classics? I’ve felt a sense of obligation to the legacy of this great company from the time I started here almost two decades ago. I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. With that said I do feel a renewed sense of excitement for taking this great brand to the next level. The new leadership team at Gibson have energized, focused, and brought a renewed sense of optimism to the company. There’s a single-minded focus on excellence and a return to the core of our business, building the best musical instruments in the world. I’m excited about the future. Here at Epiphone we have in process what is probably the most ambitious new product plan the company has offered in decades. I’m looking forward to showing the world what we’ve been working on.
Kramer and Steinberger will be relaunching this year. As a designer, what makes those brands stand out? The first generation Kramers and Steinbergers were very modern instruments. How do you make an "old" modern instrument seem "new" again? I’ve been involved with both Kramer and Steinberger for going on two decades since starting my career with Gibson in the mid ‘90s.
Coming of age in the 80’s one of my first real guitars was a Kramer. I grew up at a time that these brands and the music they influenced were hugely popular. Both iconic brands are close to my heart. One aspect that both brands share is a very devoted fan base. These are loved brands with a rich history. They also have very different challenges from a design perspective.
Working with Ned, who is still very much involved with Steinberger’s future, is always about cutting edge design and taking the brand somewhere new while remaining true to his original design vision and visual ascetic. This is what is expected from Steinberger’s fan base. They are much more open than many other guitar brand devotees to progressive design that moves beyond the past. Working with Ned and getting to know him a bit has been one of the highlights of my involvement with Steinberger. I’m currently in discussions with Ned on some new designs that I’m confident will energize fans of Steinberger and move the brand forward into the future.
Kramer presents a different set of design challenges. Much like Gibson and Epiphone there are large groups of fans that have strong attachments and emotions to the iconic instruments of the past. The design challenge with these brands is to evolve the designs in a way that improves upon performance while remaining true to what made them great historically. Kramer was at the forward edge of this type of design in the 80’s and the guitars remain relevant for today’s players. Improvements to build consistency, hardware quality, and subtle improvements to playability, while honoring the original designs, are essential for Kramer to continue to resonate with fans new and old. When you look at the Kramers we’re making today it should immediately take you back to the iconic instruments of the past. But when you pick one up and play it you should know without a doubt these are well built modern instruments designed with today’s player in mind.
Gibson’s longtime president Dave Berryman discussed how before Epiphone's rebirth in the '80s and '90s, there was no such thing as a professional affordable instrument in the marketplace. Tell us about some of the key improvements that turned things around.
Since coming over from Gibson USA to join the Epiphone team over 18 years ago, I have been dedicated to a systematic effort to improve every aspect of our instruments. As a kid growing up, I remember how hard it was to find a good quality guitar at an affordable price. We've worked hard to make sure the value we offer to our customers is unsurpassed. There's an Epiphone instrument for everyone, from the kid starting out to the professional gigging musician that demands the best. I don't believe you can find a better guitar for the money than the Epi's we are producing today. I'm extremely proud of what we've accomplished over the last decade.
There are a number of notable improvements we've implemented over the years. The LockTone™ bridge hardware, for instance, is a patented tailpiece and bridge locking system that provides several decibels of increased sustain over traditional hardware. Our patented "No Spin" output jack is another example of an improvement that is exclusive to Epiphone guitars.
A recent addition that I'm really excited about are the new Probucker™ and Alnico Classic Pro™ pickups. These pickups are not just slight improvements over previously produced Asian pickups but were completely designed here in Nashville and tooled from the ground-up at a new factory dedicated to high end pickup production. The pickups use only the highest quality components and are based on the most sought after humbuckers of Gibson's history. I spent many, many hours making sure these came out great and I am really happy with the results. They sound fantastic.
These are just a few of the more notable improvements. We are constantly refining and improving our manufacturing procedures and construction details. We've added many innovative electronic features as can be seen on our Ultra series guitars. And we've added functionality through push pull pot electronics to many of our new models, most recently with the Pro Series improvements. I'm currently working on several additional improvements that I'm really excited about. As good as our guitars currently are, I truly believe our best days are yet to come.
Epiphone has gone to great lengths to make sure everything from screws to magnets are on-the-money for the vintage reissues. Do you have a particular story that stands out about this process?
You're right, our recent reissues are as accurate to history and well-built as humanly possible. I have spent hours researching and documenting great historical examples of the instruments the reissues are based upon. Historic examples of the instruments we've reissued were all digitized with very accurate measuring equipment (<.005" accuracy) and 3D models were then created from the data. The manufacturing process is held to exacting specifications based upon the historic model and manufactured to exceedingly high standards. We are very proud of our storied history and these recent reissues are a worthy tribute to the great instruments of our past.
Do you enjoy trying to recreate the historic reissue?
Recreating these instruments has been one of the most enjoyable ongoing projects I have been involved with over the last several years. I've had the opportunity to see and play a lot of great old guitars. And I have worked with a variety of dealers and individual owners in obtaining the samples. Through the process, I have learned a wealth of knowledge about Epiphone and Gibson history and what made these guitars so great. As a result, I feel the entirety of our line has benefitted in a number of ways. So while there may not be one single story that stands out the overall process and the results have been tremendous. In my opinion these are some of the best guitars we've built since the 60s.
The PRO, Ultra, and the Masterbilt Century series managed to embody the Epiphone ethos of keeping the past alive and still moving forward. In fact, both collections have some of the same inventive spirit that Les Paul put in his custom guitars.
That's right. As firmly as we are rooted in honoring our past through our reissues and legacy instruments, we are equally committed to innovation and moving Epiphone into the future. It has always been my design philosophy that there is little value in change for the sake of change. Any change should offer real value without sacrificing or undermining our history and what our customers love about Epiphone.
A great example of this philosophy in action is the development of the Ultra II and Ultra III. At the foundation of both the Ultra II and Ultra III is a solidly built guitar. Consider the Ultra Les Paul or the Ultra ES-339. From arm's length, both of these appear to be standard issue guitars. But on closer examination, you find numerous innovative features that drastically expand the useful palette of tones available and provide unique capabilities exclusive to Epiphone. The addition of the end-of-fingerboard Nanomag™ pickup provides great acoustic tone and interesting blends when used with the traditional humbucking pickups. The pickup ring tuner, A/B : A+B switching system and USB output on the Ultra III offer very powerful capabilities through the use of technology without sacrificing the fundamental nature of the instrument people love.
The Pro series guitars are another example of taking great guitars and making them even better. To facilitate the added functionality and at the same time increase the reliability and ease of assembly we created a unique and effective quick connect system for our electronic control circuitry. The Push Pull Pot interconnect system uses a printed circuit board mounted directly to the volume pot to enable the coil tap feature implemented on the Pro Series guitars. The pickups plug directly into a quick connect on the circuit board insuring that the wiring is always correct while also allowing for quick assembly and pickup replacement. This modular approach provides production flexibility while also allowing customers the ability to easily modify their guitars if desired. Beyond coil tapping there are several other features we have in mind for future development using the quick connect PCB approach.
It seems like you're involved in a very collaborative process. Every detail involved in creating an Epiphone--from glue to wire to screws--are discussed in a very open, inclusive way.
Yes, the design process here at Epiphone varies from project to project and ideas come from many different sources both inside and outside the company. We have a very active community of social media users and listen to their input. We get input from our retail partners. We have great artists that contribute. And nearly everyone within the company plays music and contributes numerous ideas. All drawings and manufacturing information are created here in Nashville and are then communicated to our factories. Samples are then produced at our factories for final approval. Only after every aspect of the instrument has been perfected are they approved for production.
Epiphone has also always maintained a very strong presence on the ground at every factory that produces our instruments. Since the establishment of our factory in Qingdao the link between USA design/engineering and our Asian manufacturing has been greatly strengthened. We have skilled supervisors with decades of guitar manufacturing experience from Nashville that live in Qingdao and run our factories. Unlike other guitar brands that deal exclusively with sub-vendors for their production, we control our own factory and only Epiphone product is manufactured at our Qingdao facility. Having complete control over our manufacturing process allows us to exert a level of control that would be otherwise more difficult.
Management and our USA Engineering and Quality team here in Nashville are involved at every step of the design and manufacturing process. And once the instruments are completed our team of set up experts here in Nashville inspect 100% of incoming product to insure it is set up and functioning to our strict standards.
What else can you tell us about what's in store over the next year?
As always, we have a variety of improvements and new products under development. There are several instruments currently in the proto stage that we’re very excited about. These include some great examples from our past and some brand new things on the cutting edge. In general, you'll see more of the same dedication to quality, continual improvement, and providing the greatest value in the industry to our customers.