The Masterbilt Century Archtop Collection
, now available everywhere, has been hailed by critics and fans with much the same enthusiasm as the original line did in the early 1930s. The Collection
is--in many ways--a continuation of founder Epi Stathopoulo's dream to build a guitar that was elegant, timeless, groundbreaking and affordable. Though it might sound strange to call a new archtop with Art Deco era design features "groundbreaking," look again: the Masterbilt Century Collection is actually a futuristic guitar disguised as a historic timepiece.
Just as the first Masterbilt archtops were built to project over a big band and be heard in large dancehalls, the all new Masterbilt Century archtops can hold their own with any rock band without sacrificing great tone thanks to the custom eSonic HD system. After all, great tone was what made the archtop the most desirable acoustic guitar of its era.
The original Masterbilt Collection was created in a moment of inspiration and practicality. In the early 1930s, with banjo sales plummeting and fretted instrument sales rising, Epi Stathopoulo directed his staff to design a big, beautiful, and loud acoustic guitar. Launched at the dawn of the dance band era, Epiphone archtops were an instant hit, and for the next 15 years Epiphone acoustic archtops were revered by the best players along with brands like Stromberg, D'Angelico, and Gibson. But when rock n' roll arrived, acoustic archtop guitars virtually disappeared. The new era of popular music demanded volume. And though the profile remained, archtops went from being primarily acoustic guitars to electric guitars with an electric guitar magnetic pickup, effectively removing any tone from the "top." And for almost 50 years, as acoustic players turned instead to flattops, few realized that there was more than one kind of acoustic guitar sound.
The Masterbilt Century Collection instruments will be a revelation to many players whose only experience with an archtop guitar have been surviving models from Sears, Harmony, and Silvertone that were often made of plywood and constructed cheaply and quickly. The new De Luxe, Zenith, and Olympic archtops both turn the clock backward and forward simultaneously by combining Epiphone's proprietary construction methods with improved hardware and custom electronics. The Masterbilt Century Collection will turn the heads of even veteran players. What's old is new again--just further proof that the House of Stathopoulo was always pointing toward the future, even in 1932.
Building A 21st Century Archtop
But bringing that classic (and coveted) Epiphone archtop tone into the 21st century required looking at the original designs with a critical eye to see what made them tick. Luckily, most of those answers could be found in the Epiphone Historic Collection at Epiphone's headquarters in Nashville, TN.
"We've managed to build a collection of 50 pre-Gibson ownership instruments dating back to the early 1900's," said longtime Gibson President Dave Berryman. "That era was very rich and we've tried to build a collection that's representative of all those key models. And we've been building on that slowly so it's been a labor of love."
When Richard Akers and Scott Harrison from Epiphone's R&D team were tasked with creating a new archtop for the 21st century, they were already familiar with the various designs of the Masterbilt era. "The longitudinal bracing was key to keeping that Epiphone tone," said Scott Harrison. "Every year was slightly different so we tried to put together the best qualities from that era, especially the bracing methods and solid wood tops.
Epiphone archtops are renowned for their unique body shape--slightly different than Gibson (their main competitor) as well as for their elegant hardware like the traditional tailpiece and machine heads. The new Masterbilt Century machine heads recreate the unique look of the originals but with a vastly improved tuning ratio. "We were able to maintain the cool retro vibe and art deco appearance of the historic tuners while improving the functionality." said Richard Akers. "With an 18:1 tuning ratio, you have greater accuracy and stability. This collection has been a longtime dream of ours. The results have been even better than we expected."
Another inspiration for the Masterbilt Century Collection was the realization that many younger guitar players had never played a properly constructed archtop. "For many guitarists, playing an archtop will be an entirely new experience," said Harrison. "Most players haven't had an affordable alternative to a flattop guitar since Epi Stathopoulo made the originals. Even pros have had a hard time finding vintage Epiphones--no one wants to let go of them."
So what's so special about an archtop? For many, an archtop produces not only a slightly more focused sound without as many overtones as a flattop, but a more true expression of the player. For over twenty years, Grammy winner Dave Rawlings has performed practically all of his concerts and recording dates with Gillian Welch with an original 1935 Epiphone Olympic, precisely because it doesn't sound like a flattop guitar. Rawlings was impressed that the new Masterbilt Century Olympic will provide players the same unique tonal palette as his original. "A fiddle or a mandolin--anything else will destroy a bluegrass guitar unless you're Clarence White or Brian Sutton or someone who can jam that soundhole into a microphone and make it roar. My '35 Olympic is the kind of guitar that you could give to a dozen different people and they would find a way to make their living. It's just that right combination that makes for a magical box."
Of course Epiphone was not only known for giving players superior tone but also for beautiful design. The new Masterbilt Collection features the iconic headstock banner found on rare early 30s era Epiphones. The new Masterbilt Century headstock--with its combination of elegant script with black and gold typeface--shows the same attention to detail that made Epiphone a leader in archtop design and a decades-long competitor with Gibson.
Great Sound in Any Size
There are a variety of sizes available to players in the new Masterbilt Century Collection, a nod to the era of healthy competition when archtops went from small to big to bigger! And no matter what your style, a player will find their "voice" in a Masterbilt Century Guitar. The De Luxe and De Luxe Classic feature the 17" size body preferred by players who want maximum power and tone. The Zenith and Zenith Classic have a 16" body with a more focused tone. While the Olympic's smaller body and unique mid-range make it a perfect lead instrument next to traditional acoustic guitars and mandolins.
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 itin 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 dreadnought 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."
“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,” said Richard Akers, Director of Epiphone Research and Development. “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”
Akers and colleague Scott Harrison worked hard to find a solution to the never-ending problem of amplifying an acoustic guitar without losing its unique acoustic tone.
“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,” said Akers. “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.”
In addition, Epiphone also introduced the new Masterbilt De Luxe 4-string Bass
which features a 17" lower bout and the same design principals and electronics
Unlike vintage budget archtops currently on the market (and often coming apart at the seams), the new Masterbilt Century Collection
not only features solid wood tops but quality fingerboards. "These guitars will be so useful to players," said studio ace and rising Americana star Chris Scruggs. "They're made to last. And they're beautiful, too! It's great to see the vintage style headstock and the binding in a new guitar. There is nothing like a great Epiphone."
Visit our Masterbilt Century Collection site
for details and also visit the Epiphone History Page
for more info on the original Epiphone Masterbilts. And be sure to visit Epiphone's You Tube channel for exclusive performances by legend Billy Bragg, Margo Price, Black Pistol Fire, and many more.