Gone are the days when Epiphone advertising marketing mocked the Gibson slogan “Only a Gibson is good enough!” displayed on their guitars banner headstock and added: “Epiphone, when good enough is not good enough!“. A snub that says a lot about the rivalry between the two giants of the archtop guitar in the mid-1940s, which many musicians assured and still assure that Epiphone came out musically victorious: the Epiphone Emperor, Epiphone Deluxe, Epiphone Zephyr, Epiphone Broadway, Epiphone Trium ph are still present today to fuel the debate!
And yet, Epiphone is still perceived and considered as a sub-brand of the giant Gibson which swallowed it up in 1957 under the direction of Ted McCarty. Indeed, by buying the company Epiphone, a family business then without a buyer, Gibson carried out a good operation which went beyond its ambition since the company thought above all of buying back tools to manufacture double basses…
The history of Epiphone begins at the end of the 19th century in Turkey. Son of a wood merchant of Greek origin, Anastasios Stathopoulos works in the family store in Smyrna, and specializes in the sale and repair of lutes, violins and bouzoukis. A talented luthier, he quickly opened his own instrument factory, but the taxes imposed by the Ottoman Empire on Greek immigrants hampered its development.
In 1903, at the age of 40, Anastasios decided to try his luck in the United States. Like many Greek and Italian immigrants, he landed in New York and settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Anastasios works on the ground floor of the family home, and his two sons Epaminondas and Orpheus come to assist him in the workshop from an early age. They then mainly made mandolins, very popular instruments in the United States at that time. In 1915, on the death of his father, “Epi”, then aged 22, took over the reins of the family factory.
With the advent of post-war jazz, the mandolin was supplanted by the tenor banjo. Epi, who is an accomplished musician, feels the tide is turning and is one of the first to follow the trend by embarking on the production of this new instrument. He filed a tone ring patent in 1917. In 1924, he began to produce a range of banjos under the name Epiphone Recording Series. These instruments are very successful. While Epiphone mainly produces tenor banjos, intended for jazz and dixieland musicians, it also offers plectrum versions with a longer scale length, 5 or 6 string models, and banjolines. At that time, the brand was distinguished by the production of richly ornamented instruments.
In 1928, Epiphone introduced a range of five models of jazz guitars, under the name of Recording Series. Of uncommon shapes, these have little projection compared to Gibson: the series is a commercial failure. With the Masterbilt series, directly inspired by the famous Gibson L-5, Epiphone corrects the situation. The range consists of seven archtops models: DeLuxe, Broadway, Triumph, Royal, Blackstone, Zenith and Olympic. In 1934, Gibson retaliated by releasing its largest guitar, the Super 400, with a 18-inch-wide body. In response, Epiphone introduced its Emperor model in 1936, with an 18.5-inch body, and drove the point home the following year, increasing the Masterbilt body size by 3/8ths of an inch. Epiphone also offers lap-steels and tube amplifiers, under the Electar brand. The latter were developed by Nathan Daniel (1912-1994), who would later found Danelectro.
Epi died of leukemia in 1943, and his two brothers Orphie and Frixo inherited the company. In 1953, the production site was transferred from New York to Philadelphia. As most of the workers preferred not to leave Little Italy, Epiphone lost a large part of its skilled workforce in this restructuring. The firm is on the decline and cannot reinvent itself in this post-war period.
On the rumored advice of Les Paul, Ted McCarty, president of Gibson, acquired the company in 1957. Epiphone then became a subsidiary offering mainly hollow body and thinline models: Casino, Sheraton and Riviera which are essentially Gibson reviewed and corrected. The brand had a great time until the end of the 60s and you can see The Beatles, The Byrds and many other popular bands playing Epiphone guitars which have something a little more trendy than the Gibsons.
After Gibson was taken over by Norlin, the Epiphone name was relocated first to Japan in 1970 and then throughout Asia. With more or less luck, it is on more or less interesting productions of the entry level and mid-range market. The recent contemporary Epiphone series restore the image of this marvelous house, from which Freedie Green (1911-1987) on the Emperor model, Django Reinhardt and his occasional electric Epiphone Zephyr, Harry Volpe (1904-1995), Dave Davies (1947) and his Epiphone Casino, the strings of the Beatles Paul McCartney (1942), George Harrison (1943-2001), John Lennon (1940-1980) who recorded the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band only with their respective Epiphone Casino, and The Rolling Stones which are not left out on the same model, finally let’s mention Noel Gallagher on his Epiphone Sheraton.