Epiphone builds quality that rivals any guitar manufacturer in the world

Published: 21st March 2011
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The Epiphone story is definitely not a straight and narrow story by no means.

For more than a century it has hit both dizzying highs and crushing lows. In

2007 Epiphone is one of the most successful and respected instrument

manufacturers on the planet. In the beginning it all started in the workshop

of a man named Anastasios Stathopoulo.

Anastasios was the son of a Greek timber merchant and would not follow his

father into the family trade. He began crafting lutes, violins and

traditional Greek lioutos in 1873. A few years after, Anastasios sailed

across the Aegean Sea with his family to begin a new life in Turkey. By 1890,

his talent and reputation had allowed him to open an instrument factory and

start a family. First to arrive in 1893 was a son, Epaminondas, followed

later that decade by Alex, Minnie and Orpheus.

By 1903, the persecution of Greek immigrants by the native Turks had forced

the Stathopoulo family to move again; this time to a residence in the lower

Manhattan neighborhood of New York. With Anastasios crafting and selling his

instruments on the ground floor, and the family living directly above, the

line between work and home life became increasingly blurred. Epaminondas (

known as 'Epi') and Orpheus ('Orphie') were soon helping out in the shop and

learning the business from the ground up.

Business was good by 1903 when Anastasios and his family were forced out by

the native Turks and found themselves in the lower Manhattan neighborhood of

New York. And business was good. It was Anastasios' good fortune to arrive in

New York at the height of the mandolin craze, and this dovetailed with the

popularity of his traditional Greek instruments amongst the city's bustling

community. But all that changed in July 1915, when Anastasios died at the age

of 52 from carcinoma of the breast.

One of Anastasios son's named Epi was just 22 when he took charge of the

family business. He inherited many of his father's strengths - including a

keen business sense and fierce pride in his work - but combined this with an

awareness of the changing times that would prove vital in the years to come.

Crucially, Epi was not just a luthier or a businessman. He was also a keen

musician and socialite.

Epi respected the tradition of his father's instruments, but recognized the

importance of moving with the times. By 1917, he had changed the company's

name to the 'House Of Stathopoulo' and began adapting the product line.

Mandolins were falling out of favor. In the post-war era, banjos had started

to boom along with jazz, and Epi, with his ear to the ground, recognized this

early and armed his company to deal with it. Not only did Epi introduce a

line of banjos, but he also developed the instrument's design, patenting his

own tone ring and rim construction. It was a sign of things to come.

In 1924, Epiphone released the Recording Series of banjos to universal


In 1928, banjo's had lost popularity due to the depression so now he had

introduced the Recording series of guitars, each one identified only by a

letter ('A' through 'E') and notable for their unusual body shape. The

Recording guitars were a combination of spruce and laminated maple, with

either an arched or flat top, depending on the price.

Lack of celebrity endorsement faltered recording guitars success. The

Recording guitars were also too small and arguably too ornate, particularly

in comparison to the mighty size and volume of the Gibson L-5. At least Epi

was taking notes. It wasn't hard to see the L-5's influence on the new

Epiphone archtops that followed in 1931, with the Masterbilt Series sharing

similar f-holes, pegheads, and even a similar name to the Gibson Master Model

range. Despite taking inspiration from Gibson, however, the Masterbilts had

their own identities. Their intention was not to emulate the Master Model

range, but to destroy it.

Throughout the 1930s, Epiphone and Gibson became fierce competitors. Slighted

by the introduction of the Masterbilts, and having emerged from its

commercial slump at the start of the decade, Gibson returned fire in 1934 by

increasing the body width of its existing models and introducing the king-

size Super 400. Epi then replied the following year with the Emperor, which

raised the stakes with a slightly wider body and a provocative advertising

campaign featuring a semi-naked woman. In 1936, Epiphone struck again,

increasing the size of its De Luxe, Broadway and Triumph models by an inch

thus making them 3/8" wider than the Gibsons.

By this point, Epiphone guitars were considered to be amongst the best in the

world. Epiphone wasn't just gunning for Gibson. Growing aware of the success

of Rickenbacker's electric models since 1932, Epi made his move on this new

market with the introduction of the Electar Series in 1935. The design

included individually adjustable polepieces on the master pickup giving

optimum output, and while Gibson had evidently been thinking the same thing,

the Electar line seriously hurt Epiphone's rivals. By the summer of 1937, Epi

reported that sales had doubled.

Before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Epiphone had been riding high.

When the last of the fighting ended in 1945, the company found itself without

its greatest asset. Tragically, Epi had died of leukemia during the war,

meaning that Epiphone was handed down to younger brothers Orphie and Frixo,

who would respectively be responsible for the financial and mechanical

running of the operation.

Epiphone continued to clash with Gibson with the introduction of cutaway

versions of the Emperor and De Luxe, and raised the bar considerably with the

arrival of the electric cutaway De Luxe. Pickups continued to be refined, and

famous players continued to appear onstage armed with Epiphone guitars. From

afar it seemed to be business as usual.

The Epiphone factory moved from Manhattan to Philadelphia in 1953, but the

fact that many of the firm's craftsmen refused to leave New York resulted in

a drop in quality and the very real danger of bankruptcy.

While Epiphone's problems got worse during the1950s, Gibson was growing

stronger. Its main competition now came from the California-based Fender

Company, creator of the Telecaster and Stratocaster models. So when Gibson's

general manager, Ted McCarty, received a call from Orphie asking whether he'd

be interested in buying out the Epiphone bass business, he didn't need asking

twice. McCarty paid the $20,000 asking price and Gibson took control of

Epiphone in May 1957.

The grand unveiling of theEpiphone line took place at the NAMM trade

show in July 1958, with an electric Emperor as the flagship model. The show

itself would generate orders of 226 guitars and 63 amps, but over the next

few years Epiphone would get into a swagger, shifting 3,798 units in 1961,

and accounting for 20% of the total units shipped out of Kalamazoo by 1965.

Even more impressive was the prestige of the guitars themselves. In the early

1960s, the Epiphone Emperor cost significantly more than the top-of-the-range

Gibson Byrdland, while 1963's deluxe flat top Excellente was $100 more than

the J-200, and made of rarer tonewoods.

The early to mid-1960s were boom time for Epiphone, with unit sales

increasing fivefold between 1961 and 1965. But then the rise of foreign-made

guitars had caught the US industry napping, and by 1969, these cheap models

had stolen some 40% of the Epiphone/Gibson market share and closed many

companies down entirely.

Then Gibson manager Ted McCarty stepped down, the quality of the product was

thought to have slipped, and union problems were simmering again. In its

weakened state, Gibson's parent company CMI was bought in 1969 by the

Ecuadorian ECL corporation and Epiphone found itself in a predicament -

perceived to be secondary to Gibson, but too expensive to compete with the

foreign imports.

The idea of moving Epiphone production to Japan had actually been floated

before the ECL takeover. By 1970, it was a reality, with American production

grinding to an abrupt halt and a new line of Epiphones being exported from

the Japanese town of Matsumoto. But these were not Epiphones as the world

knew them. On the contrary, they were just rebadged versions of models that

were already being produced by the Matsumoku Company - with little

imagination or respect for the company's pedigree.

Things had improved by 1976, when the Epiphone line was bolstered by the

appearance of models like the Monticello, a series of scroll-body electrics,

and the new Presentation range of flat tops. There was also the Nova series

of flat tops and three new solidbodies named Genesis. By 1979, the Epiphone

product list was gathering speed, with over 20 steel-string flat tops, and

plenty more besides.

Just as Epiphone Far Eastern operation seemed to be finding its feet, three

bombshells dropped in quick succession. The first was the rise of the

electronic keyboard. The second was the rising cost of Japanese production,

which led to Epiphone's relocation to Korea in 1983, and collaboration with

the Samick Company. The third took place in the Gibson boardroom at the start

of 1986, with three Harvard MBAs (Henry Juszkiewicz, David Berryman and Gary

Zebrowski) taking the company off the hands of ECL/Norlin. Reviving Gibson

was the priority for the new owners, and with Epiphone making less than $1

million revenue in 1985, there seemed a danger it would be swept under the

carpet and forgotten.

But Epiphone was still a strong player. Soon enough, Juszkiewicz had

identified it as a sleeping giant, and made the trip to Korea to decide how

it could be pushed to match the success of other Asian brands like Charvel

and Kramer. As he absorbed Epiphone's pedigree, Juszkiewicz started getting

results, and soon sales were growing again.

Sales weren't the only thing on the move. By 1988, the Epiphone product line

was evolving. Epiphone now listed a new PR Series of square-shouldered

acoustics, along with an interpretation of Gibson's J-180, several classical

guitars, a banjo and a mandolin. There was also a solid selection of Gibson-

derived instruments and the Sheraton II.

Epiphone was arguably just as successful in the late-90s as at any point in

its history. With confidence booming, this era saw the launch of the Advanced

Jumbo Series and the release of several important signature models. The John

Lee Hooker Sheratons from the USA Collection were tasteful, toneful and

utterly authentic. The Noel Gallagher Supernovas had some of the most iconic

designs of the time. Then there were the John Lennon 1965 and Revolution

Casinos. With their US birthright, unbeatable authenticity and sense of

aspiration, these models reunited Epi with the greatest artist of all time,

and underlined the company's own re-emergence as a rock legend.

The momentum continued, as Epiphone introduced the Elitist range and

strengthened its position in the acoustic market with the acquisition of

veteran Gibson luthier Mike Voltz. Then came the introduction of the

Masterbilt range, which - along with the subsequent 2005 release of the Paul

McCartney 1964 USA Texan - consolidated Epi's acoustic credentials and

reacquainted the firm with two big names from its past.

In 2007, Epiphone became all things to all players and still is today.

Collectors of vintage guitars started snapping up the authentic Elitist

reissues of the Emperor, Casino and Excellente among others. Recording

artists turn to the Epiphone US range for quality that rivals any guitar

manufacturer in the world, while rock 'n' roll fanatics delight in the

company's signature models, which include everything from the Nick Valensi

Riviera to the Zakk Wylde Les Paul Customs.

Epiphone has retained the pioneering spirit that was always Epi Stathopoulo's

calling card. Whether through the 2006 'Guitar of the Month' scheme (offering

a different collector's model each month) or through its unending quest to

challenge tradition, this is still a firm that thrives on the risk while

always delivering the result.

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