From starter guitars all the way up to signature models made for artists known the world-over, Epiphone are (by anyone’s standards) one of the big brands for guitar players. But their build quality, great sound and sheer popularity did not happen overnight.
This article takes a look at the modest beginnings of the Epiphone Guitar Company and the diligence in ingenuity that,over the years, has built it up to be the giant of our industry that it is today.
The Epiphone story begins in Smyrna, Turkey in 1873. An individual by the name of Anastasio Stathopoulo was working for his father in a family-owned lute, violin and bouzouki repair shop. The Stathopoulos family quickly became renowned luthiers across the city and by 1890 the strength of their business allowed for them to open their first dedicated instrument factory.
By the early 1890s, high tax rates in Turkey under the Ottoman Empire prompted Stathopoulo to move to the United States along with his sons Alex, Minnie, Orpheu, Frixo and his eldest son Epaminondas (or Epi for short). Anastasio died in 1915 leaving his new instrument business, now based in Manhattan; New York, to his sons.
Epi took charge and immediately began developing his father’s business. Many of the mandolins built and sold were phased out in favour of banjos, which had established their place as the most popular instrument across post-WWI America. Epi was also able to acquire the nearby Farovan Company in Long Island, an instrument plant incorporating a mass of extra staff, materials and machinery.
In 1928 the company, now called Epiphone (the ‘phone’ suffix being the direct Greek translation of ‘sound’), produced its first acoustic guitar combining spruce with laminated maple and available in either a flat or arch top variant. The model was designed to compete with rival Gibson’s ‘L-5’ model from 1922, but low volume and lack of artist endorsements meant that its popularity waned, leading to the development of Epiphone’s better designed Masterbuilt series in 1931.
With numerous manufacturers appealing to the same markets, a battle of brands inevitably ensued. Epiphone responded to Gibson’s 1934 Super 400 Archtop design with their ‘Emperor’ model in 1935, but also viewed Rickenbacker’s rising popularity with envious eyes. In the late 1930s they released the ‘Electar’ series to directly compete with Rickenbacker’s range of electric steel models, and Epiphone’s sales doubled as a result.
In the aftermath of WWII Epiphone’s growth had slowed considerably. Epi died in 1945, materials were scarce and the remaining shareholder Orpheu was forced to move production to Philadelphia. At this point, under the advice of guitarist Les Paul, Ted McCarty (then President of Gibson Guitars) offered a helping hand to Orpheu and bought the Epiphone Company in its entirety in 1957.
McCarty set about creating a new range of Gibson-built Epiphone guitars that could be sold by suppliers who were unable to obtain the Gibson brand (either for sales territory reasons or profitability), but also maintained production of the traditional Epiphones such as the ‘Sheraton’ and ‘Emperor’ models. Production was moved to a new factory in Kalamazoo and the Epiphone brand was back on the way to its former glory.
Epiphone then capitalized on the growing popularity of folk in the 1960s, developing classical models such as the ‘Seville’, ‘Madrid’, ‘Entrada’ and ‘Espana’, and 12-string acoustics such as the ‘Troubadour’ and larger-bodied ‘Bard’, the latter of which would famously appear in Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’. 1961 also saw the introduction of the Epiphone Casino, which after 5 years of moderate popularity took the market by storm in 1966 when the Beatles chose to use it for their live shows.
In the later 1960s the growing abundance of cheaply made foreign copies took its toll on the industry and many manufacturers collapsed while Epiphone suffered a 40% decline in sales. Production was moved again to Matumoto, a city on the Japanese island of Honshu, where Epiphone were forced to distribute rebranded Matsomoku Co. guitars in lieu of their usual instruments. However, in 1976 several new models were developed: the ‘Monticello’ scroll-body, the ‘Presentation’ and ‘Nova’ flattops, and the ‘Genesis’ series of solid-bodies. Popularity of these new models gathered pace quickly, and in 1983 collaborations with Guitar Company Samick Ltd encouraged another production move to Korea.
From Korea another wave of new models were put into production in 1988 including the PR series of acoustics, several classical and banjo models as well as a lower-budget interpretation of the Gibson J-180 acoustic. An Epiphone office in the capital city of Seoul prompted improvements and development of manufacturing and implementation processes and the new models were met with high approval.
In 1994 Epiphone began devotedly expanding its artist endorsements. The reintroduction of models like the Casino, Riviera and Sorrento caught the attention of such artists as Noel Gallagher and Chet Atkins. Development of signature models, combined with the introduction of the affordable AJ acoustics in the later 90s meant that Epiphone achieved a surge of popularity ready for the next decade.
Product development continued throughout the year 2000 with the release of the Elitist range, as well as a revival of the Masterbuilt series spearheaded by ex-Gibson luthier Mike Voltz.
In 2004 the company took the major step that allowed for the production values and quantities made famous by the Epiphone Guitar Company we know today. A new state-of-the-art factory was opened in China, their first dedicated plant since the Gibson merger of ’57. This allowed for Epiphone-employed on-site engineers, luthiers, team supervisors, in-house project managers, and a huge escalation in productivity.
Epiphone now commands an enormous section of the musical instrument market and players of every ability-level benefit from their products. Major artists agree and more signature models are being developed through recent years for high-profile artists such as Joe Bonamassa, Slash and Zakk Wylde.
Their rich history has allowed them to perfect their traditional models whilst they are never hesitant to try new things (such as the Zakk Wylde ZV Buzzsaw!), and whether you’re an acoustic folk player or an 80s Floyd Rose shredder, Epiphone will continually ensure a model to suit your needs.
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