The Epiphone instrument you own or admire has a name with a long history. It spans from the Turkish Fiddle, to NYC era archtops, through the Beatles’ style Epiphone Casino, up to today’s WildKat—all are children of The House of Stathopoulo. The story of Epiphone is colorful, historic, and has enough twists and turns to make a great miniseries. Get some popcorn, it’s a good show. Netflix original material? Absolutely. Okay, let’s begin.

Starring Anastasios Stathopoulo (pronounced Stat-a-pow-les, if you have a New York accent), with Epaminondas, Orpheus, and Frixo Stathopoulo, Ted McCarty and David Berryman, and guest starring The Beatles, Les Paul, John Lee Hooker, Jack Casady, and plus thousands more.

Episode I: The Beginning of an Empire – From Sparta to Long Island City

Of Greek ancestry (Sparta), A. Stathopoulo emigrated to Turkey in the early 1860s. Long before the name ‘Epiphone’ graced the headstock of any musical instrument, Stathopoulo was a fine repairman and luthier. His solid work and self-built violins, lutes, and the ancient bowl back Oud*, earned him reputation enough to start his own shop. The Epiphone story more or less begins in 1890 in the city now called Izmir, Turkey. A successful business prospered, but turbulent times forced the Stathopoulo family to pack-up shop and set sail for America in 1903. Immediately, Anastasios picked up where he left off, this time in the world’s most bustling and culturally diverse city.

The family settled in in Lower Manhattan and lived above the shop. Traffic flowed into Anastasios’ shop, giving customers a chance to see, play, hear, and hopefully buy one of Anastasios’ original designs. Anastasios began building more and more mandolins, to satisfy the demand of the popular instrument. Along with some skilled local instrument craftsmen, and his eldest son Epaminondas, the small company began to flourish. Business flowed, and a showroom in midtown Manhattan heightened growing demand, visibility, and attracted the best players of the day.

*The Oud is of Mediterranean or middle eastern origin, and thought to be the oldest relative of the guitar.

Episode II: The ‘House of Stathopoulo’ in the New World

The Stathopoulo children were well educated and groomed to follow in the instrument making tradition, as well as business affairs. Epi (as his friends and family called him), the eldest son of the Stathopoulo children, was motivated, smart, and the heir apparent. Unfortunately, the task was closer than anyone thought. Anastasios died in 1915, at age 52. At just 22 years old, Epi was already a force to be reckoned with. He grew up embracing industrial age American culture, style, trends, and business. Epi graduated with honors from Columbia University, but he was no bookworm. Epi was a stylish dresser, with a confidence bordering on brash; an ever-present “man about town.”

Epi was himself a gifted musician and in close contact with NYC’s best. Epi kept a close eye on popular music and trending styles; a trait that would serve him well. Epi was driven, forward thinking, competitive, and bold as his Spartan roots. A man whose voice would be heard. The type of man that would build an empire. In 1917, within two years of taking over, Epi gave the company its first proper name: “House of Stathopoulo.

Episode III (Part I): Epiphone A New Era

All too soon after the loss of Anastasios, Stathopoulo matriarch Marianthe passed away, in 1923. Epi became the principal owner and incorporated the expanding “House of Stathopoulo.” Driving technical advancements in popular stringed instruments would be a defining part of Epi’s life.

Way out in front of the trends, Epi’s cosmopolitan lifestyle proved its value when he anticipated the up-and-coming boom of the banjo. Production of the old-fashioned bowl back design lutes, and mandolins, came to a dead halt. It was a wise move not to take on Gibson’s line of mandolins, using his father’s now outdated design. Epi was clearly the dominant voice, face, and brains of the new company. His skills and presence greatly eclipsed younger brothers Orphi and Frixo, who preferred to bicker with each other, rather than compete with the steamroller drive of Epi. That arrangement worked out fine. Epi had a plan.

Episode III (Part 2): Epi’s Voice

Epi expanded into a new factory in Long Island City, buying-out an instrument making company. Epi now had an expanded skilled work force, plus modern tools and machinery. Plectrum and tenor banjos of all styles replaced the now halted bowl-back mandolin, harp-style guitars, Oud’s and fiddles. Bread and butter (as well as growth and interest) came from the uniquely American banjo. Fine quality Banjos were produced under the H.O.S label.

Epi established, advanced, and drove the House of Stathopoulo name to new heights. In 1929, the company was officially renamed ‘Epiphone’ (loosely translated from the Greek “Epi’s Voice”), on the strength of the new high-quality recording line of banjos. The elaborately inlaid Model A (Deluxe Art), through the over-the-top floral inlayed, rhinestone bejeweled, recording Model E (Emperor), made Epiphone a major player in stringed instrument manufacturing.

Episode IV: The Rise of the Guitar

In 1929, Epi unveiled the Recording Series flat top guitar. They were round soundhole, acoustic range of guitars, graduating in appointments and cost from the base Recording Model A, to the top-of-the-line Recording Model E. All models had an unconventional cutout on the lower front bout of the body, for easy fret access. It was a very ahead of its time, odd looking design.

Only lasting two years, Epi had his eye on the future and loved the new American music called Jazz. Epi steered his ship towards the archtop guitar, without a glance back. The world took notice – his especially friendly rivals at Gibson. The friendly rivalry between Epiphone (Epi, especially) and Gibson lasted about as long as it takes an ice cream truck to speed past your house on a hot summer night, while you dig under the sofa for a crumpled bill and some change. Gibson invented the arched-top guitar and owned nearly the entire market. Aside from a few small custom order builders like D’Angelico, apprentice D’Acquisto, and Stromberg, nobody dared to compete.

The archtop market and the guitar in general was about to eclipse all other stringed instruments put together. Ever with his ear to the ground, Epi could see it coming.

Episode V: Epiphone Acoustic Archtop Guitars – A Battle Royal Starring Epi & Gibson

Never had a company shifted gears and produced as fast or as successfully as Epiphone did. Gibson already had its L-V model in production, thanks to master craftsman Lloyd Loar. Epiphone had some swift catchup work to do.  Despite the Great Depression, Gibson and Epiphone shot for the moon, not just the soup kitchen. A sparring match for archtop supremacy was underway. Gibson had quite the head start, but the Duke of NYC, Epi Stathopoulo, loved nothing more than a challenge—especially when it meant pushing tech and Epiphone forward.

Starting in 1931, Epiphone flattop guitars halted, and Epiphone Archtop ‘Jazz’ guitars became a reality. Epi didn’t dip his toe in the water, he jumped in head first, wearing his fancy suit, winged tips, silk socks, and waxed ‘stash.

Epiphone Deluxe Archtop**: Top of the line. ‘Masterbuilt’ Triple bound body, bound neck, and headstock. Gold hardware. Maple back and sides, solid carved spruce top. Designed to compete with Gibson’s L-5.

Epiphone Broadway Archtop**: Triple bound top and back (Walnut), bound neck, and headstock with ‘Masterbuilt’ banner on floral inlay headstock. Solid carved top.

Epiphone Triumph Archtop**: Bound walnut top and back, bound headstock and neck. Walnut back and sides, solid spruce top. ‘Masterbuilt’ headstock banner and less fancy appointments.

Also new for 1931 were the less fancy, dot marker neck models: Zenith**, Royal, Tudor, Blackstone (round sound hole archtop) and the tiny 13” bout student model Olympic. The Epiphone archtops are fine instruments, gaining favor with jazz, Broadway, and dance band guitar players, but Gibson was still king. The Gibson archtops were larger, louder, and already world famous. Gibson did take note however, responding with the gigantic L-5 Deluxe Super 400, boasting a $400.00 price tag. A hefty sum, in depression era 1935 (8k in 2019 dollars).

Epiphone continued to improve, and push tech, and advance the guitar. By the mid-30s each Epiphone Masterbuilt grew in size in an effort produce more volume. Neck shapes were countered to modern slimmer shapes. New models like the new for ’36 highly ornate super-sized 18.5” Emperor was unveiled, equipped to do battle with Gibson’s Super 400.  Epiphone’s middle to late ’30s acoustic archtops were, and are, thought to be among the finest factory-built archtops of the era. Not too shabby for a company that built its first archtop, only a few years before. Epi created a guitar building empire. The advancements continued with cutaway models (Regent added to name), Frequansator bi-level tail piece. The development of Epiphone’s first electric pick up the “True-balance” is an option in 1939 (Zephyr added to name).

**The Deluxe, Broadway, Triumph and Zenith were retained by Gibson as original Epiphone models.

Episode VI: The 1940s and the End of an Era

Epi had the high ground, being in the cultural center of the world. His anticipation of changing trends and new styles were Epiphone’s driving force. When he died of Leukemia in 1943, Epiphone lost its greatest asset. War time production slowed and Epiphone was without its rudder. Squabbling brothers Orpheus and Frixo continued to compete, adding new, improved pickups (notably the NY pickup). The company lost touch with trends and struggled with added competition. As the world caught up, the directionless Epiphone began to decline. Production moved to Philadelphia, due to a long strike, as Epiphone became a fast-sinking ship. By the mid-1950s the affordable, but good quality, stand-up bass was the only brisk selling instrument left in the the Orpheus era Epiphone catalog.

Episode VII: The Gibson USA Era

Gibson president Ted McCarty was having no worries from his former competitor. An attempt to acquire Epiphone’s popular standup bass set forth an unexpected chain of events getting Gibson and McCarty more than they bargained for. For the easy sum of $20,000, Gibson was very happy to acquire the entire Epiphone company from a weary Orpheus Stathopoulo. In 1957, one era ended, and a new one began.

Gibson’s parent company (CMI) didn’t even want the Philly factory or its contents. Production of Epiphone Deluxe, Broadway, and Triumph models resumed, at Epiphone’s new home in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Orpheus-era flat top (FT) acoustic models — FT120 Excellente, FT110 Frontier, and of course, the FT-79, now called the ‘Texan,’ were also spared the axe.

Ted McCarty was one of the 20th century’s most crafty captains of industry. Epiphone’s standup basses were a welcome addition, but now beside the point. McCarty decided to build Epiphone branded guitars in the image of existing Gibson models. This allowed Gibson to open up business with dealers that were not large enough to be an official Gibson dealer. A huge percentage of business was added to Gibson’s bottom line, almost overnight. No time was wasted. The first ever solid body Epiphone models went into production, with more to follow: The Crestwood Custom and Deluxe, Coronet, Wilshire, and Olympic models resembled Juniors, Specials, and the Melody Maker.

Gibson’s popular thinline archtops were also mimicked with a great degree of success. The high-end Sheraton and Riviera shared traits with the semi-hollow Gibson ES-335, as well as the more budget-minded, fully-hollow Sorrento, Windsor, Granada. And then of course, there was the Casino, sharing traits with the ES-330 through ES-120.

Episode VIII: The 3rd Era of Epiphone and a New Era at Gibson

Epiphone rode high again throughout the ’60s; notably in the hands of The Beatles, who were reliant on the Casino and FT-79 Texan. The solid-body, semi-hollow, and thinline hollowbody electrics pioneered by Gibson/Epiphone in the ’50s, dominated the 1960s. The boom in popularity of the guitar Epi foresaw in his lifetime was a mere blip on the radar in comparison to the unprecedented rise of interest and sales in the 1960s.

In the turbulent, fast-paced changing times of the ’60s, the electric guitar became the musical voice of baby-boomer youth. The market for electric guitars expanded so fast that everyone wanted a piece of the action. Stalwart companies like Gibson/Epiphone, Fender, and Martin, faced competition from smaller American manufacturers like Danelectro and Valco. The largest threat came from extremely inexpensive imports from Japan. The times, they were a changin’- again. In 1970, The Beatles were done, Ted McCarty had moved on from Gibson, and Norlin Co. merged with CMI, taking ownership of Gibson in 1969.

What was to become of Epiphone?

Episode IX: If you Can’t Beat ‘em, Buy ‘em  – Gibson’s New plan for Epiphone

Epiphone instruments, made in Kalamazoo, Michigan (alongside Gibson models), came to a halt. Epiphone became the entry-level, import face of Gibson. To this day, all Gibson-branded guitars are still exclusively made in the USA. Gibson/Norlin could offer a far lower-priced instrument to fill growing demand for low cost instruments. Production in Japan began, in some of the same factories that were providing Americans with entry-level guitars, and copies of popular Gibson and Fender designs.

Episode X: Blue Kalamazoo Label Epiphone Made in Japan Models

Epiphone (with a few notable exceptions from time to time) was manufactured overseas. Starting in 1970, a range of affordable-to-everyone guitars were offered. Acoustics retained the FT (Flat-top) prefix. Models included the simple ply top, heel-less 4-bolt orchestra sized FT-120 and dreadnaught-sized FT-140, up to the set-neck Super Jumbo FT-570.  Electric solidbody (ET prefix) included budget model ET-270 and familiar Crestwood body style FT-275 and FT-290. Thinline models resembled the Riviera and Casino: EA-255 and EA-250.

All of these early MIJ Epiphones were a bit quirky, but remained solid favorites at the garage sale for ‘lost-treasure’ type players and collectors. Production expanded into original models like the short-lived, but loved, Genesis guitars, and highly sought-after SC Double Scroll bass.

Episode XI: Epiphone Comes to an End

The 1980s brought more change. Japanese manufacturing became prohibitively expensive for Gibson to offer low cost, quality instruments. Japanese made guitars reputation grew on the strength of Epiphone, and an endless list of ‘law-suit’ models with names like Greco, Ibanez (makers of early Carlo Robelli) and Tokai. Early 80’s Epiphone production continued in Japan, along with some notable exceptions: The Epiphone SG Special, Spirit model, and USA ‘map, were briefly made in the USA, as well as a few remaining Japanese models.

Production after 1983 came to an almost complete halt. Epiphone seemed to be pushing up daisy inlayed headstocks. The slipping quality of Norlin era Gibson years, and rise of great quality, affordable imported guitars left a throbbing purple welt on Gibson’s reputation. Gibson, along with Epiphone was sold by Norlin in 1985.

Episode XII: Epiphone Returns with a Vengeance

Three men with a love for Gibson bought the ailing giant, with the purpose of restoring its former luster. In the spirt of Epi himself, it was high time to set a new course for Epiphone. Though quality was good and rising throughout the 70s, the brand had lost its identity.

Production resumed in Korea, under the supervision of Dave Berryman. Like Epi had done before him, the brand would get its voice back. The top line Emperor that helped make Epiphone a thorn in 1930’s Gibson’s side, was now used as an assist.  Trendy, goofy, super-Strat style, like the S-900, and X-1000 were discontinued, in favor of classic Epiphone and Gibson designs. The Howard Roberts III (Fusion model), SG (G-400), Firebird, and for the first time with the Epiphone name, the Les Paul Custom helped define Epiphone’s role going forward.

By the beginning of the ’90s Epiphone revived the Riviera and Sheraton (opening with a special USA run). By the end of the ’90s Epiphone mirrored every important, classic instrument made by Gibson, at an affordable price. New models peppered the mix, like the WildKat series, which mixed classic and new appointments. Affordable Re-issues of 50’s and 60’s Iconic collectors and player favorites also appeared, as well as signature models from Slash to Noel Gallagher. Epi’s 1930’s masterbuilt archtops were revisited.

Epilogue: Everything from introductory player bundles to pro-level Epiphone elitist models, are available today, and played around the world — and Epi’s voice remains loud and clear, 125 years later.

 

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Mike Rock
A fixture in the Rock and Roll guitar community since 1978, Mike Rock is the “Go-To” source for Sam Ash's most intricate questions involving Guitars and related gear. A collector whose true passion is playing, Mike has performed over 2,500 gigs around the world. Mike began his musical journey studying the trumpet. While buying sheet music for a recital, Mike first heard an electric guitar through a fuzz box. Forty years later, he still maintains that the fuzz WAS germanium based (he is a bit crazy). This encounter drove Mike to his first guitar and a tube amp. Soon his guitar was heavily modified and the amp was on its 3rd replacement speaker. Mike was hunting for tone and blowing guitar speakers before there was a “boutique” or “vintage” market. It wasn’t long before Mike was buying, and validating vintage guitars and gear for some of the biggest companies in the world, finally finding a home assisting mentor and friend Sammy Ash, at the place where he heard that first Fuzz Guitar, so many years ago. Mike still performs regularly and recognizes the history and beauty of vintage and modern gear. Mike is aware not everyone is a collector and most players need a set up that works for the sound they chase, regardless of its pedigree, or vintage or status.