Hands-On Review:Three cool Kats backed up by 86 years of quality craftsmanship
My first electric guitar was an Epiphone Granada. It was a mid-sixties thinline archtop hollowbody that looked great (despite the curious bubble pickguard), sounded great, and played fabulously. It’s still one of the sweetest-playing axes in my closet.
I didn’t know that Epiphone had anything whatever to do with Gibson. All I knew was that this was a great guitar with a name I knew, for a good price. I was incensed later when other guys would say, “Oh yeah, that’s the knockoff of the ES120-T.”
“No,” I’d respond, “this is a super Epiphone, it’s not a sub-Gibson.”
An independent tradition
Since then I’ve discovered that my indignation was perfectly warranted. Fine instruments have been bearing the Epiphone name since 1915, and the company that became Epiphone has actually been around since 1873. From the teens through the early forties Epiphone was Gibson’s major competitor. They were obtaining patents on precursors to the wah-wah pedal, string benders, and various multiple-necked instruments, while building some of the most respected high-end archtops.
Epiphone fell on hard times in the late forties and early fifties, after founder Epanimondas (Epi) Stathopoulo died, and was finally bought by Gibson in 1957. Rather than treating the company as an ugly stepchild, Gibson put a lot of resources into reinvigorating production, both in terms of quality and quantity. The classic Epiphone lines were continued and newer models kept coming. During the mid-sixties even the Fab Four could be seen on stage and in the studio playing Epiphone instruments.
Starting in 1969, Gibson entered a shaky time of its own under new ownership, but in 1986 the company was bought by some seriously music-minded guys who revitalized both Gibson and Epiphone. By 1995 Epiphone had moved away from Gibson, concentrating on its own traditions and taking its own new directions. It had even moved into its own facility, marking its complete rebirth into a new era of prosperity.
Still owned by Gibson, it produces many traditional Gibson body styles, but make no mistake, Epiphone is its own entity with a rich tradition to stand on.
As a proud Epi archtop owner, I was genuinely jazzed at the chance to write about Epiphone’s newest bevy of archtops—a tantalizing trio with a happening retro look and swinging, sweet tone. When I opened the first case, the WildKat leaped right out at me. It’s a real looker with a lot of chrome—on the Alnico VP-90 pickups, tune-o-matic bridge, funky headstock nameplate, and hefty vibrato. The one they sent me also had a gorgeous, figured maple top (the turquoise version has an opaque paint job). Its wildness was elegantly framed by full binding on the top, fretboard, and around the F-holes.
When I plugged in, this ferocious feline’s high-end bite had me hoppin’ and a boppin’ from a rock-a-billy romp to a surfside scramble to a smokin’ swing thing. When I found myself getting blue, I was buoyed up on a river of sustain from the tight/set-neck and that heavy vibrato, which also forces the strings down hard on the soundboard. Slabs of mahogany are glued together and routed out to make the inner chamber for a very tight, resonant tone.
The Bigsby-style vibrato gave me plenty of room for divebombing without yanking the Gotoh machine heads out of tune. For all its bright edginess, this kitty calmed right down and purred when I went for some low-end jazz riffs on the front pickup.
This is more of a citified kitty. Though it has the same body design as the WildKat, it’s got big, elegant pearl bars inlaid in the fretboard and a daintier, simple stopbar bridge setup. The ’57 humbucker at the bridge and the mini-humbucker at the neck make this a creature that treads easier in the smoother, slicker, jazzier realms of the night. But mistreat it a little and you’ll find yourself with a tiger by the tail.
It was also comfortable going a little bit country. That hard tail made multiple string bends a breeze and I had no trouble dialing in a nicely Nashville yakety tone.
If you had a head-cuttin’ duel with the devil, this is the axe he’d be playing. The FlameKat burnt my hand before I got it out of the case. The flaming paint job, dice fretboard inlays and knobs, and chunky vibrato make it hard to recognize the Kat body beneath. I didn’t even consider laying any lounge licks on this thing. I went straight for the burnin’, flashy rock-a-billy and raunchy rock-n-roll. And this guitar was just waiting to take me down as far as I would go.
The NY mini-humbuckers crank out a truly demonic range of tones from a gravelly chunk to searing, piercing lead sounds. I don’t know what it was about this guitar, but I just couldn’t keep my hands off that stocky whammy bar.
I’m prouder than ever to call myself an Epi owner. These are some seriously smokin’ axes, and they’re selling for prices that even those of us who are more interested in playing than working can afford.
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