Hands-On Review:Fully professional-quality guitars non-professionals can afford.
Since 1957 when Gibson purchased and moved Epiphone production to Kalamazoo, MI., Epiphone has always been its parent company's "second" line. Since that time for players who wanted a Gibson guitar but couldn't manage the big bucks, Epiphone provided historic Epiphone and Gibson designs in instruments that have been much more affordable. This has been a viable niche because it has made such enduringly popular designs as the Sheraton, Casino, Les Paul, the SG, the ES-335, and others, available to beginning guitarists and non-professional players at prices that didn't squeeze them out.
This hasn't meant that Epiphones have ever been shoddy. In fact, relative to their low prices, Epiphones have consistently been very worthy instruments. Still, there have been sacrifices in the interest of price: foreign electronics, veneers instead of carved wood tops, finishes that aren't quite as finished, and a degree of detailing that isn't quite as detailed. An Epiphone Standard Les Paul may look just like an American-made Gibson version from a distance, but up close, in the hand, and to the ear, it never has been quite the same.
In recent years, too, there has been a growing split between low-end instruments and high-end instruments. On the low end, price competition has been intense as new countries and new companies have jumped into the fray. If you're looking for a starter guitar for under $200 or even as low as $100, you can find plenty of choices, and while many are basically playable, you get what you pay for. Epiphone has resisted the temptation to get into the price war by cutting quality, and has held the rung above. Epiphones are still affordable but a notch above most others in quality and price. On the higher end, American-made Gibsons have maintained their quality but gone steadily up in price, widening the gap between them and the affordable Epiphone models.
Epiphone's purpose in creating this completely new line was to fill the gap between their standard models and their Gibson equivalents by going all out for quality and holding the line on price to the fullest extent possible. What they have accomplished is quite remarkable. They have created versions of their historic Epiphone models, as well classic Gibson models, that are extermely well made and equipped, and that sell for substantially less than their Gibson counterparts. Made in Japan to "Lexus" standards, these are guitars that even the pickiest of professionals can't fault. They do honor both to Gibson and to Epiphone's American roots.
Any guitar begins with its woods, and here Epiphone has placed special emphasis. For its Elite guitars, it carefully hand-selects premium mahogany and maple for its solidbody models and premium five-ply maple laminates for its archtops. The woods are kiln dried, slowly and meticulously, to the perfect moisture content. For the Les Pauls, Epiphone then cuts and bookmatches the backs and carves the tops from solid bookmatched maple, rather than capping a shaped back with veneer. These quality woods serve two purposes. First, they provide a quality tone. Second, they look great, with the beauty of the grain revealed from beneath the finish. The effect is subtle but it speaks quality.
The necks, too, are solid mahogany, cut at a 14º grain orientation for optimum strength, shaped to early Epiphone specs, individually dovetailed into the body, fitted with rosewood fretboards, skillfully tricked out with real mother-of-pearl inlays, and flawlessly bound. The nuts are real bone. And when you check out the fretwork, inlays, and bindings, the perfection of the work is transparently obvious.
Real Deal Pickupsm
All Elite models come equipped with Epiphone U.S.A pickups that are custom-made by Gibson. These are the genuine articles with quality German silver covers, finished in vintage nickel or 24K gold depending on the model. They are potted with a special wax to eliminate microphonics, and the magnets are magnetized by Gibson to ensure total reliability and maximum performance. They deliver the sound that has made the humbucker-equipped Gibson the axe of choice for generations of guitarists.
One thing is a for certain. If you buy a less expensive guitar, you get less expensive hardware. The Elite Epiphones are equipped with the good stuff: precision Grover machine heads, nickel-plated bridges/tailpieces, first-quality potentiometers and "Gibson" toggle switches.
The one thing the Elites don't have in common with their Gibson counterparts (aside from the name on the headstock) is a nitrocellulose finish. For the purists, this may be a drawback, but when you see how well the Elite's polyurethane finishes are applied it becomes less of one. The finishes are applied in a thin, smooth, even coat, and then hand-rubbed to give them the glasslike smoothness that one expects in a fine-quality instrument.
Once each guitar is completed, it goes through a meticulous adjustment and set-up process. As a result, each Elite guitar arrives in ideal playing condition, with the action and intonation set perfectly, free of hot spots or buzzing frets. These are guitars you will fall in love with from the first moment you start to play.
The Pro's Choice
The Elite Epiphones are guitars crafted for the discriminating professional and any serious guitarist will appreciate the quality craftsmanship, hardware, and electronics that has gone into their creation. And while they aren't inexpensive guitars, when compared to other premium instruments, their prices begin to look like serious bargains. Especially since the prices include a deluxe hardshell case. It finally comes down to what name you want to see on the headstock. With its Elite Series, Epiphone has just given its name a lot more stature.