Review: Epiphone Masterbilt Century Collection Acoustic Archtops

March 17, 2017

“We were at Nashville headquarters standing in our new showroom looking up at the stunning Historic Collection of mostly golden-era acoustic archtops when we realized, ‘Wow, we should honor this heritage,’” reports Epiphone President Jim Rosenberg. “We recreated the Olympic, Zenith, and De Luxe almost identically to the original headstock and body shapes, cosmetic detailing, and construction,” he continues. “So these guitars are really reissues, but we’re trying to take them back to the original acoustic concept using modern acoustic pickup technology”

Historically, archtops were most popular during the ’30s and ’40s, when they were designed to cut through the volume of a big band. Body designs kept growing larger to get louder until the magnetic pickup was invented, and then they essentially became hollowbody electric guitars. That makes Epiphone’s classic acoustic archtop epiphany an intriguing prospect for the modern player.

“I was hesitant initially because the pure acoustic quality is focused in a more narrow frequency range than a flattop acoustic,” says Rosenberg. “But the modern market wants acoustic-electrics anyway, and when we put the NanoFlex HD pickup inside the floating bridge, the amplified sound was full, rich, and broad with a ton of bass response. That sealed the deal.”

Removing these steel-string Masterbilts from their plush Century Collection hard cases was thrilling because I could immediately sense that Epiphone had delivered something luxurious. When you get a close look at their elegant bodies and classy appointments, and feel the sturdy craftsmanship in your hands, it’s hard to fathom how they cost less than a grand. There are a total of five Masterbilts in the new Century Collection: The Olympic is solely an f-hole model, while the Zenith and De Luxe are available with a round soundhole, or as an f-hole model bearing the “Classic” designation.

Masterbilt Century Olympic

I was immediately drawn to the Olympic because of its small body size, f-holes, and the gorgeous Honey Burst “aged gloss” finish on its solid spruce top. Once it was under my fingers, it was difficult to put down because the action was so easy. It felt like I could fly anywhere I wanted across the rosewood fretboard atop a rounded C-shaped neck. It was somewhat of a revelation to play an acoustic instrument strung with .012-gauge steel strings that felt easier to play than lots of electrics strung with .010s. I experienced some tuner slop on the fourth string, but it was limited to that one faulty tuning machine.

The Olympic’s unamplified sound was indeed narrow, but I appreciated it for an almost resonator-like quality. The sound transformed into something altogether bolder when plugged into an AER Tommy Emmanuel Signature amp, and then into an even warmer sounding tube-driven Rivera Sedona Lite. There was magic in this combination, which produced a heavenly acoustic lead tone even though it didn’t handle the bass as well. Amplifying this guitar also revealed significant fretboard buzz, which I was able to eliminate by simply raising the adjustable bridge with a few quick wrist twists. Possibly due to climatic changes upon their arrival in California, this adjustment was necessary on all three guitars.

Zenith

The Zenith is interesting because it has the round soundhole we’re used to seeing on acoustic guitars, which increases bass response. Coupled with the jazzy archtop setup of an elevated bridge with a trapeze tailpiece, the line between flat-top and archtop was blurred to beautiful effect. The Zenith’s medium-sized body (16" at the lower bout), depth, and tonal balance put it in a similar place to where an OM-style guitar would fit in the middle of a flat-top model range, albeit in a bit higher tonal register with the playability factor of a jazzbox. The Zenith’s white binding helped highlight its deep Vintage Sunburst finish, and its ebony neck with lovely “Falling Snowflake” inlays. The binding did increase the neck girth a bit, making it slightly more challenging for me to get around than the Olympic.

Amplified, the Zenith too transformed into a much bigger-sounding guitar than expected based on its acoustic properties. I found the Zenith a fine accompaniment instrument on a recent guitar-and-vocal gig at a ski lodge, where I used it primarily as my open-G acoustic to play tunes by the Rolling Stones and Black Crowes. I appreciated its combination of soundhole boom and top-end chime, which was surely enhanced by the trapeze tailpiece.

Masterbilt Century De Luxe Classic

The De Luxe Classic looks, feels, and sounds like a full-fledged classic acoustic archtop. It exudes jazzy class, sporting a traditional Vintage Natural finish, f-holes, ebony fretboard with large “Notched Diamond” inlays, elevated pickguard, and a Historic Epiphone Dovewing headstock adorned with pearloid “banner” logos. The pure acoustic sound from its big body (17” at the lower bout) was pronounced and well presented—like a larger version of the Olympic—but not as full as the Zenith with its round soundhole. I wound up favoring the bass side of the onboard EQ, and I love how the Tone and Volume controls for the Shadow eSonic HD preamp are tucked inside the f-holes, making them as invisible to onlookers as they were easily accessible to me.

Epiphone’s Masterbilt Century Collection offers modern/vintage quality at exceptionally affordable prices. These archtops are awesome for lead players—especially the Olympic, with its small body and unbound fretboard—so the prospect of working alongside a traditional flat-top is especially promising, as the instruments occupy different sonic territories. Jazz cats looking for acoustic tones will rejoice, while the very nature of these instruments will inspire flat-top players to work the fretboard in different ways.

CONTACT epiphone.com

Masterbilt Century Olympic

PRICE $599 street
NUT WIDTH 1.69", bone
NECK Mahogany
FRETBOARD Rosewood with pearloid dot inlays, 25.5" scale
FRETS 20 medium
TUNERS Nickel-plated Historic Epiphone reissue with marboloid “crown” buttons; 18:1 ratio
BODY Laminated mahogany back and sides, solid-spruce top, longitudinal bracing
BRIDGE Ebonoid, floating adjustable with compensated artificial bone saddle and Historic Epiphone Trapeze tailpiece
ELECTRONICS Shadow eSonic HD preamp and NanoFlex HD under-saddle pickup
CONTROLS Master Volume, Master EQ
FACTORY STRINGS Cleartone, .012-.053
WEIGHT 5 lbs
BUILT Indonesia
KUDOS Hip small jazzbox design. Super smooth playability. Comes alive when amplified.
CONCERNS None.

Masterbilt Century Zenith

PRICE $739 street
NUT WIDTH 1.69", bone
NECK 5-piece laminated, hard maple/mahogany
FRETBOARD Ebony with pearloid “falling snowflake” inlays, 25.5" scale
FRETS 20 medium
TUNERS Nickel-plated Historic Epiphone reissue with marboloid “crown” buttons; 18:1 ratio
BODY Laminated flame maple back and sides, solid-spruce top, longitudinal bracing
BRIDGE Ebonoid, floating adjustable with compensated artificial bone saddle and Historic Epiphone Trapeze tailpiece
ELECTRONICS Shadow eSonic HD preamp and NanoFlex HD under-saddle pickup
CONTROLS Master Volume, Master EQ
FACTORY STRINGS Cleartone, .012-.053
WEIGHT 5.5 lbs
BUILT Indonesia
KUDOS Round soundhole on an archtop delivers bigger tone—nice!
CONCERNS Some compression audible when strummed aggressively.

Masterbilt De Luxe Classic

PRICE $899 street
NUT WIDTH 1.69", bone
NECK 5-piece laminated, hard maple/mahogany
FRETBOARD Ebony with pearloid “notched diamond” inlays, 25.5" scale
FRETS 20 medium
TUNERS Nickel-plated Historic Epiphone reissue with marboloid “crown” buttons; 18:1 ratio
BODY Laminated flame maple back and sides, solid-spruce top, longitudinal bracing
BRIDGE Ebonoid, floating adjustable with compensated artificial bone saddle and Historic Epiphone Trapeze tailpiece
ELECTRONICS Shadow eSonic HD preamp and NanoFlex HD under-saddle pickup
CONTROLS Master Volume, Master EQ
FACTORY STRINGS Cleartone, .012-.053
WEIGHT 5.75 lbs
BUILT Indonesia
KUDOS Pure traditional archtop class.
CONCERNS Sound not quite as big as expected.

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