For the last several decades, the venerable Epiphone brand has been primarily associated with budget acoustic and electric imports. As a member of the Gibson family, Epiphone has the ability to produce inexpensive, legal copies of Gibson classics—including the Les Paul, ES-335, J-45, and J-200—as well as repros of its own ’50s and ’60s champs, such as the Casino thinline electric and Texan flat-top. Having recently introduced the excellent Elitist series (reviewed Jan. ’03, when known as the “Elite” series)—a premium, made-in-Japan line of acoustics and electrics—Epiphone has taken aggressive steps to fill the huge price gap between its own starter models and pricier, made-in-U.S.A. Gibsons. In another bold move, Epiphone has revived its Masterbilt mark, this time applying it to a series of Chinese-built acoustics. The Masterbilt steel-string range includes three basic styles—a small-body concert model, as well as square- and slope-shoulder dreadnoughts—all rendered in a variety of solid tonewoods. To get a feel for the extensive Masterbilt line, we reviewed four representative instruments: the EF-500M, EF-500RA, AJ-500RE, and DR-500P. Exploring Common Ground Though these test instruments are very different animals, they share many attributes. For example, each model has a solid Sitka spruce top, hand-scalloped Sitka spruce braces, mahogany kerfing, a 25w"-scale rosewood fretboard, and a rosewood bridge. Players looking for vintage tone and vibe will dig the old-school dovetail neck joint and hide-glue construction. All four flat-tops feature 20-fret necks that join the body at the 14th fret and are adorned with carefully cut, cleanly set fretboard inlays. With its asymmetrical “offset notch” tip, tapered sides, bell-shaped trussrod cover, and mother-of-pearl scripted logo and stickpin inlay, the headstock references classic Epiphone models from the 1930s. Masterbilts also feature open-back Sta-Tite tuners—a recent addition to the Grover line that look retro, but offer high-end performance, thanks to their 18:1 gear ratio.
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