How time flies. back in 2003, I reviewed the Gibson Custom Shop’s Johnny A Signature model, and it was a beauty. The Custom Shop was also nice enough to leave the guitar with us for years before requesting its return, so I had countless opportunities to noodle around on it while editing Guitar Player articles, and it was a real pleasure to play every time I picked it up. But it should have been an awesome guitar, because, quite frankly, it was made by the equivalent of a fine-art studio, and a recent check at sweetwater.com had its street price at $5,669 (a “$630 price drop!” said the banner). Now, Johnny A’s prize has made it over to the Epiphone team, and I bet you’re wondering how a $5k+ instrument translates to a $999 revamp?
As it turns out—quite nicely.
With no disrespect to the fabulous luthiers at the Gibson Custom Shop, the Epiphone models we’ve reviewed the past few years have been, for the most part, beautifully rendered. With excellent craftsmanship, fantastic playability, and impressive tones, these Epiphones have proven they could hang tough with guitars costing a lot more. In the case of the “Benign Battle of the Johnny As,” here are a few quick hits for those too impatient (or too eager) to mess about:
• Cosmetics: The Gibson had a slightly snug nut slot and a paint smudge or two. The Epiphone betrays no cosmetic or hardware issues. I’m sure the Gibson had luxury-level woods and finishing that the Epi—owing to price point considerations—does not, but the Epiphone looks pretty lush, as well, and, from a stage perspective, it looks just as stunning as the Gibson.
• Playability: The Gibson was super light, though not delicate, and the Epiphone is also on the lightweight side, though likely a tad heavier than the original. There’s virtually no performance issues either way. Both guitars play like dreams with polished and rounded-edge frets, excellent intonation, and easy access to all controls. The Bigsby on the Epiphone, however, was a bit stiffer than the Bigsby on the Gibson—which was light and sensitive.
• Sound: Obviously, I didn’t have both guitars at the same time to A/B them, so much of this assessment is culled from my previous review. I had lauded the Gibson as being versatile, with “ES-335-esque blues flavors, smokey jazz tones, and viciously rockin’ wails.” I also liked the guitar’s articulate midrange and the “lively snap” of the resonant low-midrange frequencies. I remember the Gibson as being very dimensional and lively, too. The Epiphone seems to be a bit less dimensional, but not in a bad way. I see the tone as more rock-oriented, with a cool, boisterous midrange that leaps right out of the pickups. Lows are not as resonant as what I remember from the Gibson, but they’re certainly solid, and clicking to the neck pickup and knocking back the Tone knob a little produces some real vibey jazz flavors. Every tone on the Epi speaks clearly and articulately without any harsh highs or brittle mids, and, like the Gibson, getting controlled feedback is easy and fun as all hell.
• Editors’ Pick Awards: The Gibson got one for being a superb example of craftsmanship, and the Epiphone is getting one, as well, for translating the mojo of the original into a machine that costs thousands less. Bravo on both sides here!
I should mention that the whole Epiphone package is pretty hip. The hard-shell case is very nice—although ours had a cosmetic strap at the bottom coming unglued—and the little booklet with a photo of Johnny A and a signed Certificate of Authenticity is a slick addition. Epiphone has really done a masterful job of taking a guitar master’s signature instrument and making it into an affordable gigging guitar that still looks and feels like a luxury model.
JOHNNY A CUSTOM OUTFIT
PRICE $999 street
NUT WIDTH 1.687"
NECK Mahogany, set, rounded “C” profile
FRETBOARD Ebony, 25.5" scale
FRETS 22 medium
TUNERS Epiphone Deluxe, tulip buttons, 18:1 ratio
BODY Mahogany with 3-ply laminated flame-maple veneer
BRIDGE ABR-1, Bigsby B70 Vibrato
PICKUPS Two Gibson USA ’57 Classic humbuckers
CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone, 3-way selector
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .010-.046
WEIGHT 7.9 lbs
KUDOS Brilliant homage to a luxury Gibson.