Casinos Royale: In the mid Sixties, Epiphone got the nod from the reigning kings of pop when the Beatles made the budget-priced Casino their choice of electric guitar.
By Adam Perlmutter
At the height of Beatlemania, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison could have played any guitars they wanted. Cost certainly would have been no issue. But the guitar each of them chose was a modest budget thinline: the Epiphone Casino. From 1965 to 1969, the Beatles would put the Casino’s woofy midrange tone to memorable use on countless songs, including “Another Girl,” “The Night Before,” “Drive My Car,” “Taxman,” “Revolution,” “Get Back,” and “The End.”
McCartney, in particular, was an Epiphone fan, and also purchased an Epiphone Texan acoustic guitar, which he used for writing and recording acoustic gems like “Yesterday” and “Michelle.” While Gretsches, Rickenbackers, and Gibsons were also well represented among the Beatles’ guitars, only Epiphone can claim to have had one model that was favored by each of the group’s guitarists. To quote an obscure Beatles tune, that means a lot.
Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison were still finding their way as musicians when Gibson bought out the Epiphone brand in 1957. Epiphone had been in decline since the death of its leader, Epaminondas “Epi” Stathopoulo, in 1943. After the purchase, Gibson started making the two brands alongside each other in its Kalamazoo, Michigan, factory, using up leftover Epiphone parts. Introduced in 1958 as a continuation of Epiphone’s FT79 flattop acoustic, the Texan serves as an example of the company’s thrift. The earliest versions paired a mahogany 25 1/2–inch-scale Epiphone neck with Gibson’s slope-shouldered J-45 body, which featured mahogany back and sides and a spruce soundboard.
McCartney, the Beatles’ bassist, was the first to take the Epiphone plunge. Toward the end of 1964, he purchased his natural-finish 1964 Texan and sunburst 1962 Casino. Both were right-handed models that the southpaw guitarist had modified for left-handed use. The two guitars made their first appearances on the 1965 album Help!, on which McCartney began to assume more guitar duties on the group’s recordings. The Casino was heard on his solos for “Another Girl,” “The Night Before,” and “Ticket to Ride,” while the Texan was employed for “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “Yesterday,” his standout solo moment on the album. He also played the Texan onstage for performances of “Yesterday,” strapping it on over his Hofner violin bass when playing the song with the Beatles, or performing with it solo, as he did for the group’s 1965 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Unlike the Texan, the Casino was an entirely new model for Epiphone when it was introduced in 1961. With its laminated maple body, twin cutaways, and 16th-fret neck junction, this fully hollow guitar was essentially a slightly less-expensive version of the ES-330, Gibson’s student-level thinline electric that debuted in 1959. The guitar was available in single- (E230T) and double-pickup (E230TD) models, and while it was advertised as having powerful humbuckers, the pickups were in fact single-coil P-90s.
Keith Richards played a Casino on the Rolling Stones’ 1964 American tour, before McCartney bought his. However, it wasn’t Richards who inspired McCartney’s purchase but rather British bluesman John Mayall. During a late-night listening session at his house, Mayall poured McCartney a drink and played him a selection of tracks by Eric Clapton and his antecedents, like B.B. King and Freddie King. Mayall also handed the Beatle an old hollowbody that he’d bought as an army reservist while stationed in Japan. McCartney immediately fell for its tone.
“He used to play me a lot of records late at night,” McCartney told Andy Babiuk for his book Beatles Gear. “You’d go back to his place, and he’d sit you down, give you a drink, and say, ‘Just check this out.’ He’d go over to his desk and for hours he’d blast you with B.B. King, Eric Clapton… I was turned on after that, and I went and bought an Epiphone.”
McCartney purchased his Casino on the strength of its Bigsby tailpiece, an option he couldn’t find on any other thinline. Unlike later Casinos, which featured Epiphone’s trademark narrow hourglass-shaped headstock, the head on this particular example had a wider “open book” shape, an early remnant of the Gibson influence. McCartney modified the right-handed instrument for left-handed playing by inverting the bridge and adding a strap button to what was originally the treble bout.
McCartney never played the Casino in concert with the Beatles, but the guitar became his constant studio companion. In addition to his work with it on Help!, he used his Casino for his solo on “Drive My Car” and to record his absolutely blistering lead work on “Taxman,” from 1966’s Revolver, and “Good Morning Good Morning,” from 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Impressed by the guitar’s sound and versatility, Lennon and Harrison simultaneously purchased their own Casinos in spring 1966. Each scored a new sunburst 1965 example. The guitars were practically identical, except Lennon’s was outfitted with a trapeze tailpiece and had an uncommon but stock black plastic grommet ring surrounding the toggle switch, while Harrison’s had a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece. McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison all had their Casinos at hand when they began working on the Revolver sessions.
Lennon took a particular shine to his Casino, and was rarely seen without it in the years after. He first played it live in 1966 on the British television program Top of the Pops (with Harrison also on the Casino) and used it on the Beatles’ celebrated farewell performance, on the rooftop of the Apple building, in London, on January 30, 1969.
Along the way, before the market for vintage guitars really took off, Lennon made a few modifications to his Casino that would raise eyebrows today, although at the time were common practices in attempt to improve a guitar’s tone or appearance. Sometime in 1967, during sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—practically an all-Casino album—he spray-painted a white outline on its back. The next year, while the Beatles were on a pilgrimage to India, Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan Leitch encouraged Lennon and Harrison to sand the finishes off their Casinos, saying this would allow the wood to breathe and enhance the tone. Lennon took his advice, and while he was at it swapped the original nickel Kluson tuners for gold Grovers. He ditched the guitar’s plastic pickguard as well.
It’s impossible to say if these modifications actually improved the tone of Lennon’s Casino. But on the 1968 recording “Revolution,” the guitar—plugged directly into the board and overdriven by two microphone preamps—has a killer, wild voice, and it sounds full and warm on the A-to-D chord figure that opens “I’ve Got a Feeling.”
Harrison also removed his Casino’s finish in 1968, but by then he rarely used the guitar, thanks to a pair of solidbody guitars he received and put into service: a cherry-refinished 1957 Gibson Les Paul Standard gifted to him that year by Eric Clapton, and a prototype all-rosewood Fender Telecaster, which he received the following year. On the group’s swan song, “The End,” while Harrison wails on the Les Paul, Lennon and Harrison trade two-bar howling solos on their Casinos, a fitting tribute to the guitar they’d used to make so much great music.
How much did the Beatles’ use of Epiphone guitars help the company’s sales? It’s impossible to say, but it’s worth noting that, in the Sixties, the company sold more than 6,700 Casinos—more than twice the amount of any other model in its roster. Considering that both Lennon and Harrison used their Casinos extensively on the group’s final tour—where they were frequently photographed with them—it’s certainly conceivable that they turned other guitarists onto the model.
Unfortunately, high demand for a single guitar didn’t allow Epiphone to return to its robust prewar form, and in late 1969, not long before the Beatles’ demise, the company ceased production of all its U.S. models and offered only models produced in Asia. In the years since then, players like Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller have favored their vintage Casinos, while Kurt Cobain, Peter Frampton, and others made good use of the Texan. More impressively, Paul McCartney continues to play both his Texan and his Casino, which he still regards as his favorite electric. As he told Babiuk, “If I had to choose one electric guitar, it would be this.”