The House That Epi Built: In the 140-year history of the Epiphone guitar company, Epaminondas Stathopoulo and his big, boisterous family loom large.
By Alan di Perna
They called him the Duke, a nod to his princely bearing and stylish manner of dress. Gallivanting around New York City in the early decades of the 20th century, Epaminondas Stathopoulo was a sporty young man-about-town who played mandolin in a band and kept up on the latest trends and high fashions. His small moustache was, in the mode of the day, neatly trimmed and perfectly waxed. An impeccable sense of style and deep appreciation for quality craftsmanship are but two of the virtues that Epaminondas would impart to the company that bears his name, Epiphone, and which celebrates its 140th anniversary this year.
In 1915, Epi—as he was known to his friends—had begun performing with local groups in Manhattan. Mandolin bands were in vogue at the time, a trend that was especially good for the family business. Epi’s father, Anastasios, was a maker of stringed instruments who had emigrated from Turkey to the U.S. in 1903. Starting out with a workshop on Manhattan’s 28th Street, Anastasios flourished and eventually moved his business uptown to 252 West 42nd Street.
But in the midst of this good life, tragedy struck when Anastasios died suddenly, at age 52, in 1915. It was up to 22-year-old Epi, the eldest child, to keep the family business alive. Counting on him were his brothers, Orpheus and Phrixus (nicknamed Orphie and Frixo), sisters, Alkmini and Helle (Minnie and Elly), and mother, Marianthe. They'd worked hard together to make the business a success in its new American home. With Anastasios gone, they faced a new challenge.
They would rise to the occasion admirably. Today, Epiphone is one of the great heritage brands, known for consummately cool Sixties axes like the Casino, Riviera, and Sheraton, retro-funky slabs such as the Crestwood, Wilshire, and Cornet, and gorgeous pre-WWII electrics that include the Emperor, Zephyr, and Broadway. Many men and women of talent and vision have contributed to the Epiphone tradition, but the company’s legacy rests firmly on the foundation created by the Stathopoulo family and its eldest son, the man who gave not only his name but also his life to the company.
Even at 22, Epi was ready to take charge. In addition to having recently graduated from Columbia University, he had spent his life around the family business learning the craft of instrument making. Being a young, fashion-conscious musician, Epi was keenly aware that the banjo was supplanting the mandolin as the hot, new stringed instrument. In the years immediately after World War I, the syncopated rhythms of jazz had eclipsed the more stately cadences of European dance tunes. The world belonged to exciting new musicians and bandleaders like Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, Jelly Roll Morton, and Kid Ory. Many of the new jazz bands included a banjo player, so Epi promptly shifted the company’s focus from mandolins to banjos. The top-line models were singularly flashy items, decked out in mother-of-pearl and other premium materials.
Under Anastasios, the family’s instruments had been labeled “A. Stathopoulo, New York City.” In 1917, Epi changed the company name to the House of Stathopoulo. He had been an amateur designer and inventor under his father, and his hands-on approach as the company’s new leader extended throughout the business. That same year, he received his first patent for a banjo tone ring and rim design. For all his many talents, Epi had little interest in finance, which resulted in numerous family disagreements. “Epi knew guitars, but if he were left alone, he’d give the factory away,” recalled Herb Sunshine, a key member of the Epiphone team during the Twenties and Thirties. “He needed help with the business end of it. And that’s where Orphie came in. He was the financial backbone, you might say. But Epi had a bad temper. Every business decision was the cause for heated arguments.”
In 1924, Epi reorganized the family business, appointed himself president and general manager, and officially changed the company name to Epiphone, a sleek new appellation for a new, streamlined era. The suffix phone, which is derived from the Greek word for sound, was a pretty high-tech phoneme in the Twenties, a time when the telephone and gramophone were still regarded as marvels of modernity. With its sleek name, Epiphone was primed to play a leading role in whatever future might lay just around the corner.
And that future became manifest during the Twenties as the guitar began to replace the banjo as the instrument of choice in dance-band rhythm sections, spearheaded by the pioneering work of players like Nick Lucas and Eddie Lang. Epiphone was quick to respond, but unfortunately, its very first guitar line, the Recording Series, was introduced just in time for the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that it brought about. As a result, the series didn’t sell well.
Epiphone did considerably better with its next attempt. In 1931, the company debuted the guitars that would define the Epiphone aesthetic for all time: the Masterbilt range of f-hole archtops. The guitars were a direct attempt to compete with Gibson’s L-5 guitar. Introduced in 1922, the L-5 was the definitive f-hole archtop jazz guitar, but the Great Depression had seriously weakened Gibson, and Epi saw an opportunity to move in on the company’s turf. The Masterbilt name was a direct riff on Gibson’s Mastertone and Master Model instruments. And while the Epiphone Masterbilts of 1931 were f-hole archtops very much in the spirit of the L-5, they effortlessly trumped their Gibson counterparts in visual flair.
The queen of the Masterbilt line was the DeLuxe, a name appropriated from Epiphone’s banjo line. It boasted diamond-shaped fret markers, ornate headstock inlays, and beveled two-tone binding. Other models, including the Royal, Blackstone, and Empire, evoked the fascination that British aristocracy held for the popular culture of the Thirties. This marked the start of a long tradition of classy, “upscale” names for Epiphone instruments.
Despite the lengthy economic turmoil of the Thirties, the decade was a high point for many aspects of American culture. It was the Golden Age of Hollywood’s studio system, with its witty screwball comedies and elaborately staged musicals, not to mention the heyday of elegantly crafted musical arrangements by bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunceford, and Count Basie. The Epiphones from this period embody the era's elegant art deco style.
The deco aesthetic was ornate but not florid or fussy, ruled by a sleek, angular geometry. Many of the features that to this day define the Epiphone look date back to this era and sensibility, most notably the elongated Epiphone “hourglass” headstock. This was also the era of languidly extended Epiphone “cloud” pickguards, marked by a distinctive outward contour near the fretboard, called a “hump” by some guitar historians. Epiphones of this vintage tend to sport gorgeously wrought trapeze tailpieces. Even the f-holes are distinctive, cut in three distinct sections rather than one continuous shape.
But looks weren’t the only area in which Epiphones differed from Gibsons. “The Epiphone guitars were a knockoff of the L-5, but Epiphone had a different sound,” recalled Les Paul, who was a confirmed Gibson player in the Thirties but switched to Epiphone in the Forties. “Epiphone went their own way and made an extremely fine instrument. The great guitar players like George Van Eps, Carmen Mastern, and Freddie Green all had Epiphones. Back in those days when you really had to thump out the rhythm, that was the sound we all craved.”
The Gibson-Epiphone war was very much about volume. The Epiphone DeLuxe measured 16 1/2 inches across the lower body bout, making it just a little larger than the Gibson L-5. In 1934, Gibson countered with the Super 400, which had an 18-inch body. The following year, Epiphone outdid the Super 400 by three-eighths of an inch with the appropriately named Emperor. A risqué ad at the time features a photograph of a semi-nude woman holding an Emperor in playing position. The guitar’s body was large enough to cover, just barely, the anatomical naughty bits.
By the mid Thirties, however, there was a powerful new weapon in the battle for more volume: electricity. Rickenbacker and a handful of other innovators had laid the groundwork earlier in the decade. Epiphone entered the fray in 1935 with its Electar line, which included Hawaiian- and Spanish-style electrics and some of the slickest-looking amplifiers ever made. The Electar name was the brainchild of Herb Sunshine, as were many of the key innovations of Epiphone’s early electric guitars.
A resourceful salesman and electronic wiz, Sunshine was a great asset to Epiphone. In 1937, the company introduced two key Sunshine designs: the world’s first adjustable pole-piece pickup and the Frequensator frequency-compensated tailpiece. The Frequensator, in particular, was an especially ingenious design. Most trapeze tails are one-piece affairs, but the Frequensator consists of two separate metal “forks:” one for the three low strings, another for the three higher strings, to provide better tonal balance. Over the years Gretsch, D’Angelico, and Guild would come out with their own frequency-compensated tailpiece, but the Frequensator remains one of the coolest-looking tailpieces ever invented and is still offered on Epiphone models.
Other members of the Epiphone staff contributed design innovations. Epi’s “thrust rod” was an innuendo-laden alternative to Gibson’s adjustable truss rod, and Frixo was heavily involved in the Rocco Tonexpressor, the world’s first combination volume/tone or volume/wah pedal. During this period, Epiphone also experimented with a seven-string guitar, beating Steve Vai and Ibanez to the punch by a good 50 years. They also came up with an early electronic tuning device and in 1941 offered the first “stacked” potentiometer, which provided volume and tone controls on a single shaft.
By the mid Thirties, Epiphone's showroom at 142 West 14th Street, had become a hangout for the city’s top guitar players. Every Saturday afternoon, the Stathopoulo brothers hosted a jam session. Les Paul was one of the guitar aces who made it a habit to stop by. With characteristic generosity, Epi even let Les use the Epiphone factory above the showroom to work on the Log, his experimental solidbody guitar. This forerunner of what would eventually become the Gibson Les Paul sported body wings taken from an Epiphone archtop. Paul’s 1941 Epiphone Zephyr, nicked-named the Clunker, was another key instrument that the inventive guitarist used for his tonal experiments. It can be heard on some of his biggest hits and most famous recordings, including “How High the Moon,” “Whispering,” and “Tiger Rag,” not to mention numerous sides that he cut with show-business legends like Judy Garland and Bing Crosby.
The United States’ entry into World War II in 1941 signaled the end of Epiphone's first great era of guitar making. Wartime shortages of materials hampered and ultimately halted production. Then, with the war still in progress, Epi died of leukemia in 1942 at the age of 50. Like his father before him, he passed on at a relatively young age. Management of the company reverted to Orphie and Frixo, who promptly began to feud with one another. Epiphone also fought against efforts to unionize its factory at a time when the movement for workers’ rights was making significant advances.
These changes did not bode well for the company, and by toward the end of the Forties, Orphie surrendered control of Epiphone to Continental, the distribution arm of brass and woodwind manufacturer C.G. Conn. The Epiphone factory was moved from Manhattan to Philadelphia in 1953 to avoid continuing efforts to unionize, but many craftsmen refused to relocate. Some of them went on to form Guild guitars, a union shop. With the loss of many skilled workers, quality and sales declined for Epiphone. Then, as if things couldn’t get grimmer, 1957 saw the passing of Frixo, at age 52.
That same year, however, the Epiphone brand was rescued by none other than Gibson, its old rival. Gibson had been purchased by Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) in 1944 and was now flush with capital. Orphie, for his part, was eager to sell out his share of Epiphone. By this point, both of his brothers were dead, and his own health wasn’t the best. So in 1957, Gibson acquired Epiphone for $20,000—not a lot of money even back then—and the promise to hang Epi’s picture wherever Epiphone instruments were made. With this, the two great rivals of the first half of the 20th century became one of the great partnerships of the rock and roll era and beyond.