FOR YEARS THE EARLY-’60S EPIPHONE WILSHIRE (Model SB-432) held the honorable position of being a semi-undiscovered vintage gem, and was often sold as a “poor-man’s Les Paul Special”, but that description doesn’t fully capture the nuance of the Wilshire’s slightly altered design. By the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Wilshire was still a steal compared to the rapidly appreciating Special, though both emanated from the same Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, MI, and offered great appeal to anyone willing to take up the Epiphone badge in lieu of the more recognizable brand. This state of affairs didn’t last long, though, as the Kalamazoo factory turned out far fewer Wilshires (a mere 180 in 1962) than it did either late-’50s Les Paul Specials or early-’60s SG Specials. Following the simple laws of supply and demand, this secret players’ bargain turned into a bona fide collectible, with prices for good original examples soaring upwards of $5,000 to as much as $10,000!
Enter the 1962 Wilshire Reissue ($4,832 retail/$2,899 street), manufactured in Nashville, Tennessee, by Epiphone’s Custom Historic division, in cooperation with Gibson Custom. The revival brings this much-loved model back at a more palatable price than its current vintage value, although it’s still made in limited numbers, restricted to a run of 100 guitars. (100 more Wilshires, in white, will be available by the time you read this.) The first Wilshire arrived in late 1959, designed as a rival of sorts to Fender’s Stratocaster, which its rounded double horns aped more than they did those of its sibling double-cutaway LP Special. The guitars from 1962 are often considered to be the pinnacle of the model, and mark the last Wilshires that followed the more Gibson-like design spec. The following year, the Wilshire went both more Stratty with a six-on-a-side headstock design and offset double-cutaway body with longer bass side horn, and less Stratty with two minihumbucking pickups.
The Custom Historic 1962 Reissue is a convincing rendition of the scant handful of early- ’60s Wilshires I have encountered over the years. Examining it with reference to my memory of these vintage Wilshires—and what written specs I have on hand—I find nothing that gives me pause in the accuracy stakes. The edges of the one-piece Peruvian mahogany body are smoothly curved, with an appealing handfinished look to the portions of the cutaways that run from flat to radiused. The nitrocellulose finish, although buffed to a high gloss, is thin enough to have dimpled into the grain of the wood, giving the guitar the impression of an instrument that is aging gracefully. The slight dimpling in the finish on the upper edge of the unbound rosewood fretboard is less appealing, though not a major turn off. The rest of the neck is smoothly executed, though, with a beefy rounded C profile that is full yet comfortable in the hand, and a headstock that’s back angled to a period-correct 17 degrees. The Wilshire’s solid neck joint is aided by a neck pickup that’s positioned further back into the body than on some of the Gibsons it’s related to, and which therefore encroaches less upon the neck tenon (and, as a result, neck stability overall). Partly as a result of these ingredients, this thing really rings out acoustically, with a bright snap to the notes that is underpinned by a rich, woody resonance. I’m going to appear to contradict my introduction to this review by saying that the playing feel of the Wilshire is somehow a little lighter and slinkier than that of many Gibson Les Paul Specials, but in a good way. The body thickness of a little under 1w" compared to the Special’s 13" generally makes a Wilshire a little lighter, and a little more intimate cradled between arms and body, too. With all that mahogany, a 243" scale length, mediumjumbo frets, and the Gibson-derived ABR-1 Tune-o-Matic) bridge and stop tailpiece, it’s really an entirely un-Fender-ish instrument, yet has a pop and spank to it when played unplugged that conjures up early-’60s pop, surf, and garage rock as much as it does the heavier music that Specials and Juniors, both Les Paul and SG, were so often applied to later in the decade, and beyond.
The pickups in this Custom Historic creation follow early-’60s P-90 specs with period-correct bases. Measurements of 8.11kΩ in the neck and 8kΩ in the bridge indicate that their selection is also period correct: Back in the day they just pulled two pickups from the stock shelf and mounted them into the guitar, but the random practice often resulted in an imbalance between the positions, with the switch set to “Rhythm” (neck) issuing a lot more volume than when set to “Treble”. In this instance, however, neck and bridge pickup have been thoughtfully set up with the latter lowered much further into the body to balance the outputs of the two.
Plugged into either a cranked TopHat Club Royale or a ’55 tweed Fender Pro rolled up to 2 o’clock, a honkin’ P-90 bite and snarl gushes from the Wilshire. Played in anger through a cooperative tube amp, this guitar easily redeems its power-rock and dirty blues pedigrees, with a cutting, stinging bridge pickup, and a neck setting that’s fat and rich, but without getting too muddy. Through the course of exploring other amp and pickup settings, however, some surprising alternative voices come to the fore. Clean-with-bite levels approached via the neck pickup are a little more funky than they are bluesy or jazzy, partly thanks to this P- 90’s more rearward placement, and the middle selection (both pickups) is unusually lively and bright, with a dash of Strat-like dual-pickup quackiness—an unexpected success at chicken-pickin’ and retro roadhouse rock ’n’ roll licks. Shades of the hallowed Junior and Special bark and grind are here, but they live alongside some nuances that are rarely found on those Gibsons’ tonal palettes. Overall, the Wilshire is a fun guitar to play, and hides some subtle tricks up its sleeve. If you want that beloved Les Paul Special tone, buy a Special. But if you want a guitar that’s a little more lithe and funky, but can still growl when required, the Epiphone Wilshire is there for the taking if you’ve got pockets deep enough to make it an option. As a further enticement, a vintage- inspired hard case, numbered certificate of authenticity, commemorative picks and T-shirt, and a reproduction of the original hang tag are included.