A faithful recreation of Gibson’s Chet Atkins Country Gentleman slim-line archtop—which can go for around $6,500—the Japanese-made Epiphone Country Deluxe mirrors much of the original’s physical attributes and dimensions, but uses 52SR/50ST USA humbuckers (rather than the Gibson’s 492R/490T alnico humbuckers), and incorporates flame maple/birch/maple on its top, back, and sides (instead of the maple/ poplar/maple blend utilized by Gibson). There are obviously a few other assorted construction and material differences, as well, but given that the Country Deluxe is less than half the price of the Country Gentleman, you’d be hard pressed to tag any cost-conscious quality compromises in the Epiphone’s stunning visage. The awesome sunrise orange finish is breathtaking and flawless, and it’s lacquered to the sheen of the Queen’s jewels. The 24K gold hardware is solid, and it adds a sophisticated flair to the hue of the body—even evoking a hint of art deco, thanks to the Imperial buttons on the Grover tuners. Body and f-hole bindings are absolutely perfect, as are the thumbprint inlays on the fretboard and the French-styled inlays on the wooden bridge mount. The only conflicts to this monument of elegance were a poorly glued armrest that tended to shimmy across the guitar’s upper-rear territory, and slightly jagged fret ends on the ninth fret.
As beguiling as it is, the Country Deluxe doesn’t give up its charms easily. You have to bend a little to its personality, but, hey, compromise is one of the requirements for an enriching and long-term love thing. First, the guitar itself is rather big and heavy, although its slim, tapered neck and lean figure make for a relatively painless transition from a typical solidbody. The heavy strings will fight you a bit, too, but if you want to wrest the warm, beefy tones this baby is capable of producing, then you best not wimp out and replace them with thinner wires. The string spacing is perfect for Chet-inspired fingerpicking, and while the neck/string setup certainly isn���t a shredder’s dream, it’s definitely sleek enough to inspire some pretty fleet-fingered note excursions.
The only drag about playability is that I can’t say the Country Deluxe was ready for action right out of the box. There were a few dead spots below the 12th fret, and buzzes compromised some notes on the D string, G string, B string, and high E. There was also a strange metallic sound evident whenever I fretted an F barre chord at the first fret. All of the sonic glitches can be fixed with a decent setup, of course, and Epiphone’s limited lifetime warranty also covers such matters.
[Epiphone’s Quality Control department manager states: “There may have been some outside climate or shipping issues that caused the neck to shift around. I treat these guitars with the utmost care, and I have too much of a conscience to have them any less than perfect.”]
A true sophisticate, the Country Deluxe maintains its graceful voice no matter which amp you plug it into. I tested the gent through a Marshall JCM 900, a Mesa/Boogie Stiletto and Triple Rectifier, a Vox AC15, a Fender Twin, a tiny and tinny Danelecto mini amp, and direct to Pro Tools HD through a Radial JD1 direct box. And, being a snotty punk-rock type at heart, I tried every way I could to punkify and/or lo-fi this sexy beast—massive gain, crap signal paths, and all manner of volume and tone blends on the guitar itself. All I discovered is that the Country Deluxe is more adept at evading muck than Bill Clinton. No matter how you manipulate the signal path, every note rings with a thick, articulate roundness that projects the fundamental with a lively pop. (You can even feel the resonant thud as you pick .) And while the tone changes from a jazzy silkiness on the rhythm pickup to a lively snap on the treble pickup, the sound never gets searing or overly bright. It’s as if Chet’s soul is encapsulated in every Country Deluxe, and he’s making damn sure you pull only the most beautiful of tones from its refined and cultured core. Submit to the Deluxe’s treasure trove of sonic splendor, and fingerpicked passages sparkle with vivid intensity, folk strums resound with harmonic power, and melody lines shimmer and soar. At times, the guitar’s creamy resonance and boisterous low-end can be a bit much, though. For example, when I played a few power-chord progressions and strummed some jangle rock, the blossoming bass and midrange frequencies rang out so forcefully that it felt as if I was losing control of the guitar. (“Cut back the power, Captain—the engines are tearing themselves apart!”) Now, while I wouldn’t say that you couldn’t play heavy metal or garage rock on this baby, the Country Deluxe is definitely at its best when delivering smoky jazz, country, ambient, and pop timbres.
Warts and All, Rapture is Still Rapture
So, like many transcendent beings—well, at least from what I can glean about those exquisite creatures from reading People, Us, and the National Enquirer—the Elitist Country Deluxe can be a blissful burden. On one hand, it’s a magnificent beauty that will turn heads so fast that you’d better have a nurse on call to treat the whiplash cases this guitar will cause. And it matches its physical beauty with a heavenly voice that can add goosebumps to every note you play. But it also needs a bit of spiffing up, can be a tad hard to control, and costs big bucks. However, if you can afford the price tag—and you play the styles of music that the Country Deluxe embraces—you’d be a fool not to fall into its arms. After all, mortals seldom get a chance to commune with angels.