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The Inside Story: Building the Masterbilt Century Guitars

So, exactly what goes into making a modern archtop? 

 

by Team HC 

 

 

The new Epiphone Masterbilt Century Collection is--in many ways--a continuation of founder Epi Stathopoulo's dream to build a guitar that was elegant, timeless, groundbreaking and affordable. Though it might sound strange to call a new archtop with Art Deco-era design features "groundbreaking," the Masterbilt Century Collection is actually a futuristic guitar with the "look and feel" of its historic ancestors.

 

Just as the original Masterbilt archtops were built to project over a big band and be heard in large dancehalls, the Masterbilt Century archtops are designed to hold their own with any rock band without sacrificing tone, thanks to the custom eSonic HD system. After all, great tone was what made the archtop the most desirable acoustic guitar of its era, so not being able to preserve that tone would have made the new models non-starters.

 

The original Masterbilt Collection was created in a moment of inspiration and practicality. In the early 1930s, with banjo sales plummeting and fretted instrument sales rising, Epi Stathopoulo directed his staff to design a big, beautiful, and loud acoustic guitar. Launched at the dawn of the dance band era, Epiphone archtops were an instant hit, and for the next 15 years Epiphone acoustic archtops were revered by the best players along with brands like Stromberg, D'Angelico, and Gibson. But when rock n' roll arrived, acoustic archtop guitars virtually disappeared. The new era of popular music demanded volume. And though the profile remained, archtops went from being primarily acoustic guitars to electric guitars with an electric guitar magnetic pickup, effectively removing any tone from the "top." And for almost 50 years, as acoustic players turned instead to flattops, few realized that there was more than one kind of acoustic guitar sound.

 

 Building A 21st Century Archtop

But bringing the classic Epiphone archtop tone into the 21st century required looking at the original designs with a critical eye to see what made them tick. Luckily, most of those answers could be found in the Epiphone Historic Collection at Epiphone's headquarters in Nashville, TN.

 

 

"We've managed to build a collection of 50 pre-Gibson ownership instruments dating back to the early 1900's," said Gibson President Dave Berryman. "That era was very rich and we've tried to build a collection that's representative of all those key models. And we've been building on that slowly, so it's been a labor of love."

 

 

When Richard Akers and Scott Harrison from Epiphone's R&D team were tasked with creating a new archtop for the 21st century, they were already familiar with the various designs of the Masterbilt era. "The longitudinal bracing was key to keeping that Epiphone tone," said Scott Harrison. "Every year was slightly different so we tried to put together the best qualities from that era, especially the bracing methods and solid wood tops."

 

 

Epiphone archtops are renowned for their unique body shape--slightly different than Gibson (their main competitor at the time) as well as for their elegant hardware like the traditional tailpiece and machine heads. The new Masterbilt Century machine heads recreate the unique look of the originals but with a vastly improved tuning ratio. "We were able to maintain the retro vibe and art deco appearance of the historic tuners while improving the functionality." said Richard Akers. "With an 18:1 tuning ratio, you have greater accuracy and stability."

 

Another inspiration for the Masterbilt Century Collection was the realization that many younger guitar players had never played a properly constructed archtop. "For many guitarists, playing an archtop will be an entirely new experience," said Harrison. "Most players haven't had an affordable alternative to a flattop guitar since Epiphone made the originals. Even pros have had a hard time finding vintage Epiphones--no one wants to let go of them."

 

So what's so special about an archtop? For many, an archtop produces not only a slightly more focused sound without as many overtones as a flattop, but a more true expression of the player. For over twenty years, Grammy winner Dave Rawlings has performed practically all of his concerts and recording dates with Gillian Welch with an original 1935 Epiphone Olympic, precisely because it doesn't sound like a flattop guitar. Rawlings was impressed that the new Masterbilt Century Olympic will provide players the same unique tonal palette as his original. "A fiddle or a mandolin--anything else will destroy a bluegrass guitar unless you're Clarence White or Brian Sutton or someone who can jam that soundhole into a microphone and make it roar. My '35 Olympic is the kind of guitar that you could give to a dozen different people and they would find a way to make their living. It's just that right combination that makes for a magical box."

 

 

 

Not just the sound, but the design matters too--so the new Masterbilt Collection features the iconic headstock banner--with its combination of elegant script with black and gold typeface--found on the rare, early 30s-era Epiphones. In addition to the sound quality, it's important to pay attention to the visual details that also made these guitars coveted .

 

Size Meets Sound

 

 

There are a variety of sizes available to players in the new Masterbilt Century Collection, a nod to the era of healthy competition when archtops went from small to big to bigger! And no matter what your style, a player will find their "voice" in a Masterbilt Century Guitar. The De Luxe and De Luxe Classic feature the 17" size body preferred by players who want maximum power and tone. The Zenith and Zenith Classic have a 16" body with a more focused tone, while the Olympic's smaller body and unique midrange make it a perfect lead instrument next to traditional acoustic guitars and mandolins.

 

"Listening to people like the Delmore Brothers--where there was a tenor guitar and an acoustic--or the Blue Sky Boys where there was a mandolin and a guitar--that's what pushed me into wanting to hear something that was in that world," recalled Dave Rawlings on choosing his vintage Olympic.

 

Unlike vintage budget archtops currently on the market (and often coming apart at the seams), the new Masterbilt Century Collection not only features solid wood tops but quality Ebony and Rosewood fingerboards.

 

"These guitars will be so useful to players," said studio ace and rising Americana star Chris Scruggs. "They're made to last. And they're beautiful, too! It's great to see the vintage style headstock and the binding in a new guitar."      - HC -

 

 

Article adapted with the  express written permission of 

 

Resources

Visit Masterbilt Century Collection site for details and also visit the Epiphone History Page for more info on the original Epiphone Masterbilts.

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