Video: The "Forgotten" Holy Grail Epiphones of the '50s & '60s

When you think Epiphone, you may think of it only as the affordable, overseas-manufactured little brother to Gibson. What a lot of folks forget is that Epiphone has its own storied history as a US company—and actually was the direct rival to Gibson for many years, until Gibson bought its rival in 1957.

For a deep dive into Epiphone's history and how it fell into Gibson ownership in the '50s, check out our longform article "Gibson vs. Gibson: How Gibson Used Epiphone To Make Its Own Competition."

From the late '50s through the '60s, Epiphone production was located in the same Kalamazoo factory as Gibson. Built via the same techniques, materials, and, in some cases, designs, these Epiphone guitars were created side by side with their Gibson counterparts, and sold to the many distributors who did not have Gibson deals as alternative, high-quality instruments.

Many Kalamazoo-era Epiphones are essentially rarer Gibson-quality guitars that can be found for a better price. (Want proof? Explore any of the models we mention below in the Reverb Price Guide.)

In our video above and the words that follow, let’s run down all of the electric models in the Kalamazoo era.

Solidbodies: Crestwood Custom, Coronet & Wilshire

Epiphone’s first solidbody guitars—the Crestwood Custom and Coronet—were released in 1959 and meant to be alternatives to models like the Les Paul Junior—but interestingly, they sold at a slightly higher price.

These solidbodies are still sought-after for their solid build quality and materials, which include parts from pre-1959 Gibson guitars. The Crestwood Custom and Deluxe have all of the flair you would come to expect from the 1960s, and really were ahead-of-their-time models.

'60s Epi Solidbodies

A year later in 1960, the Wilshire would be released as an alternative to what we know as the SG Special. Early Wilshires feature P90 pickups, a translucent cherry red finish, and similar scale length and control layout to the SG. A young Jimi Hendrix would play a Wilshire when performing with Don Covay and Little Richard.

The Olympic, a student model that was basically Epiphone's version of the Melody Maker, was the company's least expensive and best-selling electric guitar. It went through a variety of changes, starting life as a single-cutaway, Les Paul-style, then a double-cut, and eventually changed to the asymmetrical double-cut style associated with other Epiphone solidbodies of the time.

Over the course of the decade, with several modifications and variations, around 10,000 of these solidbody models would be created and shipped, but it was really the semi-hollow and hollowbody guitars that would have the largest impact in the ‘60s.

Semi-Hollow and Hollowbody Epis

Epiphone would continue to produce its pre-Gibson archtop models like the Emperor, Broadway, and Zephyr, but they also had some new models that incorporated thinner bodies and necks.

The Windsor and Sorrento are sharp, Florentine-style, single-cut models that came in single or dual pickup options, and fit right at home in jazz, rockabilly, or rock 'n' roll.

The Century has a non-cutaway, full auditorium-sized body, and early models feature 1950s P90s with white covers acquired from the Epiphone New York days.

Hollowbody Designs

Similarly, the Granada, released in 1962, features a thinline ES125T-style body. It includes the same single-coil pickup used on Gibson Melody Makers, and at the time of its release was the least expensive Epiphone hollowbody guitar.

The release of the Casino in 1961 would eventually be what solidified Epiphone as a household name among instrument enthusiasts. Based on Gibson’s ES-330 that had launched the previous year, the Casino's tan sunburst, fully hollow, dual P90-body outfitted with a Tremotone vibrato was used by British Invasion rock bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. The Casino would have a few variations in the 1960s and still remains an iconic and best-selling guitar today.

Semi-Hollow Epis

Epiphone also released two semi-hollow models that corresponded to Gibson models like the ES-335 and ES-355: the Riviera and Sheraton.

These guitars feature the same dimensions and materials as their Gibson counterparts, including their center block body design that helped reduce feedback. But they did exhibit some differences, such as having mini-humbuckers, different tailpieces, and headstock designs. They were made in fairly limited numbers, unlike their very popular Gibson counterparts.

The Sheraton in particular was a very ornate version of the Riviera, and was Epiphone’s second most expensive guitar at the time, next to the Emperor. Guitars like the Riviera and Sheraton would have a resurgence in the 1990s, being heavily associated with British rock groups like Oasis, and later groups like The Strokes, and today they remain staples in Epiphone’s lineup.

Lesser-Known Epis of the '60s

The Howard Roberts models are signature jazz boxes with a single jazz humbucker attached to the neck, similarly to Gibson’s Johnny Smith model—of which the Roberts guitar shared the same pickup. In its '60s run, Howard Roberts models came in a variety of outfits, including fully acoustic models and very ornate electrics.

The Caiola is the high-end signature model that was made for jazz/pop guitarist Al Caiola. It features a thinline acoustic-electric body, similar to a Casino, but with mini-humbuckers and Epiphone’s "Tonexpressor" switches. Only a few hundred were made.

The "Tonexpressor" system is also found on the Epiphone Professional Outfit, a Riviera-style model that came as an amplifier and guitar combo. The system allows for all kinds of tonal options when used together, including controlling tremolo and reverb from the guitar. Around 400 of these models were produced in the 1960s.

Electric Basses

Though Epiphone was primarily known as an acoustic bass company at the time, there were some notable electric basses created during this era.

The Embassy is a full-scale bass equivalent of guitar models like the Crestwood. The Newport is a short-scale version—and when first made, both of these basses used parts that were found on Gibson Thunderbird and EB-0 basses. None of these basses sold particularly well at the time, but they remain amazing gems of the era.

The Rivoli is Epiphone's equivalent of the Gibson EB-2, with very little difference. Interestingly, these very cool semi-hollow basses became very popular with UK rock groups of the time like The Small Faces, Animals, Yardbirds, and Free.

As the '60s drew to a close, CMI would end up selling Gibson to Norlin, which then changed gears and began a whole new era of Epiphone manufacturing in Japan. But having been built in the same factory and with the same parts as their Gibson equivalents in much smaller quantities, these Kalamazoo-era Epiphones stand out as classics right alongside Gibsons and others from the electric guitar's mid-century golden era.

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