Epiphone Century Masterbilt Olympic

Epiphone first rose to prominence in the 1930s when their archtop guitars, alongside those of Gibson and to a lesser extent Stromberg, made the guitar a viable instrument to play alongside horns in a jazz or dance band, or banjos in various forms of country music. Today, Epiphone is largely known as the Gibson budget brand, but alongside their Jnr Gibson offerings, they have continued to offer Epiphone specific models like the Joe Pass Emperor and the Casino. What they neglected, for a long time, was any acoustic archtop models, or at least they did until recently. In fairness, the entire acoustic archtop market has been pretty moribund for some time. You could buy a handmade boutique archtop for thousands, but if you anything affordable, you were pretty much reduced to finding an old Kay or Harmony archtop (probably all plywood with a steam formed top), either battered to death and in a junk shop, or overrestored and overpriced.

Whether it’s a result of the internet bringing together communities of common interest or some other pressure I cannot say, but last year Epiphone launched three archtops inspired by some of their historic models. I say inspired by rather than reissues of, because there were various different specs of Olympic during it’s production life, but none of them had a piezo pickup in the bridge, nor, as far as I know, laminate back and sides. Regardless, these three models, the largest, the Classic, the Zenith and this smallest, the Olympic, are a welcome addition to this still underprovided sector.

Visuals

Let me level with you. I have always wanted an archtop (matter of fact, I have an old Colletti-Martin in the loft that I’ve never been able to get playing right), but when these three came out, I chose the Olympic, the smallest (almost parlour sized) and least lavishly appointed principally because David Rawlings plays a 1935 Olympic and makes it sound fantastic, playing exactly the sort of country folk I’m playing at the moment (he does it somewhat better than me). I’m sure that Epiphone were aware of the effect that Rawlings’ patronage has had on the price of the previously unloved vintage Olympics, because this reissue is visually very close to his guitar. I believe all the original models were all solid spruce and mahogany, whilst this is solid spruce topped, but laminate on the back and sides. Whilst Epiphone doesn’t specify, the general assumption is that the top is steam pressed to shape rather than carved; hand carving would seem to preclude the price the guitar comes in at, the only carving machines that I can find any record of are Gibson’s, taken from the Kalamazoo factory when it was sold to Heritage Guitars, and now used by the custom shop. More than anything, if Epiphone were handcarving these tops, they would probably say so; The Loar make plenty of play out of their handcarved tops, and their cheapest solid and laminate instrument is £100 more than the Olympic, despite Epiphone probably being able to charge a premium for their recognisable name.

The Olympic is the smallest in the Masterbilt Century range; with a 14.5” lower bout, it’s very similar in dimensions to my band partner’s Framus parlour guitar, and a little bigger than my own Gretsch G9511. For perspective, the Zenith, in the middle of the current range, has a 16 inch lower bout, in common with the iconic Gibson L5 and for that matter The Loar’s three acoustic archtops (see our review of the Loar LH700 here), and the DeLuxe has a 17” lower bout. In the classic era, archtops went even bigger; Gibson’s largest was the Super 400 with an 18 inch lower bout, and Epiphone’s own Emperor responding by going to 18.5 inches! That small body should equate to a very focussed tone, which can be just what you want in a lead guitar playing against other guitars (as opposed to in a band of horns and piano).

The spruce top is of decent quality; the fairly fine and very even grain is very visible through the finish. This is a vintage sunburst which, to my eyes, doesn’t look as good as on the more larger models. These have most of the upper bout dark, whereas the Olympic has a fairly even sized strip of dark stain all the way around, described as “violin burst”. This is different to the Zenith and the DeLuxe, but very much like the finish on David Rawlings’ guitar, so I think we can assume they’re pitching hard at that market. In addition to the dark vintage sunburst, you can have a very pleasing honeyburst. Unlike most flat tops, this and many other archtops have longtitudinal bracing; I haven’t had the chance to play an X braced archtop (they do exist), but I have compared X braced and ladder braced flat tops, and the former are punchier, where X bracing produces a sweeter and longer sustaining tone. The Olympic was, as well as the small body version, also always the budget, poverty spec model, and the reissue is similarly lacking in adornments. The body looks unbound at first glance, but actually, the black binding just blends in with the very dark sunburst, and the completely black back and sides (the honeyburst model has white binding that you can’t miss, and natural mahogany veneer on the back and sides). The F holes are unbound, and the tailpiece is a simple design (google frequensator tailpiece to see just how fancy Epiphone tailpieces can be). David Rawlings had a one piece ebony bridge made for his vintage guitar, but the Masterbilt series have a thumbwheel adjustable “ebonoid” bridge with a Shadowflex undersaddle pickup, which must be wired through the bridge itself. The tone and volume controls are hidden in the soundhole, and there’s a subtle jack socket and battery compartment in the side of the lower bout; at first glance, you would never know this was electrified at all.

The 25.5” scale neck is mahogany, and a solid chunk at that; not quite the baseball bat that my vintage Colletti Martin has, but much chunkier than you’ll be used to in most modern guitars. I love it, and I strongly suggest trying it before you dismiss it; neck profile is more a matter of fashion than of actual utility, and many players will find that they love the extra heft. The 20 fret board is ebony, with simple dot markers, with a plastic nut. The headstock is a departure from Rawlings’ guitar, a great spade of a thing that Epiphone call a Dovewing. This does allow space for the very impressive inlay featuring three mother of pearl banners and a sort of filligree plant motif, but compared with the smaller headstocks of the 30’s it looks a little out of scale with this dinky guitar. The tuners, modern 18:1 ratio jobs, feature nice marbloid crown buttons, and the neck has a double action truss rod (many older low cost archtops would not have an adjustable truss rod at all).

The guitar is well put together and we can’t point at any quality issues, but don’t buy this expecting a work of art such as you would get from most hand building luthiers; this is a simply appointed reproduction of a poverty spec model from the depression era, so there’s almost no flash. One thing I noticed when comparing it to my Loar LH700 is that the edges and points of the F holes don’t follow the curve of the top perfectly. This isn’t at all a fault, but I suspect it’s an indication of the holes being cut and then the top steam pressed, with the physics of the wood pulling it slightly differently there as it cools. I think it looks good, and I think it will look still better in 25 years when the tone of the honey coloured sections of the wood has darkened up a bit.

Sounds and Playability

Whilst the guitar is very small and handy, it’s not light. It won’t break your shoulder like a 70’s Strat, but I was slightly surprised by the initial heft; my other main acoustics at the time are lightly built and resonant, and I think the contrast was a surprise. The combination of the long scale, the chunky neck and the way that floating bridges raise the strings much higher from the body than on a flat top  conspire to make this feel less like a diminutive parlour guitar, and more like a weapon of war. That’ sense is backed up when you strum it; it’s punchy, insistent, short sustaining and defiantly midrange focussed. Played lightly, you can coax real sweetness from the guitar, but you’re not going to want this for delicate fingerstyle; it just doesn’t have the depth and complexity of tone. What it does really well is punch through the acoustic mix and make itself heard and unavoidable. Play it against a good flat top, like Rawlings does, and you’re going to hear it sing out, not muddying the tonal picture but cutting its own space. If you drive it really hard, it can become a little metallic, particularly at the top end, but the spruce should mellow with age and playing. Rawlings says his guitar is notable for it’s equal volume across the whole fingerboard, and that’s reflected here, but expect to notice slight boxiness at the bottom end, where the lack of sustain is most notable. Playing bluegrass riffs, the guitar cuts through beautifully, really projecting, and what can sound like a one dimensional tone solo comes into its own. Occasionally, Gillian Welch will strum a few chords on Rawlings’ guitar between songs as a demonstration, and it sounds at best ordinary, a bit flat and lacking, but in Rawlings’ own hands, played against Welch’s guitar, it comes to life.

Natural comparisons amongst my own guitars are the Loar LH700 and my Gretsch 9511 Parlour, and the Epiphone occupies a particular niche amongst them. The Loar does more or less the same thing, better, with a more resonant, three dimensional tone, but it costs about double, even without a pickup system, so we ought not to be surprised. The Gretsch is a much sweeter toned instrument; the Epiphone can do pretty, but the Gretsch will always do it better, but the Gretsch absolutely doea not have the mid range punch or cut; played against another flat top, it simply doesn’t sit in the pocket in the same way. Out in the wider marketplace, there’s little competition; Godin’s 5th Avenue is a laminate topped instrument for the same sort of money, whereas Gretsch’s G9550 solid top 16” New Yorker archtop has been discontinued, and is now only available with a floating magnetic pickup. The Loar do offer some direct competition, the LH 300 is a solid top, laminate back and sides instrument in the same price range.

Plugging the guitar in is a mixed picture; the combination of the natural midrange punch of the guitar and the natural quack transient of undersaddle piezo makes for a tone which is a bit abrasive. You absolutely can EQ it for a decent approximation of the unplugged tone, but my experience on stage is that most soundpersons aren’t listening that closely, and I have ended up with quite an unpleasantly cutting tone. I found that none of my piezos were giving me what I needed and decided to switch to microphones (not wanting to fit pickups in some of my currently acoustic only instruments was a big part of that too), but it’s good to have the piezo as backup. I would say it’s absolutely usable, but just not as nice as I would like it to be. If I were to be stuck using the piezo on stage, I might choose to use an acoustic amp and close mic that, rather than go into the desk and trust the sound person.

Conclusion

You can almost call these guitars peerless, by which I mean not that they are untouchable, but there’s basically no competition. You could try the Godin or go hunting for a Gretsch still in the wild, but ultimately, if you want a solid top archtop at a lowish price, it’s either an Epiphone Century of one size or another, or a Loar. The Loar scores by having a hand carved top, but good luck finding one you can try, and of course it doesn’t come with a pickup. For me, there was no question that I wanted an Olympic; it’s Dave Rawlings’ guitar, and that’s how I want to play. I didn’t expect a perfect replica of a guitar that’s been played in for nearly 100 years and beautifully set up, but it got me plenty close enough. I’m not sorry I bought it, and I would recommend one to anyone, particularly since they are now out there for as little as £400. If you want that punchy tone, backed by a reliable warranty, with the added bonus of onboard amplification, this really is your only choice. Go try one today, you won’t be sorry.

Price:

£440

Pros:

Stands out in a crowd of flattops, punchy and different sounding, power bridge a bonus

Cons:

Tone is a little brittle, lacks adornments

Overall:

A good entry level archtop, well worth the price.

 

Scores

Looks – 7/10

Build Quality – 8/10

Sound Quality – 7/10

Value for Money – 8/10

Overall score – 7.5/10

Buy the Epiphone Century Masterbilt Olympic at Thomann

Loar LH-700 Review

   Part of the same family of brands as Recording King, and named for famous archtop designer Lloyd Loar, The Loar guitars are built in the far east, heavily influenced by depression era designs. I’ve tried a couple of Recording King guitars in the past, and been very impressed, so when I came across The Loar, my long held desire to haveave a a real, handcarved acoustic archtop was awakened. The difficulty was, finding one. They have a range of acoustic only instruments, the LH-300 has a solid handcarved top with laminate back and sides, the LH-600 is all solid, and the LH-700 is the top of the range, with all solid top grade tonewoods. I could find a couple of stores which had the 300 and 600, at widely varying prices, but nowhere that had the 700, and nowhere I could try either of the other two. There was also a dearth of in depth reviews, textual or video, to help me get a feel for the instrument. When I found a used model in good condition offered on eBay, it was a bit of a gamble; I won’t tell you the price, but it was plenty of moolah for an unknown quantity, even from a factory whose
 goods I know and respect.

It’s with that in mind that I decided to make this the first review on StringTheory, and I hope those considering one of these fine instruments will find it helpful.

Visuals

 

 

 

 

 

To my eye, this is a stunning guitar; it’s not loaded with bling, and it hasn’t cured me of wanting a D’Angelico, but it really captures the depression era Gibson L5 vibe nicely. The L5 changed gradually over the years, both in terms of size, later gaining pickups, and with a variety of inlays, but this looks very close to the late 20’s model, as played by Mother Maybelle Carter. The top is solid spruce, apparently hand carved in the far east, which made me wonder how many top carving machines there are in the world? I know that the current Epiphone archtops have pressed tops, and that the Gibson Custom Shop still has the old carving machines from the Kalamazoo facility that’s now owned by Heritage Guitars. Whatever the case, the top here is finely grained, with some subtle cross-silking, but not too much is visible, due to the very dark and pervasive sunburst, leaving only the area around the bridge visible. Gretsch call this kind of finish “Appalachian Cloudburst”, which I love, and it really adds to the feel of the instrument. The holes aren’t bound, and the ding near the upper bout F hole was courtesy of the previous owner, rather than coming as standard with the instrument. Top and back have simple ivory coloured binding, which contrast nicely with the way the sunburst continues onto the sides. Back and sides are solid maple, with beautifully bookmatched flaming on the back, which has been left much more visible than the top. The whole body is finished in high gloss nitrocellulose, and whilst you can argue whether that finish has the magical sonic properties that some claim, it’s certainly period appropriate.


Whilst not ornate, the thumbwheel adjustable bridge is all ebony, including the compensated saddle. The neck is of hard rock maple, with a centre stripe, and cut in a vintage appropriate hard V profile which some thumb-behind players struggle with, but I particularly love. The 19 fret fingerboard is ebony, bound once again in ivory, with simple mother of pearl dot inlays reinforcing the depression era feel, and topping out with a bone nut. The headstock is faced in ebony, bound, and carries a The Loar logo and a fancy “flowerpot” inlay very much like that on Mother Maybelle’s own L5. Tuners are Grover Sta-tite open gear nickel tuners with “butterbean” buttons. These look vintage, but are an 18:1 ratio, making it easy to get your tuning right where you want it.

The quality seems excellent; the woods live up to the claim of AAA quality, and the appointments, while simple, are well executed; there are no clumsy cuts or bodged sections to give away the instrument’s relatively humble price (for a hand carved archtop). The only criticism I could make is that the finish around the join between neck and body is a little brushmarked, but you have to be looking closely, and when you bear in mind that you can get this guitar new for under £900, it’s hard to be too upset.

Sounds

Picking it up, this guitar is big but not huge; the 16 inch lower bout isn’t up there with the biggest archtops of the golden age, or indeed with super jumbo flat tops, and the body is relatively slim compared to most dreadnoughts, more like a typical OM thickness maybe. The V profile of the neck is much more pronounced than on most electric guitars which lay claim to use it, which you will either love or hate; thumb around players with big hands like myself are likely to find it very accommodating indeed. Overall, it’s an easy guitar to get to grips with, comfortable and friendly.

Full disclosure here; many of you may see this guitar and think “jazz box”, but that’s not at all what I bought it for, I’m no jazz player, and this guitar does duty playing lead in a country folk band. In reality, in the 20’s archtops had found little traction in the jazz world, where banjos still led the way fretted instrument wise, and as mentioned previously, Maybelle Carter was a more visible user than any jazz great at that time. I came to this by way of David Rawlings, having picked up an Epiphone Century Masterbilt Olympic reissue, which I loved, to play his style. I was expecting this guitar to have a considerably deeper voice, and that I would use it alongside the Epiphone in much the same way Rawlings uses his 50’s D’Angelico, but in fact, it has supplanted the Olympic as my main lead guitar.

Giving this a strum, it sounds bright, punchy, resonant and somehow, hollow. The note separation stands out; even strummed, there’s little blurring of the notes in each chord (not to say that that’s a bad thing; it’s absolutely what you want in many situations, but perhaps not from an archtop). Spruce and maple is a bright combination of woods no matter what the guitar, and then the combination of the arch of the top, the pressure of the bridge (which is pushing down on the top, rather than pulling up as in a flat top guitar) and the parallel ladder bracing mean that archtops have powerful mid projection. Here, the brightness of the treble is pretty direct, with relatively few harmonic overtones, and noticeably shorter sustain than you might expect from an all solid flat top. As you work through the midtones, the punch and projection are noticeable, particularly if you dig in a little with the pick, and the bass is powerful but not deep. Compared to my little Epiphone Olympic, the bass is definitely more pronounced, but again, it has that hollowness to it, not at all like the boom of a dreadnought. Picked lightly, the Loar is lyrical and pretty; push harder, and it edges towards brash and aggressive. Strummed hard, it’s almost offensively loud, particularly with the action jacked up a little at the bridge (I tried this, and the difference in volume is higher than you might imagine); you can tell that it was designed to make itself heard in a world of horns and pianos but no amplification. Played alongside a flat top in my band, it cuts through beautifully, and when played hard for bluegrass flavoured stuff, it retains its robustness even on the high strings, where many guitars start to sound thin. Comping jazz chords, at least as well as I can, provides the expected chunk and projection too.

Conclusion

This isn’t a guitar for all seasons, but it’s probably for more seasons than you’ve been thinking. If you want to be heard, even now in the age of amplification, this will give you a tonal signature which will cut through the flat tops playing rhythm, and get your lead playing front and centre. Fingerstylists may find the short decay and lack of overtones less to their taste, but when you want to punch and punch hard, accept no substitutes. The fact that The Loar can make a hand carved archtop of this quality for less than £900 is incredibly impressive; there’s nothing I’ve found in the same price range that gets close.

Pros:

Great depression era looks, fantastic built quality, powerful tone.

Cons:

The tone is perfect for what it is, but not an all-rounder.

Overall:

Certainly the best value for money archtop on the market.

Scores

Looks – 8.5/10

Build Quality – 7.5/10

Sound Quality – 9/10

Value for Money – 10/10

Overall score – 8.75/10

Buy the Loar LH-700 at Thomann