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

Acoustic Collection Stadium and Concert Double Header Review

Our first double header here at StringTheory, and some full disclosure required. The Acoustic Collection Stadium I reviewed a couple of years ago for Acoustic, and loved it so much I bought it. This is my Stadium you see in the pictures, and on founding StringTheory one of the first things I did was to approach The Acoustic Centre about what else they might want me to review. They only carry interesting guitars, and I was delighted to be offered another one of the Acoustic Collection guitars to review, because genuinely, these are one of the biggest bargains to come out of the boom in Asian manufacturing. An all solid guitar, with a Fishman Ink4 pickup and head unit system and a beautiful hard case for £600? Can’t be a good guitar really, can it? Well, if that’s what you’re thinking, you’re mistaken. Read on.

  

You may know the name The Acoustic Centre; once upon a time they had a big central London store full of Martins and Taylors, but London property prices and the rise of the internet made that business less profitable, so now they are an online business with a despatch centre. Nil desperandum though, visitors are still welcome at The Acoustic Centre, and you can play any guitar you might be considering buying. They are the UK distributor for the Veillette Avante series, and Babicz guitars, and then the Acoustic Collection is their own line. I don’t know who designed and specced these guitars, or who is building them, but I can tell you that they are amongst the very best Far East sourced guitars, and better than a great many American and European made guitars which you can buy for much higher prices. Let my personal ownership of one stand as testament to that. Here we have the Stadium, a more or less jumbo sized instrument, and the Concert, a similarly sized but differently proportioned instrument.

Visuals

The designers of the Acoustic Collection had a clear eye on doing something different, using some very old guitar design elements indeed. The obvious cues which make these guitars stand out are the smiley face lyre style bridges, and the heart shaped soundholes, and for sure, these give them an aesthetic which you will other love or hate. I love it. The two have more elements in common than differences, so I’ll take you through the two together. The Stadium has a cedar top and mahogany back and sides, whereas the Concert is all mahogany, handsomely striped. The Stadium’s top looks to be really good quality; cedar has a wider grain than spruce, but this is tight and even. Both guitars are bound in mahogany with black and white striped purfling, and there’s a centre stripe on the back in a sort of art deco take on herringbone. The lyre guitar bridges are of ebony, and whilst the material of the fully compensated saddles isn’t specified, it looks like micarta or tusq. Whether rosette is the right term for what surrounds a heart shaped soundhole, we’re not sure, but it’s mahogany again, dotted with other woods. The mahogany necks have a diamond shaped volute where they meet the headstock, which looks great and strengthens the neck joint, but looks as though it might impede your hand. Fear not, you don’t feel it at all when playing! The 21 fret fingerboards are ebony too, with simple MOP dots supplemented with diamonds at the 5th and 12th frets, and at the top is a nut which again feels like a particularly hard composite, though what, we do not know. The shapely headstocks are faced in rosewood, and carry a diamond shaped die cast plate bearing the initials AC. This is maybe my least favourite feature; it feels as though it’s missing a DC! Tuners are generic closed back items, and after a couple of years of use, I can confirm that mine work perfectly well and pose no problems.

 

The Fishman Ink4 head unit is as low profile as you can ask for from a full featured preamp; it has a tuner, three band EQ, volume and brilliance control, all mounted in a low profile unit which looks like a solid black panel until you turn it on, and is very understated. The battery compartment and output jack are at the endpin, put the jack is separate from the strap button, which is very practical but may confuse you if you’re used to the jack being the strap button. Once or twice I’ve found myself on stage groping for a jack socket which isn’t where I thought it was, though in practise you’ll get used to it. The differences are significant, few though they are; we’ve touched already on the topwood, which makes a big tonal difference; more on that in the next section. Another obvious difference is that the Stadium has a sharp Florentine cutaway, allowing easier access up to the 19th fret, so if you’re a fan of the dusty end, this might sway you. The other is overall body size; the depth is identical, but the Concert is significantly longer behind the bridge. This keeps the overall area of the top similar, as the Stadium has a wider body at all points; the Concert has a notably bigger difference between the already narrower lower bout, and the much narrower top bout. This gives the Concert a slightly bottom heavy appearance, but has a significant effect on the handling.

Do these guitars look good? I certainly think so, but the plethora of “me too” Martin and Gibson copies out there tell me that acoustic guitarists can be a conservative bunch. What I can tell you is that when I play live with my Stadium, people remember it visually in a way that they simply will not remember your Taylor.

Sounds and playability

I remember the first time I picked up my Stadium, how surprised I was by the light weight. This is a big guitar with a preamp and pickup, and far eastern guitars have a reputation for being a bit overbuilt, yet it feels light and wieldy, and the Concert feels similarly featherweight. In terms of accessibility, there is a significant difference however; I am a large man with the arms of an organgutan, and the Stadium fits me fine, but the slimmer waist of the Concert definitely makes it an easier reach for smaller people, and if you play sitting down, the smaller upper bout makes it still better, whilst the callipygian lower bout and still-deep body make sure you don’t go short of bass. The slim neck profiles will suit most players, although the gloss finish of the necks isn’t to all tastes it’s not out of line with many other guitars. Setup is good and playable straight out of the box, but the action could come down a little; I know that Acoustic Centre had their tech set these guitars up, but setup is very much to the player’s taste, so with any guitar it’s worth spending a little to get it playing just the way you like.

A strum on the cedar topped Stadium reveals just what you would hope for; a big, warm, full tone, that fills the room. The treble is deliciously rich; play a chord fragment up the neck with a couple of strings ringing, and you can listen to the overtones in the decay all day. It’s not as bright as a guitar like the spruce topped Gretsch parlour we reviewed last week, but so much warmer, which is echoed in the midrange. There’s lots of bass on tap here too; if you push this guitar hard, it’ll certainly fill a room, and in fact, comparing it with most of my other guitars, I have to be a little more careful and controlled in my strumming in order to avoid letting things get out of control. The fatness of the bass means that if you really wail on this guitar, the tone can start to muddy, but that’s really only if you’re hitting it very hard. Put down the plectrum and play fingerstyle, and you have a gorgeous, lyrical guitar, super responsive and beautiful to listen to.

The Concert sounds very different; the mahogany top and different body shape having a large effect. The sound is considerably more focussed, particularly in the bass, so you can drive this guitar hard with more confidence. Listening to the strings one by one, the tone is much drier, with less harmonic overtone overlaying the fundamental note. This is again especially noticeable down at the bass end, where the volume is probably a little lower, but also the more focussed tone makes for a compact tonal footprint. The treble isn’t any brighter than the cedar topped guitar, but it’s bright enough, and that fairly dry, direct tone continues through the midrange. You can strum this guitar, with fingers or plectrum, to your heart’s content, knowing you’ll get a good, controllable tone, but played fingerstyle it’s a little flat. This is not necessarily something you would notice if you played it alone, but compared to the cedar guitar, it’s a clear difference. When I purchased my Stadium, I was playing mostly on my own, and once I started Honey and Bee, playing two acoustic guitars together really made me start to consider how the tones matched and complimented each other. My playing partner has a mahogany topped parlour guitar, and there while the Stadium sounded great for rhythm, it was somehow a bit unsatisfying playing lead lines over her guitar. I tried a couple of other guitars in that role before settling on an archtop, and now the Stadium is mostly kept for songs where only I am playing. We tried the Concert in place of her little parlour, and found that the extra bass filled things out beautifully, while the fact that it remained a pretty focussed tone meant that it didn’t get all over my lead playing. For comparison, if she plays her Gretsch G9511 and I use my Epiphone Olympic, the resulting combination is not pleasing at all.

The point of this really is that listening to a guitar on its own isn’t the full story. Do that with these, and you’ll be left with the sense that the Stadium is the better guitar, with its rich, pleasing tone, and indeed, that might continue to be the case if you’re in a band with a bass and an electric lead guitar. With another acoustic, you need to test the blend of the two instruments, and you might find that the Concert, with it’s slightly drier, more unassuming tone, will work better for what you need.

Both guitars are equipped with a good Fishman system; I’ve stopped plugging mine in, but when I did, it gave me a good enough approximation of the acoustic tone for most situations, with plenty of tone shaping possibilities, and the built in tuner is of course a godsend.

Conclusion

These guitars are superb value for money; it’s hard to find another all solid guitar with a hard case and pickup for £600 full stop, finding one as good is all but impossible. The looks will divide people, but I say be brave; they both have stunning visual appeal and will stand out from the crowd. The real reason to buy them, however, is the tone; these are wonderful, resonant, vibrant guitars at an incredible price, an opportunity which doesn’t come along every day. Find a chance, play one, and see if I’m wrong.

Stadium

Price:

£600 including hard case

Pros:

Standout looks, rich, warm, complex tone

Cons:

If you drive it really hard, things can get muddy.

Overall:

Fantastic value for money.

Scores

Looks – 9/10

Build Quality – 8/10

Sound Quality – 9/10

Value for Money – 10/10

Overall score – 9/10

Concert

Price:

£600 including hard case

Pros:

Good looks, punchy direct tone

Cons:

Played solo, tone a little dry

Overall:

A great band instrument

Scores

Looks – 8.5/10

Build Quality – 8/10

Sound Quality – 8.5/10

Value for Money – 10/10

Overall score – 8.75/10

Buy the Acoustic Collection guitars online