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