Estimated reading time: approximately 17 minutes
Epiphone, the once-proud House of Stathopoulo, is mostly known for producing affordable guitars – which is by no means a bad thing, in and of itself – with a significant part of its range being cut-price versions of the more desirable, but far more expensive, Gibson models. This leads many people to believe Epiphone is to Gibson what Squier is to Fender, although this does little justice to Epiphone and its history. Another well-known fact is that Epiphone’s versions of the Gibson originals don’t use the Gibson headstock. Also, it’s been quite a few years now that Epiphone Les Pauls and SGs feature veneers on their tops and backs to give the impression of a costlier guitar whose body back or its body, respectively, is made from a single slab of mahogany.
Setting the record straight
First things first: Epiphone is not Gibson’s Squier. In 1965, Fender had acquired V.C. Squier, a company that was making guitar, violin, and banjo strings and had no guitar-making history at all. On the other hand, when Epiphone was acquired by Gibson, it was a well-respected manufacturer in its own right, with a number of excellent, original and – yes – iconic designs that were preferred by many successful musicians, and it was a very strong competitor to Gibson itself. Even after it was acquired by Gibson, legends like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and John Lee Hooker opted to use its instruments, and these guys were anything but poor. So, at least historically, Epiphone is a lot more than just a maker of cheap, officially-sanctioned Gibson copies for those who can’t afford the real thing.
The headstock debacle
Although Epiphone has a strong legacy of its own, one fact doesn’t change: one of its roles – in fact, its primary role for quite a bit of the ’80s and ’90s – is the manufacture of affordable versions of Gibson designs. And this is where the issues start. I’ll begin with the headstock. I believe that Fender did the right thing with Squier: they let Squier use the Fender headstocks, while going after other makers who used it. What did they achieve by doing so? They established in the public’s mind that their official Strat, Tele etc. cut-price models are the real thing – if you want that headstock and you can’t cough up the money for a US model, or even for a Mexican model, Squier’s there for you. It doesn’t matter if the body is plywood or solid wood, it doesn’t matter if the fretboard is Indian laurel instead of rosewood, or pau ferro; it’s got that headstock, therefore it’s the real deal.
What did Gibson’s MBA-addled management do? They simply barred Epiphone from using the original “open book” headstock, thus disconnecting its Gibson-derived products visually from the Gibson originals. Instead, Epiphone had to make do with the much-maligned “clipped ear” headstock, save for some limited editions for the Japanese and Chinese markets.
This was a colossal blunder, and it lasted for a very long time. I’ll be a tad mean here: it’s the kind of blunder that takes a very special kind of MBA graduate to commit and perpetuate: a Harvard MBA graduate. Not only were Samick-era Epiphone Les Pauls, SGs, and whatnot viewed (rightly or not) as inferior to the Gibsons they were supposed to emulate at a lower price point, to many people they didn’t look right, and this was because of the headstock. This practice left an awful lot of room to Japanese makers of high-quality upmarket copies (Tokai, Burny, Greco) and, more recently, all sorts of Chinese cowboys that have flooded the market with their crudely-made wastes of perfectly fine wood that are known as “Chibsons”. The “wisdom” of this headstock choice is such that, when one searches for “Epiphone headstock” on most internet search engines, a very closely-related and popular result that is recommended to the user is the conversion of said headstock to the Gibson shape.
Which headstock and when?
It makes perfect sense for a guitar whose design comes from Epiphone’s own porftolio to bear an Epiphone headstock. A Riviera, a Casino, a Zephyr, a Sheraton, an Emperor – all these guitars need an Epiphone headstock. It’s part of these models’ history. It’s part of Epiphone’s history. It ties them to that history. It shows Epiphone is proud of them. It allows the player to say “yes, I chose it because of what it represents, not because I couldn’t afford a Gibson”. In that sense, it builds customer confidence and loyalty. It boosts Epiphone’s brand image, especially with the occasional USA-built models. I must say here I don’t really have an aesthetic or functional problem with any of Epiphone’s headstocks. Yes, the “clipped-ear” headstock is fussier and thinner than Gibson’s, but it can look great on an ornate jazz box, especially with binding and the “vine” inlay – you can easily compare it to that a D’Angelico. The other ones also work quite well within each particular model’s design parameters and historical context.
But the Gibson-derived models (the ES series, the Les Pauls, the SGs etc.) need the relevant Gibson headstock. Why? Because, let’s face it, if you’re buying any one of these guitars, you’re buying it because you want that shape, that pickup configuration, that sound (or a reasonably close facsimile of it), that model name on the headstock, that image. You don’t want to opt for a similarly-priced, specified, and shaped guitar from another brand. You want to close your eyes and pretend you’re John Sykes, Gary Moore, Joe Bonamassa, Peter Green, Mick Box, Billy Gibbons, BB King, whatever. But you don’t have the money for the real McCoy, yet you want to stay in the same family of brands. How does Gibson reward you for your loyalty to its iconic models and your desire to… “play authentic” (whatever that means)? By giving you some other brand’s headstock to ogle at when you open your eyes again and look in the mirror, of course! What could be better than that?
One could say «yeah, OK, but Epiphone is a subsidiary of Gibson, so why would you have a problem with the headstock?» It’s a matter of marketing and semiotics. If you’re going to have a subsidiary of yours make officially-sanctioned, more affordable versions of your highly desirable and expensive models, you have to go all the way to make the family ties painfully obvious. Even if the more affordable brand’s logo is featured on the headstock, the more affordable guitars must follow your original designs as closely as a CNC machine allows you to. Fender did it with Squier, and it worked a treat. ESP did it with LTD. Music Man did it with its more affordable, Sterling-branded, offerings. Paul Reed Smith uses the same headstock on both its US-made instruments and its SE range; in fact, in recent years they’ve even added Paul Reed Smith’s elegant signature on the headstocks of their quite excellent SE guitars and made the «SE» decal more discreet and less prominent.
So, why can’t Gibson follow suit? It’s not like they have any real excuse: Epiphone’s Flying V, Thunderbird, and Explorer versions feature the headstocks of the Gibson originals. Hell, Orvilles and Maestros (brands that really didn’t have much of a reason to exist in the first place) featured the original headstock. And the main maker of affordable Gibson designs, the one that’s been there from day one, isn’t allowed to use it? It doesn’t make sense.
Gibson/Epiphone’s solution to the headstock problem
From the above, it should be easy to understand that those people who buy the affordable versions of Gibson’s most famous guitars prefer the original Gibson headstock on them, and this is why many people seek to convert Epiphone’s headstocks to the Gibson shape. Indeed, a quick look at the relevant forums confirms this. We already know Gibson allowed Epiphone to use Gibson headstocks. Gibson also allowed its other short-lived derivative brands to use the “open book” headstock. It would make sense that, after its recent bankruptcy and recovery and the infamous “play authentic” PR fiasco, Gibson would consider making the family ties more obvious, especially given the emphasis it places on «authenticity».
Back in September 2019, Gibson CMO Cesar Gueikian posted a photo that included a bunch of vintage parts and templates on Instagram; three of them were templates of Epiphone’s “Kalamazoo” headstock, which looks like a variant of the much-coveted headstock Gibson use on the Les Paul, SG, the ES series, and on their acoustic guitars. A user nicknamed “cwwoodhead” commented that Gibson should bring this headstock back to the entire Epiphone range, and Mr Gueikian responded “it’s coming”.
Of course, many people had seen a change coming. In recent years, we saw the “clipped ear” headstock being replaced on certain Les Paul variants, but with the more recent iteration of the Casino and Riviera headstock. The “Kalamazoo” headstock is also featured on a variant of the ES-125TDC endorsed by George Thorogood. Eventually, on 11 January 2020, it was reported that Epiphone unveiled its updated lineup at NAMM 2020. It has divided its range into two main collections: “Inspired by Gibson” and “Epiphone Originals”. The “Inspired by Gibson” guitars are getting the “Kalamazoo” headstock, which is larger than the “clipped ear” one and arguably looks much closer to Gibson’s, but still isn’t the one.
The way I see it, putting Epiphone’s other headstocks on the Les Pauls, ES series, SGs, as we’ve recently seen on the Joe Bonamassa “Norm Burst” (which was a preview of this change), the Tommy Thayer signature model, or Vivian Campbell’s “Holy Diver” doesn’t help strengthen Gibson’s marketing case: it doesn’t tell other makers that Epiphones are the only official and authentic affordable versions of Gibson’s models. It doesn’t tell the buying public that Epiphones are «the real deal», but at a more reasonable price point. Instead, it tells the buying public that Epiphones are copies of Gibson’s original guitars – if people didn’t know Epiphone is owned by Gibson, they’d view them in the same light as the pre-lawsuit Antorias, Hondos, and Hohners of old. So, what it really does is make one feel that the Epiphone “Inspired by Gibson” collection is a collection of licensed, off-brand, third-party lookalikes, rather than the official affordable versions of the original Gibson designs.
What do I think of this all? For starters, the decision to split Epiphone’s new range of guitars into two main collections, «Inspired by Gibson» and «Epiphone Originals», makes perfect sense. It recognizes Epiphone’s dual role, and allows the company to build on its own unique legacy while providing Gibson designs at a more accessible price point. As for the “Kalamazoo” headstock, it will please (aesthetically) more people than the “clipped ear” affair ever could. It’s a lot closer to Gibson’s and the half-drunk, half-stoned audience at your next gig can easily confuse it with the larger version Gibsons sported in the ’70s. But it belongs on an Epiphone Original, not on a Gibson design. Gibson’s management still failed to understand this simple fact. It also failed to understand another simple fact: that if it’s a Gibson design, its official cut-price version must absolutely have the Gibson “open book” headstock and that there’s simply nothing more official than that. Am I the only one who sees things this way? Definitely not. But I haven’t bought an MBA, so what do I know?
If there’s one tonewood that’s inextricably connected with Gibson, it’s mahogany: it looks fantastic, its sounds gorgeous on acoustics, it’s durable, and it’s easy to work with. But both of the genuine mahoganies (Cuban mahogany – Swietenia mahogani – and Honduras mahogany – Swietenia macrophylla) have been overharvested to death, with the recent Amazon wildfires doing little to ensure long-term availability of large, old-growth, high-quality logs from the countries these species are native to. As a matter of fact, Cuban mahogany has been unavailable for many decades now. Nowadays, it’s no secret that, when guitar and furniture manufacturers tell you a product is made of mahogany, it may very well be made of some other wood that more or less looks like mahogany, but the «trade» agrees to pretend it’s «close enough». In most cases, it’s just the cheapest possible piece of whatever with a veneer on top of it.
Given that your typical Epiphone Les Paul or SG sells for anything between $220 and $600, depending mostly on the configuration of its electronics and hardware, you can rest assured your guitar is highly unlikely to be made of Honduras mahogany, even if it comes from plantations. At best, it’s made from African mahogany (any of the Khaya species), which is the next best thing in terms of appearance, workability, and tone, but not as durable as the real thing. Still, it’s a great wood that any guitar manufacturer takes pride in using; in fact, Warmoth and many others use it and are open about it. Another valid – and quite affordable (guitar manufacturers are extremely cautious when it comes to the cost of their raw materials) – option is sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum), whose grain can look strikingly similar to a good piece of genuine mahogany, although its workability is somewhat inferior. Meranti (several representatives of the Shorea species, also known as lauan or Philippine mahogany) is also a valid alternative. Then, there’s okoume (Aucoumea klaineana), which is currently used by Ibanez, and I know that Epiphone openly say they use it on the bodies and necks of their cheaper guitars. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of it, but I suppose it’s a decent material for cheap guitars.
Sadly, when Epiphone talks about its mid-priced guitars that are derived from mahogany-bodied Gibson designs, it’s not particularly open about what wood it actually uses. I’ve seen luthiers say they’ve worked on Epiphones that were actually made from meranti – this is no bad thing. Meranti is good. Seriously good. The same goes for sapele. But it’s frustrating that Epiphone doesn’t come out to say “look, Honduras mahogany is expensive and extremely tightly-regulated due to its overharvesting, so we’re using this wood or the other instead, which sounds every bit as good and gives great visual and mechanical results, at a lower price”. I’m pretty sure no one would feel cheated or frustrated – people want the look, the feel, and the sound. You can get the look and feel from African mahogany, meranti, or sapele. As for the sound, don’t worry that much: in electric guitars, the species of the wood doesn’t matter as much as it does in acoustics. And if high-end, low-volume makers of custom, handmade acoustic guitars openly say they use meranti or sapele instead of mahogany in instruments costing well north of $5,000, then you shouldn’t hold it against Epiphone if it uses these woods in its own guitars.
Although it’s not particularly open about the species of “mahogany” it uses, Epiphone is very open about its use of veneer on the tops and backs of its electric guitar bodies. Why it uses these veneers is quite obvious. On the lower-priced, poplar-bodied Les Pauls and SGs, it gives the appearance of a mahogany body; an one-piece body, at that. I guess it looks pretty good. The same goes for the tops of its “mahogany”-bodied SGs. On the tops of its “Plustop” Les Pauls, it uses flame maple veneers to give the coveted appearance of a nicely-figured flame or quilt maple top, with (hopefully) a plain maple cap lying underneath. This veneer is one I welcome. I know it doesn’t do anything to the tone of the guitar, but it looks nice, and it’s convincing. On the backs of these guitars, it gives the appearance of a single-piece mahogany body, much like an expensive Gibson. The veneers I have a problem with are the «mahogany» veneers on the tops and backs of the SGs and on the backs of the Les Pauls.
The problem is that, when you look at the lower or upper bout of the guitar, you can easily see its body is not an one-piece affair; instead, it’s made from three, four, maybe even five slabs of wood glued one next to the other. There’s really nothing wrong with this practice: a log that has flawless, defect-free areas big enough to produce bookmatched two-piece or one-piece ones will cost a lot more than a log that has more defects. Obviously, guitar manufacturers seeking to build to a price, choose the latter. Then, they cut smaller, defect-free pieces of wood out of the not-so-perfect log and glue them together side by side. Some manufacturers will even seek to match the grain between the pieces, making the resulting body look almost like it’s one-piece. My own 1992 Fender American Standard Strat, which I purchased new in October 1994, came with a three-piece poplar body, and it listed for some $890 when I bought it. Its price slowly crept upwards over the years and its replacement in Fender’s current range, the American Professional, which has a three-piece alder body lists for $1,749 or thereabouts.
So, why does Epiphone bother sticking a veneer on the back of its Les Pauls to make them look like they’ve got one-piece bodies? It’s impossible for them to have one-piece bodies at this price point, and it’s absolutely impossible to simulate the look of an one-piece body by using a veneer on the sides of the body. Fender unabashedly uses three-piece bodies even on guitars costing three or four times as much. Gibson themselves use two-piece bodies on their SGs, and three-piece bodies on the Flying Vs. If I were Epiphone, I’d simply do away with the pointless veneers on the “mahogany”-bodied SGs and Les Pauls guitars and spend that money on matching the grain between the body slabs and on procuring higher-quality hardware and electronics instead.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Epiphones. They’re well-made, nice-sounding guitars that don’t cost an arm and a leg, they can serve you well for a long time, and you can use them without much fear as a basis for customization. But Gibson needs to make the connection between the two brands more obvious by allowing Epiphone to use Gibson headstocks on all the guitars of the «Inspired by Gibson» collection. And yes, I’d rather have an SG or a Les Paul with a two-, three-, or even five-piece meranti or sapele body any day over one with an okoume or poplar body with «mahogany» veneers.