Anastasios Stathopoulo, the Greek founder of the company that would become Epiphone, arrived in New York in 1903 from Turkey. In the beginning, the company produced traditional stringed instruments. After Anastasios died in 1915, Stathopoulo’s son Epimanondas moved his father’s company into the production of banjos. The shift came just in time to catch the American banjo craze of the 1920s, and by 1928, the company had changed its name to the Epiphone Banjo Company (“Epi” being Epimanondas’s nickname, “phone” being Greek for “sound”).
Even then, banjos were not Epiphone’s sole focus, and a good thing, too. When the bottom fell out of the stock market, banjo demand ebbed, so it helped that Epiphone was ready for the 1930s with a complete line of “Recording” archtop and flat-top acoustic guitars, which were given model names from A through E. The guitars came in spruce and maple, and these old archtops are either played today by blues musicians or treasured by collectors.
They weren't a hit at the time, however, their sound too timid compared to the big, boomy Gibson L-5. Thus began a decades-long rivalry with Gibson, in which Epiphone would try to outdo its tough competitor by copying Gibson’s dimensions, the use of f-holes (some Epiphones would have four), the style of its pegheads, and even its model names (Gibson had its Master Model line; Epiphone had a Masterbilt Series).
Epiphone Masterbilts of the early 1930s included the Broadway (the Regent version has a single cutaway), DeLuxe, Tudor, Triumph, and Zenith. Epimanondas made sure his company’s guitars were just a little bit bigger than Gibson’s, often by no more than 3/8ths of an inch in width. It was a silly feud but the guitars won the respect of some of the best musicians of the day, including Les Paul, who would become better known for the Gibson that bears his name.
Epiphone jumped into the electric market with the Electar archtop Spanish-style guitar in 1935, challenging Rickenbacker, which had pioneered the practice in 1931. Electrified Hawaiian guitars followed in 1939 (Gibson introduced one the same year), and in 1940, Epiphone launched a line of upright basses that are highly regarded by collectors and players today.
World War II put the fight between the instrument makers on hold, and by the end of the war, Epimanondas had succumbed to leukemia. Epi’s surviving siblings squabbled among themselves and the company drifted. Meanwhile, Gibson sharpened its game, looking past Epiphone to the west as it fought a new competitor in the electric arena, Fender. Finally, in 1957, the company that owned Gibson bought the upright-bass division of Epiphone for a fire-sale price.
At first, Gibson’s legendary general manager, Ted McCarty, planned to just build on the good name of the Epiphone basses, but it quickly became clear that using the Epiphone name...
In fact, the Epiphones of this period—from the late 1950s until the middle of the 1960s—were, and are, considered poor-man’s Gibsons, although two factors have made some of the electric guitars quite collectible. One is their relative scarcity. For example, only 66 copies of the double-cutaway version of the Emperor were made, and blond versions of the Sheraton from 1958 are also rare and in demand.
But the other factor that has made some Gibson-built Epiphone guitars collectible was the list of artists who played them. For one model from 1961, the Casino, three out of four of The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison), played the guitar, McCartney most famously for his solos on “Ticket to Ride” and “Taxman.”