These days you might think Epiphone was just the offshore little brother of the classic American builder Gibson guitars. While the two have been part of the same family of companies for decades now, the reality is, however, they started as rival houses.
The story of Epiphone starts back in 1873. Yep, you read that right. To put things in perspective, that is a full century before Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Before Epiphone was a big brand, it started with one gent, Anastasio Stathopoulo, who learned a thing or two about tone woods from watching his father working as a lumber merchant in the Greek town of Smyrna. In his early days, Anastasio dabbled in instrument repair before establishing his own reputation as a builder of stringed instruments in a small local factory.
By 1904, Anastasio and his family took to sea and landed stateside in Manhattan. Of the five children that made the trip, the oldest son, Epaminondas (“Epi” for short) took the helm of the family business when Anastasio passed away. At twenty-two years old, Epi continued to build the business in fresh directions under the new title“The House of Stathopoulo, Quality Instruments Since 1873.”
To adapt to the market, Epi retired old interests in mandolins and developed a new line of banjos geared for recording. With the success of the growing line of twangy, Long Island built banjos, the business took on a new short-and-sweet name: Epiphone.
Epiphone’s first run at guitars was less successful than you’d think. While the company had established turf in the banjo world, the acoustic archtop and flattops they launched not only had to make their own mark but they had to contend with others in the market, not least Gibson. In 1931, Epi took the gloves off. The new Masterbuilt line hit the market and had a sound, feel, and design that couldn’t help but remind one of the Gibson L-5. Early models of this era include the DeLuxe, Triumph, and Broadway.
As the world was preparing for war, in 1939 the two companies were at a peak of a battle of innovation, design, and marketing. However, during the years of WWII, Epiphone first struggled with the economic hit and then the suffered the loss of their own Epi, who lost a battle with leukemia in 1945. The company struggled to recover from this personal loss and to adapt to the realities of post-war business.
As it turned out, Ted McCarty, the big boss at Gibson, made an offer to purchase Epiphone for $20,000. In 1957, Epiphone ceased to exist as an independent company and was now part of the growing business of Gibson. This new chapter of the company meant that Gibson could relaunch some of the earlier Epiphone models as well as extend the line to include more budget-friendly fresh designs, such as the now classic Epiphone Sheraton.
The story of Epiphone, however, would continue with many difficulties over the decades. By the 1990s things took a major turn in the right direction when Epiphone established its main operations out of Seoul, Korea. This enabled a re-introduction of sorts for the brand as well as a way of harnessing the company’s classic heritage while pressing ahead in leadership of offshore innovation.
These days, Epiphone is known for a range of products gear towards first-time player through player-grade guitars. Quality, convenience, and creativity. These were all part of what made Epiphone stand out in its early days and remain what keep them out in front.