Whether inspired by core designs of Gibson or hailed their own spinoffs, there’s no denying Epiphone has an established roster of unforgettable instruments. One of the earliest designs now celebrated as a cult-classic on the vintage and rare market is the Epiphone Wilshire. The what? Exactly.
To understand how the Wilshire fits into the Epiphone anthology, you’ve got to know a bit about the company’s history in the 1950s-1960s. While Epiphone began as an overseas family brand, by mid-century their builds were encroaching on the newly minted electric guitar market. Gibson saw both the value and strategy of buying up the business in an attempt to join forces against other industry heavy weights, not least the west-coast designs of Fender. Doubling down on stateside production meant that Gibson had to expand production on their home turf of Kalamazoo, Michigan. So by 1957, Gibson and Epiphone were designing and building tandem brands in America under the same umbrella company.
With Gibson establishing its anchors on some key designs in the late 1950s — of course the Les Paul, but also other such as the 335, Flying V, and Explorer — Epiphone had some room to play. Sure they were part of the family but had a degree of latitude to develop some more offbeat builds. This is where (and when) the Wilshire comes into play.
In 1959, Epiphone released an instrument that, if you look at it just right, seemed to blend the best of both Les Paul design appointments and the nemesis Fender Stratocaster builds. The set of dual P-90s (1959-1962) then twinned humbuckers (1962-1970) and stop-tail bridge were certainly reminiscent of other Gibson greats crafted in Kalamazoo. However, the double-cutaway, asymmetrical body and angular headstock were arguably closer in look and feel to Fender’s emerging classics. Regardless of the source of inspiration, the Wilshire is also significant for showcasing elements of Epiphone’ s in-house innovations. For example, their Tremotone vibrato system featured on several early Wilshires. Not unlike Bigsby designs, this tailpiece sprung itself between the bridge and strap button, offering a variety of bouncy tones for players.
With some variety in design sets over the Whilshire’s short lifespan, it’s arguably the 1966 build that is fabled as best year for this model. With a mere 398 of these instruments rolling off the production line in Kalamazoo, it’s not uncommon to find original 1966 Epiphone Wilshire’s fetching $10,000 plus price tags.
While the Wilshire never ascended to the pantheon of Les Paul or Stratocaster fame, it did fall into the hands of some notable players from an early time. In his post military days, Jimi Hendrix acquired a Wilshire and played it with the band Johnny Jones and the King Casuals. Bruce Springsteen cut his teeth on a Wilshire, which he received as a gift from his mother in the mid-1960s. Before changing their name to The Who, Pete Townsend of The Detours also sported a Wilshire in the early 1960s.
Eventually, the Wilshire became a relic, a fabled rarity in both gear and music history. As this short biography of the build shows, however, its role was small but significant.