EPIPHONE EPIPHANY
Guitarist|February 2021
Gibson pumped new life into Epiphone while rescuing the brand from sinking in the late 50s. Head of product development, Mat Koehler, recounts the tale as Gibson returns to its source of inspiration with Epiphone once again…
Rod Brakes

During rock ’n’ roll’s fledgling years of the 1950s, Gibson was riding the wave of the electric guitar boom while Epiphone’s once feted archtops became dead in the water. Whereas Gibson flourished in the post-war years following its acquisition by Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) in 1944 and the subsequent appointment of Ted McCarty as CEO in 1948, Epiphone embarked on a long, slow decline following the death of its visionary founder, Epi Stathopoulo, in 1943. Along with infighting, unionization problems, and a partial relocation to Philadelphia in 1953, the House of Stathopoulo (as it was previously known) stood divided. The once-proud brand, Epiphone Inc. of New York – Gibson’s fiercest competitor in the revolutionary pre-war archtop era – was now a spent force. Save for one thing: it still built some of the best upright basses in the industry.

Despite its troubles, Epiphone managed to sustain an enviable reputation as a quality builder of upright basses, or ‘bass viols’ as they were often called – an avenue Gibson wished to further explore in the 50s while competing against Fender’s game-changing Precision Bass. Ted McCarty was so impressed with the instruments that he suggested to Epiphone’s president, Orphie Stathopoulo, that if ever he decided to sell the bass business, he should give Ted a call. The seed was planted in Orphie’s mind, and in the spring of 1957, he did just that.

After years of struggling to stay afloat and with morale at an all-time low, he eventually keeled over and reached out to Ted for a lifeline. With more than 80 years in the American instrument-building business, the Stathopoulo family were finally bowing out.

“Looking through our archives, my favorite topic of all is Epiphone,” begins Gibson’s head of product development, Matt Koehler. “When I see this stuff, I realise what a creative boom it was at the time, and we’re witnessing a renaissance of Epiphone right now. The Epiphone stuff really gets me going. We have memos from April 1957, when Ted McCarty sent his right-hand man, John Huis, and Ward Arbanas on a reconnaissance mission to Epiphone. Ward would soon head up the project and become the [production manager] of Epiphone, Kalamazoo. The mission wasn’t necessarily to snoop on Epiphone – it was about gauging the opportunity to purchase its upright bass business. John and Ward reported back that [Gibson] was very well equipped to be making upright basses. Ted then contacted Orphie Stathopoulo with an offer of $20,000, which he accepted right away.”

While the Gibson team was busy organising transportation of the basses along with associated parts and machinery from Epiphone’s New York and Philadelphia sites to its Kalamazoo factory, John Huis suddenly realised Epiphone wasn’t just packing up the bass business.

“They were gathering up everything: basses, guitar bodies, necks, pickups – they were clearing out,” continues Mat. “[Gibson] quickly became concerned about Orphie realizing they may not have intended to buy everything for $20,000. John sent a hurried telegraph to Ted saying, ‘They think we’re buying everything: guitars, amplifiers, you name it – they’ve pulled everything out for us to ship to Kalamazoo,’ and then Ted changed course and alerted his lawyers saying, ‘We need to make this happen ASAP because this opportunity is too good to pass up.’ It was all orchestrated by Ted, and once everything was on the move, CMI set up Epiphone Inc. of Kalamazoo.

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