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Epiphone

1873 – 1915 Anastasios Stathopoulo

Anastasios Stathopoulo was the son of a Greek timber merchant, born in Sparta Greece in 1863. At the age of 10 he became interested in building musical instruments. Under the influence of his father he had acquired a natural sense and feel for wood and wood working. According to the family literature created in the 1930’s, Anastasios built lutes, violins and traditional Greek Lioutos supporting the local music of the time. He was good at it and his interest grew as he aged and chose not to follow in his father’s business.

There were limited opportunities for the growth of his father’s business in Sparta and apparently better options in Smyrna, Turkey. The Strathopoulo family moved to Smyrna in 1877 when Anastasios was 14. They adapted well to their new surroundings and the family appears to have been successful. By 1890, at age 17, Anastasios struck out on his own and established a musical instrument manufacturing business building mandolins, lutes, violins and traditional Lioutos. Anastasios was also busy building a family: he married Marianthe in 1892 and had his first son Epimanondas (Epi) in 1893. Sons: Alex and Orpheus (Orphie) and daughter: Alkminie (Minnie) soon followed.

The political situation in Turkey in the 1890’s was devolving as ethnic tensions increased. Greek immigrants were under steady persecution and this pressure on the Stathopoulo family plus the promise of greater opportunity in the United States led to their decision to try a new life once more in America. They arrived in 1903 – just about the same time that the Gibson Company was being formed. The method for recording names at Ellis Island in New York often allowed discretion on the part of the registering clerk for the spelling of family names. ‘Stathopoulos’ became: Strathopoulo.

1907 – America

The family took some time to reestablish itself but by 1907 they had taken up residence at 121 West 28th Street in Manhattan. They lived upstairs and operated a shop at street level. They remained there for about 5 years until 1912. During this time Epi and Orphie worked with their father in the shop learning the family business.

The timing was good. America had entered a mandolin craze. Mandolin Orchestras were formed from coast to coast. New York was at the heart of setting musical trends with Tin Pan Alley churning out musical scores and distribution networks that could reach Chicago and the Pacific shores within days. There was no TV or radio yet and every house had a music room. Every child had some degree of musical training usually including sight reading as a primary form of social interaction and entertainment. This meant there was heavy demand for good quality and sweet sounding mandolins, violins and banjos. The Strathopoulo family arrived at the right time. Strathopoulo family instruments labels stated: “A.  Stathopoulo, Manufacturer-Repairer of all kinds of Musical Instruments”. The instruments caught on and business flourished. The House of Strathopoulo expanded into a new shop / warehouse on 247 West 42nd Street. The family enjoyed the fruits of a successful business and the children received a good education were raised in the trappings of privilege.

Unfortunately, in July 1915 Anastasios died at the age of 52 from cancer.

1915 – 1923 Epimanondas Strathopoulo – the House of Strathopoulo

Epi was 22 years old when he took charge of the family business in 1915. Yet again, this turned out to be good timing. The social, political and artistic times were changing and Epi had grown up and been educated at the heart of much of the change. He was not only well versed in business but he was a rather well-connected socialite. He socialized with many of the movers and shakers of the day and therefore had a sense of what might be coming next.

In 1917, Epi changed the business name to “the House of Strathopoulo”.  He directed the focus of instrument manufacturing away from mandolins (that were slowly falling out of favor) to banjos – the post war rise of Dixieland Jazz. Understanding the American business landscape he was quick to develop and patent a number of banjo improvements and refinements including a tone ring and rim design. In 1923 Epi reorganized the company with himself as President and General Manager. Most importantly, he assigned a new name: Epiphone – combining his nickname with a Greek derivative for sound: ‘phone’.

1923 – 1943 Epimanondas (Epi) Strathopoulo – Epiphone

In 1924 Epiphone released it’s new line of banjos: the Recording Series. They were very well received. The banjos were so successful that the company name was again changed in 1928 to the Epiphone Banjo Company. Models included: the Deluxe, Concert, Bandmaster and Artist. The budget model was called the Wonder model. Demand required expanded production so Epiphone acquired the Favoran banjo firm. Thanks to models like the Emperor and the endorsements of players like Carl Kress the business continued to grow.

In October of 1927 the film “The Jazz Singer” was released: the first full length ‘Talkie’ – motion pictures with sound. The music was Jazz. Radio was new and automobiles and aeroplanes were everywhere. Public sentiment was shifting.

Epi continued to demonstrate his ability to recognize changes of public trends. In 1928, Epi debuted the first Epiphone guitars: The Recording Series, of course. Each model was identified simply by a letter: ‘A’ through ‘D’, later adding ‘E’. The ‘A’ was the budget version and the ‘D’ the top-of-the-line.. Archtops were more expensive and flattops were less expensive.  They were small, ornate and not very loud. The problem then became finding an artist endorser. The Gibson’s of the Loar period (1921 through 1924) had redefined Jazz guitars and artists were headed in that direction. Epi could read the writing on the wall.

The crash occurred in 1929. All manufacturing felt the impact of the crash but musical instruments were still in some demand. Entertainment in times of depression usually include music; especially if it can be accompanied by small, sonorous and affordable instruments. Some songs of the time became anthems: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”.  (1931, words: E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and composer: Jay Gorney). Add prohibition to the mix (1920 to 1933) and it could be seen as a time in American history where music played an important role in keeping the national spirit together.

In 1931 Epiphone introduced the Masterbilt Series of guitars. The intention was clear: direct competition with the Gibson L series. The names for the new line were: DeLuxe, Broadway, Windsor and Tudor. They were bigger, flashier and supposed to be better in every way. The lineage was also clear. They took everything they could from the Gibson Loar designs that was desirable and tried to make them better. It worked: sales increased and Epiphone was able to court endorsers. Epiphone had thrown down the gauntlet and Gibson picked up the challenge.

In 1934 Gibson introduced the Super 400: an 18” $400 archtop to beat the band. During the Great Depression, this was truly a Princely sum. Not to be out-done, Epi responded in 1935 with the Masterbilt Emperor. It was slightly bigger, deeper and more richly appointed – but to really close the deal, Epi published an add campaign with a semi naked woman adorned with an Emperor that seems to have effectively captured the public’s eye. In 1936, Epi increased the size of the De Luxe, Broadway and Triumph by 1”, making them 3/8″ wider than the Gibsons. In 1939 Epiphone introduced a line of acoustic stand-up basses. This would figure into the companies future after the war.

The Epiphone name had grown in stature to be considered among the best. Epiphone now had no trouble finding endorsers and enjoyed some of the most respected players of the day. The Epiphone showroom returned to 117 West 48th Street, Manhattan and served both as company headquarters and a destination for famous musicians. On Saturday afternoons, Epi would encourage musical legends like Harry Volpe and Al Caiola to play for passers-bye. Future endorsers included Les Paul.

The Epiphone Company was carefully organized around the Strathopoulo family members. Each had a valuable role to play: Epi maintained control at the top and exploited his social connections to endlessly promote the company and maintain a grande roster of high-profile professional musicians. His personality and organizational skills managed to hold all the different parts of the company together. Orphie assumed office management duties. Minnie worked in the front office as well. Frixo took responsibility for instrument design and quality control. He spent most of his time in the factory. Frixo was know for his temperamental and obsessive attention to detail where the instruments were concerned. Both Frixo and Epi were fine musicians and brought that credibility to bear on the company reputation.

Electric Instruments

Rickenbacker had been developing electric guitar models since 1932 with some degree of success. Epi took notice and responded with electric instruments of his own. Epiphone introduced the Electraphone in 1935 – later known as the Electar Series. This beat Gibson to the punch and maintained Epiphone’s image as an innovator. (Gibson released the electric Hawaiian guitar in 1936.)

Epiphone’s competition with virtually everyone in the instrument manufacturing business continued up to World War II where politics and shortages calmed down raging domestic instrument warfare.

World War II brought National Defense restrictions. In 1943, War Production Board order L-37a governed the use of critical war materials for non-military purposes. These included nickel, cobalt, aluminum, copper and steel – critical for the production of instruments. The instrument lines that suffered the most were the electric instruments due to the larger requirement for restricted materials. Alnico magnets, for example, are made of aluminum, nickel and cobalt. To help the war effort, Epiphone used it’s tool and die makers to manufacture wing gas tanks for airplanes.

In May of 1942, Epi was diagnosed with Subacute Myelogenous Leukemia and went into a rapid decline. He died in a makeshift hospital room: the dining room of Frixos’ house in Astoria Queens on June 6th, 1943 at age 49.

1942 – 1947 Orpheus (Orphie) and Frixo Nichols Strathopoulo

Orphie assumed the role of President and Frixo as Vice President and Secretary. It was a difficult time to take control of the company with a World War raging in Europe and limited materials at home. On a more basic level, the 2 brothers had been very much under the shadow of their dynamic and demonstrative older brother Epi. The family dynamics that had held everyone together during Epi’s life began to unravel and disagreements arose between the remaining brothers. In the end, they did not appear to have the competitive passion for the instruments or the business that Epi had.

1947 – 1951 Frixo Nichols Strathopoulo – Glouster Ohio

Frixo had been the creative force of design behind the successful instruments of the 1930s and 1940s. While each sibling had their special talents (Epi in promotion, organization and advertising – Orphie in business management), Frixo had maintained a presence in the factory, creating the innovations that made the instruments popular. He was also the watchful eye for quality control. Frustrated by the situation with Epiphone, He struck out on his own in 1947. He moved to Glouster Ohio and opened a Bass factory under his name – using ‘Frixo Nichols’ as a brand name. The attempt was ill-fated and faced an endless series of set-backs. Though not proven, it appears that brother Orphie may have actively prevented Frixo from getting wood suitable for the basses by exercising influence over his suppliers. He may also have tried to influence endorsers away from the new company. Frixo branched into ukuleles to capture some of that niche market. When the railroad spur to the town was eliminated, he lost his ability to get raw materials. The business could not last.

1947 – 1957 Orpheus (Orphie) Strathopoulo

When Frixo left, the position was quickly filled by George Mann who became an investor in the company. In 1950 the company emerged with a catalog of new offerings and many deletions. Unprofitable lines were dropped, electric pick-ups were updated, carved top offerings and accessories were reduced and electric offerings expanded. The Zephyr Emperor was introduced – an electric Emperor – and the Devon and Byron were more affordable archtops.

Things were looking up. Unfortunately, Orphie, not the kind of guy to be pressured, had not maintained tight relationships with his unions. In 1951 there was a 4 month strike that shut down the factory. It extracted a heavy financial toll. Orphie took 2 steps to help the situation: He worked out a distribution deal with Continental Music (a division of C.G.Conn. Ltd.) to lower expenses and to try to avoid future union problems, in 1953, Orphie moved the factory from New York to Philadelphia, PA. The resulting problem was that many of their best craftsmen chose not to leave New York. There was a drop in construction quality. Though the public was unaware of the subtleties in the Board Room, they could see, hear and feel the instruments. Epiphone was loosing its greatest asset: its strong reputation for quality and innovation.

Also in 1951, due to failing health and the failure of his company, Frixo returned to New York and to Epiphone.  According to his daughter, he stayed with the company as a salaried tool and die maker but his heart was not in it. By 1956 Frixo left Epiphone and spent his last working years as a tool and die maker for Bendix Aviation Co.

It was 1953 and change was everywhere. Django Reinhardt died, Gibson had entered the solid body electric guitar market with the Les Paul model, Fender was introducing the Stratocaster on the heals of a successful Telecaster (renamed from ‘Broadcaster’ due to a copyright dispute with Gretsch, who owned the name). No one could foresee the long-term impact of Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith using a prototype Fender Broadcaster (later Telecaster) to record “Guitar Boogie” in 1947. Rock and Roll was about to reshape the guitar world and the well-connected and forward-looking Epi was no longer there to help steer the company toward the future. Orphie didn’t see it coming.

George Mann left the company in 1952 to help guitarist and accordion manufacturer Alfred Dronge start a new company: Guild. This new firm would rise with the new wave of music through the 1950’s and the Folk Boom of the 1960’s with many of the original craftspeople from the New York Epiphone factories. Mann left Epiphone with one of the longest histories of experience in the industry. Ultimately, when he left Guild 8 years later, he was replaced by Herb Sunshine, another long-term Epiphone alumni.

Epiphone continued to decline under Orphie. To try to keep his business solvent, he sold off unused manufacturing equipment and tooling (developed by Epiphone) to Guild and Gretsch. Ironically, these competitors simply started using it to better compete with their long-time rival. The Epiphone market share continued to shrink. The company was barely staying alive on the reputation of its older archtop instruments. These were instruments that were past their prime and out-of-step with the emerging culture of Rock and Roll.

By 1952 Continental Music essentially had control of the company and by 1956 was the sole distributor for Epiphone. It is believed that the distribution agreement ended in 1956 and that Epiphone would once more be entirely under the control of Orphie. Very little was produced that year and the instruments that were made were probably assembled from pre-existing parts.

Frixo and Orphie wanted to try once more to revive the grand old company and family name. They planned to re-unite in late 1956. Unfortunately, on January 20th, 1957 Frixo suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died on January 23rd.

1957 – Gibson Musical Instruments

In March or April of 1957 Orphie called Ted McCarty of Gibson saying that he was ready to sell what’s left of the company: primarily the Bass manufacturing that McCarty had expressed interest in some years earlier. McCarty knew Orphie and Frixo personally from business dealings in the 1930s and respected their company and history. Gibson had stopped building basses just before World War II and at the end of the war couldn’t find the forms to start production again. They were simply gone. Retooling was expensive and the potential market share small, so Gibson stopped production of basses altogether. It was about that time that McCarty called Orphie and said that he’d be interested in buying the Epiphone bass division if it was ever available. McCarty felt that the Epiphone bass was still the finest on the market. All these years later, the long-standing competition was over. Orphie was selling.

McCarty had offered $20,000 for the bass division, which was accepted. When he sent Gibson representatives to New York to collect the tools, dies and forms for the basses to be shipped to Kalamazoo, they were surprised to discover all the guitar making equipment as well. McCarty called Orphie, who told him: Yes, you now own it all, even the name.

Orphie and his wife stayed in New York until the 1960s, retiring to Lighthouse Point in Florida. He died December 27th, 1973. It was 100 years after the birth of the House of Strathopoulo in Greece.

After thinking it through, McCarty realized that the purchase of the Epiphone name could potentially solve a problem Gibson had with dealer territories. Dealer territories essentially covered the country from coast to coast but there were still stores that would like to become Gibson dealers. By starting an Epiphone factory, Gibson could then build an entirely new dealer network and sell Epiphone instruments. They could effectively double their exposure and control on the market.

Early 1970s – Foreign Manufacturing

Epiphone began manufacturing instruments in Japan in the early 1970s. In the 1980s, manufacturing shifted primarily to Korea with some manufacturing remaining in Japan by licensed Gibson contractors. One of these contractors was Samick, which also built instruments under license for other brands including some under its own name. The Epiphone brand name was mainly placed on less expensive versions of Gibsons. Tonewoods varied from the originals on some of these instruments resulting in a Gibson ‘Look and Feel’ but a slightly different tone.  Samick no longer manufactures guitars in Korea.

In 2002 Gibson opened a factory in Qingdao, China solely for the purpose of building Epiphones. This allows Gibson to develop new and unique models as well as the classics. These include: the Emperor, Zephyr, Riviera and Sheraton. The beauty of a dedicated Gibson Plant in China is control over quality and process. “Masterbilt” acoustics are manufactured in Qingdao, China. As the manufacturing of musical instruments in Japan has generated consistently higher quality from increasing years of refinements and experience; Epiphone also produces ‘Elitist’ instruments in Japan.


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ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth
Special thanks to input from Barbara Astrella: daughter of Frixo Nichols Strathopoulo.