Epiphone’s Zephyr Emperor Regent of the early 1950s represents not only the most deluxe electric guitar the company ever made, it also marks the culmination of a 20-year rivalry with Gibson that kept both companies at the forefront of innovation through the 1930s and ’40s.
Epiphone and Gibson had peacefully coexisted in the 1920s. Epiphone was well-established as a leading banjo maker, based in New York and headed up by the dashing man-about-town Epaminondas “Epi” Stathopoulo. Gibson, known as a mandolin and guitar company, had struggled to develop a competitive banjo, but in the meantime had developed a superior archtop guitar (the L-5). When the guitar began to rise in popularity toward the end of the decade, Epi saw the changing tide and took decisive action. In 1931, Epiphone “attacked” Gibson’s ownership of the archtop market by introducing nine new “Masterbilt” archtop guitars.
Through the 1930s, the continuing one-upsmanship between the companies pushed the development of both acoustic and electric guitars. When Gibson “advanced” the size of its archtops and introduced the 18″ Super 400, Epiphone responded with larger bodies – 3/8″ larger than the equivalent Gibsons. To top the Super 400, Epi introduced a new model that was a full half-inch wider. It was called the Emperor.
As the Emperor reigned over Epiphone’s acoustic line, the company battled Gibson in the electric guitar trenches. Epi fired the opening round in 1935 with its first electric models; Gibson countered with an electric Hawaiian by the end of the year and its first electric Spanish by the end of 1936. Epiphone’s Herb Sunshine developed a pickup with six height-adjustable polepieces in 1937, and Gibson followed suit in 1940. Gibson introduced a line of upright basses (and violin family instruments) at the end of 1939; Epi was in the upright bass business by mid 1940.
Meanwhile in the acoustic archtop arena, Epiphone introduced optional blond finishes on the Emperor and Deluxe by May 1938. Gibson kicked off 1939 with blond L-5s and Super 400s and then introduced cutaway bodies on those two top models. Epiphone pushed blonds harder in 1940 by introducing the Ritz and the Byron, available only in blond. Before Epi could offer cutaways, however, World War II put a damper on guitar production.
After the war, Gibson focused on electrics, introducing a new and improved single-coil pickup, the P-90, adding a cutaway model (the ES-350) in 1947, and two-pickup models in 1948. Epiphone was uncharacteristically slow in getting back into the competition after the war, due no doubt to the death of Epi Stathoupoulo from leukemia in 1944. Finally in 1948, 10 years after Gibson’s first cutaway guitar, Epi added cutaway options, a feature that highlighted its new Zephyr Deluxe Regent. The Zephyr Deluxe Regent was an electric version of the Deluxe Regent (Zephyr stood for electric, Regent for cutaway in Epi postwar model nomenclature), the 17″-wide model that competed directly with Gibson’s L-5. So in ’49, Gibson responded with a new model featuring L-5-cutaway body size and ornamentation. The new Gibson ES-5 was the epitome of electric guitar design at that time, sporting three pickups, each with its own volume control (and one master Tone).
That gave Gibson a total of six electric models. Epiphone had only four – the Century, Zephyr, Zephyr Deluxe and low-end Kent (introduced in ’49), all of which had only a single pickup. Epiphone was struggling financially and in its quest to maintain a position as an industry leader in innovation. The company clearly had to one-up Gibson to maintain its reputation, so in 1950 Epi pulled out its biggest gun – the Emperor – and created an electric version called the Zephyr Emperor Regent.
Just as Gibson’s ES-5 was designed as an electric guitar and not just an acoustic L-5 with pickups (that would come in 1951), Epiphone designed the Zephyr Emperor Regent as an electric guitar, with a laminated spruce top (later versions had a laminated maple top) and laminated maple back and sides. It featured the same fancy ornamentation as the acoustic version, including pearl block inlays with abalone wedge, Frequensator double-trapeze tailpiece, multi-ply binding and gold-plated hardware. In keeping up with Gibson’s ES-5, the Emperor featured three pickups. And to top the ES-5, the Emperor offered a more practical, more versatile pickup selector system with six pushbuttons. While the ES-5 player could dial in an infinite range of pickup mixes using the individual volume controls, the ES-5 would not allow such a simple maneuver as switching from one pickup to another; that required turning down the volume of the first pickup and then turning up the volume of the second. The Emperor player, however, with the press of a button could switch to any one of the three pickups individually or to any of the three possible pairings of the pickups. The only combination that was not available was all three pickups together. The only drawback to the pushbuttons was that switching was noisy, so it was not advisable to switch pickups with the volume up.
It would seem that the Zephyr Emperor Regent had once again pushed Epiphone out in front of Gibson in the innovation race, but it was a hollow victory for Epiphone. First of all, the Emperor’s pickups (which are today known as “New York” pickups) were weaker than Gibson’s standard P-90s. But it really didn’t matter at that point, as Epiphone’s days were numbered. Since Epi’s death, his brothers had not gotten along, and they had split in 1948. Orphie Stathopoulo, who gained ownership of the company, worked a deal with the Continental distribution company (owned by the Conn band instrument company), which gave Continental some sales territories and also control over manufacturing. In ’53, Continental moved production from New York to Philadelphia, but with few craftsmen or supervisors experienced in making guitars, the move proved to be a killing blow. Orphie and his brother, Frixo, reconciled in 1956, but it was too late to save the company and they sold it to Chicago Musical Instrument Company, Gibson’s parent, in ’57.
The Emperor’s switching system remained better than any three-pickup switching system ever developed by Gibson. It inspired Gibson to overhaul the ES-5 to create the ES-5 Switchmaster in 1955, which featured a choice of individual pickups as well as all three pickups combined, but no two-pickup combinations. In ’58, Gibson began fitting the Les Paul Custom with three pickups, but its pickup selector had only three positions, making it less versatile than the Switchmaster’s four-way. When Gibson reintroduced an electric Emperor as a thin-body model in ’58, it still had three pickups but it had the Les Paul Custom-style three-way system still in use today on the LP Custom.
So even though Gibson ultimately won the war with Epiphone, the Zephyr Emperor Regent’s six-pushbutton switching system remains the winner of the last battle between the two guitar companies.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s August 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.