Webster’s latest defines the word “deluxe” as “…notably luxurious, elegant, or expensive.” The Epiphone Deluxe archtop guitar was certainly luxurious. When introduced in 1931, it sported a triple-bound top with rope-pattern purfling, fancy diamond-and-triangle position markers on the neck, a bound “Masterbilt” headstock inlaid with flowers, gold-plated parts, curly maple back and sides, and a carved spruce top.
The Deluxe was also an elegant design, marketed to compete with Gibson’s L-5, and to offer the guitarist just a little extra. At 163/8″ across the lower bout, it was a tad wider than the L-5. Fingerboards were rosewood and necks noticeably chunky. All the better for comping to jazz standards, except that this music was still in its infancy. Sales figures were low for the new model, no doubt due to the raging depression that swallowed up every last dollar.
Because of the difficult economic times, at least upon its introduction, the Deluxe was expensive, being the top-of-the-line acoustic guitar made by Epiphone. And over time, it was improved to near perfection.
By 1934, the more familiar Epiphone vine inlay had replaced the “Masterbilt” headstock design, and in 1936 the body was enlarged by one inch in response to the new larger “Advanced” model Gibson L-5. This new Deluxe had standard f-holes and a new “cloud” inlay at the fingerboard positions. The proprietary “Frequensator” tailpiece was added in 1937 as Epiphone sought to further differentiate its offerings from Gibson.
By now the Deluxe had been overtaken by the mighty 181/2″ Emperor, which was introduced in late 1935, and was second in the archtop range. But it was no second banana. Many players found the slightly smaller size (one inch narrower across the lower bout) easier to handle, and at no loss of volume or tone. Period photos and film of jazz orchestras reveal many an Epiphone logo peeking out among the horns. All indications are that the Deluxe outsold the L-5 through the 1940s.
However, Gibson managed a coup in releasing its cutaway body design before the war, and Epiphone, perhaps believing that real jazz players never go beyond the 12th fret, did not add a cutaway to the Deluxe until ’48. By then, Epiphone was falling behind and control of the company was turned over to Conn in 1953. Epiphone was sold to CMI (who owned Gibson) in ’57.
Production of the Deluxe officially ceased in ’58, though it is unlikely any were made even in ’57 (there’s no sign of them in the inventory Gibson shipped to Kalamazoo) as Gibson overhauled the line and eliminated obvious threats to its own archtops.
Special thanks to George Gruhn and Walter Carter for their consultation on this piece.
1953 Deluxe photo courtesy of Joe Vinikow, archtop.com.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.