Epiphone Model M Steel

Misjudged Beauty

The Epiphone company already had a long history when it hit big with banjos in the early 20th century. And it was quick to change with the times as musical tastes and the needs of musicians changed.

For example, in response to Gibson’s violin-like L-5 archtop guitar, Epiphone fired what could only be termed a preemptive strike on the archtop market by introducing no fewer than 10 new archtop models in 1931! Clearly, a line had been drawn. So it was that Epiphone went toe-to-toe with Gibson (and to a lesser extent, Gretsch) for the next 25 years on guitars of all types, including the Epiphone Model M lapsteel.

The Model M was at once one of Epiphone’s earliest, fanciest, and as it turned out, short-lived steel guitars. Introduced in ’37, it was also one of the company’s earliest forays into the electric guitar market. Guitar manufacturers were cautious about the possibilities of amplified music and the market for electric instruments. Hawaiian music, still popular some 20 years after it burst on the scene, lent itself to amplification and, while not exactly loud, early electrically amplified steel guitars were louder than the resophonic instruments produced by National and Dobro.

While many of the early amplified steel guitars resembled planks of wood with a pickup, the Model M was a professional-grade instrument with an inspired art-deco appearance defined by stairstep sides and a plexiglas-covered painted metal top with an artistic design. The standard model was typically a six-string, but seven-string and eight-string models could be custom-ordered. All came in a specially designed hardshell case, many with the Epiphone “slashed E” logo embossed in the felt lining.

The special-design pickup was typically large, and the output was decidedly lacking in high-end response. Early versions used a horseshoe pickup, but an update in ’38 brought a more conventional coil-wound unit with adjustable polepieces and a fixed handrest.

Tuners were open-back Grover “butterbean” style and were gold-plated on some instruments. The rosewood fingerboard had different-colored dot markers to make locating positions easier, and the headstock had an Electar logo. No doubt thought up by some marketing specialist, Electar was Epiphone’s early trademark design for its electric guitars. Indeed, some did not even carry the Epiphone name, as the company still considered the market for electrically amplified instruments to be small, volatile, and lacking growth potential.

Okay, they were wrong. But at the time, who knew? With much of the country’s economy mired in a depression, Epiphone’s only hope for survival was to play it safe.

At any rate, the Model M’s pickup design, and consequently its sound, had only limited appeal. It was discontinued in ’39. Today the Epiphone Model M Lap Steel is sought by collectors primarily for its looks rather than sound. Neither common nor rare, it is just as often encountered in seven or eight-string variants as the standard six-string, and is an attractive piece of electric guitar history.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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