This Epiphone Coronet from 1959 was probably a shocking sight to a guitar buyer of the late ’50s. Not only was a solidbody guitar out of character for the company that had built its reputation in the ’30s on archtop acoustics and electrics, but most people thought the Epiphone company had gone out of business three or four years earlier. Ironically, the company that raised Epi from the dead was its former arch rival – Gibson.
Epiphone and Gibson followed remarkably similar paths through the first half of the 1900s. Gibson was founded in 1902 to promote the mandolin and guitar designs that Orville Gibson had developed in the 1890s. A year after Gibson was founded, Greek-born instrument maker Anastasio Stathopoulo brought his family to America and set up shop in New York, where he made mandolins as well as traditional Greek instruments.
By the late 1910s, when the tenor banjo began to supplant the mandolin as the most popular fretted instrument, Anastasio’s sons were running the family business. Epaminondas (nicknamed “Epi”) recognized the banjo as the instrument of the future, and he applied for a patent on a banjo design in 1916. He incorporated his name into the Epiphone line of banjos in 1924, and in ’28 changed the company name to Epiphone. Gibson was slower to change focus to banjos, but by the late ’20s was competing with Epi as one of the major banjo makers.
By 1930, Gibson had gained the upper hand, as banjoists began switching to archtop guitars – a market Gibson had all to itself. However, in ’31, Epiphone launched a full line of archtops, and the two companies engaged in a fierce battle of oneupsmanship that lasted until the production hiatus of World War II.
Both companies experienced a “life change” during the war. Gibson was sold to the Chicago Musical Instrument Co., and Epi Stauthopoulo died of leukemia. At that point, the paths of the two companies diverged. M.H. Berlin, head of C.M.I., was experienced and aggressive, and he brought in a new manager at Gibson (Ted McCarty), enlisted Les Paul to help launch Gibson’s first solidbody electric, and maintained Gibson’s reputation as a leading maker of high-quality guitars. Epiphone, however, fell into the hands of Epi’s brothers, Orphie and Frixo. They continued developing electric archtops in the post-war years, but ignored the solidbody market, and in ’53 handed over control of manufacturing and most of their distribution to the C.G. Conn band instrument company. In ’57, the Stathopoulo brothers threw in the towel and sold Epiphone to Gibson.
With virtually no Epiphone production to carry on, Gibson was free to reinvent Epiphone as a sort of secondary Gibson brand that could be offered to new dealers without infringing on the territorial exclusivity that established Gibson dealers enjoyed. In an era when guitar makers took pride in distinguishing their product from those of other makers – Gibson’s dreadnought flat-tops, for example, were distinguished from Martin’s by their round-shouldered body shape, and in the solidbody line, the body shape of the Les Pauls distinguished Gibsons from Fenders – Epiphone presented Gibson with a golden opportunity to meet the competition head-on with an Epi-branded instrument while maintaining the integrity and identity of Gibson’s designs.
On February 6, 1958, M.H. Berlin met with Ted McCarty, C.M.I. sales manager Clyde Rounds, and Gibson sales manager Clarence Havenga to hammer out a new Epi line. In a memo summarizing the meeting, the description of one of the new dreadnoughts was simply “Copy Martin D’naught size.” For the two new Epi solidbodies, it appeared Gibson took a Fender Telecaster and simply added a mirror-image cutaway on the bass side.
The new solidbodies – available with one or two pickups – were listed as “Moderne Black” and spec’d with poplar bodies. The Moderne name was quickly appropriated for one of Gibson’s new “Modernistic” models of 1958 (the others being the Flying V and Explorer) and replaced with Coronet, which Epiphone had used in the late 1930s and ’40s on a low-end electric archtop. The “Black” part of the original model was deleted, but black remained as a finish color. Mahogany replaced poplar as the body wood.
By the time the new Epiphone line debuted in ’59, the single-pickup solidbody was still the Coronet, but the double-pickup model had become the Crestwood. The pickups were the same as those found on pre-Gibson Epis, known today as “New York” pickups. With a row of polepieces offset from the center, they looked like a smaller version of Gibson’s newly introduced humbuckers (and Gibson would eventually install “mini” humbuckers on high-end Epis), but they were actually single-coil pickups with the coil rotated so it was lying on its side; the polepieces passed across the top of the coil but not through it.
The original Coronet was 13/4″ deep – same as a Telecaster, with the squared-off edges of a Tele. The wraparound bridge-tailpiece was the same one found on Gibson’s Les Paul Special and Junior. The headstock had the metal plate Epiphone had been using on electrics since the ’30s, along with the old-style metal-stamped Epi truss-rod cover.
The Coronet changed specs every year for the next five years. By the end of 1959, Gibson had run out of the New York pickups and began fitting the Coronet with the more powerful Gibson P-90. A year later, the body depth was thinned to 13/8″ and the edges were rounded off; at the same time a new, symmetrical pickguard appeared. The next year, the peghead plate disappeared. In ’62, a vibrato was optional.
1963 brought major changes in the Epi solidbody line. The bodies were redesigned with a slightly longer bass horn, the P-90 got a metal cover, and the peghead went to a six-on-a-side tuner configuration with the treble-side cut in an E-shape; it came to be known as the “bat wing” peghead. New finish options included Silver Fox, Sunset Yellow, California Coral and Pacific Blue.
The Coronet got off to a respectable start, with 237 shipped in ’59 – third best in the new Epi line. In ’62, Gibson shipped 499 Coronets, making it the top-selling Epi that year. It peaked at 685 in ’64, by which time the ultra-cheap Epi models such as the Olympic solidbodies and the Caballero flat-top were outselling the Coronet by better than two-to-one.
Gibson’s Epiphone venture was a success in that it widened the market for Gibson-made guitars, and Gibson was also successful – maybe too successful – in keeping Epiphone in its place a step below Gibson. For example, in the Coronet’s peak year, Gibson sold more than 3,800 of the comparably equipped Gibson SG Juniors. Some of the difference could be attributed to the fact Epiphone was essentially still a startup brand, but any chance Epiphone had of long-term growth was squelched by the increasing presence of cheap imports in the late ’60s. In a span of four years, Epiphone shipments fell by 85 percent, from 19,000 instruments in ’65 to just 2,500 in ’69.
C.M.I. began outsourcing Epiphones to Japan in 1970, just as the company was being sold to ECL, an Ecuadorian company that reorganized C.M.I. under the name Norlin. The last 20 Coronets shipped out of Kalamazoo in 1970, bringing total production of the Coronet to 3,373.
This article originally appeared in VG Jan 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.