Most vintage aficionados admire the grand old acoustic archtops of the 1920s and ’30s, but admire them from afar. They’re beautifully built and boast lovely tone, but they have limitations as to when, where, and how they are played. Epiphone, one of the grandest of the old archtop makers, gets all this and has launched its new Masterbilt Century collection to appeal to everyone.
The concept is simple: take the best of the original archtops and refine them with modern ideas to make them playable for a new generation – in other words, a 21st-century archtop.
The Masterbilt Century Deluxe Classic is the pinnacle of the line. Think of the Epi that Freddie Green employed to swing those luscious four-on-the-floor rhythm lines behind Count Basie in the ’30s – but now updated as an acoustic-electric guitar designed to be played and amplified as a true acoustic instrument.
Back in the day, bigger was better: unamplified guitarists fought to be heard through the sound and fury of bands. Now, Epi can build for tone as well as comfort. So, the laminated-maple body is modeled after Epi’s earliest generation of archtops, with a 12.6″ upper bout, 10.25″ waist, 17″ lower bout, and a 21″ body length. The body is bound in three-layer ivory and black.
The longitudinal bracing follows tradition, topped by a solid-spruce arched soundboard. The guitar is available in either Vintage Natural or Vintage Sunburst, both lovely aged gloss finishes. A tortoiseshell-style pickguard comes unattached, and a ’30s-era replica label is visible through the double-bound f-shaped sound holes.
The five-piece neck is made of hard maple and mahogany with a full C profile and topped by a 20-fret, 25.5″-scale ebony fretboard with a single ivory binding. The pearloid “notched diamond” inlays are modeled after original Masterbilts.
And then there’s that headstock, arguably one of the most beautiful and ornate ever made. A bone nut and 18:1-ratio historic-look tuners finish it off in style.
It’s what you can’t see, however, that makes this archtop truly special. Hidden under the bridge is a Shadow NanoFlex HD pickup with an eSonic high-definition preamp system. The pickup features Master Volume and Master EQ controls carefully tucked away but easy to access just inside the lower sound hole. A standard 9-volt battery powers it and is located near the tail’s 1/4″ output jack.
Unamplified, the guitar is an easy-playing modern archtop. The tone is warm and woody, and should only improve with age. With the neck dovetailed and glued into the body, the guitar resonates with a full, clear voice.
The stock strings are 12s, providing lovely acoustic tone and creating rich chordal textures, but they’re not ideal for fingerpicking or bends. But that’s not what this guitar was originally designed for. Instead, it has that special percussive cut, an attack that makes it an ideal rhythm instrument. Yet this modern archtop also seems to resonate more fully and longer than vintage models, a welcome trait to rounding out its voice and uses.
Epiphone advertises that “no archtop player has ever heard an acoustic guitar more accurately represented through a sound system before.” So we plugged the guitar into a modern Epiphone Electar “1939” Century amp, and the electronics accurately amplified the acoustic tone – there was next to no distortion or even change to the natural sound. The Master EQ allows the player to adjust the bass or treble boost to shape or emphasize aspects of the sound. Impressive.
If you ever yearned for a vintage archtop but were held back by its utility, times have just changed. Epi’s Masterbilt Century Deluxe Classic combines old and new to create an ideal all-round guitar with flair.
This article originally appeared in VG August 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.