1936 Epiphone Electar Model M
Guitar players today know Epiphone today as a subsidiary of Gibson, generally a brand of cheaper if still respectable Gibson copies made overseas. This scenario has only evolved since the 1980s, however. Before Gibson acquired Epiphone in 1958 with the latter firm on the edge of bankruptcy, the two companies were arch-rivals who spurred each other to new heights for close to three decades. Epiphone produced some of the finest acoustic archtop guitars ever built (I tend to prefer them to their Gibson equivalents) and some fine electric ones as well. Epiphone’s pre-1958 electrics are sometimes criticized for mediocre tone, but I feel this is terribly exaggerated simply because they don’t sound like Gibsons. In fact, while I have never found a Gibson steel that I enjoyed enough to keep, two Epiphone steels are among my favorites. Before I describe one of them, let’s take a look at the electric instrument market in the mid 1930s.
The first electric instruments to be mass-produced were built by Rickenbacker in 1932. There were few competitors at first, but things exploded four years later. More electric lap steels started to trickle onto the market in 1935 with offerings from Audiovox and National-Dobro. Also debuting that year was a steel and amp set bearing the Electrophone name (electric instruments were usually sold as sets back then, as there were no manufacturers that just made guitar amps). This was, in fact, a product of the Epiphone company. In the uncertain salad days of electric amplification, Epiphone evidently felt sufficiently uncertain about their new product’s viability to put their own name on it. The name was shortened to Electar the following year, but for a while the Epiphone name did not appear on any electric instruments and the Electar line was published in a separate catalog.
Then, the Gibson ES-150 and EH-150 appeared in 1936 and became the first commercially successful electric instruments. Suddenly, every manufacturer under the sun tried to grab a piece of the fledgling electric market. Epiphone/Electar replaced the Electrophone with the Models M and C lap steels and introduced a corresponding line of Spanish-style instruments. The Model C was clearly influenced by the EH-150 and appealed to a more traditional crowd, but the model M bore an aluminum top that drew visually (if not structurally) from Rickenbacker’s “frying pan” design. The new designs were successful, and Epiphone quickly realized the error of leaving their own name off the instruments; within a year, the semicircle above the Electar brand contained the Epiphone name.
Most people know the Model M as a stylish icon of art deco steel design, with an anodized aluminum top bearing a geometric pattern etched into the metal. These were available at various times with blue and cream-colored tops, though most of them were black. However, before this anodized pattern was introduced, the Model M’s aluminum top bore a shiny nickel plate that more closely resembled its Rickenbacker predecessors. These early model Ms had a conventional volume and tone control located on either side of the pickup; with the anodized plate came a third knob, a bass control to accompany the treble control.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of these early Ms was the pickup. With its enormous chromed horseshoe magnet, it looks exactly like a contemporary Rickenbacker pickup. It sounds like one, too, with a round bell-like tone that provides clear highs and firm bass notes. There is a story that Epiphone bought these pickups from Rickenbacker directly; similar stories exist for a few other manufacturers that briefly used horseshoe pickups, such as Kay. There is also a story that Rickenbacker sued a few competitors for patent violations after they started selling horseshoe pickups. These stories are contradictory, but possibly both correct. I suspect that Epiphone developed its own horseshoe pickup (found on some slightly later model Ms, with a black crinkle finish on a slightly more compact horseshoe magnet) and stopped buying from Rickenbacker; Rickenbacker then sued Epiphone for producing its own design without paying patent royalties. This is just conjecture, but Epiphone definitely did start using an under-string pickup invented by employee Herb Sunshine in 1937. The new pickup changed the tone of Epiphone’s instruments considerably, and later model Ms are not as highly regarded by players or collectors.
On the back of the steel is a plaque listing Meissner Inventions of Millburn, NJ as the owner of several patents under which the guitar was manufactured. Meissner claimed that these patents governed the design of all electromagnetic pickups and mounted legal challenges to a number of manufacturers. Gibson and Rickenbacker fought these lawsuits and won, but Epiphone gave in and mounted licensing plaques on their electric instruments for several years. I presume they paid royalties to Meissner as well.
My guitar came as a nearly-functioning project. I have replaced one tuner and parts of others, and I re-glued some of the binding on the rosewood fingerboard. The electronics are all original and functioning. The nickel plate is mostly gone (somehow wiped away, it appears), but it is still present under the strings in what now looks like an odd discoloration. The guitar sounds wonderful, with plenty of sustain provided by its aluminum top.