1951 Epiphone Zephyr
The electric mandolin peaked early. As part of the electrification craze of the 1930s, nearly every manufacturer of electric guitars also tried its hand at mandolins. After World War II, however, musical tastes had changed to the point that the mandolin was effectively sidelined as a popular stringed instrument. Bluegrass and western swing kept it from disappearing altogether, but where the mandolin surfaced it mostly remained a purely acoustic instrument. However, it took manufacturers a while to admit this. When they resumed production after the War, several big brand names unveiled electric mandolins updated with the latest pickups. Vega, Gibson and Kay all followed suit, and Fender joined the competition with a 4-string solidbody in 1956. While many of these designs remained in production through the 1960s, none were produced in large numbers except perhaps Gibson’s EM-150.
At the end of the 1940s, though, manufacturers hoped that the old markets from a decade before might emerge intact. Epiphone resumed production of the Zephyr and Century models, introduced in 1939, with different pickups but only minor cosmetic changes. The cheaper Century was gone by the turn of the 1950s, though, leaving the Zephyr as the sole electric mandolin in Epiphone’s line. Epiphone would struggle throughout the 1950s, plagued by troubles with both labor and management. Late in the decade, its production was hampered by strikes and a move to a new factory. Overall quality remained high, but mounting financial trouble eventually forced its sale to Gibson in 1958. While the Zephyr mandolin remained in the Epiphone catalog until that year, very few seem to have been built.
Gibson and Epiphone took different approaches when designing their electric mandolins. Gibsons’ always had solid, carved woods, effectively acoustic instruments with added pickups. Epiphone used laminated woods for their bodies, which slightly diminished the acoustic character of the instrument but brought down the price and the possibility of cracking. The cheaper Century model even dispensed with f-holes for the first two years of production.
The Zephyr mandolin of the 1950s was solid if not particularly innovative. The laminated maple body and cherry neck were attractive, and the white “bikini” logo and epsilon on the pickguard leant some visual flair. (The pickguard on mine is a replica, the original having decayed like many plastic parts on old Epiphones). While the quality of the workmanship is up to the brand’s usual standard, the entire mandolin line lacked a truss rod for nearly two decades after all Epiphone guitars were fitted with them. This, along with the laminated body, goes some way to explaining the difference in price between a Zephyr ($170 for sunburst, $185 for natural) and an EM-150 ($210). The Zephyr’s neck retained a chunky profile to compensate for the lack of reinforcement, which was mostly but not entirely successful.
Epiphone’s pickups from the 1950s and earlier are often considered sub-par when compared to Gibson’s. I do not think this is a fair assessment, as I have played a number of Epiphones from this period with superb electric tone. The “New York” pickup, introduced about 1950, provides a bright tone with reasonably hot output for the era. Place two strings over each pole, and you’ve got a combination that can easily cause a tube amp to distort. For the Zephyr mandolin, Epiphone used one of these pickups with four pole pieces instead of six, just like Gibson did with the P-90s on their mandolins.
My mandolin is mostly original. The pickguard is a replacement, and the knobs shown are correct for the period but not the ones I received with the mandolin. The degassing of the original pickguard caused some damage to the binding and the finish; this is localized and mostly hidden behind the replacement guard, but some of the binding on the neck had to be replaced. The instrument is easy to play, with only minor relief in the neck and minimal wear to the frets. The neck is enormous for the 1950s, which many players (including myself) find beneficial on a mandolin. The original Lifton case is very clean. The Zephyr doesn’t compare to my Gibson Electric Florentine in terms of tone or sustain, but I have yet to find an electric mando that does. It’s a fine utility instrument, cheaper than its Gibson counterparts in today’s vintage market but still able to rattle the windows when called upon.