1955 Epiphone Electar Zephyr
Epiphone spent the late 1930s and 1940s in the top echelon of the guitar world. While they generally lagged behind Gibson in introducing new features, the quality and sound of their acoustic archtops gave their rivals in Kalamazoo a run for their money. Both companies greatly reduced production during the War years, particularly of electrics; as the guitar market settled back into normalcy in the late 1940s, Epiphone found business increasingly difficult. Epi Stathopoulo, the driving force behind the company, had died of leukemia in 1943. His brothers Frixo and Orphie continued to run the company, but Frixo sold out to Orphie in 1948 after arguments over the company’s future. To complicate things further, Epiphone suffered personnel problems within its newly-unionized factory that culminated in a four-month strike in 1951.
To avoid the ongoing personnel issues, Epiphone took the drastic step of relocating its factory from New York to Philadelphia in 1953. As the owners intended, most of the craftsmen did not make the move with the company. While this allowed the company to start a fresh relationship with new employees, it also robbed them of the talent that had maintained such high quality for several decades. Many of the workers from the old factory went on to build superb instruments at the fledgling Guild company, but the new products coming from Philadelphia never consistently matched the same level of quality. Production essentially halted in 1957 until the company’s assets were shipped to Kalamazoo after the sale to Gibson. These assets included a number of instruments in various states of completion, but the general quality was so poor that Gibson wasn’t able to use many of them.
This lap steel was built somewhere in the middle of Epiphone’s decline. Although the serial number doesn’t match any published serial scheme, the volume pot dates from 1955, making this a Philadelphia-built instrument. This version of the Zephyr steel was introduced in 1950 when the company was still based in New York (I don’t know of any new designs introduced after the move to Philadelphia) and it reflects the general re-vamping of Epiphone’s steel line at the beginning of the decade. Every surviving steel model featured a redesigned body of maple; the Zephyr, Century and various Console models vaguely resembled their predecessors but with rounded corners, body binding and sunburst finishes. Bridges were hidden under cast brass covers, and output jacks were relocated to the ends of the bodies.
Under those bridge covers lurked the last version of Epiphone’s “Tone Spectrum” pickup: a narrow unit under a gold cover colloquially known as the “New York” pickup after its place of development. These pickups were made in a number of variations: 6-pole for guitar, 7- and 8-pole for steel, and 4-pole for mandolin. A cheaper version without adjustable poles was built for the Kent models. These units are notorious for having inconsistent tone and output, but the best of them are bright and clear with low to moderate output. They sound very similar to the previous version of the Tone Spectrum (as seen on my Duo Console), so I suspect that they are actually the same or very similar under the hood.
This particular steel is in good structural condition with no replaced parts, but its finish has begun to flake in a few places. On the headstock this may be attributable to a poorly designed case (the ends of two nails were grinding into the end of the headstock!), but elsewhere it is obvious that the finish was never applied well to begin with. The instrument still sounds excellent; the clarity of the bass strings makes it a great choice for low tunings, and it sustains better than my other Zephyr and Model C steels.