Launched earlier this year, this new USA incarnation of the Epiphone Frontier is built in Gibson’s dedicated acoustic facility in Bozeman, Montana, and harks back to the most desirable Frontier models from 1962-65. The FT-110’s roots in the Epiphone catalogue actually stretch right back to 1942 but in 1958, production was relocated from New York City to Kalamazoo following Gibson’s acquisition of the Epiphone brand. Specification changes soon followed at Ted McCarty’s behest.
Featuring an eye-catching lariat and cactus design engraved on an enlarged pickguard, at a glance the Frontier has much in common with other Gibson acoustics of the period, such as the Hummingbird. However, the combination of a 25.5-inch scale length, square shoulders and flame maple back and sides most closely resembles Gibson’s Dove, which debuted in 1962.
The new USA Collection Frontier features neither the adjustable-saddle bridge of the 1960s nor the Dove’s tune-o-matic; instead we get the arguably more toneful arrangement of a bone saddle and belly-up Indian rosewood bridge. Though it’s also available with a three-tone sunburst finish, this Antique Natural review model is our pick of the pair. The perfectly buffed gloss nitrocellulose enhances the look of both the Sitka spruce grain and the maple’s almost holographic figuring. It’s a beautiful instrument today but we’d love to see it again a few years down the line when the boxfresh appearance has mellowed.
The top and back are framed by multi-ply cream and black binding, while the top bracing is hand-scalloped to avoid robbing the soundboard of flexibility and internal construction is neat and clean. The older-style short headstock design features a mother-of-pearl ‘cloud’ inlay and sits atop a mahogany neck. This is attached to the body with a compound dovetail joint set with hot hide glue, and the bound rosewood fingerboard features slotted rectangle markers and Gibson’s medium ‘Legend’ fretwire.
It may have a premium price tag but the USA Frontier comes optimised for the stage with an endpin jack connector, strap button at the heel and LR Baggs VTC electronics. Volume and tone controls are mounted unobtrusively at the bass side of the soundhole while an integrated preset compression circuit operates below 400Hz.
The neck’s medium C carve has perhaps a touch more shoulder than some of the inviting vintage-style profiles elsewhere in the Gibson catalogue but it’s certainly not off-putting, and anyway, neck-shape preference is an intensely personal thing. While we have no complaints about the fretwork and binding nibs, it would be nice to see the fretboard edges rolled over, especially for thumb-over styles. However, on the flipside, the spacious 44.1mm nut width offers plenty of real estate for precision fingering.
The quintessential Gibson recipe of spruce top, mahogany back and sides, round shoulders and a 24.75 scale (or thereabouts) delivers one of the most familiar sounds in popular music history. Our player-grade ’55 Southern Jumbo provides us with a reference and, while it might not appear to be a fair fight, when it was purchased in early 2020, the vintage Gibson actually cost slightly less than the USA Frontier’s current street price. Indeed, if you are in the market for a Gibson-style acoustic, fierce competition also comes in the form of new boutique instruments such as the Atkin Forty Three, which streets for £3,099.
However, what none of these slope-shouldered mahogany/spruce instruments offer is the additional layer of glistening upper harmonics provided by the Frontier’s maple construction and longer scale length. Sure, after strumming our Southern Jumbo to death for a while and then switching to the Frontier, the SJ’s dry vintage character, woody depth and forward midrange emphasis are missed. And the approachability of the shorter scale is a lot like slipping into a comfortable pair of old shoes compared to the slightly tight feel of a new 25.5-inch scale instrument that has yet to open up. But the Epiphone’s hi-fi clarity and widescreen sheen are equally valid, and once the metallic zing of those brand-new 0.012-0.053 strings settles down, the Frontier’s own sweetness begins to emerge.
This sweetness is especially apparent when you put your pick to one side and explore this guitar’s dynamic range with your fingertips. Though it’s a powerful strummer and more than capable of propelling a band arrangement, the Frontier really excels with spacious fingerpicked chords and arpeggios – the guitar’s clear attack combines with its long, even sustain in a way that seems optimised for trouble-free studio work. If you need to go direct or you are plugging into an amplifier, the Baggs pickup system provides enough roll-off to prevent the high-end sounding overly synthetic, while throwing on some additional compression, EQ and room ambience all helps in an attempt to replicate the Frontier’s fine acoustic qualities.
- PRICE £3,619 (inc hard case)
- DESCRIPTION 6-string acoustic guitar, made in the USA
- BUILD Solid Sitka spruce top with scalloped X-bracing, solid figured maple back and sides, mahogany neck with compound dovetail joint set with hot hide glue, Indian rosewood fingerboard with 12” radius, mother-of-pearl slotted rectangle inlays and 20 medium frets, bone nut, Indian rosewood bridge with bone saddle and Tusq bridge pins
- HARDWARE Gold Gotoh keystone tuners
- ELECTRONICS LR Baggs VTC undersaddle pickup, soundhole-mounted volume and tone controls
- SCALE LENGTH 25.5”/648mm
- NECK WIDTH 44.1mm at nut, 54.3mm at 12th fret
- NECK DEPTH 21.1mm at first fret, 23.2mm at 9th fret
- STRING SPACING 37.3mm at nut, 55.3mm at bridge
- WEIGHT 4.7lb/2.1kg
- LEFT-HANDERS No
- FINISH Antique Natural gloss nitrocellulose (as reviewed), Frontier Burst
- CONTACT epiphone.com