Epiphone FT-350SCE, AJ-45ME/VSS & EL-00 Pro review

The Epiphone name has become synonymous with high-quality, affordable sunburst electro-acoustics, and this trio maintain the trend while adding the revolutionary Min-ETune system. Rick Batey takes a look…

Epiphone’s long history is full of great-looking sunburst flat-top guitars, from the underrated Madrid and FT series instruments of the 1930s through to the Gibson-owned era and the classic Texans and gorgeous Frontiers of the 1960s. If you love sunbursts, the current catalogue has plenty to choose from, and this month we have three of them under the microscope – all electro-acoustics, but each with a very different role to play.

FT-350SCE

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The big news with the FT-350SCE is easy to summarise: this is, Epiphone says, the world’s first affordable self-tuning electro-acoustic guitar, as it comes with the Tronical Min-ETune mechanical machinehead system, which offers both standard and dropped tunings.

Before we get on to that, the FT-350 is a big, bold, cutaway dreadnought that comes in a choice of four colours: Black, Wine Red, Natural and this one, a bright Violin Sunburst. The body is white-bound, there’s a super-wide 10-ply band of purfling around the top and more glitz courtesy of a Gibson Hummingbird-shaped scratchplate. With its extra cutaway notch, the guard adds a hint of a Grammer – the kind of guitar a country star might have played in the 60s at the Grand Ole Opry.

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The FT-350CE’s back and sides are laminated mahogany, streaky and sapele-like; the top is solid Sitka spruce, clean and fine-grained on this example, although with a strong two-tone contrast between the top and bottom halves, depending how the light hits it (chatoyancy, as it’s known). It’s a natural side-effect of the way a piece of wood is cut, and nothing to worry about.

The neck is made from three pieces of maple, with a cool-looking dart volute reinforcing the area behind the nut. The scale length is a full 25.5 inches and the white-bound rosewood fingerboard carries dot markers, with one at the first fret – which is unusual.

We’ve got a 60s-style headstock, and the nut is a Tronical Speednut made of a self-lubricating material. The slim, rounded neck is quite speedy and feels very much like a mid/late 60s Epiphone acoustic neck. The action on ours is medium, with room to come down, and the cutaway is a boon for playing above the 12th fret.

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Acoustically, the FT-350SCE is both plenty loud and bright in tone. It’s a cheerful and responsive guitar to play and although the bottom E is possibly a touch shy, it’s got a nice, forward, articulate midrange that’s good for picking notes out of chords.

This guitar comes fitted with a Shadow NanoFlex undersaddle pickup, with a Shadow ePerformer preamp located on the upper bout. This offers volume, bass and treble rotaries, phase and mute buttons  (the latter will come into play a lot when using the Min-ETune), and a `dynamics’ slider that seems to operate as a fairly subtle midrange body control. The B and G strings are a touch prominent, but overall it’s a good-sounding example of the undersaddle breed.

And so to the FT-350SCE’s main selling point, the Tronical Min-ETune. This has been around on Epiphone electrics for a couple of years now, and it’s fair to say that acclaim has been widespread but not universal. Some players are worried about battery life, or may be concerned about the possibility – however remote – that the electronics may fail and cause a publicly embarrassing moment. Equally, some may feel they can perform tuning duties more quickly by ear, or more accurately with a really good stage tuner.

Those are fair points, but these systems are here to stay and the Min-ETune does what it says on the tin: it’s lightweight and unobtrusive. It’s easy to use in the simplest mode: just switch on, strum all the strings with your thumb over the end of the fingerboard, wait a couple of seconds and strum again, and if any indicator lights are still red, play that string alone for a final auto-adjustment.

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A Gameboy-style four-way controller lets you access three menu banks containing assorted common altered tunings (you can also add your own). You can go into a calibration mode or choose the level of accuracy you desire; the closer it is, the longer tuning may take, but +/- 2 cents seems good enough for live use. You can tune manually if needed, but be aware that the ratchety-feeling 40:1 ratio gears are slow, and the bass-side tuners work in the opposite way to the conventional method.

The makers claim that the rechargeable li-polymer battery gives 80-100 tunes. The fastest big retune we achieved was about 10 seconds, from DADGAD back to standard; the slowest was around 50 seconds, from standard to a very dropped tuning situated a few steps away on a different bank. Do download Tronical’s instruction PDF and work through it before you run out of stage, because it’s possible to make a boo-boo unless you understand how it works.

Whether this is something you need is a very personal decision. The best thing is to try one in a store, taking special care to go through the menu, replicating what you’ll be doing with it – whether swapping between dropped tunings or simple standard tuning tweaks – and see how it rocks your boat.

AJ-45ME/VSS

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The slope-shouldered dreadnought was introduced by Gibson in the 30s and adopted by Epiphone under the Gibson umbrella in the late 50s, and for many there’s a special character to this kind of guitar that can’t be found anywhere else.

The Epiphone AJ-45ME comes with a `Masterbilt’ appendage, referring back to the company’s pre-Gibson glory days, and it seems to take inspiration from various eras. The company’s use of the term `AJ’ is confusing; `Advanced Jumbo’ to us means Gibson, the 30s and rosewood back and sides with a long scale length, but Epi literature prescribes it to this guitar and the Inspired by 1964 Texan, which are both mahogany, with 24.75-inch scales.

The headstock is authentically 1930s, with an asymmetrical humped shape, a nostalgic pearly `stickpin’ emblem and a curvaceous Epiphone logo with a stylish tail. A set of open-back Grover machineheads fits right in with that pre-war feel. Move south and we leave the 30s behind: the `upside-down’ belly bridge is a feature from 1950 onwards, while the scratchplate has a shape from a post-1955 J-45 or J-50. It’s rather oddly-coloured, and if we were to buy this guitar we’d be tempted to buy a nice, properly bevelled replacement guard.

Stepping away from tradition, the AJ-45 has three rosette bands around its soundhole, and the fingerboard overhangs the soundhole with a final bare section that’s roomy enough to carry another fret. Classic-era slopes have a space between soundhole and fingerboard that balances the design of the whole guitar; in the Epiphone line, only the Elitist 1964 Texan gets it right. It’s merely a small detail, but we miss it.

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This is a cleanly-built guitar with a good neck angle. The all-over satin finish and the two-tone sunburst top give a practical, working man’s kind of character – and the top really is a quality piece of spruce. You get a mahogany back and sides, too, and Epiphone has gone to the trouble of adding mahogany side strips for added reinforcement.

The neck is also mahogany – it’s fairly streaky, but all one piece, with no scarfed-on headstock or stacked heel. With a 14-inch fingerboard radius, very low vintage-gauge frets and Epiphone’s slim-meets-chubby `SlimTaper D profile’, plus really well-rounded fingerboard edges and a 43mm nut, the AJ is extremely easy in the hand. It has good intonation and a nice action, with enough room for the saddle to come down a shade.

When it comes to tone, this guitar should be shivering in its shoes right now, because next to it sits a real, beaten-up 1958 Epiphone Texan, and it’s a heck of a good one, too. But guess what? The Indonesian model acquits itself very well.

It can’t replicate the prairie-wide openness of the oldie, nor does it match the complexity of the lower mids and the thickness of the trebles, but it’s voiced in the right ballpark, with an easy, loose and open feel.

There’s a furriness to the strum and a nutty plunk to the bottom end and midrange that is quite slope-shouldered in character, and a heavy-gauge pick makes the most of the fair degree of fatness contained within. It’s improving all the time, but it’s already a cracking guitar.

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A Shadow undersaddle pickup is linked to a preamp with soundhole-mounted volume, treble and bass controls (the tiny wheels are very fiddly, and the centre detents on the tone knobs are almost imperceptible). While it’s a touch papery sounding, it’s an excellent alternative to the Fishman Sonitone system Epiphone fits to many of its guitars, well balanced from string to string, and with a tonality that’s easy to work with. Thumbs up.

EL-00 Pro

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It’s always a good day when anything resembling a vintage Gibson L-00 shows up at G&B, because it’s another of our all-time favourite guitars. The EL-00 Pro brings its own flavour to the party, however, with a smaller soundhole than the Gibson original and a body outline that pinches the lower bout very slightly and brings the waist a fraction further down. It’s still very much a pre-war kind of aesthetic, and that two-tone sunburst is gorgeous, while the straight bridge and the super-dark faux-tortoiseshell guard – there’s no need for an upgrade here – look great.

This finish is gloss all over, giving a very rich, sophisticated look. The top is solid spruce (and, again, a very nice piece), while the back and sides are laminated mahogany. Realistically, that’s entirely to be expected at this impressively low price.

The neck is mahogany, sunbursted at the rear with a dark headstock and dark heel – and, in common with the AJ-45, there’s a strap button ready-installed in the correct position on the side of the heel.

The fingerboard is rosewood with front dot markers and black binding to hide the fret ends, and the scale length is the traditional Gibson 24.75 inches. Up top, we’ve got the slim 60s-design headstock, backed by a set of enclosed Grovers with small metal buttons, and the nut is imitation bone ± as is the compensated bridge saddle.

A neck a little wider than this one might have suited the EL-00 well, but it comes with the standard narrow dimensions of 1 11/16∫, or 42.5mm. The profile is Epiphone’s SlimTaper D, and the little EL is a slick-playing guitar with a well-cut nut and nicely fitted small-gauge frets.

The EL-00 Pro has a Fishman Sonicore undersaddle pickup and the Sonitone preamp with volume and tone wheel controls located inside the soundhole.

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This guitar doesn’t come over like a 30s L-00, but then (almost) nobody has ever managed to replicate the unique character of those amazing instruments with their super-light build and knife-sharp bracing, all backed up by 80 years or so of ageing.

It sounds mild, pretty and contained, with a metallic, boxy nasality, which can work quite well for solo vocal accompaniment or, at a pinch, David Rawlings-type flatpicked leads. It’s cute-sounding when used with a capo hardly fulsome or girthy, but bright with cute, poppy mids.

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However, with its compact size and slim neck, it’s an easy, approachable guitar to grab and play any time you get the chance.

Three very different guitars, then, and they do three very different jobs. The FT-350SCE offers its Min-ETune technology at a price many will find hard to refuse. Whether it’s the answer to your wildest dreams or a solution to a problem you don’t have is up to the individual, but this is a well-built, voluminous and clear-sounding dreadnought.

The little EL-00 Pro is a very handsome and slick-playing sofa picker; in fact, it’s hard to believe that it’s so affordable. The AJ-45ME’s understated vibe, meanwhile, camouflages a great-sounding,  slope-shouldered dread – it’s big, open and very responsive. Therefore, it’s our pick of the bunch… but as long as Epiphone keeps bringing the ‘bursts, we’ll be happy.

Key features
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FT-350SCE
• Price £459, case not included
• Description Flat-top cutaway self-tuning electro-acoustic guitar. Made in Indonesia
• Build Solid Sitka spruce top, laminated mahogany back and sides, three-piece maple neck with volute, 20-fret rosewood fingerboard, cream binding on body and neck with ornate 10-layer purfling on front, rosewood bridge with imitation bone-compensated saddle, Tronical SpeedNut, second strap button on end of heel
• Electrics Shadow NanoFlex undersaddle pickup with Shadow ePerformer preamp with volume, bass and treble rotaries, mute and phase buttons, and dynamics slider; integrated battery drawer; Min-ETune auto-tuning system with 12 factory presets and six user presets
• Left-handers No
• Finish Gloss all over, four options: Antique Natural, Ebony, Violin Burst, Wine Red
• Scale length 648mm/25.5”
• Neck width 43mm at nut, 54mm at 12th fret
• Depth of neck 21.5mm at first fret, 25mm at ninth fret
• String spacing 35.5mm at nut, 55mm at bridge
• Weight 2.43kg/5.34lbs
• Contact Gibson Europe
www.epiphone.com
Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 11.16.31
AJ-45ME/VSS
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• Price £439, hardcase included
• Description Flat-top electro-acoustic guitar. Made in Indonesia
• Build Solid sitka spruce top, solid mahogany back and sides, cream body binding with five-ply purfling on front, none on rear; triple-ring rosette, one-piece mahogany neck including headstock and heel, 20-fret rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays, rosewood bridge with bone saddle, bone nut, Grover Sta-Tite tuners, two strap buttons
• Electrics Shadow NanoFlex undersaddle pickup with Shadow Sonic preamp with soundhole-mounted controls: volume, treble, bass, anti-feedback. Takes two coin-type batteries
• Left-handers No
• Finish Vintage Sunburst only,
satin all over
• Scale length 628mm/24.75”
• Neck width 43mm at nut, 54mm at 12th fret
• Depth of neck 22mm at first fret, 25.5mm at ninth fret
• String spacing 36mm at nut, 54mm at bridge
• Weight 2.0kg/4.4lbs
• Contact Gibson Europe
www.epiphone.com
Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 11.16.45
EL-00 Pro
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• Price £229, case not included
• Description Flat-top electro-acoustic guitar. Made in Indonesia
• Build Solid spruce top, laminated mahogany back and sides, cream body binding with three-ply purfling on top only, single-ring rosette, mahogany neck, 19-fret black-bound rosewood fingerboard with dot markers, straight rosewood bridge, compensated imitation bone saddle, mini-button enclosed Grover tuners, two strap buttons
• Electrics Fishman Sonicore UST, Sonitone preamp with soundhole vol/tone
• Left-handers No
• Finish Gloss all over, Vintage Sunburst only
• Scale length 628mm/24.75”
• Neck width 42.5mm at nut, 55mm at 12th fret
• Depth of neck 22mm at first fret, 24mm at 10th fret
• String spacing 35mm at nut, 56mm at bridge
• Weight 2kg/4.4lbs
• Contact Gibson Europe
www.epiphone.com
Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 11.17.01

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