Epiphone Masterbilt Century Olympic, Zenith & De Luxe Classic

After a hiatus of about 70 years, Epiphone is back in the quality acoustic-archtop business. They may look like relics of the Jazz Age, but these Masterbilt Century models combine deference to the past with modern convenience.

Although we may associate the Epiphone brand with Gibson’s budget electrics and acoustics, Epiphone was once one of the great names of American guitar making. Many of the Epiphones produced from the late 50s onwards are fantastic instruments in their own right, but the new Masterbilt Century archtops represent an attempt to alter perceptions by revisiting Epiphone’s pre-war golden era.

A considerable effort has gone into getting it right, and the evidence is in the details. The tailpieces have an aged but not distressed look, the fingerboard edges are softly rolled for player comfort, vintage-style fretwire is used and period decorative motifs have been revived.

The finishes have a soft sheen rather than high-gloss and they appear to have been applied thinly. Check the specs and you’ll find that body dimensions, longitudinal bracing and materials are all accurate, too – including solid spruce tops. Perhaps most impressive of all are the repro tuners. Epiphone has gone all out for a vintage look, with ‘E’ branding and period-correct buttons, but under the covers the gears are tweaked for a more modern 18:1 ratio.

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Fortunately, adherence to the past combines with an up-to-date Shadow NanoFlex HD under-saddle pickup and an eSonic HD preamp and stealthily concealed volume and tone controls. A combination jack socket/battery compartment is tucked under the tailpiece hinge.

Masterbilt Olympic

You could describe the Olympic as the most basic model, but we don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, because that’s the way Epiphone made Olympics back in the 30s. Body binding is single-ply; there’s no fretboard binding and the markers are simple pearloid dots. Construction is simpler, too, with a mahogany neck, stacked heel and a scarf-jointed headstock.

In use
We’re off to a good start, because the Olympic is a box of sheer fun. The experience of playing an out-and-out archtop acoustic with a solid soundboard is entirely different from a regular flat top. Its tone is very midrange-focused, punchy and percussive, and it possesses a slightly boxy clanginess that makes me want to keep playing. It also does an amazing thing whereby clear harmonic overtones bloom across open chords.

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In rhythm mode, it’s a surprisingly dynamic and solid performer. You can tell that these guitars were designed to pummel their way through an ensemble, and jazz chord inversions sound clear, harmonically coherent and forceful. Before long, I found myself strumming near the neck while comping chords, then shifting my strumming hand closer to the bridge for added dynamic thrust, volume and treble cut.

Moving from jazz voicings to country chords, the Olympic reveals itself to be a consummate rootsy country rhythm guitar. You can pick out basslines and add high inversions as you strum open chords, and everything sounds balanced and clear.

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The period-correct tuner casings contain modern-spec 18:1 gear ratios that tune easily and hold tight

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Switch to soloing mode and it’s immediately apparent why a 1935 Olympic became David Rawlings’ main guitar. Compared to a flat top, the Olympic produces notes with considerably more body, woody sustain and clarity. The tone has such a pretty, keening and evocative character, it’s sure to inspire.

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The Olympic and De Luxe models have their volume and tone controls concealed under the treble-side f-hole

It’s also wonderfully even across the strings and all along the fretboard. So wherever your fingers find themselves, no notes jump out or become subsumed by wolf-y tones, and you can slip effortlessly between solo notes, strummed chords and arpeggios.

Masterbilt Zenith

The Zenith is the next one up – in size and price – and its most obvious distinguishing feature is the round and bound soundhole. Nevertheless, this is a bona-fide archtop. Where the Olympic and De Luxe have their controls tucked inside the treble-side f-holes, the Zenith’s sit under the bass side of the soundhole.

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The Zenith’s controls are under the bass side of the soundhole

The neck is a proper jazz-style affair made from three pieces of mahogany and two pieces of maple sandwiched together. The bound ebony fingerboard features ‘falling snowflake’ pearloid markers and the laminated flame-maple body has three-ply binding front and back.

In use
With a round hole, the playing experience will be far more familiar to flat-top owners because the player gets to hear far more of the guitar’s tone. With a conventional f-hole, conversely, a lot of the tone gets projected forwards towards the listener and away from the player.

The Zenith’s sound is somewhat more familiar, too, with far less midrange emphasis, a more open treble and deeper bass. It seems a fair bit louder, but its sonic character is far less quirky and pronounced.

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Despite its round soundhole, the Zenith is a proper archtop with longitudinal bracing

Where the Olympic’s pumped mids and rolled-off treble and bass allow it to occupy a frequency space that’s so often vacated by vintage-voiced flat tops, the Zenith seems to encourage you to use a more rhythmic approach, with more right-arm intensity.
It’s also fun to play lead lines, but notes don’t have quite the same degree of sustain or meaty solidity. On the plus side, there’s a little more action in the upper harmonics, which lends a more ethereal shimmer to chord work and soloing alike.

Masterbilt De Luxe Classic

All three of these Epiphone Masterbilt Century models are supplied with a pickguard to be fitted at the owner’s discretion, but this was the only one that arrived with its pickguard already attached. True to the exacting standards of the Masterbilt series, it has the right shape and look, with five-ply binding and a mitre joint in the one corner beneath the 15th fret.

Measuring 17 inches across, the body is one inch wider than the Zenith’s and 2.5 inches wider than the Olympic’s. This time, the ebony fingerboard is treated to large ‘notched snowflake’ markers, but the ‘ebonoid’ floating bridge is just the same.

In use
With an armful of Masterbilt De Luxe, it would be quite easy to imagine oneself wearing a cheap tuxedo in an orchestra pit, swathed in tobacco smoke with a silent movie playing overhead. It’s by far the biggest of this bunch in size and sound, but it combines elements of both the Olympic and Zenith. The De Luxe is the loudest by some margin, but it has the highs and lows of the Zenith combined with the even balance, midrange muscle and sustain of the Olympic. It also has the most refined and sophisticated tone. No doubt you can bash out a rhythm part with considerable cut and gusto, but it responds just as readily to a soft touch that rounds out the bass and allows the extended treble to breathe.

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The De Luxe’s pickguard features five-ply binding and really looks the part

The De Luxe doesn’t quite have the Olympic’s remarkable evenness but it comes close, and there’s a dusting of high harmonics that linger on as single notes fade leisurely away. It may not have quite the open-throated shout of the Zenith or the Olympic’s accentuated sonic character but, simply put, the De Luxe is the best all-rounder.

All three of these guitars are fitted with the same eSonic HD preamp and Shadow NanoFlex HD under-saddle pickup. The pickup system was designed with dedicated acoustic amplification in mind, which typically comes with the kind of powerful onboard parametric EQ that will allow you to sculpt not only the kind of toneful warmth synonymous with the Jazz Age but also much more contemporary acoustic sounds ideal for the modern player.

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Like the originals, the repro tuner buttons are flecked with colour

Output level is high and noise is low, but be mindful that the voicing is relatively bright when plugged directly into a flat-response desk or PA system, so you may want to use the instrument’s onboard tone control to roll off the high end if you don’t have an acoustic amp or preamp on hand. David Rawlings stopped using pickups live many years ago and has since relied exclusively upon microphones but if that’s not an option, we’re happy to report that although the mids are less full, the bass response retains much of its woody character.
Epiphone has pulled off something spectacular by creating three distinct models that combine modern Far Eastern production with an authentically vintage vibe. The tuners are a triumph, and kudos to Epiphone for going the extra mile. Let’s hope one or two other heritage brands will finally be inspired to do likewise.

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The flamey figuring on the De Luxe’s maple back and sides is vivid and vibey

The gauge of fretwire is judged perfectly and Epiphone has achieved that elusive goal of carving a fat vintage neck profile that isn’t unwieldy or clubby. In fact, it’s a sheer delight.
You shouldn’t make snap judgements if you get to try one of these. Even more than a solid wood flat top, these archtops require a few minutes of playing time before they warm up properly. Perhaps the bridge bases could be made to fit the top a little more snugly, but ultimately, I don’t think I have ever had so much fun playing archtop acoustics. So which one would I choose? That’s a tough call, but when they are eventually returned to Epiphone I think there will be an Olympic-sized hole in my collection.

Key Features

Olympic
epiphone-olympic-masterbilt

Price £499
Description Archtop acoustic 6-string guitar, manufactured in Indonesia
Build solid spruce top with f-holes and longitudinal bracing, laminated mahogany back and sides, set mahogany rounded C neck, bone nut, rosewood fingerboard with dot markers and 20 vintage-style frets
Hardware Aged nickel trapeze tailpiece, floating ebonoid bridge, Historic Epiphone reissue tuners with Marboloid ‘Crown’ buttons & 18:1 ratio
Electrics Shadow NanoFlex HD under-saddle pickup with eSonic HD preamp, volume and tone controls
Scale length 648mm/25.5”
Neck width 43mm at nut, 55mm at 12th fret
• Neck depth 23mm at first fret, 27mm at ninth fret
String spacing 36mm at nut, 54.5mm at bridge
Weight 2.2kg/4.8lb
Left-handers Yes (just spin the bridge around)
Finishes Aged Gloss Honeyburst and Violin Burst
Contact Gibson Europe www.epiphone.com
olympic

Zenith
epiphone-zenith-masterbilt

Price £599
Description Archtop acoustic 6-string guitar, manufactured in Indonesia
Build solid spruce top with round soundhole and longitudinal bracing, laminated flame-maple back and sides, set five piece mahogany/maple rounded C neck, bone nut, ebony fingerboard with falling snowflake markers and 20 vintage-style frets
Hardware Aged nickel trapeze tailpiece, floating ebonoid bridge, Historic Epiphone reissue tuners with Marboloid ‘Crown’ buttons & 18:1 ratio
Electrics Shadow NanoFlex HD under-saddle pickup with eSonic HD preamp, volume and tone controls
Scale length 648mm/25.5”
Neck width 43mm at nut, 55mm at 12th fret
Neck depth 23mm at first fret, 27mm at ninth fret
String spacing 36mm at nut, 54.5mm at bridge
Weight 2.3kg/5lb
Left-handers Yes (just spin the bridge around)
Finishes Aged Gloss Vintage Natural and Vintage Sunburst
Options The Zenith Classic features f-holes rather than a round soundhole
zenith

De Luxe Classic
epiphone-de-luxe-masterbilt
Price £729
Description Archtop acoustic 6-string guitar, manufactured in Indonesia
Build solid spruce top with f-holes and longitudinal bracing, laminated flame-maple back and sides, set five- piece mahogany/maple rounded C neck, bone nut, ebony fingerboard with notched diamond markers and 20 vintage-style frets
Hardware Aged nickel trapeze tailpiece, floating ebonoid bridge, Historic Epiphone reissue tuners with Marboloid ‘Crown’ buttons & 18:1 ratio
Electrics Shadow NanoFlex HD under-saddle pickup with eSonic HD preamp, volume and tone controls
Scale length 648mm/25.5”
Neck width 43mm at nut, 55mm at 12th fret
Neck depth 23mm at first fret, 27mm at ninth fret
String spacing 36mm at nut, 54.5mm at bridge
Weight 2.3kg/5lb
Left-handers Yes (just spin the bridge around)
Finishes Aged Gloss Vintage Natural and Vintage Sunburst
Options The Deluxe features a round soundhole rather than f-holes
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