The Epiphone De Luxe, The Gibson L-5’s first rival

With many thanks to Felix Wiedler for his help with this feature.

Introduced in 1931, the De Luxe was the flagship model of Epiphone’s new ‘Masterbilt’ line. With its 16 3/8-inch wide body and $275 price tag, the model was clearly intended to compete with the Gibson L-5.

Comprising six archtop guitars, the ‘Masterbilt’ line included two full sized models, the De Luxe and the Broadway, both of which were aimed at professional musicians. Built to the highest standards from top quality materials, they made a clear statement – Epiphone was now a force to be reckoned with in the archtop market!

Below, we take a look at the original non-cutaway Epiphone De Luxe and chart its progress through the years leading up to WWII.

Type One

Type One – The guitar pictured here dates from 1931. Note the three-segment f-holes. Image courtesy of Norman’s Rare Guitars normansrareguitars.com).

The Epiphone De Luxe had a 16 3/8-inch wide body (3/8-inch wider than Gibson’s 16-inch L-5!) with a carved spruce top, carved figured maple back and solid maple rims. The top was bound with four-ply white/black plastic and had an inner band of rope pattern purfling, while the back was triple bound.

Early examples featured an asymmetrical headstock with a dip on its treble side. Faced with multilaminate plastic, it had a pearl ‘banner’ at the top that was engraved with the ‘Epiphone’ name. A slanted banner across the middle of the headstock carried the model designation while a third banner, located above the nut was engraved with the word ‘Masterbilt’. The areas above and below the central banner were inlaid with elaborate floral motifs in pearl.

Tuners were open back Waverlys with metal buttons which, like the rest of the hardware, were gold-plated. A bound volute was positioned just behind the nut.

Joining the body at the 14th fret, the maple neck featured a laminated construction with two centre strips of mahogany. It was topped by a bound rosewood fingerboard that had a curved end and was inlaid with a pattern of diamonds and triangles. On many (but not all) 1931 examples, a plain pearl rectangle was positioned at the 14th fret.

Other features included three-segment f-holes, an adjustable rosewood bridge, a single bound black plastic pickguard and a trapeze tailpiece in which the strings wrapped over the cross bar.

The block inlay had moved to the 15th fret by 1932 (as seen in the 1933 example pictured below).

The earliest examples had a translucent Sunburst finish but from 1933 to 1934 the model featured an unusual semi-opaque Sunburst top finish.

Type One – This Epiphone De Luxe dates from 1933 and features the opaque Sunburst finish mentioned above. Image courtesy of Imperial Vintage Guitars

Type Two

1934 De Luxe. Image courtesy of Bernunzio Uptown Music

In 1934 the De Luxe was revised so that the ‘Epiphone’ name now appeared in large pearl block letters across the top of the headstock. Below this an ornate ‘tree of life’ was inlaid in pearl. The end of the fingerboard was cut straight across and the inlay pattern comprised a series of pearl ‘flowers’. The pickguard was now made from white plastic. The tailpiece was redesigned the previous year so that the strings no longer wrapped over the bar. De Luxes from 1933-35 can be seen with either gold Waverly or gold scalloped Grover tuners.

Type Three

This Type Three De Luxe dates from 1935. Note the tailpiece cut-outs which form a central ‘arrow’ shape, the ‘fan’ fingerboard inlays and the large cello style holes. Image courtesy of the Dutch Archtop Guitar Museum

Following Gibson’s lead, the De Luxe was relaunched in late 1935 with a larger 17 3/8-inch wide body. The three-piece segmented f-holes had been replaced by one-piece, single bound cello-style sound holes that featured a squared-off edge at each corner in early 1935 when the model was still 16 3/8 inches wide. 

White binding strips extended along the length of the fingerboard beneath the first and sixth strings and inlays now consisted of a series of pearl ‘fans’ with a pearl rectangle at the 15th fret. The fan inlays, which first appeared in early 1935 (on 16 3/8” models), disappeared in early 1936. They were soon replaced by engraved pearl ‘cloud’ inlays. The neck volute was eliminated.

Other details included a flat plate tailpiece with four cut-outs (in the earliest version the cut-outs created a central ‘arrow’ shape), a large tortoiseshell plastic pickguard that extended below the bridge and a script headstock logo.

Early Type Three examples were labelled ‘Super De Luxe’.

In 1937 the model was upgraded with the then new ‘frequensator’ tailpiece and Epiphone’s new ‘thrust rod’ neck reinforcement, which was adjustable at the end of the fingerboard.

This 1940 DeLuxe has the Natural finish that Epiphone introduced in 1938. Image courtesy of Retrofret

By 1938 the company had adopted a centre dip headstock similar to the design used by Gibson and the De Luxe and other models were now available in a Natural finish option.

A set of E-logo enclosed tuners with plastic buttons replaced the open back Grovers in 1940.

In 1949 the model was offered with a cutaway model as the ‘De Luxe Regent’. Some examples from this period were shipped with an 18 1/2-inch body size (like Epiphone’s Emperor model).

Conclusion

In the late 1950s Epiphone was acquired by the Chicago Musical Instrument Company, which owned Gibson and for a time, production of Epiphone guitars was moved to a facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan. 

In 1969, CMI was taken over by ECL company – soon to be renamed Norlin – and production of all Epiphone models was moved offshore. As a result, the Epiphone brand name has become synonymous with the ‘poor man’s Gibson’ and relatively few players are aware that the company was once Gibson’s main rival. While this situation is in many ways regrettable, it does mean that vintage Epiphone guitars can be found at a much more affordable price than their Gibson equivalents.

Further reading

For more on the De Luxe and other vintage Epiphone models see ‘The House of Stathpoulo’ by Jim Fisch and L. B. Fred, published by Amsco.

There is extensive information on the brand in ‘Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars’, published by Backbeat Books.

We would also recommend that you visit Felix Wiedler’s excellent website, ‘The Unofficial New York Epiphone Registry’, which covers just about everything regarding the original Epiphone Company:

Epiphone De Luxe
Epiphone De Luxe pictured in the company’s 1934 catalogue

To read more about the Epiphone De Luxe, click here

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