After World War I ended on 11 November, 1918, what followed was a time of intense change as a new wave of creativity swept across the US. The Roaring Twenties saw the emergence of jazz in America and is often regarded as the first popular youth culture movement in the country’s history. Tastes were changing en masse, and during the 1920s, a new generation of cutting-edge musicians were migrating from banjo and mandolin to guitar.
Ultimately, it took a suave young New York hipster by the name of Epaminondas Stathopoulo (‘Epi’ for short), aka The Duke, of the Epiphone Banjo Company to step up to the challenge and move the guitar industry forward. Despite the Great Depression, Epiphone introduced a range of guitars - with an impressive array of sizes and features - to the burgeoning jazzbox market with the release of its Masterbilt (yes, that's how they spelt it) series in mid-1931.
At the top of the Masterbilt f-hole archtop range was the 16 3/8-inch-wide De Luxe, while the original 13 5/8-inch-wide Zenith sat lower down the ranks near the humble (and now very popular) 13-inch-wide Olympic model.
The Zenith originally featured a solid carved spruce top, maple back and sides and a rosewood fingerboard. However, in 1934 the width increased to 14 ¾" and the back and sides changed to walnut - a rather unusual choice of tonewood that harked back to Orville Gibson’s earliest carved top/ back guitars and mandolins.
Those are the specs of this guitar and its serial # is 9448 which we think dates it to 1935 – 36.
- Top Wood:Carved Spruce
- Back & Side Wood:Walnut
- Neck Wood:3-piece mahogany
- Neck Profile:Slight V shape, 0.88" depth at 1st fret, 0.98" depth at 9th fret
- Scale Length:5"
- Inlays:Pearl Dots
- Nut:65" width
- Tuners:open back
- Bridge:Rosewood with Trapeze style tailpiece
- Pickguard:Raised Celluloid Black
- Finish:Two-Tone Burst
- Weight: 9 lbs
This Epiphone Zenith Model Acoustic Guitar was built in Epiphone’s plant in Long Island, NY.
This rather unassuming little archtop is one of the loudest and punchiest guitars of any size we have heard in a while. While the Zenith was always on the lower end of the New York Epiphone line in this early "Masterbilt" era, they were still built to the same quality standards as the other models - just smaller and plainer.
In the depths of the depression inexpensive guitars were crucial to every instrument builder's survival. The $275 Deluxe may have been Epiphone's flagship, but the $50 Zenith was an important part of the fleet. Mind you, $50 dollars was still a lot of money in 1935 for most Americans, and the lower end Epiphones do not appear to have sold in large numbers at the time.
The laminated mahogany neck has a fairly shallow profile, somewhere between a "C' and a soft "V" with a dot-inlaid rosewood fingerboard and 1.65” nut. It is capped with the later 1934 headstock design with a pearl Epiphone logo and "stickpin" inlay.
It has a very focused, cutting sound that retains more body than one might expect, especially in the higher register. This guitar sounds especially good with a capo on the neck, offering a sound that David Rawlngs has made a stylistic signature over the last couple of decades. Dave plays an Epi Olympic from the same era, but the style and build of the Olympic is very similar to the Zenith.
This guitar has been heavily played and shows quite a bit of cosmetic wear but is in good structural condition. The finish is original and shows consistent wear overall, with a lot of spots where the top lacquer coat is worn through to the wood below.
There does not appear to be any cracks or major repairs, and the neck does not appear to have been reset, or if so it is an exceptionally good job. The bridge and tailpiece appear to be original, the pickguard is there, we think the tuners may be replacements but they are era correct.
Some of the binding has been repaired or replaced, and it has had a pro refret at some point.
The fingerboard shows some wear but does not affect playability. The neck is nice and straight, the action is medium low with plenty of room to adjust in either direction, and this guitar plays very nicely just as it is.
There are dings, dents and scratches but nothing offensive, and nothing unexpected in a guitar of this age that has been played – a lot. And you know why some guitars have been played a lot ??? Because they’re damn good guitars to play ! Just like this one.
Long ignored like many small-body early archtops, the early Masterbilt Epiphone Zenith has become a sought after instrument for this distinctive sonic character which is very difficult to achieve on any other instrument.
Comes in a modern hard case in good condition.
Here’s a great video demo of and earlier, and smaller bodied, Epi Zenith form 1931 – but you’ll get the general idea – https://youtu.be/sN1F1stN-6o