Epiphone Masterbilt Collection
A premium acoustic series with roots in Epiphone's proud past
By Andrea Balisia

Young players only know of Epiphone as GibsonŽ's "other guitar" company focused on creating affordable versions of Gibson's classic designs. But long before most of these players were born, Epiphone was an independent company. It was one of Gibson's leading rivals, producing guitars of its own design that were famous for their uniqueness and exceptional quality. Even today, there are quite a few great old Epiphone acoustic guitars out there that are treasured by their owners and very valuable when put up for sale.

Click to see the entire Masterbilt line
For years now, Epiphone has served an important function, both for Gibson and for the guitar-playing world. It serves a different target market for Gibson, providing Gibson-design instruments to players who can't afford or don't want to pay the price of a higher-priced Gibson. Still, it is interesting how a company's tradition has a life of its own and is always trying to reassert itself. Even though Epiphone is Gibson-owned and properly has to fit into the overall Gibson scheme of things, the company still has a collective urge to do what it once did: make Epiphone guitars that live up to its proud past. This is what the new Masterbilt line from Epiphone is all about.

Masterbilt tradition
The name itself tells the story. It comes from Epiphone's early days. It was first used in 1931, and later was applied to many different Epiphone guitars: the Masterbilt Broadway, the Masterbilt Deluxe, and others. Reviving its use for this premium collection is indicative of Epiphone's aim of returning to its glory days.

Other details besides the name are historical. The scrolled peghead comes from the 1939 Broadway model. The stick pin headstock inlay is taken from the 1940 Zenith. The logo script is also from Epiphone's early days. The totality of such historical details serves to give the Masterbilt guitars an authentic vintage vibe that will appeal to many guitarists.

There are 14 models in the Masterbilt Series and four basic styles: dreadnoughts (DR Models), smaller-bodied finger-style instruments (EF Models), jumbos (AJ Models), and classicals (EN Models). All feature solid wood construction with spruce or cedar tops, and bodies of rosewood, mahogany, or maple. All have mahogany necks.

The Masterbilts are designed by Gibson/Epiphone acoustic engineers at Gibson headquarters in Nashville and handcrafted in China under Epiphone's direct supervision and quality control. The combination of experienced American design and clean, precise Chinese workmanship results in exceptional sound and playability. These Masterbilts can hold their own against guitars made anywhere in the world.

The AJ-500RE
I was provided with the AJ 500RE for my hands-on review. A gorgeous rosewood and spruce jumbo with onboard electronics, it was chosen for me to review because it's representative of the line. In the middle of the price range, it has the electronics added, and Epiphone expects it to be the most popular guitar in the collection.

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The AJ stands for Advanced Jumbo which warrants some explanation because the guitar isn't a jumbo of the Gibson J-200 sort. It has the same body shape as an Epiphone Texan or Gibson J-45, which is actually a dreadnought body, but one with sloped shoulders. My first impression upon seeing it was just how much vintage character it had. This results somewhat from the vintage detailing, but mostly from its satin finish. By using a thin satin coat rather than a gloss polyurethane finish, Epiphone has increased the instrument's resonance. Wood vibrates more freely when not buried under a heavy coat of finish-as a result, the Masterbilt guitars have less flash, but a stronger vintage vibe. The DR-500RA and EF-500RA are saved from dullness by a rather spectacular abalone top binding and rosette. You could say they have "subdued flash."

Hearing the AJ 500RE for the first time, I was impressed by its striking volume and projection. It is a loud guitar but without being boomy or oppressively mid-rangy. It has a musical, well-balanced sound that compares favorably to guitars priced substantially higher. The Sitka spruce top and solid rosewood body do their in-tended thing, and an old-style dovetail neck joint also contributes to the guitar's vibrancy.

A look inside showed me an overall tidiness in keeping with high-end luthiery. The braces looked cleanly cut and precisely uniform. All of the Masterbilt guitars, I was told, feature Sitka spruce bracing and mahogany kerfing, another ingredient in its richness of sound and surprising volume. The details support the positioning of the Masterbilt series as high-end, well-crafted guitars.

The fretwork seems especially carefully and expertly done-smooth and even from the bottom to the top of the neck. The action is consistent, and the intonation is as good as it gets without a compensated nut.

After playing acoustically, I plugged in and gave the electronics a test run. The system passes with high marks. It is a Baggs Element system with the pickup under the saddle and a built-in preamp. A neat feature is the soundhole volume control. It's notched so you can easily change volume with one finger of your right hand while keeping it basically in playing position.

The AJ 500RE clearly sums up as a premium-quality instrument that's well-worthy of reclaiming Epiphone's status as a maker of fine guitars. It certainly is a guitar I would like very much to own, and I'm very picky about my guitars.

Features & Specs

  • All solid wood construction
  • Sitka spruce or cedar tops depending on model
  • Rosewood, mahogany, or maple backs and sides depending on model
  • Mahogany one-piece necks on all models
  • Old-style dovetail neck joint at 14th fret
  • Satin finishes on all models
  • Hand-scalloped Sitka spruce braces
  • Mahogany kerfing
  • 25-1/2"-scale rosewood fretboards
  • 20 frets
  • Rosewood bridges
  • Open-back Sta-Tite tuners with retro look but 18:1 gear ratio
  • Beautifully worked frets
  • Mother-of-pearl script logo and stick pin inlay from vintage Epiphones
  • Acoustic-electric models feature a Baggs Element system with soundhole volume control and under-saddle pickup
  • All come with a lightweight, plush-lined, fabric-covered gig bag