Like the Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster and Telecaster Custom we acquired last month, if you haven’t kept up with what’s been happening at Epiphone, we suggest you get busy. Inspired by our experience with the Squier guitars and Elvin’s lifelong love of cherry red thinlines, we perused the online Epiphone catalog on your behalf, and we discovered that they are building a diverse line of irresistible classic guitars. At one time not so long ago Epiphone even built an ES-345 Stereo, now discontinued. Of course we looked everywhere with none to be found, but we’re betting one will turn up around the time we send this issue to the printer… After investing considerable time trolling various web sources for new Epiphone models, we chose Sweetwater, mainly because they seemed to have the largest selection of Epiphone Dots in cherry, blonde and sunburst (also available in ebony), and their site allows you to actually compare high resolution pictures of identical models with weights included. We quickly narrowed our focus to a cherry Epiphone Dot ES335 with the best looking rosewood fingerboard among four available guitars, combined with a moderate weight of 8.3 lbs. The lightest guitar listed was 7 lbs. 13 oz., but the pictures of the fingerboard on the guitar we chose looked exceptionally good, and our guitar still feels very balanced and light in hand. In fact, we consider this to be the perfect weight. We bought the Epiphone for $399 shipped, case not included, and it arrived in 3 days via FedEx. A few days later we received a $79 email offer on the hard shell Epiphone case, and we bought that, too.
The first thought that will enter your mind when you open the Epiphone box or play one in a store is just how beautifully well-made these guitars are. When missus ToneQuest, who has seen hundreds of guitars come through here, stopped at the door of the music room to comment on how beautiful the cherry Epiphone is, well, that’s high praise indeed, and as rare as a solar eclipse. The authentic gloss cherry finish is indeed perfectly rich and deep on the bound maple-ply body with vintage-correct Mickey Mouse ears, and inside, a full length mahogany center block. The unbound, cherry-stained ‘Slim-taper D Profile’ mahogany neck really isn’t that slim or tapered, measuring 7/8 inch thick along the entire length of the neck with a nicely rounded back, tapered shoulders, and a beautifully figured slab of streaky Indian rosewood. The neck shape reminds us very much of our first ‘67 sparkling burgundy Gibson 335. We love it, we love the medium jumbo frets, and the black composite nut seems to be cut well with no audible binding or ‘pinging’ when tuning.
The mahogany neck is also constructed with two crescent shaped scarf joints located just above the heel and behind the first and second frets. We suspect that a ‘scarfed’ neck might cause some uninformed players to recoil with doubt, perceiving this as an indication of cheap or flawed construction… They would be wrong. Scarf joints on guitar necks have been used for centuries in the construction of classical guitars, and extensively in modern guitar-building by companies like Taylor and Ibanez in addition to Epiphone. There are two reasons that builders use scarf joints… First, when carving a neck with an angled peghead and large heel such as a set neck found on a Gibson guitar, more wood is turned to sawdust on the factory floor than the amount remaining in the finished neck. Gibson’s practice of cutting the wood for necks on a bias, leaving the grain orientation much longer (and stronger) at the headstock further adds to the waste incurred when carving necks from single boards. On economical guitars like our Epiphone 335, a scarfed neck is far more cost-effective in reaching a specific price point. Secondly, scarf joints are extremely strong— stronger than the wood itself, and it is very rare to see a headstock or neck break at a scarf joint. So yes, scarf joints on a mahogany neck are more economical, but also stronger. “Ooo, but what about the glue, man? The glue in those joints will block the vibrations from resonating throughout the neck…” No, not really. Just keep reading.
As beautiful as our new Epiphone Dot is, it needed just a little work to attain the cult status of Red Dawg… Sweetwater boasts of a 55-point quality inspection, which doesn’t mean a thorough pro set up, and despite the sticker on the back of the headstock indicating that the guitar had been set up and inspected in the USA by #7, we found the string height on our guitar to be way too low with lots of fret buzzing.
The potted USA-designed Epiphone Alnico Classic and Classic Plus humbuckers measured 9K/neck and 8.66K bridge. As expected, they were perfectly acceptable for a budget-priced guitar, but of course we had higher aspirations. We pulled the wiring harness out and replaced the input jack with a Switchcraft, since that is the mechanical part that gets the most use and abuse.
The Epiphone 335 is already equipped with full-size 500K pots (not CTS, but they work just fine) and the wiring scheme is more complex than standard vintage wiring, so we chose to leave it intact, cutting the Epiphone pickup leads just below the baseplate of each pickup and splicing a set of Slider’s PAF-style humbuckers into the existing wiring. That’s the easiest way to change pickups in this guitar without pulling the harness, which must otherwise be removed through the lower f-hole since a section of the center block has not been cut out below the bridge pickup rout as on vintage and most Gibson 335s. We also noted that the original mounting screws for the Epiphone pickups and rings are larger than the standard size, so when changing pickups you’ll need to have a spare set of standard screws and springs on hand. At some point we may rewire the Epiphone with an RS Guitarworks kit, and when we do, we’ll report here.
The Epi ‘LockTone’ stop tailpiece consists of a nickel stop tail with two wire prongs on each end that ‘lock’ the tailpiece on the studs. We considered replacing the studs with steel, but the stud inserts are threaded differently than standard American studs, so we left them in and replaced the tailpiece with the heavier non-aluminum nickel TonePros version. As we have noted in the past, lightweight nickel-plated aluminum tailpieces don’t seem to produce the best tone and sustain on semi-hollow guitars. We will gladly keep the stock nickel Grover tuners.
With the Slider’s mounted, a new set of Pyramid 10-48s installed, and the string height adjusted, we plugged into our blackface Super Reverb and began pushing chords through the Epiphone noting tone (chimey if not powerful) and how the neck and body resonated. The guitar sounded good, but we weren’t detecting a lot of good vibrations resonating from the neck and body. Must be those scarf joints, eh? Uh, wait a minute… we had completely forgotten to check the truss rod. Sighting down the neck we spied a healthy bow on both sides— more than necessary even for those who like a little relief, which explained the spongy and loose string tension we felt as we first played the guitar. Under full string tension we broke out an Allen wrench, inserted it and turned clockwise to tighten the truss rod and reduce relief. Imagine our surprise when we realized the truss rod was loosening… Turning counter clockwise tightened the rod, and we noted that it was the smoothest, easiest turning truss rod we had ever adjusted, as if it were completely loose. We hit the Internet, queried ‘reverse truss rod” and found a thread on the Gibson forum where a new owner of a royal tan Epiphone ‘61 Casino made in China had experienced the same thing. After the usual back and forth, a response from a Gibson customer service rep confirmed that it was a dual action truss rod. Whatever, maybe so, but we and dude on the forum both felt that the truss rod only tightened in one direction— backwards. Well, who cares? Most important, the truss rod eased the neck to dead straight like we like it with a couple of turns, which required us to loosen the strings and significantly raise the bridge and string height again.
With the action set moderately high, we tuned up, strummed a full Em chord and just about fell out of our chair. The acoustic volume and sustain of the Epiphone had easily doubled since straightening the truss rod and raising the bridge higher. Plugging back into the Super, we realized that we hadn’t adjusted the height of the pickups after raising the bridge again and they remained way too low. We raised them, splashed a few big chords into the Fender, and 20 minutes of mesmerizing joy ensued. The Epiphone and the Sliders were utterly monolithic, the resonant character of the guitar massively stout, firing off incredibly complex harmonics, brilliant treble and midrange tones suspended by fat sustain that only a semi-hollow thinline can create. Damn it, man, this is good, and such a description isn’t nearly good enough. In terms of tone, this may well be the epic cheap guitar buy and makeover ever presented in these pages. Yes indeed.
Is it easier to become delirious over an incredibly toneful and playable $400 guitar versus a $4,000 Les Paul? We recently acquired one of those, too that will be reviewed next month. Certainly there is a level of heightened expectation attached to an expensive guitar, but we also suspect that the price paid can introduce an illusory perception of goodness that sometimes colors reality. With a $400 guitar your expectations may be considerably lower, but confronted by the realization that you just paid about what a guitar cost in 1965 and it sounds and plays as if it had been built in 1965, it may be time to reconsider your priorities. Our Epiphone 335 is fully equal to any 335 we have owned in the past, and we don’t feel as if any aspect of its construction and craftsmanship has compromised our usual high standards one bit. Slider’s humbuckers are just a little tougher sounding than the LRPs in a Les Paul, slightly thicker perhaps, which is why we chose to install them in the Epiphone. We expected it to be a brighter-sounding guitar, and the combination proved to be magical.
Measuring 7.46K/neck and 7.81K/bridge, Slider’s humbuckers deliver clarity, complex overtones and dynamic responsiveness with a little more attitude and bluster than the LRPs. The vocal character of Slider’s pickups is a bit more aggressive, but their output seems similar to the Ellis set despite their slightly higher resistance readings. Overall, another excellent option in vintage-style humbucking pickups. For the price of a new set of pickups, there is absolutely no reason why your experience with an Epiphone Dot can’t be every bit as rewarding and inspiring as ours. All you need to do is indulge in the momentary suspension of disbelief and Quest forth… TQ