In last month's issue, I was unimpressed by the Switchmaster last month: this is more like it!
I am afraid I generally only admire old instruments which were more or less hand made. I also tend to consider machine assisted guitars, which happen to be rare, as just that. While I will happily agree that such guitars may be wonderful musical instruments (I am in the process of spending a lot of money restoring a similar Gretsch), I would hesitate to call them works of art in the same way as a Martin/Ditson '45.
In contrast, the Emperor is probably the top model of a range of very wide-bodied amplified acoustics made by Epiphone. The electronics are complex to the point of absurdity, and the pearl inlay work, while not very special by pre-war banjo standards, is unusually pretty and well cut for an electric guitar. This instrument definitely has its own style, and pleases me as a guitar-maker. It seems I have expensive tastes, because the price is around £500, excluding V.A.T.
Apart from the pearl and the sheer size of the beast, probably the most obvious feature is the row of push-buttons near the tailpiece. These are not labelled, but appear to control pick-up selection and tone effects. I have unearthed the following circuit from a similar Epiphone switch unit and it may help to explain what is going on. The switches are ganged in pairs and pressing any button cancels the last setting, so only one pair of switches can be on at any time.
The whole system is similar to the Gibson rotary tone selector, fitted to some semi-acoustics.
In the diagram, I have omitted resistors (10 meg) across the lower one of each switch pair for the sake of clarity. Obviously, the Emperor would also have pick-up selection switches.
I would have liked more time to play with this tone system, but my first impression was that the response of the pickups was fairly limited by modern standards, and such drastic filtering of the signal is probably necessary to make any significant tone changes. However, I must reserve judgement on the pick-ups as I have not had the opportunity of playing the Emperor with other guitars, or on stage, and this often drastically changes one's ideas about an instrument's tone quality. The pick-ups are very shallow and appear to be non-humbucking types, but well screened, with the adjustment screws at the edge of the coil and the magnet in the middle.
Most of the instrument appears to be constructed from "flamed" maple. The neck is straight, and frets and fingerboard are in good condition considering the age of the instrument. Unfortunately, I examined this guitar some weeks ago, before our use of standardised action measurements, and I can not supply exact figures. I certainly noticed no difficulty in playing, despite the relatively heavy strings.
The nut is interesting and appears to be original. It is divided into two strips by a horizontal groove. The strip nearest the machine heads is slotted in the normal way to locate the strings, but the other part, next to the fingerboard, is lower and quite flat, and the strings finally rest on this before leaving the nut. A guitar nut normally has two jobs: to separate the strings and to set their height above the frets. In this example, the two functions have been separated, making adjustment more laborious but also more stable and more tolerant of change in the string gauges.
Although the body is in good condition, the lacquer on the head is cracking seriously and needs professional amalgamation before it is too late. The tone switches could also need a lot of attention. Apart from this, the Emperor seems to be in reasonable playing condition and, with the possible exception of the switches, could be restored to practically mint condition if that is what you want.
It is not my place to comment on the price, but although I consider it a better instrument than last month's Switchmaster, it is not so obviously a good medium term investment, and could take longer to re-sell.
Retail Price £500 S/H
Review by Stephen Delft
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