Could Epiphone's Casino be due for a renaissance of popularity? Semi-acoustics are currently big business once again, so how does the Casino stand up to more modern competition? IT investigates a current sample...
Two or three years ago you'd have been hard-pressed to have got much more than milk bottle tops in exchange for your beloved old semi-acoustic. But fashions in guitars change as fast as hem-lines, and now the semi is on the up once again. Top London dealers are reporting a growing demand for old semi-acoustic Hofners and Gretsches (recently all but valueless in every sphere expect the remoter regions of the Country market), and these guitars are now regularly appearing on The Tube and other programmes, as newer bands discover the attractions of this once all-conquering style of guitar.
But if you can't find (or don't like) secondhand guitars, how about the new market? The top Japanese makers (including Aria, Ibanez, Westone, Yamaha and others) all offer interesting semis, often at reasonable prices - but how about Epiphone, whose pedigree and history as a part of Gibson should enable them to turn out something really interesting?
For some years now Epiphones have been produced for Gibson in Japan. In a rather sad way this has led to the undervaluing of the once great Epiphone name, but it has (owing to the Japanese sub-contractor's ability to produce at lower prices than the Gibson factory can) resulted in some luxurious instruments being available at prices which the amateur or semi-pro guitarist can afford.
A couple of Epiphones I personally sampled a year or so back were a current model Sheraton and an Emperor. I distinctly recall them impressing me - especially the superbly decorated Emperor Jazz semi. They both sounded more American than Japanese, and both seemed to be excellent value for money. Attractive as the Emperor is, however, it's really a pure Jazz guitar and thus probably won't suit the majority of players who are now looking at semis for Pop/Rock use. For this purpose, the Casino (or the more costly Sheraton) might be ideal.
The Epiphone name has an illustrious history. The original Epiphones (mainly Jazz guitars, but including mandolins and acoustics) were made in New York by Epi Stathopoulo during the 1920s, 30s and early 40s. At the height of the first Jazz guitar boom back in the late 1930s, Stathopoulo was a major name in his field, and any reader who's harbouring an Epiphone from this period (donated by a kindly grandfather?) ought to hang onto it - such a guitar wouldn't only be worth money, it would be a dream of an instrument!
Stathopoulo died in 1943, but his name lived on as a significant rival to Gibson. Epiphone, as an independent producer, survived until 1957, when company was split-up. A lot of the original Epiphone craftsmen, and much of the machinery, went to Guild, but the Epiphone brand name itself was bought by Gibson. From 1959 till 1969 Epiphones were made at the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, and designs were swapped between the two names to such an extent that, at times, there was no significant difference between a Gibson and an Epiphone. During that period, the Epiphone name continued to be associated with some fabulous Jazz guitars, but it was their semi-acoustic Casino (all but identical to the Gibson ES330) which really caught guitarists' imaginations back in the early 1960s, when it was a common sight in the hands of countless players from the original Liverpool 'Mersey Beat' boom, and then in the R & B groups of a few years later.
Later, the Epiphone range included solid bodied types (like the Crestwoods, Olympics, Wilshires, Coronets and so on) as well as several other models, usually semis and often virtually indistinguishable from contemporary Gibsons. Some of these have to count as the most underrated and under-priced secondhand guitars on today's market.
During the mid to later 1960s, however, the rapidly escalating volume levels on stage (causing feedback from semis), coupled with the emergence of players like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, Mick Taylor and Jimi Hendrix (all of whom used solid guitars) meant that the semi-acoustic guitar became decreasingly fashionable. The Epiphone solids hadn't really made the grade from a sales point of view (heaven only knows why!), and at the same time it was decided that the Kalamazoo factory could be put to more profitable use making only Gibsons. As a result (in 1969) the first Japanese made Epiphones began to appear, starting an American guitar makers' marketing policy which was later to give rise to Japanese made Fender Squiers, Guild Moridairas, Martin Sigmas, Kramer Focuses (Foci?) and suchlike international hybrids.
In recent years Epiphones have come and gone like Will-o'-the-Wisps, models appearing and disappearing most confusingly. The current range, however, looks to be stable, with the superb Emperor Jazz at the top and other semis moving down from there.
The Casino's part in all this shenanigens dates back to the late 1950s and 1960s, where both it and the identical Gibson 330 were among the world's greatest sellers. Arguably, the rebirth of the Les Paul and SG killed both models off, but for at least six or seven years the Casino, the 330 and its derivatives, were the guitars to be seen with.
While a genuine Kalamazoo-made Casino might be one thing what's a current Japanese-produced one like? Will it serve a guitarist in the 1980s, and does it have a place in the regenerated semi-acoustic marketplace? I borrowed a brand new sample from Epiphone and Gibson's importers, Rosetti, to try and find out
Taken from its hard shell case, the 1985 Epiphone Casino looks remarkably close to a good original - much like a Kalamazoo-made one from the 1960s which has been locked in a time vault. Some small finishing details do, on closer examination, betray its Oriental origins, but that's forgiveable - after all, what would a U.S.-produced Casino cost today? The current Epiphone is extremely faithful to a good sample of the original Casino/Gibson 330. Its body measures the required 16"x19" with a depth of some 1 3/4", and the neck follows the usual Gibson 24 3/4" scale. The body joins the neck at the 16th of the 22 frets.
Unlike the more famous ES-335, the Casino (and this goes for the Gibson ES-330 as well, of course) doesn't have a wooden centre block inside the body. On that score it's really quite unusual as most semis do feature this device. To be strictly accurate, this lack of an internal block really classifies the Casino as more of an acoustic/electric than a semi-acoustic, and this difference is compounded by the body joining the neck at fret 16, as opposed to the traditional 19th fret join which you'll find on many semis, including the 335. The result of this, however, makes for some distinctive sound qualities - more of which I'll detail later.
Again, unlike the 335, the Casino has its 'Tune-O-Matic' bridge set further up the body towards the neck (about halfway up the 'f' holes), and this is mated with a 'trapeze' tailpiece rather than the 335's 'stop' type.
My sample model suggested that Gibson had decided to emulate one of the later Casinos when laying down their specifications for whoever it is that makes these guitars for them in Japan. The nice quality rosewood fingerboard bore the large inlays of the later U.S.-made Casinos (as opposed to the earlier dot markers), and they looked very nicely fitted indeed. Again faithful to the original, the top, back and sides were formed of attractively figured maple, to which a glued mahogany neck had been affixed. The colouring on my sample model was a deep tobacco sunburst set-off nicely by the aged-effect plastic neck binding. All the hardware was chrome plated, included the sealed machines, which worked very smoothly. The bridge (in typical Gibson/Epiphone style) provides for individual intonation (string length) setting, and overall height with thumb wheels screwing up and down to raise or lower the action.
Both cosmetically and constructionally, the Casino looks like a well made guitar, finished to a high standard and characterised by the traditional Epiphone Greek 'E' stamped into the truss rod cover and the white, laminated, scratchplate.
Unlike many currently available semis, the Casino is pretty unique in having single coil pickups, as opposed to fatter sounding humbuckers. These are contained beneath the traditional triangular chrome-plated housings which Casinos have always had, and are controlled by two volumes, a pair of tone controls and a sensibly placed pickup selector. The jack socket is, again sensibly, placed on the front of the guitar, making accidental unplugging less likely.
The combination of the single coil pickups and the lack of a centre block, (not to mention the 'high up the body' bridge placement) makes the Casino sound very different from what it (initially) resembles - a 335 or one of its countless imitators. The guitar lacks the sustain which the extra wood would give, and it doesn't have the sort of output level which you'd probably want if you were intending to use one of these instruments for the sort of B.B. King soloing which is what you might well be tempted to go for a 335 rip-off to get. What it does have, however, is something that the traditional Blues soloist's semi doesn't provide for - a unique rhythm chord sound which makes it considerably more up-to-date in some ways. True, there are many players around who still love the sweet richness of a traditional Gibson semi (I'm one myself for heaven's sake!), but there are also many others who are looking for a more jangly rhythm sound - which is why so many new bands are featuring semis right now. The problem is that many (most?) of the currently available semi-acoustics on the market have copied the 335 approach, which can result in them sounding just too fat and warm for what today's players are often looking for. Here, the Casino scores mightily. Its treble output can be extreme even through only an average quality amp, and, even when you switch over to the neck pickup, the sound remains more of a jangle - ideal for bright, rhythmic chords.
Paradoxically, the Casino (which is by no standards a newly designed guitar) is possibly perfect for many of today's Pop and Rock rhythm sounds. It doesn't have either the inherent sustain or output to overdrive very many amps (they'd need massive amounts of pre-amp gain to achieve this, and even then the guitar really doesn't sound right used in that way), but for rhythm work in a modern sounding band, the Casino could be one of the most desirable new guitars around.
On that basis I'd certainly recommend trying one of these individualistic instruments if you're into that bright and lively rhythm sound. Being a semi it has an entirely different sound to, say, a Tele or a Strat; in fact it's rather more Rickenbacker-ish, if anything.
Despite my liking for one of the most characteristic and individual sounds I've found in a guitar for a while, I must say that my enjoyment in actually playing the Casino was initially marred by the strings which the makers had fitted - quite heavy flatwounds (possibly 011's or 012's) complete with a wound third. To compound matters, they weren't even very good strings and I'd advise any retailer to whip these off and replace them with a decent set of roundwounds, maybe 010's or 009's, to suit more modern tastes. Despite the strings, the action was low and the neck was beautifully proportioned in that typically Gibson-like 'easy-play' way. Jumbo, rounded frets and a rather wide but shallow neck make the Casino a tremendously easy guitar to play.
Once again an early-designed guitar has come round into suitability for contemporary tastes. It's happened before with both the Les Paul and the Strat; and now, with its bright alive chord sound, easy handling, excellent manufacture and playability, the Casino deserves looking at by modern-minded guitarists in the Pop and Rock fields.
At an RRP of £399 (even including the case) The Epiphone Casino isn't exactly cheap, but you'll probably be able to pick one up for a fair bit less if you shop around. It's certainly a unique sounding guitar and could be the perfect buy for the player whose interest lies more in Pop chords of a very up to date nature.
More details on Epiphone from Rosetti & Co., (Contact Details).
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