Is it possible - a Gibson-endorsed Flying V 'copy' for £160? Gary Cooper interrogates the imposter.
It's taken some time for last year's takeover of Gibson by new owners to bear fruit, but big things are, at last, starting to happen — and 'big' may yet prove to be a major understatement. Apart from an impressive lowering of UK prices for the genuine Nashville USA manufactured items, we're now beginning to see the results of a major policy change which has included the transfer of the Gibson-owned Epiphone brand name to a Korean manufacturer who is working to designs, specifications and quality control from the USA. The results are known officially as 'Epiphone by Gibson' and have just begun to make the UK's retail stores. I scarfed an 'Epiphone by Gibson' Flying V (technically, a 'V-2') fearing, possibly, the very worst.
It has to be said that Gibsons are damned hard guitars to copy unless a manufacturer really knows what he's about. Given access to numerically controlled routing machinery almost anyone based anywhere can make a Strat copy, but a Gibson (traditionally) has a glued neck which calls for some careful setting up and attention to manufacturing detail. Impressed as I am by the past year or so's output from Korean guitar makers, I'm still not sure that they can yet tackle the assembly requirements of a glued neck joint with reliable precision.
Equally to the point, even the Koreans would find it hard to manufacture fixed neck instruments at the sort of prices we've come to expect of them. Fortunately they haven't tried to reproduce an exact replica with this Epiphone V2, having opted instead for a secure four bolt joined neck. In fact there are numerous other departures from the original, so that the guitar looks like a conventional Gibson Flying V, but only from a distance. Examine the instrument closely and you'll quickly spot some major differences, notably in the size, weight and headstock shape and the presence of a tremolo system. They're not, however, changes for the worse: far from it, given today's much changed playing styles and tastes.
A detailed inspection revealed that my sample V2 really was an exceptionally well finished guitar, especially for this sort of money. Black painted (you can have Candy Apple Red or White if you prefer), the bodywork was every bit as good as you'll find on guitars costing twice as much and, albeit that the neck was fixed by a four bolt joint, it was rigid, stable and beautifully snug. The Rosewood fingerboard was of a quality higher than any that I've yet encountered on a Korean-made guitar, and the hardware displayed a strength and integrity which would have looked more appropriate on a costly Japanese instrument. Well done whoever it is in Korea who makes these new Epiphones for the Nashville principals!
Getting down to the specifics, the Epiphone's tremolo is a standard Fender Strat-type, the instrument's unspecified hardwood back having been routed out to house the tension springs and the bridge. As a result, being a typical conventional trem, the V2 ends up with a bridge which will be familiar to just about every guitarist the world over. In some ways (speaking purely personally) I think this is actually an improvement over the old Gibson style Tune-O-Matic because it allows for precise individual string height adjustment as well as intonation setting via the saddle screws. Purists looking for a dot for dot Flying V copy might argue that this isn't accurate, but the Epiphone isn't meant to be a direct copy, more a lower priced update, a variation on a theme by Gibson, if you like. Equally departing from the model, the Epiphone's headstock has more of an Explorer-like shape to it, as opposed to the 'V' profile of the original — but who cares, especially when the machines are of such a remarkably high quality for the money and the (presumably simulated) mother of pearl inlay proclaiming 'Epiphone by Gibson' is so glossy and stylish! Yes, these machines really are very accurate and feel at least 50% tougher and more precise than we're used to on such low priced instruments. Likewise the V2's bridge, where the saddles are nicely chromed and have little of that rough and lumpy finishing which once immediately distinguished a Korean from a Japanese guitar. By the time I got round to handling the Epiphone's 24¾" (Gibson standard scale) neck I was already getting pretty mind-boggled. What on earth was a neck of this quality doing on a £160 guitar!? The feel of the quality Rosewood and the accuracy of medium-fat fretting was immaculate, albeit somewhat thinner than standard Gibson wire. Again, this guitar's designers have probably looked at the current obsession with all things Strat and have chosen (as they have with the bridge and tremolo system) to depart from traditional Gibson ideas for the sake of popular appeal. The neck shape too is a sort of hybrid, having that extra 'lazy' width which makes a Gibson so comfortably easy to play. But it also features that much-in-demand flatter profile, beloved of many HM players who say that it prevents 'choking off' when strings are bent up against the radius crown of a traditionally cambered fretboard. The result of this is a neck which almost magically seems to combine the typical ease of fingering of a Gibson with a many of the qualities popularised by the new generation of US makers, among whom number Charvel and Hamer. Players who like to whizz around the neck like they had greased fingers, but who find a typical Strat-like fretboard too confining, are going to love this one to tiny pieces!
And now for the acid test. So far this guitar had impressed me more than any sub-£200 instrument that I've yet played. Could the sound do it justice? I jacked it into the first of several test amps to see.
As far as the Epiphone's sound goes, let me begin by opining that there are going to be some unbelievably happy impoverished guitar players out there before long. Yes, this one really did play and sound as good as it looked. In fact the sound I was getting out of its twin (exposed) humbuckers was so good that I even managed to fool a knowledgeable colleague, who was in another room and thus couldn't see what instrument I was playing, into believing that I was using a genuine Gibson. Can it be that good, or has G.C. really downed a drop too much of the VSOP this time? No, I stick to my guns. The Epiphone's sound was so far above the average that I even found myself wondering whether I should reach for my own cheque book and buy one. In fact if I wasn't already the proud owner of a pair of Gibsons I probably would! The way in which the; bridge humbucker rasps and raunches out an aggressive, tight overdrive (even through the most modest of amps) is remarkable, as is the smooth Chicago Bluesy tone that comes from having the neck transducer switched on via the three way selector.
But it was the way in which this guitar performed through a top class professional quality valve amp that finally did me in. Often a cheap guitar will sound o.k. with a cheap amp, but plug it into something like a Marshall, Mesa, Laney AOR or HiWatt and you get a very different story indeed. Usually that story reads something like 'whistle, whistle, rasp, blat, hooOOWL!' as the cheaply produced pickups go critical and mash up your sustain with screeching feedback and unwanted noise. Not so the V-2, which just accepted the demands of a good valve amp and wrung out the clipped harmonics and bend-that-string-and-let-it-sing sustain/feedback in an almost perfect imitation of a Billy Gibbons special.
Without a doubt this 'Epiphone By Gibson' V2 is undoubtedly the best value for money guitar that I've found this year. It happily combines those features which so many Strat-lovers demand with those qualities which make a Gibson a perfect HM guitar, and does so in an almost uncanny way. Whoever designed this instrument has a very accurate insight into what today's Rock players demand. Likewise, whoever makes it for Gibson has done so with a care and skill which would normally cost you at least twice the price. Frankly, if I were in the business of making awards for HM guitar of the year, the Epiphone V-2 would win this year's with no problems. What more can I say except, try it?
RRP £160 inc. VAT
Details of Epiphone guitars from Rosetti & Co. Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Gary Cooper
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