The Epiphone Strand Mandolin
George Gruhn
"The Vintage Catalogue"
Frets Magazine, March 1984

During the period from 1920 through the early 1950s, the Epiphone company gained a reputation for producing banjos, mandolins, and guitars of exceptionally fine quality. Back in the dixieland era of the 1920s, when tenor and plectrum banjos were popular, Epiphone concentrated on building banjos. From the 1930s until the original company ceased production in the 1950s, they primarily built guitars.

The Epiphone company was later bought by the Chicago Musical Instrument Company, which was owned by Gibson. Epiphone brand instruments were made by Gibson from the late 1950s until 1969. Since then, the Epiphone brand name has been owned by Norlin Music, and Epiphone instruments have been produced in Japan. (For more information on the history of the Epiphone company I suggest as a reference Tom Wheeler's book American Guitars, which is published by Harper and Row of New York.)

Original "genuine" Epiphone instruments with the New York label are sought by collectors and musicians because of their rarity and exceptional quality. The Epiphone Strand Mandolin shown here is typical of the company's workmanship during the early and mid-1930s.

The top is carved spruce, with violin-style f-holes. The back and sides are walnut. (Epiphone was one of the few companies that used walnut on acoustic guitars and mandolins.) The walnut is darker, but otherwise similar in appearance to mahogany. Walnut is very attractive and it has fine acoustic properties. Since this wood was readily available, it is something of a mystery to me why it was not used by other builders.

The two-piece neck is also made of walnut, with a center lamination of maple. The rosewood fretboard is decorated with diagonal diamond-shaped pearl inlays. (Later Strand models had larger parallelogram-shaped fretboard inlays, and a larger headstock.) Inside, the paper label says, "Epiphone Banjo Corporation, Long Island City, N.Y." (Later labels are inscribed "Epiphone, Inc. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.")

The two-point body shape on the Strand model is also distinctive. Epiphones's less-expensive Adelphi and Rivoli model mandolins featured a simple pear-shaped body, very similar to that of the Gibson A models. The 1930s Epiphone catalogues also listed two mandolin models with a scroll-shape body -- similar to the Gibson F-5 artist model -- but they are so scarce that I have never even seen one, and I don't know any collector or dealer who has ever seen one.

Epiphone mandolins made shortly before the company was sold feature an oval soundhole, rather than f-holes. Walnut was used for back and sides throughout the history of the Strand model mandolin. Interestingly, after the early 1940s, Epiphone used maple rather than walnut on most of its guitars.

Epiphone mandolins are equivalent in quality to the company's guitars. They are exceptionally fine professional-grade instruments. Bill Monroe used an Epiphone Strand mandolin during the early 1950s, and Monroe's publicity photos of that era show him with the instrument. Still, the Epiphone Strands have never achieved the popularity of Gibson mandolins, and the Epiphone -- although very scarce -- is less expensive than a similar-sounding Gibson.

For that reason it is my opinion that the Strand model is a "sleeper," offering an exceptional value when compared to the Gibson models, which may cost several times as much. Furthermore, Epiphone mandolins are extremely scarce, compared to Gibson mandolins, and the Strand model often is quite comparable in tone and volume with the more expensive Gibson.

Epiphone mandolins are so scarce because they were produced during a time when guitars were considerably more popular, so it is logical that the company made fewer mandolins. As a matter of fact, the peak of mandolin production for the Gibson company was from 1909-1921, when the company was vigorously promoting mandolins. (Even Gibson's mandolin production from 1930-1950 was very low.) So, one reason that Gibson mandolins are more common than Epiphones is that Gibson was building mandolins during the peak years of demand, while Epiphone didn't even start until the boom was over.

It is possible that more Epiphone mandolins might have been built and might have achieved greater recognition if the company had been making them at the height of the mandolin's early popularity. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the Epiphone company produced very fine quality mandolins. The Strand is the best Epiphone model I have actually seen, although the catalogue did list two scroll-body models. But the Epiphone Strand is an artist's instrument of exceptional merit.

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