In this article, we’ve explained the key differences between Gibson and Epiphone electric guitars. Although there may be a gulf between them in terms of their prices, you’ll soon realise that their instruments actually share many similarities, making you ponder the question: “are Gibson guitars worth the extra money?”
Gibson & Epiphone Comparison
We’ve answered the following questions to make the comparison between Gibson and Epiphone guitars as clear as possible:
- Where are Gibson and Epiphone guitars made?
- What key features do Gibson and Epiphone guitars have?
Founded in 1894, Gibson is one of the world’s oldest guitar manufacturers and arguably the most well-known alongside Fender. With an immensely rich history, Gibson’s electric guitars and innovations have played an essential roll in forming the rock and roll sound that we’re all so familiar with today.
Producing original guitar designs like the Les Paul, SG and Flying V in the ’50s and ’60s; Gibson’s formulas have inspired hundreds of subsequent guitar brands to manufacture their instruments in a similar vein. They are trendsetters in every sense of the word, and their instruments remain best-sellers in retailers worldwide.
Where Are Gibson Guitars Made?
All Gibson guitars are made in the USA. With their solid-body and hollow-body guitars manufactured at their Nashville headquarters, Gibson’s acoustic guitars are produced at a separate Montana-based factory. The company’s semi-hollow and hollow-body guitars were previously made in their iconic Memphis plant. However, just before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018, Gibson sold the facility and moved production to their main Nashville factory as part of their restructuring process.
Many guitarists attributed Gibson’s financial woes to a perceived downturn in the quality of their instruments in the 2010s. But Gibson guitars are now made to a much higher standard, especially since the release of their Core Collection in early 2019. Under the leadership of recently appointed CEO James “JC” Curleigh, the company has convincingly turned things around and streamlined its range; now offering classic models restored to their former glory. In other words, Gibson are making the guitars that everyone has always wanted!
Like the majority of leading guitar brands, many of Gibson’s instruments are made with the assistance of CNC machines. These sophisticated tools can accurately cut bodies and necks out of wood blanks with amazing speed and consistency. This saves both time and, more importantly – money! However, skilled employees sand, fit and finish every guitar by hand, with the attention-to-detail that only humans can guarantee.
What Features Do Gibson Guitars Have?
Which Woods Are Gibson Guitars Made From?
As you’d expect, Gibson reserves the highest-quality tonewoods that it can import for its Nashville and Montana factories. This is to ensure that their US-made guitars are constructed from the finest materials available, for both aesthetic and tonal factors.
Gibson’s signature tonewood of choice is Mahogany. It uses this almost exclusively for its solid-body electric guitar model’s bodies and necks. Mahogany yields the focused lows and rich mids that Gibson guitars are so renowned for, with its density contributing to the long sustain that they can also achieve.
Maple is frequently used in the construction of Gibson guitars too. Employed to form the bodies of many of their hollow-body instruments, its use is perhaps more synonymous with Les Pauls. With a smoothly-carved Maple cap applied to the top of a Les Paul’s body, this bright-sounding wood adds some crucial top-end clarity to their tone. It’s worth noting that most of these Gibson Les Paul and ES Series guitars boast stunning Figure/Flamed Maple tops, which have an almost three-dimensional look. High-end Custom Shop guitars have even heavier-grained Maple tops; contributing to their eye-watering expense.
Apart from their main body and neck woods, Gibson also has a preferred choice for its fingerboards. Using Rosewood for the vast majority of its instruments, both electric and acoustic, this popular material remains a key ingredient in the production of Gibson guitars, even in light of recent CITES restrictions. Rosewood has been used by the company for decades, adored by players for its warm sound and smooth feel. Gibson experimented with alternatives such as Granadillo and Richlite a few years ago, but their lukewarm reception persuaded Gibson to go back to basics with its Core Collection models.
What Type Of Finish Do Gibson Guitars Have?
Perhaps unbeknownst to some, all Gibson USA guitars are finished with nitrocellulose lacquer. Many traditionalists prefer the qualities of nitrocellulose over generic poly finishes, as this particular plant/solvent-based lacquer was used almost exclusively on vintage guitars from the ’50s and ’60s.
Although poly finishes are considered the industry standard today, purists believe that nitrocellulose allows a guitar’s tonewoods to breathe as its coating is thinner and more porous – yielding an airier sound and enabling greater sustain. This can therefore be attributed to the resonant and open acoustic-like tones that Gibson electric guitars emit – even when unplugged.
Nitrocellulose is also more expensive to use as several layers of it must be applied to an instrument over several days, with the final layer carefully sanded and buffed. This obviously increases labour costs, and you could therefore argue that this contributes to the high price tags seen on most Gibson guitars.
What Pickups Do Gibson Guitars Have?
Gibson’s USA guitars are equipped with high-quality pickups that are hand-wound at their main Nashville factory. The brand is obviously synonymous with humbuckers, as ultimately Gibson pioneered their design back in the ’50s. And well into the 21st Century, most current models are still fitted with pairs of thick-sounding humbuckers. The company produces punchy P-90 pickups for its Junior models too, and has experimented with single-coils in the past.
But production and types aside, Gibson pickups have always been highly-regarded for their wide dynamics and powerful mids. This does vary of course, as Gibson has a wealth of different pickup options which it installs in a variety of its instruments. Gibson’s versatile ‘BurstBucker’ pickups have arguably become their most popular though, derived from their classic ’50s PAF design and fitted in their flagship Les Paul Standard guitars.
If you thought Gibson was old, then you may be surprised to learn that Epiphone has even earlier origins! Established in 1873, Epiphone started out as a fiddle manufacturer in Turkey that later moved to the USA at the turn of the century, producing mandolins much like Gibson.
Fierce competitors in the archtop guitar market throughout the ’30s and ’40s, Epiphone was later acquired by Gibson in 1957. Essentially becoming Gibson’s “budget brand”, Epiphone remains the only company in the world that can produce officially-licensed Gibson designs.
Where Are Epiphone Guitars Made?
Epiphone guitars are manufactured in Gibson’s Chinese-based Qingdao factory. The majority of Epiphone’s instruments have been made exclusively in this facility since 2004, including their solid-body, hollow-body and acoustic guitars. During the ’80s and ’90s, Epiphones were produced in Korea and Japan by contractors licensed by Gibson, including the likes of Samick and Matsumoku. But going back even further; after Epiphone’ acquisition by Gibson in 1957, their guitars were produced in a smaller factory built next to Gibson’s main plant until 1970.
As we’ve already established, Epiphone is a subsidiary that produces affordable and officially-licensed versions of Gibson’s guitar designs. Epiphone’s purpose is to therefore provide beginners, intermediates and budget-conscious musicians with inexpensive alternatives to Gibson’s US-made instruments. But to ensure that Epiphone guitars remain cost-effective, the Qingdao factory uses mass production techniques to create higher product quantities, while Gibson takes advantage of the cheaper labour costs offered in the Far East.
Although Epiphone’s guitars are less expensive, the quality of their high-end models has often been compared with the standards of Gibson’s more affordable guitars. Sporting premium components and constructed with the same tonewood species that Gibson use, there are some players that actually prefer the specifications of Epiphone’s top-of-the-range models over Gibson’s sub-£1000 guitars. However, there are many guitarists that favour the Gibson logo on the headstock!
What Features Do Epiphone Guitars Have?
Which Woods Are Epiphone Guitars Made From?
A lot of Epiphone’s tonewood choices derive from those used by Gibson, with Mahogany serving as the main material for its solid-body models. This applies to their medium-to-low tier instruments, including the unique-to-Epiphone DC Pro guitars and of course the majority of their Les Paul and SG offerings.
To save money and ensure that its entry-level models remain affordable though, Epiphone does employ cheaper tonewood alternatives that are easier to source. For example, Poplar is used to form the bodies of many of Epiphone’s inexpensive instruments. This particular material may not be held in as high regard as Mahogany, but its tonal characteristics aren’t too dissimilar; providing a resonant and meaty sound.
High-end Epiphone guitars boast Rosewood fingerboards just like Gibson’s, giving them a similar feel and aesthetic. But for its more budget-friendly models, Epiphone uses convincing Rosewood substitutes like Pau Ferro. Many manufacturers are now using this material, such as Fender, which uses Pau Ferro for its Mexican-made guitars. The advantage of Pau Ferro is that it isn’t CITES restricted, meaning that costly import/export certification isn’t required.
Another money-saving measure that Epiphone employs is to use Flamed Maple veneers instead of caps for applicable models, like their Les Pauls. A veneer is a thin sheet of wood that is applied carefully over the top of another, which is an art-form that requires lots of skill. However, veneers are far more financially viable for Epiphone, and indeed many guitar manufacturers, as they can use less wood to create a similar look.
What Type Of Finish Do Epiphone Guitars Have?
While Gibsons are finished with old-school nitrocellulose lacquer, Epiphone guitars are covered with more conventional polyester and polyurethane finishes. These types of guitar finish are far more common and are considered the modern norm; used by almost all major instrument manufacturers.
Poly finishes are popular as they offer excellent protection, with their thicker coating more resistant to wear and glossier in appearance. But because of this, some therefore believe that poly-finished guitars sound somewhat neutered and less acoustically-resonant – with reduced sustain. Ultimately, it’s more dependent on just how thick the poly finish is.
The more significant reason as to why so many brands use poly finishes is because they are much cheaper to use. Their application is simple as they are based on a synthetic resin, which means that no solvents remain after their application to a surface; hardening completely. Poly finishes therefore don’t require several layers like nitrocellulose lacquers do; saving time and money.
What Pickups Do Epiphone Guitars Have?
Quite predictably, most low-end and mid-priced Epiphone guitars come fitted with the company’s own branded pickups. These are wound by machines for the most part, however there is always going to be some human involvement when it comes to finishing a guitar pickup because of their intricacies. Epiphone pickups generally don’t sound as clear and vibrant as those made by Gibson. However, their quality has definitely improved over time.
Like their parent-brand, there are several Epiphone pickup models that are designed to capture the spirit of those made by Gibson. The Epiphone ‘ProBucker’ is a highly-regarded yet affordable humbucker, which was actually designed in Gibson’s Nashville factory. Able to emit a vintage-esque PAF sound, this pickup is so popular that Epiphone sells sets of them separately; something that the company has rarely offered before.
Epiphone’s ‘P-90 Pro’ is another noteworthy model, following in the footsteps of the ProBucker. Wound to imitate the sound of the original P-90s created by Gibson’s legendary pickup designer Seth Lover, the P-90 Pro is adored for its sensitivity that can bend to a player’s unique touch.
As we said, most Epiphone guitars come fitted with branded pickups made in their Qingdao factory. There are exceptions though, as some pricier Epiphone guitars come fitted with full-fat, made-in-the-USA Gibson pickups. The Les Paul Tribute Plus models are prime examples of this; equipped with versatile ’57 Classic humbuckers.
Epiphone also fits some of its signature guitars with aftermarket pickups, to meet the requirements of its artists. Using pickups from the likes of EMG and Seymour Duncan in their Matt Heafy and Jared James Nichols signature models respectively, it’s fair to say that more Epiphone guitars are available with aftermarket pickups than Gibson’s offerings.
It’s obvious that there’s an air of prestige and heritage associated with US-made Gibson guitars. But having said that, their more affordable Epiphone counterparts shouldn’t be dismissed. They are great bang-for-the-buck, and Gibson has invested a lot of time and money into developing these guitars to be much closer to their American instruments.
We’re not saying that Gibson and Epiphone guitars will feel or sound the same. If you picked up a US-made Gibson and compared it to an Epiphone then you would probably notice a difference. The quality, setup and finish on a Gibson will almost always be superior. However, today’s mass-produced guitars are far better than those made a few decades ago. And you also have to remember that some Gibson guitars can cost up to ten times as much as Epiphone’s!
So, like we said at the beginning: “are Gibson guitars worth the extra money?”. Well, whatever you eventually choose – it will always be dependent on your budget and your inner guitar snobbery!
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