Ca. 1949 Epiphone Duo Console

A review of the Old Frets homepage reveals that I have an affinity for lap steels by two particular manufacturers. I seek out National/Valco steels for their tone, their unique features and their beautiful designs. I don’t deliberately seek out Epiphone steels (and I’ve never heard of anyone who does), but I happen to have acquired a few that are worth keeping around.

Epiphone was acquired by Gibson in 1958, and within a few years the last Epiphone pickups had been shipped and were replaced by units of Gibson’s own design. The pre-1958 Epiphone pickups are often compared poorly with their successors, but they should not be summarily dismissed. I have found Epiphone pickups of the 1940s and 1950s to be highly variable in tone and output, meaning that each guitar should be evaluated individually. However, the general aversion to early Epiphone electrics has served one useful purpose: it has kept prices remarkably low.

Epiphone started building electric instruments in late 1935 with the Electrophone, which was shortly replaced by the first Electar models. The subsequent progression through the 1930s mirrored many other companies’: blade pickups replaced horseshoe magnets, and the blades were in turn replaced by adjustable poles. Fancy metal tops gave way to more conventional all-wood bodies with black and sunburst finishes. A double-neck console steel was introduced – the Duo Console, providing more versatility and tuning options.

The Duo Console was first built in 1939; it had a maple body veneered with what Epiphone called primavera wood (a kind of white mahogany), a volume and tone control, a hand rest over both necks and mutes above each set of strings. By the late 1940s it had lost the mutes, the controls were relocated closer to the bridges, it had gained a neck selector switch and it now sported individual hand rests for each neck. In 1950 the body was totally redesigned, losing its primavera veneer, gaining rounded corners and extra height for the far neck. My steel was built between 1948, when I believe its pickups were introduced, and 1950 when the body was redesigned. The instrument continued to carry the “Electar” name on the fretboards into the 1950s – probably until its discontinuation in 1958 – even though Epiphone had nominally abandoned the additional brand long before.

The pickups were called “Tone Spectrum” units by Epiphone, and they could be considered competitors to Gibson’s new P-90 pickup (introduced in 1946). They have fairly weak output, and I’ve added felt shims underneath to raise the coils closer to the strings. The adjustable poles do help balance the volume across the strings, as is fitting – Epiphone, after all, created the first pickup to be so adjustable. The tone can be bright and piercing, but with the tone control rolled back it takes on a warm, deep sound that works beautifully for country music. It won’t overdrive most amps without a considerable boost, but the signal is not particularly anemic for 1940s pickups. The pickups are remarkably noise-free for vintage single-coil units.

The body is built from one slab of maple with primavera veneers applied. The freboards and tuners are raised on solid slabs of primavera. The far neck is raised above the near one, but only by about ¼”. The body is heavily routed from the back to reduce weight (it’s still pretty heavy for its size), and a maple board is screwed on to cover the inner workings. The neck selector switch is slightly too large for its cavity and contacts the back; this has caused an intermittent connection in my steel when it is played resting on my legs. I normally use it with a table-type keyboard stand, where it rests on its own rubber feet so this isn’t a problem. The jack is in a slightly awkward location; the cable pokes the player in the stomach if they are sitting down. My steel is completely original except for the knobs; I have the originals in the case, but they are slowly crumbling into dust. The most remarkable visual feature of this model is the tortoise shell binding, which positively glows in the right light and has attracted many comments.