1938 Epiphone Electar Model C lap steel and amp

In the early days of the electric guitar, most instruments were sold as sets with amplifiers. There were no manufacturers who were dedicated to the production of amps by themselves, and electric instruments were rare enough that few stores carried an extensive selection. In early catalogs, therefore, nearly all the big manufacturers lumped amps and guitars together by price. Fairly few sets have survived intact for more than 70 years – they’ve been split apart and plundered as interest in archaic tube amps exceeded interest in archaic guitars – but occasionally one comes across a quaint reminder of how marketing used to work.

I’ve already posted examples of Epiphone/Electar’s first two lap steel models, the obscure Electrophone and the better-known Model M. The M was a moderately expensive model, intended to compete with the Gibson EH-150. Both brands chose to introduce a more affordable steel as their next move: 1936 saw the introduction of both the EH-100 and the Electar Model C. Epiphone’s new creation was less adventurous than their previous offering, with a figured veneer over the maple body instead of an aluminum plate. As with the Electrophone, the neck appears to be an unfinished guitar neck that was glued into the body. The top binding, blade-style pickup and guitar-shaped body made it look quite a bit like its chief competitor’s products, though the body is actually solid and the tone is noticeably different.

The first version of the guitar had a volume and tone control, while the accompanying amp had only an on/off switch. This was a simple but effective setup, as it allowed the player to adjust his sound with minimal reach. For whatever reason, Epiphone decided around 1937 to move the volume control to the amplifier; this is the layout on my set, which dates from early 1938. This might be a reason why the set is still together – few modern guitarists would be interested in a standalone amp without a volume control. The guitar has a warm but clear sound, a little mellower than a contemporary EH-150 but with slightly better sustain. The overall pickup design is similar to Gibson’s “Charlie Christian” unit, the biggest difference being that the Epiphone has a single large steel magnet where the Gibson had two smaller ones. The pickup has been rewound – the coil was broken when I received it – so there may be a slight difference from the original sound. I also lowered the coil by placing two shims inside the body; this was necessary because the pole was nearly touching the strings, and it annoyingly made contact when I pressed down hard with the bar. The pickup does not have perfect balance between the strings, something that Epiphone corrected by patenting the first pickup with adjustable poles (although first produced in 1937, it was at first only available on higher-end models).

The matching amp is small but not underpowered for the era. It runs on a single 6L6 power tube and probably puts out about 5-7W, with almost no distortion unless you pre-amplify the signal. Its sound is unusually clear for the decade in which it was built, at least when the tone control is turned all the way up. It has a back cover like contemporary Gibson amps, but the art-deco grill logo is arguably more eye-catching. The 10” Rola field coil speaker is standard for the time, while the Coke-bottle tubes are a reminder that the amp is old enough to be withdrawing its pension. Like all pre-War Epiphone amps, this one was designed and hand-wired by a New York City local named Nate Daniel who would later found the Danelectro company.

While this was a lower-priced set in its day, the steel is equal to Epiphone’s best instruments in terms of quality. The only hint that it was a lower-cost model can be seen in its adaptation as a 7-string instrument. The neck isn’t wide enough for the extra string, so the nut is flared from the bottom to the top to create the additional width. The result is that the bottom and top strings are not directly over the fretboard, but are suspended over the sides. The amp’s cabinet is thinner and the covering less durable than the more expensive Electar models, but it bears few battle scars for so long a life.

Both the guitar and amp are mostly original and in excellent condition. Aside from the rewound coil, the guitar’s only replaced parts are the screws in the bridge. Curiously, two of the tuner shafts are slightly different than the others, but they appear to be original. This was probably because tuners came in 6-string sets, and sets were broken up to make 7-string guitars. The amp has had some capacitors, tubes and the power cord replaced to keep it working properly and safely, but all the major components are original. I even have what I’m told is the original cable that came with the set; the ball-shaped ends on the plugs indicate that it is certainly old enough.