1935 Epiphone Electrophone

Electric instruments were a rare and obscure novelty for the first half of the 1930s, but sales started to pick up around the middle of that decade. A few electric lap steels started to trickle onto the market in 1935 with offerings from Audiovox and National-Dobro. These early designs would prove to be workable and toneful, but subsequent alterations would improve their functionality over time. The same can be said of another company’s product: debuting in November 1935 was a steel and amp set bearing the Electrophone name (electric instruments were usually sold as sets back then, as there were no manufacturers that just made guitar amps). This was, in fact, a product of the Epiphone Company. In the uncertain salad days of electric amplification, Epiphone evidently felt sufficiently uncertain about their new product’s viability to put their own name on it.

Then, the Gibson ES-150 and EH-150 appeared in 1936 and became the first commercially successful electric instruments. Suddenly, every manufacturer under the sun tried to grab a piece of the fledgling electric market. Epiphone/Electar replaced the Electrophone with the Models M and C lap steels and introduced a corresponding line of Spanish-style instruments. The last Electrophones actually bore the Electar name printed on a metal tag which was nailed to the headstock; as a result, they are sometimes referred to as “Electar Hawaiian guitars”.

The Electrophone overtly displayed the influence of earlier electric steels, particularly Rickenbacker’s Model A (commonly known as the “frying pan”). The teardrop-shaped body clearly recalls that design, while the black Bakelite top was probably influenced by Rickenbacker’s recently-released Model B steels. The chrome-plated horseshoe magnet is another clear nod to Rickenbacker, though the rest of the pickup is constructed quite differently. While these features were probably intended to give the Electrophone a trendy appearance, they also indicate a somewhat rushed design that focused largely on aping another company’s products.

The body appears to have been built around a neck blank for a conventional acoustic guitar; wooden “wings” were glued to the sides to build out the body and headstock. I believe that mine is built of pine, which would have been cheaper than the maple or mahogany usually used for guitar necks; with an opaque black finish, nobody could tell unless they took the guitar apart. The fretboard is bakelite (and is separate from the bakelite body top); the fret lines and markers were scribed and then crudely painted. Later Electrophones would have rosewood fingerboards and colored markers in place of the screws; this reflected a move towards the later Electar designs.

I suspect that my particular Electrophone was a prototype. I can’t prove anything, but there are a number of details that I present as evidence. The hardware is a mishmash of nickel tuners, chrome horseshoe magnet and brass bridge, with both brass and nickel screws holding the instrument together. There are extra holes under the tuners, but the machines on there are found on other Epiphones from the mid '30s. These may result from experimentation at the factory. The tuners currently on the steel do not have post holes wide enough for ferrules, but other Electrophones have the same ferruled tuners as early Electars.

The bridge is identical to the one that I've seen on other Electrophones, only without chrome plating. It has two extra screws holding it down (one broke as I took the guitar apart, which is why one appears to be missing), but the extra holes appear to have been drilled at the same time. Curiously, there is an extra hole in the plastic top that doesn't match up with the bridge or the wood underneath. The bridge is located about 1mm off-center, enough to be visually noticeable; this was rectified by offsetting the string slots. The bridge is also located closer to the neck than other Electrophones, resulting in a 22" scale (my Electar has a 22.75" scale). I wonder if the builders misplaced the bridge but corrected its location on later production instruments.

The lack of a name on the headstock is also suspicious, as most had “Electrophone” stenciled in flowery script across the top. A few had metal “Electar” tags, but this is the only one I’ve seen without any name at all. The finish has been touched up in places, but it’s generally pretty obvious with close examination, and I don’t see any evidence that the name was painted over. The pickup’s coil is significantly different than the coil in my 1936 Electar M; it is wider and shorter, and the winds are separated with paper as in a transformer. There are also individual pole pieces at the center of the coil, unlike the split blades in my Electar. Later Electrophones would also have an end pin, while mine does not. All of this adds up in my mind to an experimental instrument, possibly a prototype. It certainly seems to have more “primitive” features than most of its kind. Unfortunately, there are few other Electrophones around with which to compare.

Otherwise, the steel is in very good shape. The knob doesn't match what I've seen on other Electrophones, but it is very old and the pot appears to be original. The chrome has flaked off part of the pickup, as sometimes happens with wear. The “wings” in the headstock were reglued, and there are currently no structural problems. Someone drilled a hole in the headstock, presumably to hang the instrument on a wall. More unusual is the chunk of wood that seems to have been intentionally removed from the back of the headstock, and the recessing of the input jack that seems to serve no purpose. The output is very loud – it must have driven contemporary amps to distort low on the volume dial. The sound is clear and bright, with some similarity to contemporary Rickenbackers but with a bit more cutting power. The instrument sustains forever – longer than any other steel I own.