1940 Epiphone Century

Once electrification began to catch on in the mid 1930s, it took a while for instrument manufacturers and their customers to sort out which instruments really benefitted from amplification. Electric guitars and lap steels were the clear hot products, while electric banjos never found a significant following (probably because they sounded nothing like their acoustic forbearers). Electric mandolins were somewhere in the middle; functionally, they had much to recommend themselves, but the country and bluegrass genres proved themselves too conservative to succumb to electric instruments. As a result, several manufacturers developed multi-tiered electric mandolin lines in the late 1930s but abandoned them sometime in the 1940s. The electric mandolin didn’t die out altogether – Gibson, Vega and even Fender continued to build them – but most brands found only enough demand for a single electric mandolin model.

This is what happened to Epiphone. From 1937 to 1939, Epiphone had only one electric mandolin, the Model M. It featured a teardrop-shaped body without f-holes and a pickup with four adjustable poles. In 1939, Epiphone’s entire electric line was overhauled and expanded. The Model M mandolin became the Century, only with a single blade-style pole in place of the four adjustable ones. At the same time, the higher-priced Zephyr was introduced with flamed veneers, block markers and adjustable pole pieces. Both the Century and the Zephyr were discontinued for most of World War II as material shortages prevented the manufacture of pickups, but the Zephyr was restored to production by 1949. The Century, however, does not appear to have been re-introduced after the War.

However, the Century did undergo several changes in its few years of production. It gained f-holes by 1940, though a large brace could be seen through them supporting the top and the weight of the pickup. Later that year, the f-holes were moved toward the tail and the top was re-braced to provide a more elegant appearance. My mandolin is one of the early f-hole specimens; compare their position to the 1941 Epiphone catalog. It features an arched top and flat back, with a large removable panel on the back for easy access to the wiring.

The sound of this Century is bright but not shrill, with excellent clarity and reasonably strong output given the era of its manufacture. Surprisingly, the single blade pole piece gives very good string balance. It’s still not as good as a pickup with adjustable poles, but the balance is better than most pre-War electric mandolins I’ve played. The brace across the f-holes has been re-glued, but otherwise the instrument is entirely original and plays very well.