1940 Epiphone Electar Zephyr


Epiphone completely revamped their electric instrument offerings in 1939. Out went the Electar Models M and C, to be replaced by the Zephyr, Century and Coronet, from most to least expensive, respectively. The Zephyr and Coronet steels strongly recalled their predecessors, while the Century sported a totally new body shape halfway between the stairstep design of one and the guitar shape of the other. The two cheaper models retained the blade pickup of the Model C, but the Zephyr featured Epiphone’s latest contribution to guitar design: adjustable pole pieces.

This was the creation of Herb Sunshine, who seems to have been the principal designer of Epiphone’s electric instruments in the 1930s. Sunshine contributed several important innovations to guitar design; the Frequensator tailpiece was his invention, and he was the person who hired Nat Daniel to design and build Epiphone’s amps (Daniel would later found the Danelectro company). His first adjustable pickup was nearly identical to Epiphone’s earlier blade pickup, but with individual screws replacing the single blade pole. The unit was introduced in 1937 as the “True Balance” pickup, replacing the horseshoe designs that were becoming old-fashioned. By the 1939 catalog it had be rechristened the “Master Pickup” to go along with Epiphone’s “Master Voicer” tone control.

For the most part, the Zephyr Hawaiian Guitar was only a slight update from the Model M it replaced. The body contours were rounded and the aluminum top plate was replaced with a pyralin veneer. This and the predominantly black-white-chrome color scheme may have been nods to the National New Yorker, though the black was actually a thin painted metal sheet that served both as a fretboard and control panel. While the horseshoe magnets had been discarded, an aluminum hand rest over the pickup created a similar appearance. The Zephyr and the other new models of 1939 were the first to receive Epiphone’s “bikini” logo on the headstock and the first to have the Electar name relegated to a minor position at the end of the fretboard.

This specimen dates from 1940, and it features Herb Sunshine’s original adjustable pickup design (this would be changed in the late 1940s to the pickup featured on my Duo Console). While the Master Pickup sounds excellent – clear, refined, with a wide and balanced frequency range – adjusting the poles has much less effect than raising or lowering the entire pickup. This is accomplished by turning the thumb screws on either side of the hand rest. The Master Voicer tone control blends between the pickup’s natural sound and two capacitor settings. This is similar to the tone control on 1940s National New Yorkers, and, as with that model, the most natural and useable sounds are to be found from the pickup’s unfiltered signal.

The Zephyr was the top of Epiphone’s steel lineup at $100 for a 7-string with case and cord; that put it $10 above Gibson’s EH-150, $2.50 below the EH-185. Despite the price, the Zephyr was highly successful and remained in production (with changes over time) until Epiphone was purchased by Gibson in 1957. Mine is entirely original and fairly clean for a pre-War instrument.