By Adam Perlmutter
The Epiphone and Gibson companies were fierce rivals in the Thirties, constantly trying to outdo each other’s designs. But with the death of its dynamic leader, Epi Stathopoulo, in 1943, Epiphone’s reputation for quality and innovation began to slide. In 1957, the East Coast–based company finally threw in the towel and sold its bass line, and the right to manufacture under the Epiphone name, to Gibson.
Subsequently, when Epiphone’s bass supplies arrived at Gibson’s factories in Michigan, the company encountered a fortuitous bonus: full provisions for a line of guitars. So Gibson, which tightly controlled the distribution of its instruments to avoid competition between local dealers, came up with a smart workaround: it slapped the Epiphone logo and ornamentation on what were essentially Gibson models and used them to provide stock to retailers previously denied Gibson products.
The Casino is a prime example of a Gibson in Epiphone’s clothing. Introduced in 1961, it’s essentially an ES-330, a fully hollow thinline electric originally intended as a student model. But beginning around 1965, each of the three guitar-playing members of the Beatles owned Casinos and used them extensively, which is why vintage mid-Sixties models command a premium: in the $6,000 range compared to $3,000 for an ES-330 from the same era.
Epiphone’s 1965 Casino is part of the company’s Elitist Series, which are made in Japan of top-quality components and set up at Gibson’s headquarters, in Nashville, Tennessee. The new Casino sports all of the basic features of the original: a double-cutaway, five-ply laminated maple body with twin f-holes, a set-in solid mahogany neck, and a duo of P-90 pickups with nickel-plated covers. But it also incorporates some thoughtful upgrades for the modern player, like larger fretwire, precise Grover tuning machines, and a second strap button, right below the neck heel.
On account of its thin, hollow build, the Casino is a lightweight guitar. My review model weighed in at roughly 6.4 pounds, a bit more than the Sixties-era ES-330 against which I measured it—a relative featherweight at 5.8 pounds. Nonetheless, the Elitist Casino hangs very comfortably from a strap or positioned on the lap.
The craftsmanship on my Casino was boutique level. Great care appeared to have been taken in grinding and polishing the 22 medium-jumbo frets and in cutting string slots on the Tune-o-matic-style bridge saddles and on the bone nut. The rich, traditional sunburst (also available in natural) was free from imperfections and—although polyurethane instead of the vintage-correct nitrocellulose—managed to lend a handsomely old-school vibe to the guitar.
With its medium-size profile, the neck feels solid and reassuring, unlike the pencil-sized necks found on some Sixties originals. The guitar’s factory-set low action made barre chords a breeze. It would have been a nice touch if Epiphone had used the narrow neck binding found on vintage Casinos, which is a little more refined than that on the reissue.
My test Casino had a surpassingly good unplugged tone—every bit as resonant as its older Gibson counterpart and even a bit louder. In this capacity, the Casino would make an ideal couch-sitting guitar. The guitar is so loud, in fact, that when linked to a Fender Pro Junior, its acoustic sound overwhelmed the amplified signal until the Junior was turned up to three or more.
The Casino sports premium electronics—two U.S.-made P-90s connected with vintage-style braided and shielded wire—so it’s no surprise that it sounds as exceptional plugged in as when unamplified. Like the ES-330, it has a throaty, articulate midrange and more than a little warmth. The Casino also has a versatile voice. Engaging the bridge pickup and cranking the amp quickly produced a convincing “Taxman”-esque tone. With the volume lowered and the neck pickup selected, I was able to coax from the guitar a thick and silky tone similar to that associated with jazz guitarist Grant Green and his ES-330.
All of this is just a long way of saying, of course, that Epiphone’s Elitist Casino is a superlative instrument. It sounds as good as a 50-year-old original but feels and plays a bit better, exactly as a modern guitar should.
List Price: $2,999
Epiphone Musical Instruments, epiphone.com