By Nick Millevoi
The Epiphone Masterbilt Excellente is like a time machine—take a good look at it and you might think you’ve been transported back about 50 or so years. That throwback feeling is exactly what Epiphone set out to inspire with this new addition to the Masterbilt series, a tribute to one of the company’s long-lost acoustic models.
Back in 1963, Epiphone introduced the Excellente, a square-shouldered dreadnought with a lot of pizzazz, as its top-of-the-line acoustic. Intended to pair well with rhinestones and cowboy boots, the Excellente was no down-market Gibson—as were some Epiphones of the day—but was a unique offering that was well-suited to make its presence known on a stage.
Between 1963 and 1969, Epiphone sold only 139 units of the Excellente before discontinuing it. But seen in the hands of Loretta Lynn and on the covers of albums by singer Sonny James, this super fancy guitar has long been a curiosity among guitar players and collectors. The model saw a couple of reissues in the 1990s (one by Epiphone and the other by the Gibson Custom Shop) and now the Masterbilt line continues that process.
Capturing the Original Aesthetic
The new Masterbilt Excellente recreates the visual flair of the original, starting with its thick, oversized pickguard, which features an ornate color engraving of an eagle landing on a branch, a nod to Gibson’s Hummingbird and Dove steel-strings (as well as the electric Firebird guitar and Thunderbird bass). The shape of the pickguard nicely complements the guitar’s uniquely curved ebony bridge.
The maple neck features a series of cloud-shaped inlays on an ebony fretboard, and the large headstock sports a block inlay with clouds on the top and bottom and gold-plated waffleback tuners. While the original had Brazilian rosewood back and sides, the Masterbilt model replaces the rosewood with solid ovangkol, and the vintage feel of the solid Sitka spruce top is assisted by an antique natural aged finish.
Heavy Guitar, Mellow Tone
When I picked up the Excellente, I was immediately surprised by the weight. It has a considerable heft, more in line with a neck-heavy 1970s-era model than a ’60s Gibson, and I found it took a little effort to negotiate balancing the guitar on my lap.
The Excellente’s 25.31-inch scale-length neck, with its C-shaped profile and 1.69-inch nut, made it easy to find my way around the jumbo frets. For a dreadnought, though, I found it hard to get a big sound and my review model felt somewhat stiff and quiet. In the ’60s, Sonny James requested Epiphone use a thin pickguard on his Excellente because he was concerned that the guitar’s thick pickguard would impede the resonance of the instrument. Playing the guitar, I wondered if James was onto something with his idea.
The Excellente fared better once I grabbed a light pick and strummed some breezy chord progressions. The instrument’s mellow voicing has a warm sound when strummed, and I found this kind of playing to be its strength. If you’ve booked a recording session to track some late-’60s-style folk rock or accompany a singer-songwriter who worships ’70s AM hits, you’ll probably want to bring the Excellente along. And if you’re taking it to the stage, you’ll be prepared: The guitar comes standard with a Fishman Sonicore undersaddle pickup, featuring discretely mounted Sonitone preamp volume and tone controls, so you get some modern amenities without disrupting the old-school aesthetic.
Getting my hands on the Masterbilt Excellente helped satiate my curiosity about a guitar I’d only seen in photos. Having never played an original example, I can’t make a direct comparison, but it sounds nice and will make just about anyone strumming it look cool. For a modern take on a vintage rarity, the Masterbilt Excellente accurately copies the look of the original while feeling like a reliable modern instrument.
BODY 14-fret, square-shouldered dreadnought; solid Sitka spruce top with solid ovangkol back and sides; ivory and black 6-ply (top) and 4-ply (back) binding; antique natural aged finish; Historic Excellente pickguard
NECK 25.31″-scale maple neck with five-piece walnut-and-maple center stripe; 1.69″ bone nut; 20-fret ebony fingerboard with Excellente cloud inlays and 12th-fret block inlay; gold-plated waffleback tuners
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OTHER Fishman Sonicore pickup with Fishman Sonitone preamp; Gibson Phosphor Bronze strings (.012–.053); optional hard or soft case
MADE IN Indonesia
PRICE $899 street
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