Review: Epiphone Masterbilt AJ-45ME is a Modern-Day Workhorse with a Vintage Look

The satin finish and slender neck makes for a decidedly modern feel, but it also has a warm, honeyed sound characteristic of the classic 1940s flattop to which it pays tribute.
 

With its satin finish and slender neck, Epiphone’s Masterbilt AJ-45ME has a decidedly modern feel. But the slope-shouldered guitar has the sort of warm, honeyed sound characteristic of the classic 1940s flattop to which it pays tribute—namely, Gibson’s J-45.

What’s more, the AJ-45ME is cheaper than the original article, adjusted for inflation. When Gibson introduced the J-45 in 1942, it sold for $45 (about $645 in today’s money); it became known as the “Workhorse,” on account of its affordability to working musicians and its durability. While a brand-new Gibson J-45 will set you back more than $2,000, the Epiphone AJ-45ME has a street price of a cool $599—a modern-day workhorse, for sure.

Epiphone-Masterbilt-AJ-45ME-Review

All-Solid Construction

The AJ-45ME is built from an excellent complement of tonewoods: a Sitka spruce top, with hand-scalloped Sitka bracing, and mahogany back and sides—all solid, a definite bonus for a guitar in this price range. The guitar’s mahogany neck is capped with a rosewood fretboard, the same species used for the bridge.

Cosmetically speaking, the J-45 is recalled in some of the AJ-45ME’s details, like the un-bound fretboard with simple dot markers, the upside-down bridge, and the deep sunburst finish, ranging from a toasted brown at the soundboard’s outer edges to a sunset amber in the center. The distinctive headstock, with its asymmetric crown and old-fashioned script logo, bears the influence of Epiphone’s 1930s Masterbilt archtops.

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All in all, it’s a handsome guitar, though the satin finish does detract from its vintage vibe and won’t develop the patina that occurs with age on the traditional gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish. And not only does the pickguard feel flimsy, it has an unfortunate wacky shape that completely obscures the rosette on the treble side.

True to its name, this Masterbilt is well built. Its genuine bone nut and saddle are cleanly notched, and its 20 medium frets are smoothly crowned and polished. There are no obvious defects in the satin finish, and the guitar’s innards are smoothly sanded and free from the typical traces of excess glue. This level of craftsmanship would be befitting of a much more expensive guitar.

Smooth Player

Out of the box, the AJ-45ME has a perfect setup with a comfortable action in all regions of its relatively short-scale neck, 24.75 inches. While some players might find the neck to be thin, others will find its comfortable C profile to be an improvement over the vintage style. Electric guitarists in particular will appreciate how smoothly the neck plays and how discouraging of fret-hand fatigue it seems to be. It’s even possible to bend the strings without too much effort.

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Overall, the guitar has a warm and handsome voice. But it doesn’t have the richness, the deep resonance, and responsiveness typical of the best vintage or modern examples. To get the best sound from the instrument, I really had to dig in, and because of this, the guitar performed slightly better for flatpicked approaches than fingerpicked.

It sounds especially nice for traditional accompaniment styles like boom-chuck and Carter strumming, in standard and alternate tunings. Thanks to the Grover Sta-Tite tuners—pairing a vintage look with modern performance—it’s easy to quickly switch tunings. With an onboard Shadow undersaddle pickup and preamp system, it’s also easy to plug in and play. These electronics do a good job of delivering the guitar’s natural acoustic sound with a minimum of extraneous noise.

Great Bang for the Buck

Epiphone’s AJ-45ME is a smart contemporary interpretation of one of the great historic flattops. Updates like a streamlined neck and built-in electronics make it a good choice for modern players, while traditional features like all-solid-wood construction and a dovetail neck joint lend an old-school sound. The AJ-45ME might not ever have the vibe of a golden-era acoustic, but neither does it have its price tag.

BODY: Advanced jumbo shape; solid sitka spruce top with hand-scalloped bracing; solid mahogany back and sides; rosewood bridge; satin vintage sunburst finish.

NECK: Mahogany neck; rosewood fretboard; 24.75-inch scale length; 1.69-inch nut; Grover Sta-Tite tuners (18:1 ratio); satin finish.

OTHER: D’Addario EJ16 phosphor bronze light strings (.012–.053); Shadow NanoFlex undersaddle pickup and Shadow Sonic preamp; hard-shell case; limited lifetime warranty.

PRICE: $599 street

MADE IN: Indonesia

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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