There was a time, prior to the advent of amplification, that the acoustic archtop guitar reigned supreme in American popular music. Guitarists in large ensembles relied on these robust instruments for their cutting, projective sound, which stacked up nicely against walls of horn and percussion. In the 1930s, Epiphone—then known as the Epiphone Banjo Co.—offered a full range of archtop models from spartan to luxurious, but phased them out decades ago as they lost favor with guitarists. The company is revisiting its roots with a new line of Masterbilt archtops, from the diminutive Century Olympic to the big-bodied Century De Luxe. I put the latter model to its paces and was duly impressed by its performance and value.
In reviving the archtop, Epiphone had 50 original examples to scrutinize, and borrowed a bunch of classic details for its new designs. The Century De Luxe has a non-cutaway body with a 17-inch lower bout and the same gracefully arched soundboard and back as its 80-year-old predecessors.
The top is made of solid spruce with longitudinal bracing, and other period-appropriate details include Epiphone reissue tuners with marbled crown buttons, diamond fretboard inlays, ornate headstock decorations, and even a replica of a 1930s soundhole label.
Though it has a vintage appearance, the Century De Luxe Classic doesn’t necessarily feel like an old instrument. In some ways, that’s a good thing.
With its medium, well-dressed frets and spot-on intonation, the guitar definitely plays better than the average vintage example—the tuners have an 18:1 ratio and are much smoother and reliable than typical 1930s versions. The guitar’s finish is what Epiphone calls Aged Gloss, which has more of a modern import vibe than an old-school one, and it seems overly opaque, obscuring much of the figuring on the maple back and sides of our Vintage Sunburst review model. (This wouldn’t be a problem on the Vintage Natural version.)
The guitar is heavy—around seven pounds—but is well-built overall. The bone nut and slots of the bone saddle are perfectly executed, and all the binding and inlay work are flush and clean. But there’s a little sloppiness in some of the details, like excess glue around the soundhole label, and imperfectly painted f-holes—certainly not deal breakers at this price point.
There was a time, prior to the advent of amplification, that the acoustic archtop guitar reigned supreme in American popular music.
The Century De Luxe Classic is great fun to play. Its C-shaped neck is beefy—.95-inch thick at the first fret—perhaps too large for a player with small hands, but it feels manageable, thanks, in part, to its perfect low action. At 1.69-inches, the nut is on the narrow side, but the fretboard doesn’t feel cramped in the slightest.
The guitar has a winning sound, with the projection and volume expected of a good archtop—more robust, in fact, than an early 1940s Gibson L-4 that I compared it to. It’s got a terrific punch, and is great for rhythm work, particularly in the mold of jazz-giant Freddie Green, the longtime Count Basie guitarist.
It really likes to be strummed hard, and it’s also responsive to more nuanced chord-melody work. And when I play walking bass lines with chords, the Century De Luxe’s impressive, but not overpowering, bottom end is apparent.
It fares just as well for single-note lines, though there’s just a touch of brittleness when I dig in on the first string. A good tonal balance and dynamic range also make the guitar good for fingerpicking, whether in standard, D A D G A D, or open-G tuning. Epiphone has certainly done its homework when it comes to dialing in the sound of an old archtop.
The Century De Luxe Classic doesn’t necessarily feel like an old instrument. In some ways, that’s a good thing.
The Century De Luxe Classic boasts a cool, modern upgrade in its electronics package: a Shadow NanoFlex HD under-saddle pickup and eSonic HD preamp, including bass and treble controls and powered by a nine-volt battery. When plugged in, the guitar has a warm and natural sound, and is resistant to feedback at moderate volume levels. Jazz purists, though, might prefer the tone of a more traditional floating pickup, mounted near the neck.
Vintage archtops can be expensive and delicate. Epiphone addresses these problems brilliantly in the Century De Luxe. With its vintage styling and modern playability, the guitar would compare favorably to a vintage archtop, and its plug-in-and-play technology gives it an advantage when it comes to gigging and recording.
The guitar is perfect for burgeoning jazzers and steel-string players of all styles looking to expand their tonal palettes with the unmistakable sound of a classic acoustic archtop.
Epiphone Masterbilt Century De Luxe Classic
17-inch non-cutaway body; Solid spruce top with longitudinal bracing; Laminated flamed maple back and sides; Aged Gloss Vintage Sunburst or Vintage Natural finish
5-piece maple/mahogany neck; Ebony fretboard; 25.5-inch scale length; 1.69-inch nut; Epiphone reissue tuners
Cleartone strings (.012–.053); eSonic HD Preamp/Shadow NanoFlex HD pickup; Optional Century Collection De Luxe hardshell case
$1,499 list/$899 street; Made in Indonesia; epiphone.com
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.