This old guitar


If I had the time, the talent, and the contacts, I’d start a TV or YouTube show called “This Old Guitar.” To those of us who look at life as sort of a Dickens novel happening on the fly, some of these instruments have a story to tell. Here’s one for you.

JBP 1940 Epiphone Zephyr 1

What a beauty. In its original Lifton hardshell case, my 1940 Epiphone Zephyr archtop. A wonderful neighbor of mine (Thanks, Joe!) rescued this fine old Zephyr from the trash of another neighbor. I shudder to think if he hadn’t . . . Joe is an ace guitar picker and singer, and knew what he had found.

Joe kept it for a year, repairing the old Lifton hardshell case and putting the guitar in better shape. He added a Bigsby tailpiece, made some replacement surrounds for the tone and volume controls, replaced the control knobs with vintage-correct ones, and so on. Joe is skilled, and puts it to good use!

JBP 1940 Epiphone Zephyr 2

Note the pickups: The bridge is a 1940s Epiphone New York Tone Spectrum single-coil and the neck is a surface-mount CC Rider made for me by Pete Biltof of Vintage Vibe Guitars. These guitars didn’t come with a neck pickup, but I had my brilliant buddy Bob Shade install this one and a pickup switch, too. Joe added the Bigsby but saved the original tailpiece. I saved the vintage mermaid decal Joe added; it really enhances the look of the guitar.

In time, Joe realized he wasn’t playing the instrument as much as some of his others, and passed the guitar to me at a most reasonable price.

I was going to write an article about archtops, and Epiphones, and some famous players, but decided instead to just show you some photos, from the Web and ones I’ve taken, and add captions to tell the story. Here goes:


The brilliant and dapper Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman, circa 1939, Check out that very early neck pickup. Christian turned the guitar from a rhythm to a a lead band instrument. Electricity! Question: Is Mr. Christian making a C chord in this photo in reference to his initials? Who knows? His guitar is a 1936 Gibson ES-150, which cost about the same as my Epiphone back then; with amp, case, and cord: $150; hence the name. The ES stood for Electric Spanish.

Charlie Christian Pickup

The Charlie Christian pickup was a massive thing with most of it under the guitar’s top when installed. Those cobalt magnets made a low-powered but smooth and musical sound. Lennon had one installed on his Les Paul Junior post-Beatles.

Epiphone New York Tone Spectrum pickup

I found this vintage Epiphone New York Tone Spectrum pickup on the Web. It looks like a mini-humbucker, but those weren’t invented until many years later.

Django's Epi[hone

Gypsy-jazz wizard Django Reinhardt also played with Benny Goodman’s band. Here he’s shown playing a 1940 Zephyr made a few months before mine, based on the serial numbers. Same exact model!

Good Enough HS

Epiphone was a major competitor to Gibson before Gibson bought them out in the mid-1950s. When Gibson said “Only a Gibson is good enough,” Epiphone countered with “When ‘Good Enough’ isn’t good enough.”

Prefer Blondes Ad

Gibson was famous for their beautiful sunburst finishes, so Epiphone’s line had blonde archtops in the late 1930s. They also made their guitars 3/16″ wider than a comparable-model Gibson. Very competitive!

Les' Log

Les Paul hung out at Epiphone’s NYC factory, and cut up a Zephyr to make his 4″ by 4″ log solidbody prototype look more like a real guitar.

Les Paul Log Solidbody Guitar

I’ve read that Les Paul fiddled with this guitar for years. When my son and I went to see it at the Smithsonian, I was surprised to see he had replaced the original Epiphone neck with a fancy Gibson one!

JBP 1940 Epiphone Zephyr 5

Enough trivia! Time for photos of this lovely guitar. How do you like that finish? No Botox on this 77-year-old beauty!

JBP 1940 Epiphone Zephyr 3

Those original tuners are snazzy, aren’t they? Still work great, too. Those are real mother-of-pearl inlays on the Brazilian rosewood fretboard.

JBP '40 Epi Back Headstock copy

Love the art-decoish sealed tuners on this guitar, with the Epiphone curved-E design element. I guess the knobs are Bakelite, as plastics were not all that common in 1940. Joe recreated that aluminum plate, which covers Epiphone’s processes for laminating wood. Looks perfect. At that time, tone-wood lamination (not to be confused with plywood) was an expensive and gee-whiz factor in making guitars. I’ve read that one reason Gibson bought Epiphone was to get hold of that process, as well as to eliminate a worrisome competitor.

JBP 1940 Epiphone Zephyr 7

Cool bridge. Joe, the finder and prior owner, made the black surround under the bridge pickup. Looks great. Joe’s a talented graphic designer by trade, and he has a super design sense.

So that’s the illustrated story of this old guitar. It plays easy and sounds sweet. I feel privileged to own it and love the history behind it.

Are you distracted?


Probably are. I am.

I was listening to a friend, a couple of years older than I am, and he was describing how few the distractions were when we were kids.

In the United States, particularly in the rural South, there just wasn’t a lot going on. If you lived in a remote Southern town, as I usually did, there was often no television because the broadcast stations were too far away for you to get a decent signal. Telephones, if available, were usually party lines, because private lines were pricey, if available at all.

Long-distance phone calls were placed through an operator, not directly dialed, and were expensive.

So a young kid had time to kill. We’d read a lot. If we had neighbors nearby with kids our age, we’d get together and have little adventures. If you loved to draw, as I did, you’d spend plenty of time doing that.

One summer, in East Texas, I’d save up my allowance to walk a mile or so on the dirt road to the nearest general store. I’d saved up my allowance so I had 50 cents to spend. That meant I could buy five funny books. That store, like most of that type back then, was a weathered wooden building set on cement blocks, and carried everything one could want, from a gallon of porch paint to a $4 pocket watch.

Kid walking

Only grownups wear shoes in the summer.

I’d spend an hour or so checking the spinner rack for what comic books I absolutely had to have. If I had 50 cents, I’d be able to buy five comics. So I chose wisely.

Usually, I’d buy four comics and two candy bars. I’d eat one of the candy bars sitting on the front porch of the store before walking home. Then I’d only have to share one of them with my little brother. After all, I had done all the walking and spent my own money. So Jeffrey would have to be content with half a Payday or Butterfinger.

Then I’d wander home and spend the next few days reading those comics over and over. Nothing to really distract me. If I saw a picture in one that captured my eye, I’d spend a couple of hours trying to draw it; seeing what it was that made that image special and compelling.

Superboy 091

I remember buying this and reading it over and over until the covers fell off. Summer, 1961. I still have what’s left of it.

We lived at the intersection of the Sabine River and the Intercoastal Waterway that summer, so I’d play around in or near those if my mom wasn’t looking.

I’d try to catch fiddler crabs. I’d be on the lookout for snakes, who were surely on the lookout for me. I’d chase my dog around and then she’d chase me around. I’d make lists of all the birds I saw. Sometimes my brother and I would make a tepee out of sticks and a blanket and we’d spend the night on the front lawn. Trying to learn to play a harmonica was kind of fun, but also frustrating.

Old Mr Toad

It wasn’t all comic books. These and Doctor Dolittle were my favorites. The Hardy Boys and Tom Swift Junior came later.

All this is in the way of an apology for not posting anything new for such a long time. I get caught up doing other things. I get distracted by the day-to-day that I’m involved in. I love the new technology and wouldn’t give it up, but I’m going to try to find more time to just kick back and mull things over in a leisurely way. There’s good in that.