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.