Zenith 7543 front

Close-up #1: 1934 Zenith SN 7543

Let’s have a closer look at this Epiphone archtop I recently acquired for my personal collection.

The internal label states that it is a Zenith model with serial number 7543 – indicating the guitar was manufactured in 1934. This type label – commonly referred to as the “Long Island” type due to the quoted location of the Epiphone company – was introduced shortly before this instrument was built: The first documented example with a Long Island label is SN 7452, a rare Tudor model.

Zenith 7543 label

Introduced in 1931 as one of the original Masterbilt archtops, the Zenith was a student-grade model with a small “Concert” size body, measuring a mere 13 5/8 inches across the lower bout. With a list price of $50, the Zenith was Epiphone's second-cheapest archtop model above the Olympic.

While the Zenith model had a carved spruce top, the construction of the back was a one-piece laminated plate pressed into an arched shape (only Epiphone's high-end models featured two-piece carved backs). The wood of the back and sides changed by c. 1933 from maple to walnut – a tonewood not widely used by other guitar manufacturers.

Zenith 7543 back

The early Masterbilt instruments had a distinctive headstock design with intricate “Epiphone” and “Masterbilt” banners, and the model name inlaid or engraved in between (the early label of the “oval” type did not contain any model info). In 1934 the design of the headstock face was drastically simplified to a more modern look: “EPIPHONE” pearl inlaid in capital block letters, combined with mostly neoclassical inlay motifs – blossom branch on the DeLuxe, vine on the Tudor and Broadway, fleur-de-lis on the Triumph (SN 7415 being the earliest documented example). The Zenith received an exclamation point inlay which it initially shared with two mid-range models – the slightly larger Blackstone and the newly introduced round-hole Spartan.

Zenith 7543 head

This somewhat cheeky looking inlay was however short-lived: It got reduced to a “stickpin” (minus the point!) by the time a new Epiphone catalog (dated 1934) was published. And shortly after, the rather prosaic block letter logo gave way to a more elegant version with “Epiphone” in mixed-case script letters.

In the 1934 catalog the Zenith model was listed with an upgraded body size of 14 3/4” wide and 19 1/4” long (Zenith SN 7738 being the earliest documented example with the new specs).

1934 catalog

With its early-style smaller size body and later-style headstock design, Zenith SN 7543 is a rather uncommon transitional example. The guitar has survived in fine condition, with lightly crazed original finish, black plastic pickguard and three-on-a-strip tuners.

Zenith 7543 bridge

The bridge foot has the serial number stamped on the underside – a practice Epiphone seems to have started in c. 1933.

Zenith 7543 Vibrola

A special feature of this guitar is the tailpiece: The “Vibrola” unit – an early vibrato tailpiece designed by Doc Kauffman – was actually offered as an optional add-on in the 1934 Epiphone catalog. Unfortunately, the vibrato arm is missing on this example.

1934 catalog Vibrola

A vibrato tailpiece on an acoustic archtop may seem a rather exotic idea today, however not uncommon in the 1930s. Several of the featured musicians in Epiphone catalogs (and Gibson catalogs who also offered it as an option) are pictured with a Vibrola-equipped archtop – one of them Edwin Kimmel, Omaha, Nebraska.

1934 catalog Kimmel

Zenith SN 7543 came with a small envelope containing the original sales receipt, dated June 8, 1935: Music retailer A. Hospe Co. in Omaha, Nebraska, received $50.00 from one L.A. Wager of Honey Creek, Iowa, for “Guitar – New – In full”.

Zenith 7543 receipt

As you can see in the picture below, the guitar originally had a regular trapeze tailpiece (like the example on the right) – note the screw holes and plugged endpin hole.

Zenith 7543

Possibly the buyer was inspired by Omaha-based guitarist Mr. Kimmel to add a Vibrola unit? I guess we will never know ...

(Sep 18, 2016)