Olympic 6851

Close-up #17: 1933 Olympic SN 6851

This little Epiphone archtop guitar we found many years ago is a particularly well-loved member of our (instrument) family – doesn't it look at home on our sofa?

Below a photo I took through the f-hole – quite easily done these days by using the mobile phone camera: flash on, hold closely over the soundhole, click! This label of the silver oval type was used on the earliest Masterbilt instruments until c. early 1934. Next to it the serial number "6851" stamped into the wood; this SN is commonly agreed to indicate a 1933 manufacturing date. I think this fellow looks pretty well considering over 80 years old!

(Btw the guitar happens to be about the same age as that sofa, a vintage "Wohnbedarf Convertible no. 63" designed by Alvar Aalto – which we found dumped on a street nearby...!)

Olympic 6851

Those oval labels don't bear any model info, so we need to look elsewhere to identify the model we got here.

Most pre-1934 Epiphones have the model name engraved on the headstock – but not all: This headstock has a curved top, a marbled celluloid veneer, and a decal with "EPIPHONE" on a banner and "Masterbilt" underneath. No model info anywhere!

Olympic 6851

Leafing through the 1932 catalog, the only model that we find more or less matching our guitar is the Olympic (pictured below): with a $30 price Epiphone's cheapest model – "for the person who cannot afford more" (catalog blurb) ...  

1932 catalog Olympic

The "Concert" size body size is really small for an archtop, only 13 5/8" wide across the lower bout. Nonetheless the 1934 catalog (pictured below) boasted: "The tone is correspondingly big, round and full" ... Well, although I very much love how this tiny Olympic sounds and plays, those aren't the words I would use to describe its distinctive bright and punchy tone ...!

The 1934 catalog actually reused the 1932 image – retouching the headstock to add the decal, however not bothering about outdated details such as the "reverse" style tailpiece and the pickguard with two screws – both obsolete by 1933. The price had increased to $35, but the Olympic was still Epiphone's poor man's archtop.

Ironically, today these early '30s Olympics are quite sought after, commanding higher prices than many of the fancier models – because of one phenomenal musician who made a humble Epi Olympic his signature instrument. Dave makes his sound like a million dollars.

1934 catalog Olympic

Our example arrived in mostly original condition – except for the tailpiece, obviously a later Gibson-style replacement. The carved spruce top has a pronounced "dome". The 3-piece segmented soundholes typical for early Masterbilts lasted until early 1935 when specs for all models changed to 1-piece, cello-style f-holes. Another early detail is the curved fretboard end, a standard feature before the boards started to have a straight-cut end on all models in 1934. Note that the lighter colored center of the sunburst finish has a semi-opaque look – as seen on many pre-1935 Masterbilts, higher and lower models.

Olympic 6851

The back is laminated mahogany, pressed into an arched shape. In 1933 only the two top models DeLuxe and Broadway had a carved back. Lower-end Epis used plain three-on-a-strip tuning machines.  The neck has a 1 3/4" nut and a full, deep D-profile. Like with all pre-1937 Epis there is no adjustable neck reinforcement, but this neck has survived perfectly straight – never had a reset and doesn't need one.

Olympic 6851

A proper bridge setup is crucial to bring out the tone of an archtop; the bridge foot needs to be fitted to have full contact with the arch of the top. After fitting a bridge, the Epiphone workers in charge used to mark the bridge foot with the serial number of the instrument it belonged to – usually by stamping the SN. However on some early  instruments the bridge foot was marked by pencil – with model name and SN: "Olympic 6851" in our example. 

Olympic 6851

The family photo below shows our 1933 Olympic – now fitted with an old Epiphone tailpiece I was lucky to find – between two Zeniths of the same small size, a 1932 and a 1934. Note the difference of their original sunburst finishes which is quite dramatic ...

Olympic Zeniths

(Nov 6, 2016)