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Research: Epiphone serial numbers and production estimates (19311956)

Author: Felix Wiedler (Version: April, 2016)

Below a summary of my research findings regarding Epiphone's serial number (SN) systems and estimated production figures – after analyzing data of approximately 3700 Epiphone instruments and amplifiers (SN/model pairs, documented in c. 39'000 photos). 1


1. Epiphone's SN systems 1931–1956

Epiphone used several different SN systems depending on instrument type and time period:

A. Acoustic instruments 1931–1943: SN starting at 5000 and ending around 20301. (SN on label or stamped inside body.)

B. Acoustic instruments 1943–1956, including electric hollowbody instruments 1950–1956: SN starting at 50000 and ending around 69637. (SN on label inside body.)

C. Electric instruments 1935–1942: SN starting possibly around 1 and ending around 7182. (SN stamped on headstock.)

D. Electric instruments 1946–1949: SN with model-specific prefix and serial suffix on most models. (SN stamped on headstock.)

E. Special electric hollowbody guitars 1949, electric Hawaiian guitars 1949–1956: Some hollowbody models from 1949 and Hawaiian guitars from 1949 onwards use "special" SN systems. (SN stamped on headstock or bridge unit.)

F. Amplifiers 1936–1956: Amps used a number of complex SN systems – partly showing model-specific SN ranges. (SN stamped on logo plate or control plate.)

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 primarily focus on SN systems A + B which are well documented and cover the vast majority of Epiphone's total instrument production. SN systems C, D, E + F are more complex in nature and are discussed separately (see chapter 5).

2. Consecutive SN ranges assigned to model batches

Epiphone's main SN systems A + B generally appear to follow this pattern: a range of consecutive, ascending SNs are found on instruments of one single model; a subsequent range of SNs appears on instruments of another single model; and so on (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Sample excerpt from Registry database.

SN Model
54931 Emperor
54935 Emperor
54937 Emperor
54957 Emperor
54340 Emperor
54957 Emperor
54958 Emperor
54959 Emperor
54964 Emperor
54967 Emperor
54969 Emperor
55037 Zenith
55043 Zenith
55048 Zenith
55087 Spartan
55092 Spartan
55116 Spartan
55124 Spartan
55148 Triumph
55162 Triumph
55167 Triumph
55168 Triumph
55178 Triumph
55190 Triumph
55198 Triumph
55201 Triumph
55204 Triumph
55209 Triumph
55229 Triumph
55230 Triumph
55235 Triumph
55242 Blackstone
55244 Blackstone
55245 Blackstone
55247 Blackstone
55250 Blackstone
55262 Blackstone
55267 Blackstone
55293 Blackstone
55297 Blackstone
55301 Blackstone

My interpretation of this pattern is that these model-specific SN ranges represent production runs, i.e. each run or batch of a single model was assigned a range of consecutive SNs. I further assume that the subsequent SN range was assigned to the next following production run of a different model, and so on. This means: Epiphone's ascending SNs represent a chronology of production (not a chronology of shipping/sale). 2

I have observed considerable variation in batch sizes – from possibly a single, custom ordered model up to a hundred or more instruments of the same model in a consecutive SN range.

3. Revised SN-to-year allocation

The findings stated in (2) in connection with other research (mainly from analyzing/comparing SNed instruments with dated documents) has led to a revised dating approach for Epiphone SNs. See Fig. 2: "W revised" (referring to Wiedler) vs. "F traditional" (referring to the charts published by Fisch/Fred).

Fig. 2: SN-to-year allocation: acoustic and 1950s electric hollowbody instruments (SN systems A + B).

Year W revised – Wiedler
(approx. first SN)
F traditional – Fisch/Fred
(approx. first SN)
1931 5000      
1932 5400   5000  
1933 6200   6000  
1934 7200   7200  
1935 8400   8000  
1936 9900   10000  
1937 11400   11000  
1938 12800   12000  
1939 14400   13000  
1940 16000   14500  
1941 17350   16000  
1942 18450   17500  
1943 19400 50000 18200  
1944   50600 19000 50000
1945   52200   52000
1946   54150   54000
1947   55850   56000
1948   57100   57000
1949   58450   58000
1950   60000   59000
1951   62100   60000
1952   64100   64000
1953   65000   65000
1954   67000   67000
1955   69000   69000
1956   69500   69500

When looking at SN-to-year allocations keep in mind: Instruments were not made in one day – the time span between production start and shipping/selling of an instrument was typically several months (sometimes more), often spanning different calendar years.

The "W” date of an Epiphone instrument/SN always refers to the estimated date when it entered production – and NOT the date it was finished, left the factory, or was sold by a store. It can be assumed that shipping/sale dates of individual instruments from the same production period (or even the same batch) could vary considerably – i.e. some selling quickly, while others remained unsold for months or  longer.

This (partly) explains the differences to the traditional dating, which ultimately relied on Tom Wheeler’s research based on inventory lists of one single retail store. 3

4. Reconstructing model production data: filling SN gaps through interpolation + extrapolation

Epiphone's SN systems A + B are pretty well documented with more than 2700 entries (SN/model pairs) in our Registry database. Taking into account the assumed lowest and documented highest number of these two SN systems, we can quite precisely estimate the total production of Epiphone instruments with SN inside body (=acoustic instruments 1931–1956 and electric hollowbody instruments 1950–1956): 34'940 units. 4

Based on my findings stated in (2) that ranges of consecutive SNs were assigned to batches of the same model, we can extend our research to another aspect: interpolation methods enable us to "fill in" undocumented SN/model pairs within assumed batches (i.e. ranges of SNs exclusively assigned to one model – see example in Fig. 3).

In many cases the very first and very last SN of a batch cannot be determined as long as there are SN gaps to the adjacent batch of a different model. However all missing SNs within the first and last documented SN of an assumed model batch can be "interpolated" i.e. tentatively identified (with high probability) to also be examples of that same model.

Fig. 3: Interpolation of missing SN/model pairs within an assumed batch/SN range of the same model (example).

SN Model Data source
54958
Emperor
Registry
54959 Emperor Registry
54960 Emperor interpolated
54961 Emperor interpolated
54962 Emperor interpolated
54963 Emperor interpolated
54964 Emperor Registry
54965 Emperor interpolated
54966 Emperor interpolated
54967 Emperor Registry
54968 Emperor interpolated
54969 Emperor Registry

Applying this interpolation method to my registry data leads to some remarkable results: While my documented SN/model pairs currently represent about 8% of the estimated total production (SN systems A + B, 1931–1956), the addition of interpolated SN/model pairs boosts this ratio to 47% (see Fig. 4 for an excerpt).

The figures in column "Registry+interpolated" can be seen as "minimum" production numbers for the respective models, i.e. how many were "at least" produced. I consider these "minimum" figures as pretty reliable, although they are not to be mistaken as total production figures.

However, this data enables us to also calculate rough estimates of total production numbers for each model and period – by using approximation (extrapolation) methods. 5 Note: these extrapolated totals in the last column of Fig. 4 are ballpark figures and do not claim to be exact in any way. But they give an idea – e.g. if total production of a model was likely in the dozens, in the hundreds, or in the thousands.

Below in Fig. 4, 5, 6 some examples of estimates for certain models/production periods.

Fig. 4: Example of estimated totals: acoustic archtop guitars per model 1931–1956, plus totals of other instrument types with internal SN (systems A + B). Model totals include cutaway and 4-string versions (data as of 23 Apr 2016).

Acoustic archtops
1931
–1956
Registry 

Registry+ interpolated 
Estim. totals
extrapolated
Blackstone                           
180 1507 3052
Broadway 211 1119 2400
Byron 23 193 415
DeLuxe 189 663 1608
Devon 60 301 769
Emperor 214 659 1192
Olympic 206 2065 3959
Ritz 23 135 531
Royal 15 72 205
Spartan 63 294 1092
Triumph 527 3248 5586
Tudor 3 3 51
Zenith 292 2484 5074
Sorrentino/Howard/Ideal 20 46 294
Early Tenor/Plectrum 40 110 600
Total Archtops 2066 12899 26822
Total Mandolins 68 211 1029
Total Flattops 135 595 2168
Total El Hollowb '50s 488 2843 4921
Total Ac + El Hollowb '50s 2757 16548 34940
Percent Ac + El Hollowb '50s 7.9% 47.4% 100%

The chart in Fig. 4 summarizes some of my current research findings – for example: 

Fig. 5: Example of estimated production of a model in a time period: pre-war Emperor, including Soloist model (data as of 11 Mar 2017).

Emperor
Year (approx.)
Registry 

Registry+ interpolated 
Reg+interp+ extrapolated 
Batches

1934               



1935 2 3 28 1              
1936 10 45 80 2
1937 9 22 29 1
1938 3 17 41 1
1939 24 88 113 3
1940 7 15 51 2 +Soloist
1941 9 23 33 1
1942



1943



1944



Total pre-war
64 213 373 11
Percent            17.2% 57.1% 100%

The chart in Fig. 5 shows an example of model-related data on a timeline – for the pre-war Emperor:

Fig. 6: Example of all acoustic models in a time period: year 1947 = SN range 55850–57099 (data as of 28 Dec 2016).

1947
(W year)
Reg 

Reg+ interp
Batches
 
Reg+int+ extrapol Extrapol
 
Percent
reg+int
Blackstone  20
369
3
454 85          81.4%
Broadway 14 138 1 146 8             94.8%
DeLuxe 18 108 2 147 39 73.7%
Spartan 10 85 2 113 28 75.2%
Triumph 33 324 2 389 65 83.3%
Total
95 1024 10 1248 224 82.1%

The chart in Fig. 6 shows an example of a comparatively high interpolation ratio due to registry data of excellent quality:
These are just examples. Based on our registry data, similar charts and conclusions can be made for any model or time period.

Although these estimates are still somewhat speculative and approximate at best, they are certainly based on a much wider data sample of higher quality than that on which previous research was based. And the estimates will keep getting more precise as the database of documented SN/model pairs is growing.

5. SNs of electric instruments and amplifiers

While Epiphone's SN systems for acoustic instruments and 1950s electric hollowbodies (A + B) appear to be pretty straightforward, the SN systems of their other electric instruments and amps (C, D, E + F) are much less so. Over the years a number of different SN systems were used. Below an overview of the groups C, D, E + F:

C. Pre-war period 1935–1942: SNs of electric stringed instruments cover the range from possibly around 1 to around 7182, their ascending numbering representing a chronology of production (Note: The earliest electric instruments from 1935 don't bear a visible SN).
Similar to SN systems A+B, ranges of consecutive SNs appear to be assigned to groups of single models – suggesting that these represent production runs. The respective SN range suggests that the pre-WW2 production of electric instruments sums up to more than 7000 units in total – if every SN was indeed assigned to a manufactured instrument. During WW2 electric instrument production was virtually halted.

D. Post-war years 1946–1949: When electric model production was relaunched in 1946, new ranges of SNs were applied to most models – with numbers based on a model-specific prefix (2-3 digits) and serial suffix (3 digits, ascending consecutive numbers starting with 000): 15xxx = Century Hawaiian, 25xxx = Zephyr Spanish, 60xxx = Century Spanish, 75xxx = Zephyr DeLuxe; 85xxx = Zephyr DeLuxe Regent, 100xxx = Console. This system allows for pretty precise estimates of production figures in this period: the highest (known) SN suffix of a model indicating the total number produced – summing up to a total of 2248 units.
An exception (and not included in this figure) is the Zephyr Hawaiian model which continued with the pre-war SN system (see C), starting around SN 7307 and ending around SN 7908 (i.e. approx. 600 units in total). The Alkire Eharp, an electric Hawaiian model custom built for and exclusively sold by musician Eddie Alkire, had its own SN system starting around 100.

E. Special electric hollowbody guitars 1949, electric Hawaiian guitars 1949–1956: The year 1949 brought significant changes to Epiphone's model lineup and likewise to their SN systems. Early examples of the newly introduced Kent Spanish model have "special" SNs in the 3000s and 4000s (stamped on headstock), before switching to SN system B by 1950. Documented examples of the new Kent Hawaiian show "special" SNs in the 75 to 171 range (stamped on headstock). In the early 1950s all electric Hawaiian guitars switched to SNs in the 9000s (stamped on bridge unit). Due to the yet unclear logic behind the applied "special" SN systems, production totals for these models are difficult to estimate.

Fig. 7: SN-to-year allocation: electric Hawaiian guitars and pre-1950 electric hollowbody instruments (SN systems C, D, E).

Year W revised (approx first SN)
F trad
1935 no SN        1
1936 1                           
250
1937 700 750
1938 1700 1500
1939 2500 2500
1940 3300 3500
1941 5000 5000
1942 6600
6500
1943 (production halted)
7500
1944 (production halted) 8300
1945 (production halted) 
1946–1949 7300    Zephyr Hawaiian
15000  Century Hawaiian
25000  Zephyr Spanish
60000  Century Spanish
75000  Zephyr DeLuxe
85000  Zephyr DeLuxe Cutaway
100000 Console
100       Alkire Eharp

1949 3000, 4000  Kent Spanish
75      Kent Hawaiian, Century Hawaiian

1950–1956 9000  Electric Hawaiian

Fig. 8: Estimated totals: acoustic and electric stringed instruments 1931–1956 (data as of 23 Apr 2017).

All instruments
1931
–1955
Registry

Registry+ interpolated
Estim. totals
extrapolated
Ac + El Hollowb '50s 2757
16548
34940
El Hollowb pre-1950 298 2800 4091
El Hawaiian 395 3813 6457
Total all
3450
23161
45488
Percent all 7.6% 50.9% 100%

F. Amplifiers 19361956: Amps used a number of different SN systems which are not yet fully understood and make it difficult to estimate production totals (Fig. 9). Therefore I don't present total production estimates for amps at this stage of my research.
The SN system of pre-war amplifiers is based on ascending numbers, however it is questionable if all numbers in the respective ranges were indeed assigned to manufactured units. 6 In some years model-specific SN ranges were used. After 1947 the amp model lines underwent several changes, each reflected in a new SN system.

Fig. 9: SN-to-year allocation: Amplifiers, with model-specific SN ranges in some years (SN system F).

Year SN / models (approx first SN)
1935 no SN Electar
1936        various
1937 700    various
1938 1700  Model C
3000  Model M
1939 1900  Century, Coronet
5000  Zephyr
1940 6000  Century, Coronet
7000  Zephyr
1941 8200  Zephyr
9000  Century, Coronet
1942 8700  Zephyr
10000 Century, Coronet
1943–1945 (production halted)
1946 8900  Zephyr, Dreadnaught
1947 10000 Zephyr, Century
1948 30000 Zephyr, Dreadnaught
1949–1951 35000 Zephyr, Dreadnaught
2000   Asta
1952–1954 40000 various
1955–1956 1100   various

General note: My estimated SN-to-year allocations and production figures are approximations that are subject to correction as new evidence material surfaces.


Notes:

1) Acoustic instruments generally refer to guitar and mandolin family instruments. Epiphone banjos and bass viols (which had their own SN systems each) are out of the scope of my research.

2) Epiphone's SN systems A + B appear to be similar in concept to the SNs of C.F. Martin & Co: Each model batch was assigned a consecutive SN range – with ascending SNs representing a chronology of production. Most Gibson SNs (pre-WW2) on the other hand appear to relate rather to the completion date (shortly before shipping) of an individual instrument; for their batch-oriented production Gibson used a second numbering system – the Factory Order Numbers (FONs) –, as pointed out by Joe Spann's invaluable research published in: Spann, J. E. (2011), Spann's Guide To Gibson 1902-1941.
Note that in this context the term "batch" is used for a series of instruments within a SN range exclusively assigned to one single model, although technically speaking a larger series of one model may actually consist of several consecutive production batches of the same model.

3) Wheeler, T. (1982), American Guitars: An Illustrated History, p.40. Tom Wheeler based his Epiphone SN dating on records of a single music store, Pettey Music Co in Pittsburgh, PA. This fact suggests that Wheeler's SN-to-year allocation related to the date when an Epiphone instruments was present at that store – not when it went into production. Furthermore, Wheeler's figures seem to suggest that the initial digits of a SN coincide with certain calendar years. No evidence has been found to support such a theory.

4) Generally, our estimates are based on the assumption that all numbers in the respective SN range were actually assigned to instruments. Theoretically there is a possibility that certain numbers were omitted and not used for reasons unknown. Certainty in this matter will grow as the gaps of undocumented SNs in our Registry continue to be filled with data.

5) Extrapolation methods tentatively attribute undocumented SN/model pairs in gaps between two (assumed) adjacent model batches. In the example in Fig. 10, the 6 undocumented SNs 55236–55241 are likely to include models of the previous batch (=Triumph) and/or subsequent batch (=Blackstone), although their relative distribution is not known. Our applied extrapolation algorithm equally assigns 50% of the missing SNs to the previous model and 50% to the subsequent model – in this example 3 Triumphs and 3 Blackstones. Note: Theoretically, such SN gaps could include a small batch of a third model. In our database there are still quite a few larger gaps (>50) with no documented SN so far; we don't know today for sure if such gaps consist of models of the adjacent batches, or include undocumented batches of third models – or even in some cases were omitted (see note 4).

Fig. 10: Extrapolation of SN/model pairs between two assumed model batches (example).

SN Model Data source
55229
Triumph
Registry
55230 Triumph Registry
55231 Triumph interpolated
55232 Triumph interpolated
55233 Triumph interpolated
55234 Triumph interpolated
55235 Triumph Registry
55236 Triumph extrapolated
55237 Triumph extrapolated
55238 Triumph extrapolated
55239 Blackstone extrapolated
55240 Blackstone extrapolated
55241 Blackstone extrapolated
55242 Blackstone Registry
55243 Blackstone interpolated
55244 Blackstone Registry

6) Example: There is only one single amplifier in the SN range 4xxx documented – Model M Amplifier SN 4042

In an earlier stage of our research we considered the theory of one shared SN system between electric stringed instruments and amplifiers (as opposed to two separate systems of the same number range): This because no case of an identical SN on units of each type was documented – until 2016. Today we know 2 cases of an identical SN on units of each type (SN 1342: Model M Spanish + Model M Amplifier; SN 5220: Model M Hawaiian + Zephyr Amplifier). Based on these cases of double SNs we revised our theory: We assume that electric stringed instruments and amps used separate SN systems.


Bibliography

Epiphone:

Carter, Walter, and Jimi Stratton. Epiphone: The Complete History. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1995.

Carter, Walter. The Epiphone Guitar Book: A Complete History. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2012.

Fisch, Jim, and L. B. Fred. Epiphone: The House of Stathopoulo. Amsco Publications, 1996.

General or other makers:

Gruhn, George, and Walter Carter. Acoustic guitars and other fretted instruments: a photographic history. GPI Books, 1993.

Gruhn, George, and Walter Carter. Gruhn's guide to vintage guitars: an identification guide for American fretted instruments. GPI Books, 1991.

Gruhn, George, and Walter Carter. Gruhn's guide to vintage guitars: an identification guide for American fretted instruments. Updated and revised 3rd edition. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2010.

Johnston, Richard, and Dick Boak. Martin guitars: A history. Vol. 1. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2008.

Johnston, Richard, and Dick Boak. Martin Guitars: A Technical Reference. Vol. 2. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2009.

Spann, Joseph E. Spann's Guide to Gibson 1902-1941. Centerstream Publications, 2011.

Wheeler, Tom. American guitars: an illustrated history. Harper & Row, 1982.


Epiphone letter