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Research: Epiphone serial numbers and production estimates (19311956)

Author: Felix Wiedler (Version: June 2017)

Below a summary of my research findings regarding Epiphone's serial number (SN) systems and estimated production figures – based on the data analysis of approximately 3700 Epiphone instruments and amplifiers (SN/model pairs, documented in c. 40'000 photos). 1


1. Epiphone SN systems 1931–1956 – an overview

Epiphone's stringed instruments of the 1931–1956 period typically show a visible serial number – high-end models the same way as lower-priced instruments. Several different SN systems were used depending on instrument type and time period – all of them employing consecutive, ascending numbers which generally followed the timeline of production:

A. Acoustic instruments 1931–1943: SN starting at 5000 and ending around 20301. (SN on label or stamped inside body.)
Estimated total production: 15302 units.

B. Acoustic instruments 1943–1956, including electric hollowbody instruments 1950–1956: SN starting at 50000 and ending around 69637. (SN on label inside body.)
Estimated total production: 19638 units.

C. Electric instruments 1935–1942: SN starting possibly around 1 and ending around 7182. (SN stamped on headstock.)
Note that the earliest electric instruments from 1935 don't bear a visible SN. During WW2 electric instrument production was halted.
Estimated total production (with SN): 7182 units.

D. Electric instruments 1946–1949: SN with model-specific prefix and serial suffix on most models. 2 (SN stamped on headstock.)
Estimated total production: 2857 units.

E. "Special" electric guitars 1949, electric Hawaiian guitars 1950–1956: Some electric models from 1949 and all Hawaiian guitars from 1950 onwards use "special" SN systems. 3 (SN stamped on headstock or bridge unit.)
Estimated total production: 509 units.

Taking into account the assumed lowest and documented highest number of these SN systems, we can calculate a total production estimate of Epiphone instruments: 45488 units. 4

2. Dating of serial numbers – revised SN-to-year allocation

My research has led to a slightly revised dating approach for Epiphone SNs. See Fig. 1 + Fig. 2 "W revised" (referring to Wiedler) vs. "F traditional" (referring to the charts published by Fisch/Fred). 5

Fig. 1: 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

Fig. 2: 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


3. Understanding Epiphone's SN systems – number ranges assigned to model batches

Epiphone's SN systems 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 example Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: 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
55010 Zenith
55037 Zenith
55043 Zenith
55048 Zenith
55087 Spartan
55092 Spartan
55116 Spartan
55124 Spartan
55127 Spartan
55148 Triumph
55162 Triumph
55167 Triumph
55168 Triumph
55178 Triumph
55190 Triumph
55198 Triumph
55201 Triumph
55204 Triumph
55209 Triumph
55210 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 understanding of this pattern is that these model-specific SN ranges represent production runs – i.e. a run or batch of a single model was assigned a range of consecutive SNs. The subsequent SN range was then assigned to the next following production run of a different model, and so on. This means: Epiphone's ascending SNs mirror a chronology of production. 6

Note that batch sizes varied considerably – from possibly a single instrument up to a hundred or more instruments of the same model in a consecutive SN range.

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

Based on these findings that ranges of consecutive SNs were assigned to batches of the same model, we can extend our research to reconstructing missing model production data – by using interpolation and extrapolation algorithms on our SN data.

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. 4).

Fig. 4: Interpolation of missing SN/model pairs within an assumed batch/SN range of the same model (example). Note that in many cases the very first and last SNs 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.

SN Model Data source
54957 Emperor Registry
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 instrument production, the addition of interpolated SN/model pairs boosts this ratio to 51% (see Fig. 6 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, the data also allows for calculating rough estimates of total production numbers for each model and period – by employing approximation (extrapolation) methods. Extrapolation algorithms tentatively attribute undocumented SN/model pairs in gaps between two (assumed) adjacent model batches – see example in Fig. 5.

Fig. 5: Extrapolation of SN/model pairs between two assumed model batches (example): 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.

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
55245
Blackstone
Registry

Note: These extrapolated totals in the right column of Fig. 6 are ballpark figures and do not claim to be exact. But they give a rough idea – e.g. if total production of a model was likely in the dozens, in the hundreds, or in the thousands.

5. Examples of model production estimates


Below some examples of estimates for certain models/production periods.

Fig. 6: Example of estimated totals: acoustic archtop guitars per model 1931–1956, plus totals of other instrument types. Model totals include cutaway and 4-string versions (data as of 26 Jun 2016).

Acoustic archtops
1931
–1956
Registry 

Registry+ interpolated 
Estim. total
extrapolated
Blackstone                           
184 1576 3086
Broadway 211 1119 2375
Byron 24 216 426
DeLuxe 190 663 1589
Devon 61 305 771
Emperor 216 659 1194
Olympic 208 2149 3912
Ritz 23 135 531
Royal 16 73 217
Spartan 63 294 1092
Triumph 533 3252 5525
Tudor 3 3 51*
Zenith 295 2522 5112
Sorrentino/Howard/Ideal 21 63 306
Early Tenor/Plectrum 40 110 590
Total Archtops 2088 13139 26781
Total Mandolins 70 266 1097
Total Flattops 136 596 2123
Total El Hollowb '50s 494 2915 4946
Total Ac + El Hollowb '50s 2788 16916 34940
Percent Ac + El Hollowb '50s 8.0%
48.4%
100%
El Hollowb pre-1950 301 2800 4083
El Hawaiian all 401 3830 6466
Total all 3490 23546 45488
Percent all 7.7% 51.8% 100%

The chart in Fig. 6 provides a summary of Epiphone's stringed instrument production 1931–1956 (without acoustic banjos, basses 7, and amplifiers). The data in a nutshell:

Fig. 7: Example of estimated yearly production figures of a model: pre-war Emperor, including Soloist model (data as of 11 Mar 2017).

Emperor
Year (approx.)
Registry 

Registry+ interpolated 
Estim. total 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. 7 shows an example of model-related data on a timeline – for the pre-war Emperor:

Fig. 8: Example of all acoustic models in a time period: year 1947 = SN range 55850–57099 (data as of 8 June 2017).

1947
(W year)
Reg 

Reg+ interp
Batches
 
Est. total extrapol Extrapol
 
Percent
reg+int
Blackstone  20 369 3 454 85          81.4%
Broadway 14 138 1 146 8             94.8%
DeLuxe 18 108 2 131 23 82.4%
Spartan 10 85 2 113 28 75.2%
Triumph 34 324 2 389 65 83.3%
Total
96 1024 10 1232 208 83.1%

The chart in Fig. 8 shows an example of a comparatively high interpolation ratio due to registry data of excellent quality and large batches:
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 larger 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.

6. SNs of Epiphone amplifiers

Epiphone amplifiers used a number of different SN systems (see Fig. 9) which are not yet fully understood and make it difficult to estimate production totals. (SN stamped on logo plate or control plate.)

Although the SN system of pre-war amplifiers is generally based on ascending numbers, it is questionable wether all numbers in the respective range were indeed assigned to manufactured units. 8 Furthermore, model-specific SN ranges were used by 1938 – i.e. the ascending SNs are not strictly chronological. After 1947 the amp model lines underwent several changes, each reflected in new SN systems.

For these reasons I don't present total production estimates for amplifiers at this stage of my research.

Fig. 9: SN-to-year allocation: amplifiers. Note model-specific SN ranges in some years.

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. Recommended links: Epiphone Upright Bass Research project (see note 7) and Banjo Hangout – Dating an Epiphone Banjo from the 1925-1930s era.

2) When electric model production was relaunched in 1946, new ranges of SNs were applied to most models – with numbers consisting of a model-specific prefix (2–3 digits) and serial suffix (3 digits, ascending consecutive numbers starting with 000): Unlike with the other SN systems, these SN ranges were used in parallel, i.e. showing the timeline of production only within each model. This system allows for pretty precise estimates of production figures per model 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 7300 and ending around SN 7908 (i.e. approx. 609 units in total).

3) 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 and therefore very approximate.
Also included in this section is the Alkire Eharp model, an electric Hawaiian model custom built for and exclusively sold by musician Eddie Alkire in the late 1940s; the model had its own SN system starting around 100.

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

5) Fisch, J. and L.B. Fred (1992), Epiphone: The House of Stathopoulo, p.291ff.
Fisch/Fred's "traditional" Epiphone SN dating charts presented slightly revised data originally published in Tom Wheelers groundbreaking book: Wheeler, T. (1982), American Guitars: An Illustrated History, p.40. Wheeler had based his Epiphone SN dating on inventory records of a 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 instrument was present at that store – which typically must have been at least a few months after it had entered production at the factory.
The different approach of our "W” date always refers to the estimated date when the respective Epiphone instrument/SN entered production – i.e. 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.

6) Epiphone's SN systems 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 Number (FON) –, 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 our text 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.

7) The Epiphone Upright Bass Research Project by Wendy Staley is documenting Epiphone basses and their SN systems. According to the research, an estimated total of approximately 3087 basses was produced during the 1940–1956 period, with SNs assigned to the following production years:

8) Example: there is only one amplifier documented with a SN in the entire 4000s range (SN 4042: Model M Amplifier).
In an earlier stage of our research we considered a theory of one shared SN system between electric stringed instruments and amplifiers (as opposed to two separate systems with partly the same number ranges). This theory was based on the fact that there wasn't any documented case of identical SNs on units of each type – until 2016. In the meantime 2 cases of identical SNs on units of each type have surfaced (SN 1342: Model M Spanish + Model M Amplifier; SN 5220: Model M Hawaiian + Zephyr Amplifier). Based on these findings we revised our theory: Currently 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