Olympic Plectrum 16243

Close-up #12: 1940 Olympic Plectrum SN 16243

Again a guitar which was offered on an auction website a while back, and I saved the photos of – no other affiliation. An unusual instrument for several reasons, as we will see.

Firstly, this guitar has only four strings instead of the usual six. 4-string guitars were quite popular in the 1930s when numerous banjo players wanted to switch to guitar without relearning finger positions. Like banjos, 4-string guitars were made in two varieties which had different neck/scale length: The more popular "tenor" instruments have a shorter 22–23" scale, usually tuned in fifths – CGDA. The less common "plectrum" versions with a longer 26–27" scale are often tuned CGBD but also suitable for "guitar tuning" – DGBE. The guitar pictured here has a long plectrum neck with 27" scale .

Olympic Plectrum 16243

Tenor/plectrum versions of Epiphone's archtop guitars had a trapeze tailpiece with a shorter string bar. The bridge on the other hand had the same size as 6-string instruments. As typical for Epiphone archtops, the serial number is stamped into the underside of the bridge foot: SN 16243 dates this instrument to 1940 – likely built a few months earlier than the November 1940 Blackstone we discussed before.

But what model is this?

Olympic Plectrum 16243 bridge

To identify an Epiphone model, the headstock inlay is usually a good start. This center-dip headstock with script logo and "stickpin" inlay in pearl is typical for a Zenith model from 1939 to 1948.

Olympic Plectrum 16243

Below the 1939 Epiphone catalog page showing the Zenith and Olympic models. Both archtop models were offered in tenor and plectrum versions – noting "same size and description" and also same price as the regular versions – however the plectrum guitar was available "on special order only". Note that the pickguards in the 1939 catalog pictures are still the short, black kind. By 1940 also all low-end archtop models had been upgraded to the longer, tortoise plastic pickguards. The example on this plectrum guitar has a beautiful striped figure, as typically seen on instruments from the early-to-mid '40s.

1939 catalog

Apart from cosmetics, the main constructional difference between the Zenith and Olympic model was the body size – 16 3/8" vs. 15 1/4" wide – and the wood of back/sides – laminated walnut vs. laminated mahogany.

Olympic Plectrum 16243

Now, this plectrum guitar which has the headstock of a Zenith is only 15 1/4" wide with mahogany back/sides – like an Olympic! So what model is it? Let's look at the internal label ...

Olympic Plectrum 16243

The view through the bass-side f-hole holds a surprise: There is a "green" type label which Epiphone typically used between 1939 and 1943 – i.e.  period correct for this instrument. However there is a second label glued on top – a "Masterbilt" label, the type which was standard between 1936 and 1939! We read: "Model OLYMPIC PLECTRUM No. 16243".

Okay – but what about that Zenith headstock? And why two labels?

Olympic Plectrum 16243 labels

It is actually not that uncommon to find Epiphone instruments bearing a label of a later type than the SN suggests, with the original (older) serial number inserted by typewriter rather than pre-printed on the label. But what could be the reason for this rather odd phenomenon?

Although this is speculation: We believe such "untypical" labels were applied when an instrument went back to the Epiphone factory for a repair or refurbish. At this occasion the original label was apparently often lost and thus replaced by a new label of the current period, with the original SN typed in. We have seen typed SNs on labels of the "Masterbilt" and "blue" type  – but never on a "green" label: Instead, in the 1939–1943 period replacement labels (with typed SN) are always of the older "Masterbilt" type. But why that? Possibly Epiphone just forgot to produce green labels with "blank" SN, so kept using old stock ... 

However SN 16243 is the only example known so far which shows a replacement label glued on top of the original one. It would be quite interesting to see what model name was typed on the green label ...

More speculation: Possibly, this guitar started its life as a regular Olympic – and then sent back to the factory to be converted (re-necked) to a plectrum guitar, receiving a second label with changed model name. Considering that plectrum necks must have been a very uncommon order option by the time, maybe the Epiphone workers checked if they still had a long-scale 4-string neck lying around – and found one, originally intended for a Zenith Plectrum ...

I am sure there could be another explanation – if you have an idea please let me know!

(Oct 22, 2016)