1932 Epiphone Masterbilt Advert

Close-up #40: Reconstructing the 1931 Masterbilt model lineup

"In June 1931, the firm officially announced its already-established line of Masterbilt guitars." Since author Tom Wheeler had stated this information in his groundbreaking 1982 book “American Guitars”, it has been requoted by countless guitar historians and journalists in books and magazine articles.

But – strangely – we have never seen any official Epiphone letter, flyer, advert or similar official document about this historically important 1931 product announcement. (If you have, please let us know!)

Well, there is a Masterbilt flyer which some historians (Gruhn, Carter, Fisch/Fred) had dated to the year 1931. However from what we know today, it is clear that this flyer was actually published significantly later – probably in 1933. Some evidence for our claim:

1933 Epiphone flyer   1932 Epiphone catalog
Left: 1933 Masterbilt flyer, formerly dated 1931 by some historians
Right: 1932 Masterbilt catalog (download catalog PDFs)

The earliest Masterbilt-related advert we are aware of was published in the February 1932 issue of "Metronome" magazine (see picture at top of this page).

Therefore, the catalog "Masterbilt Fretted Instruments" – published later in 1932 – is the earliest available official source offering a detailed overview of the Masterbilt product line. However: The model info presented in that catalog of course doesn't necessarily mean that the instrument lineup and features were the same at the launch one year earlier, in June 1931!

So how can we find out what models Epiphone had launched in 1931? Let's try to assemble the puzzle pieces of what we know, with the goal to reconstruct the initial 1931 Masterbilt lineup – taking into account two sources of information:

a) Surviving instruments with low serial number (< SN 5500):
Our database of documented instruments strongly suggests that the Masterbilt series started with SN 5000, and we estimate approximately SN 5500 was reached by the end of 1931. Thus we can assume: The lower the SN of any documented model example, the higher the probability that the respective model was part of the initial lineup.

b) Product images from 1931 used in later catalogs:
Of some Masterbilt models listed in the 1932 catalog, we haven't been able to trace any examples with a SN from 1931. But we noticed: Some of the product images in the 1932 catalog were obviously produced significantly earlier, since they show features that were already outdated by the time the 1932 catalog was printed – most obvious in the pickguard type which underwent several changes in the 1931–32 period (see also Close-up #38). Example: The Strand mandolin is a model we have no documentation of any first-year examples yet – however we can pretty safely assume this mandolin was offered in 1931 since depicted in the 1932 catalog with an early "Type 1" pickguard.

Distinctive features of 1931 Masterbilt models

When looking at surviving examples of 1931 Masterbilt models we notice that quite a few of them show signs of later modifications – some obvious, some less so. But luckily there are some instruments that survived in pretty original, unmodified condition – historically important examples providing evidence for our research. Our findings in a nutshell:

Epi archtop bracing Left: Broadway SN 5319 showing ladder-bracing pattern typical for early Masterbilts with brace-arched or flat tops (photo by DAM)
Right: DeLuxe SN 5794, carved top with two parallel tonebars (photo Tony Hendrix)

Note: The fact that some of the product images in the 1932 catalog obviously date from 1931 suggests: Those images were likely produced for a very early Masterbilt catalog/flyer that hasn't been documented yet. If you hear about any Epiphone brochure that could qualify to be this "missing link", please let us know!

Hollywood Tenor 5104
1931 Hollywood Tenor SN 5104 – small 13⅝" body, ladder-braced top. By 1932 the model was upgraded to a 15½" wide, carved archtop. Note the 1931 pickguard "Type 1", without screws through the plate. By 1932 the headstock of the Hollywood received fancier pearl banners.(Photo by Archtop.com)

Summary: 1931 Epiphone Masterbilt lineup

6-string guitars:

4-string Tenor/Plectrum guitars:

Mando family instruments:

Note: This text basically represents our knowledge as of October 2018 – to be revised whenever new evidence surfaces. Again: If you have some additional info or even original 1931 documents about Epiphone Masterbilt instruments, please let us know!

In the table below an overview of evidence material + instruments (size + top construction, first documented examples) relevant for our research findings.

1931 (SN 5000–5500)
1932 (SN 5500–6300)
DeLuxe catalog pic: 1931 pickg
first 5009, ladder-
braced, modified f-holes
SN 5607, carved
Broadw. catalog pic: 1931 pickg
first SN 5053, modified
SN 5283, ladder-braced
SN 5641, carved
Triumph catalog pic: 1931 pickg
first 5010, ladder-braced
SN 5765, 15½" carved
Royal catalog pic: 1931 pickg
first 5119, ladder-braced
SN 5721, carved
Blackst. none documented
catalog pic: later 1932 pickg
catalog specs: 14¾" carved
first SN 5707, 15½"
Zenith catalog pic: 1931 pickg
first SN 5062, modified
SN 5128, ladder-braced
SN 5622, carved
Olympic 1934 catalog pic: 1931 pg
first SN 5262, 13⅝" flat
ladder-braced, plain top
catalog pic: early 1932 pg, sunb
catalog specs: carved
SN 5752, 13⅝" carved,sunb
first SN 5137, 13⅝"
catalog no pic
catalog specs: 15½" carved
none documented
catalog pic: 1931 pickg
first SN 5375, 15½" ladder-braced
catalog specs: 15½"
none documented
first SN 5044, 13⅝";
SN 5514, 15½", ladder-
catalog no pic
catalog specs: 15½" carved
SN 5691, 15½" carved
first SN 5287, 13⅝" ladder-braced
catalog no pic,
catalog specs: 15½" carved
SN 5681, 15½" carved
first SN 5086, 13⅝"
flat ladder-braced
catalog no pic
catalog specs: 13⅝" carved
SN 6057, 13⅝" carved
catalog pic: 1931 pickg
first SN 5253, 13⅝" flat
ladder-braced, plain top
catalog specs: "standard" size(?), flat
SN 5928, 13⅝" flat, sunb
first SN 5167 catalog no pic
catalog specs: carved
first SN 5530
catalog pic: 1931 pickg
none documented
catalog specs: carved
first SN 5550
first SN 5162, ladder-braced catalog no pic
catalog specs: carved
first SN 6037
first SN 5164, plain head,
catalog pic: 1932 pg, banner
catalog specs: carved
SN 5597, banner head
Madrid none documented catalog pic: no pg, 4 f-holes
none documented
Navarre none documented catalog no pic
first SN 5820, 4 f-holes   

(February 11, 2018 – with later updates)