Research: Epiphone serial numbers and production estimates (1931–1956)
Author: Felix Wiedler (Version: June 2019, with regular updates)Below a summary of our research findings regarding Epiphone's serial number (SN) systems and estimated production figures – based on the data analysis of more than 5200 Epiphone instruments and amplifiers (SN/model pairs, documented in >70'000 photos). 1
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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 – mostly employing consecutive, ascending numbers following the timeline of production (see detailed analysis in chapter 3 ff.):
C. Electric instruments 1935–1942: The earliest electric
instruments from 1935 don't show a SN; visible SNs starting by 1936
around 25 and ending around 7242. (SN stamped
During WW2 electric instrument production was halted.
Details see chapter 6.
E. "Special SN" electric guitars 1949, electric Hawaiian guitars
1950–1956: Some electric models from 1949 and all
Hawaiian guitars from 1950 onwards use "special" SN systems. (SN stamped
on headstock or bridge unit.)
Details see chapter 6.
Our research has led to a slightly revised dating approach for Epiphone SNs. See Fig. 1 + Fig. 8 "W revised" (referring to Wiedler) vs. "F traditional" (referring to the charts published by Fisch/Fred). 2
Fig. 1: SN dating: acoustic and
1950s electric hollowbody instruments (SN systems A + B). See documented
instruments in registry database.
revised – Wiedler
(approx. first SN)
|F traditional –
(approx. first SN)
3. Understanding Epiphone's SN systems – number ranges assigned to model batches
Epiphone's main SN systems (A + B) 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. 2: Sample excerpt from Registry database.
Our understanding of this pattern is that these model-specific SN ranges correspond to production runs – i.e. a run or batch of a model was assigned SNs of a consecutive number range. 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 reflect a chronology of production. 3
Note that batch sizes varied considerably – from possibly a single special order instrument up to a hundred or more instruments of the same model in a consecutive SN range. 4
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.
Fig. 3: 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 numbers between the lowest and highest documented SNs of an assumed model batch can be "interpolated" i.e. tentatively identified (with high probability) to also be examples of that same model.
Applying this interpolation method to our registry data leads to some remarkable results: While our documented SN/model pairs (SN systems A + B) currently represent about 11% of the estimated total instrument production, the addition of interpolated SN/model pairs boosts this ratio to 58% (see Fig. 5 for an excerpt).
According to our theory, the figures presented in column "Registry+interpolated" can be seen as "minimum" production estimates for the respective models, i.e. how many were "at least" produced. I consider these "minimum" estimates as pretty reliable, although they are not to be mistaken as total production estimates.
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. 4.
Fig. 4: 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 may include a small batch of a third model.
Note: These extrapolated totals in the right column of Fig. 5 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.
|Total Acoustic Archtops||2879
|Total El Hollowb '50s||645||3318||4898|
|Total Ac + El Hollowb '50s||3813
|Percent Ac + El Hollowb '50s||10.9%
The chart in Fig. 5 provides a summary of Epiphone's stringed instrument production totals 1931–1956 (SN systems A + B – i.e. without pre-1950 electric instruments, amplifiers, acoustic banjos, and basses 6). The data in a nutshell:
- The estimated total production of acoustic instruments sums up to about 30000 units.
- Acoustic archtop guitars account for approx. 27000 units – leaving all other instrument types far behind.
- Zenith and Triumph were the highest production models, with estimated totals of more than 5000 units of each model manufactured during the 1931–1956 period (cutaway models included). In the pre-war years, the low-priced Olympic was the best-selling model, with about 4000 units made until discontinued by 1945.
- Other acoustic instrument types were a relatively small affair – approx. 2000 flattop guitars and 1000 mandolins in total.
- During the 1950–1956 period, electric and acoustic instruments were produced in similar numbers – around 5000 units of each type in total.
- The registered + interpolated SN/model pairs combined cover 57% – i.e. about every second manufactured instrument – of the estimated total production 1931–1956.
- * Note: For models documented in very small numbers (e.g. Tudor, Empire, Windsor, etc.) the estimated production totals are inherently unreliable due to the relatively small data sample – i.e. the extrapolated figures are very likely too high.
The chart in Fig. 6 shows an example of model-related data on a timeline – for the pre-war Emperor:
- Documented in our registry database are 93 Emperors with a SN from the pre-war period.
- By adding interpolated SNs (from within assumed batches, as explained in Fig. 3) we can conclude with high probability that at least 242 pre-war Emperors were produced.
- Adding extrapolated SNs (from the gaps before the first and after the last documented SN of assumed batches, as explained in Fig. 4) results in a ballpark estimate of around 364 pre-war Emperors in total.
- The SNs appear to be grouped in 12 Emperor model batches (plus one batch of Soloist cutaway models); pre-war production of the Emperor seems to have peaked around 1939 – 3 batches, totaling likely more than a hundred Emperors built in a year.
||Est. total extrapol||Extrapol
The chart in Fig. 7 shows an example of a comparatively high interpolation ratio due to a low number of large model batches:
- Acoustic instruments of 1947 (W year) are currently assigned to SN range 55850–57099 = 1250 units.
- According to our data, only 5 different instrument models were produced in this SN range – grouped in 10 model batches: 3 batches of Blackstone, 1 batch of Broadway, 2 batches each of DeLuxe, Spartan + Triumph.
- Based on the data of just 134 registered SN/model pairs, interpolation allows for reliable identification of 1113 SN/model pairs = about 90% of the estimated 1250 instruments in that range/period.
- About 119 SNs are placed outside assumed model batches and can not yet be reliably assigned to models (see column "Extrapol"). However estimated model totals can be calculated by extrapolation methods (see column "Est. total extrapol").
- The Broadway batch in the SN range 56338–56479 is a good example to demonstrate our extrapolation method: Currently there are 15 unidentified SNs in the gaps to the adjacent model batches – 3 SNs before the lowest and 12 SNs after the highest identified SN. Theoretically, the unidentified SNs could include any number of Broadway models between 15 (all) or 0 (none). Our approximation (extrapolation) algorithm calculates 8 additional Broadways (50% of 15 = 7.5, rounded to 8).
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 electric stringed instruments
Epiphone used several different SN systems for their electric stringed instruments over the years (see Fig. 8).Fig. 8: SN dating: electric Hawaiian guitars and pre-1950 electric hollowbody instruments (SN systems C, D, E). See documented instruments in registry database.
revised – Wiedler
(approx. first SN)
|1946–1949||7300 Zephyr Hawaiian
15000 Century Hawaiian
25000 Zephyr Spanish
60000 Century Spanish
75000 Zephyr DeLuxe
85000 Zephyr DeLuxe Cutaway
|1949||3031, 4018 Kent Spanish
75 Kent Hawaiian, Century Hawaiian
100 Alkire Eharp
|1950–1956||9000 Electric Hawaiian models|
SN system C: From 1936 to 1942, all electric instruments appear to be numbered with ascending SNs representing a chronology of production – similar to the SN for acoustic instruments (SN systems A + B). The documented SNs start around SN 25 and end with SN 7242.
However note: Based on our current research data we assume that Epiphone's pre-war electric stringed instruments (partly) shared the same SN system with their amplifier models. And to complicate things further – the assignment of SNs doesn't seem to follow a straightforward "logic" pattern: Although the SNs of electric stringed instruments are typically grouped by model batches (as with SNs of acoustic instruments), these grouped sequences of SNs are rather randomly "interleaved" by numbers assigned to amplifier models – making calculated (interpolated+extrapolated) estimates of model production figures unfeasible (See Fig. 9). Therefore we don't present production estimates for pre-war electric instruments at this stage of our research. 7
Fig. 9: Sample excerpt from registry database – combined view of electric stringed instruments and amplifiers. Note SN sequences of stringed instrument model batches (highlighted red+green) "interleaved" by SNs of amplifiers (highlighted grey).
|1654||Model M Spanish|
|1656||Model M Spanish|
|1658||Model M Spanish|
|1697||Model M Hawaiian|
|1698||Model M Amp|
|1704||Model M Amp|
|1705||Model M Hawaiian|
|1707||Model M Amp|
|1714||Model M Amp|
|1717||Model M Hawaiian|
|1723||Model M Hawaiian|
|1725||Model M Hawaiian|
|1727||Model M Hawaiian|
|1729||Model M Amp|
|1735||Model M Hawaiian|
|1738||Model M Amp|
|1749||Model M Hawaiian|
|1755||Model M Hawaiian|
|1779||Model C Amp|
|1805||Model M Amp|
|1815||Model C Hawaiian|
|1848||Model M Amp|
|1877||Model C Hawaiian|
|1883||Model C Amp|
|1884||Model C Hawaiian|
|1885||Model C Hawaiian|
|1887||Model C Hawaiian|
|1888||Model C Hawaiian|
SN System D: When electric model production was relaunched (after the war related halt) in 1946, new ranges of SNs were applied to most models – with numbers consisting of a model-specific prefix (2–3 digits) and a 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 Cutaway
- 100xxx = Console
Unlike with the other SN systems, these new SN ranges were used concurrently, i.e. reflecting 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 an estimated total of 2292 units.
An exception (and not included in this total) is the Zephyr Hawaiian model which carried on where the pre-war SN system C had left off, starting around SN 7307 in 1946 and ending around SN 7908 in 1949 – approx. 602 units in total. Note that this SN range was shared with pre-war amplifiers according to our research (see note above and chapter 7); therefore this total may include an unknown share of 1941 Zephyr Amplifiers.
SN system E: 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 low 3000s and low 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. 8
By 1950, all electric hollowbody guitars and mandolins joined the SN system B for acoustic instruments (see chapter 2).
|Zephyr DeLuxe Cut/Regent||198||933||1169|
El Hollowb 1946–56
|Percent El Hollowb 1946–56||13.2%
The chart in Fig. 10 provides a summary of Epiphone's electric hollowbody instrument production totals 1946–1956 (SN systems B, C, D – without Hawaiian instruments). Some observations:
- The estimated total production of post-war electric hollowbody guitars is about 6800 instruments.
- The Zephyr was the highest production model, followed by the Century and Zephyr DeLuxe (cutaway versions included).
- While examples with SN documented in our registry database account for about 13% of the estimated production, the ratio of interpolated SNs is 76% – relatively high, due to the model-specific SN system D (1946–49) with its inherent interpolation ratio of 100%.
Fig. 10: SN dating: amplifiers. Note model-specific SN ranges in most years. See documented amps in registry database.
||SN amplifier models (approx first SN)|
|1935||no SN Electar|
|1936||51 Electar, Model C, Model M|
|1937||600 Model C, Model M|
Model C, Model M,
Model M, Model EL
4000 Model M
|1939||1900 Century, Coronet||5000 Zephyr|
|1940||6000 Century, Coronet||5500 Zephyr|
|1941||9000 Century, Coronet||7000 Zephyr|
|1942||10000 Century, Coronet||8200 Zephyr|
|1946||10000 Century||8500 Zephyr, Dreadn|
|1947||12000 Century||10000 Zephyr|
10000 Century (no reverb)
|1952–1953||40000 Century, Zephyr||30000 Dreadn, Zephyr|
Dreadnaught, Zephyr, Century
The amps' SN systems are less straightforward than those used for stringed instruments. We observe that in some periods certain SN ranges appear to have been reserved for certain models – with ascending numbers, however not always applied in strictly chronological order. Therefore, our dating of amps is mainly based on features (e.g. EIA date codes of electronic components). 9
We assume that Epiphone's amplifiers manufactured in the 1936–1942 period (partly) shared the SN system with their electric stringed instruments (see chapter 6). Furthermore, for certain periods it seems rather unlikely that all numbers in the respective SN ranges were actually assigned to manufactured units – making it unfeasible to calculate production figures by interpolation or extrapolation methods.
For these reasons we don't present production estimates for Epiphone amplifiers at this stage of our research.
General note: Our estimated SN dating and production figures are approximations that are subject to correction as new evidence material surfaces.
1) Our research includes acoustic and electric instruments of the guitar and mandolin families. 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) 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 Wheeler's important 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/year chart 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.
In contrast, 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 (see note 3).
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) Epiphone's SN systems appear to be similar in
concept to the SNs of C.F. Martin & Co: instruments within a
(typically model-specific) production batch were assigned a
consecutive SN range – i.e. the ascending SNs reflect the chronology
of instruments entering production as part of model batches. Which
means: SNs are not inherently related to the date of shipping to a
customer/dealer (see note 5).
In contrast, Gibson's SNs (pre-WW2) generally appear to relate to the completion/shipping date of an individual instrument: i.e. Gibson instruments of the same production batch may bear SNs which are sometimes wider apart – indicating some examples shipped quickly (receiving a lower SN), while other examples remained uncompleted for some time and shipped significantly later (receiving a higher SN); for marking/identifying instruments of the same production batch Gibson used a second numbering system – the Factory Order Number (FON); see Joe Spann's invaluable research published in: Spann, J. E. (2011), Spann's Guide To Gibson 1902-1941.
4) Note that in our text the term "batch" is used for a series of Epiphone instruments within a SN range exclusively assigned to one single model, although technically speaking a larger SN series of one model may actually have consisted of several consecutive production batches of the same model.
5) Generally, our production estimates are based on the assumption that every number in the respective SN ranges was assigned to a manufactured unit. Theoretically there is a possibility that certain numbers may have been omitted and 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.6) The Epiphone Upright Bass Research Project by Wendy Staley is documenting Epiphone basses and their SN systems. According to that research, an estimated total of approximately 3087 basses was produced during the 1940–1956 period, with SNs assigned to the following production years:
- 1940–1942: SN 100–715 (SN stamped at pegbox, earliest at bottom)
- 1946–1951: SN 716–1682 (SN stamped at pegbox)
- 1952–1956: SN 1706–3187 (SN stamped at end of fingerboard)
7) Our current research assumes that Epiphone's
earliest electric stringed instruments and amps may have used one
shared SN system up to SN 7908 (as opposed to employing two separate
SN systems covering the same number range). This theory is based on
the evidence that among the >700 units documented within that SN
range there are almost no examples of duplicate SNs (=identical SN on
units of each type).
However the SN scheme for amplifiers appears to be rather complex and is not following a strict chronology (see note 9). We assume that when Epiphone assigned SN for amplifiers, for some unknown reason not all numbers of a SN sequence/range were used – thus leaving some SN "gaps"; it appears that when Epiphone later started to use SNs in the same number ranges for electric stringed instruments, they possibly aimed to "fill in the gaps" – in order to avoid duplication of SNs previously used for amplifiers. Note that after 1938, the same SN ranges for amps and electric guitars are not referring to the same year.
We currently adhere to a theory of one shared SN system despite the fact that at least 4 examples of duplicate SNs are documented:
- SN 1342: Model M Spanish + Model M Amplifier
- SN 2488: Model M Hawaiian + Century Amplifier
- SN 5220: Zephyr Hawaiian + Zephyr Amplifier
- SN 7830: Zephyr Hawaiian + Zephyr Amplifier
We tend to assume that these "exceptions to the rule" may have been
mistakenly assigned – not unfeasible considering the rather confusing
complexity of such a numbering scheme.
Our theory of a shared SN system between pre-war amps and electric stringed instruments may however be revised as new evidence surfaces.
8) Also included in this group is the Alkire Eharp, 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 100.9) The somewhat irregular and partly confusing SN scheme for amps started around 1938, with the higher amplifier models (Model M/EL, Zephyr, Dreadnaught) switching to SNs stamped on their control plates, while the lower models (Model C, Century, Coronet) continued to receive SNs stamped on Electar logo plates as before.
Subsequently until WW2, it appears that specific SN ranges were reserved for each group – distinguished by the initial digit(s) of the 4–5 digit numbers:
- 3xxx, 4xxx = Model M/EL
- 5xxx, 7xxx, 8xxx = Zephyr/Dreadnaught
- 19xx–24xx, 6xxx, 9xxx, 10xxx = Century/Coronet
- 30xxx = Dreadnaught
- 35xxx = Zephyr
- 40xxx = Century
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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.
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