The debate as old as time…which one is better for the money: Gibson VS Epiphone? But this isn’t just a black and white question. There are a lot of factors to consider, and today we take a look at all of those factors!
Gibson VS Epiphone in 2021: Things Have Changed!
If you would’ve asked me 25 years ago which guitar company is better between Gibson and Epiphone…I would have told you the same thing that anyone would tell you: “Get the Epiphone if you are on a budget, get the Gibson if you have money”. Many other guitar specialists would have said the same thing, but that was 25 years ago!
Both companies have a long legacy, and have been sold all over the world for decades. But as the years have passed, lots of changes have been made in both companies, even though they are technically both owned by Gibson USA. Considering they are technically the same company, it may seem weird to have a “Gibson VS Epiphone” comparison. But The big differences are preference, features, and price.
Back in the day, Epiphone was most definitely the “budget” version of Gibson, and to a certain extent, they still are. But Epiphone has a few tricks up their sleeve that Gibson does not. These tricks have nothing to do with the budget, either!
Epiphone over the years have really become their own “thing”, while still being owned by Gibson. Years ago, Epiphone held the licensing to products like the Les Paul models, and other Gibson designs. This lead to Epiphone making less expensive versions of Gibson. While they still do that, Epiphone has become more than just that!
Today we will check out how it all started, versus how these guitars are marketed today. If you have always been on the fence about which brand is right for you, maybe this guide will help you out a little when making your choice! Let’s check out the Gibson VS Epiphone comparisons!
Gibson VS Epiphone: Heritage and History
There’s no doubt that we love Epiphone here at ElectrikJam. The features you get for a bargain price are hard to deny, especially with all of the models Epiphone makes these days. But Epiphone did not start out as a scion of Gibson at all. Epiphone was very much it’s own company for quite a while before Gibson came around.
Gibson had a long history of making archtop “JazzBox” guitars, and Gibson had officially started in 1894. Orville Gibson eventually expanded his company and moved manufacturing to Kalamazoo, MI in 1902 and rebranded the company as Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co. Ltd. Gibson was known for their guitars, but also made other stringed instruments for many years.
Shortly after Gibson was getting their feet wet in the guitar making business, Epaminondas Stathopoulos took over the family business of instrument making in the 1920’s. He came up with the Epiphone name by combining his nickname, “Epi” and the suffix “Phone”, which means “Voice”. Under the new Epiphone moniker, the company started making beautiful archtop guitars in 1928. Epiphone made a ton of these archtop guitars in their factory in New York, and became popular with many professional musicians. Gibson definitely took notice!
Epiphone was Gibson’s #1 competitor at the time, and what better way to beat the competition… just buy them out and take over production!
Up until the 1950’s, Gibson did not have a lot of competition when it came to making premium guitars. The only company standing in the way was Epiphone. After Gibson purchased Epiphone, there would not be any competition at all when it came to making guitars… until Leo Fender came around.
From 1957, until the late 70’s, Gibson and Epiphone were made in the same factory in Kalamazoo. Gibson was busy making the more modern models like the Les Paul, while Epiphone was reserved for making the more traditional hollow body, and semi-hollow body guitars that Epiphone was known for.
Eventually, Gibson moved Epiphone’s production overseas, and rebranded Epiphone as “the affordable Gibson”. Epiphone started producing similar models to Gibson, and making replicas of the Les Paul models while continuing to make the Epiphone-specific models. Which brings us up to speed with modern day Epiphone. The company still makes the “budget Gibson” models, but has also branched out to be their own brand over the years.
Epiphone offers many things that Gibson does not, as Gibson has become the more historic company at this point. So while the idea of Gibson VS Epiphone may seem a little silly, they are both definitely their own entities.
Gibson VS Epiphone: Models And Designs
Epiphone shares many of the same models that Gibson does. The main differences between the two are the construction, quality, price, and point of origin. The models that are shared between the companies are:
- Les Paul
- Les Paul Custom
- SG Series
- ES Semi-Hollow Series
- Flying V
- Thunderbird Bass
Both companies make several variants of each guitar, and both companies offer different finishes and features. We will talk later about the different features and specs between the brands. Essentially, the Epiphone versions are reproductions of the Gibson models, and share the main aspects of each model.
The heritage of Epiphone however, allows Epiphone to make some different models that Gibson does not offer. Many of these guitars are from Epiphone’s original lineup, or they are special exclusives. Most are the archtop historic models that Epiphone made before the Gibson buy-out. Some of the models that Gibson no longer makes, but Epiphone does are:
Most of these guitars are modern reproductions of the original Epiphone guitars, built very much like they were in the early 1900s. Epiphone makes these for players that want to play a piece or history, and for collectors alike. People like The Beatles favored Epiphone models like the Sheraton and Casino over their Gibson counterparts.
The Coronet and Wilshire models are modern solid body guitars that were originally only made in the late 60’s. These models were definitely out of character for the Epiphone brand, and never quite took off. In 2020, the lineup of these solid body Epiphones were rebooted, with historic features and finishes.
Since both companies produce the same models, it seems like a no-brainer to buy the less expensive Epiphone right? Well, that’s not always the case. The guitars may look the same, and even play similar, but there are quite a few differences when it comes to how they are produced.
This is where the Gibson VS Epiphone question really matters to some players. Not to mention… there is no such thing as a custom Epiphone, while the Gibson Custom shop regularly produces instruments ever year. So while the models may seem “all the same”, there are actually quite a few differences between Gibson VS Epiphone.
Gibson VS Epiphone: Construction And Quality
This is where we get down to the Nitty Gritty when it comes to Gibson VS Epiphone. The way the two companies construct a guitar are quite different, as well as the components used to make them. People often wonder where the huge price difference comes from when it comes to buying a Gibson VS Epiphone. Let’s start with Gibson…
Gibson guitars are made in the USA. In the beginning, most Gibson guitars were hand-made by master craftsmen in a limited run environment. But demand no longer allows this. Over the years, Gibson has streamlined this process and started to use CNC machines to cut the wood, and route the body of the guitar.
However, many specs on a Gibson guitar are still applied by hand. The binding on a Les Paul has to be done by hand, as well as all of the wiring. The neck joint is also usually glued by hand. Gibson uses different finishes than Epiphone as well, preferring to stick to more conservative design. Gibson may use a thick poly finish on some guitars, but many still use nitro paint finishes to be historically accurate. Nitro finishes are a thin lacquer that will wear over time, and are generally “lighter”.
Gibson strives to keep the instruments as close to the original models as possible. This is what gives Gibson the legacy that it has. The pickups are also made in the USA, as well as all of the electronic components that are wired by hand. The woods that are used on a Gibson are usually higher quality than Epiphone as well. Gibson does everything “in house” for the most part.
The pickups are other electronics are all made by Gibson. Most of Gibson’s pickups are designed in the Custom Shop, and then fitted with the appropriate model. Modern Gibson guitars often have high output pickups, like the 490T series. While the 50’s Les Paul models usually have special PAF Gibson pickups that are historically accurate.
While Gibson has received a lot of complaints in the recent years for quality control, for the most part there is more attention to detail when a Gibson is constructed. Every Gibson I have ever bought came from the factory ready to play, and finished nicely. All of these premium features and methods of construction are what drives the price up so high on a Gibson. On the other hand…
Epiphones are made mostly in China, and they are mass produced. This means that there is less attention to detail, but more models and variants are made. For the most part, Epiphone uses the same CNC machines to carve the wood, and route the body of the guitars as Gibson. The difference being the quality of woods in an Epiphone, or the amount of pieces of wood that make up the body. For some people, this is a big deal. For others? It is a small detail that doesn’t matter.
Epiphone also offers a wide selection of finish options, but almost all of them are a thick poly coating. Nitro finishes have to be applied by hand, and are very time consuming. This is another aspect of Epiphone production that will matter to some people, while others won’t care at all. Only a handful of Epiphone guitars get a nitro finish.
When it comes to pickups and electronics, Epiphone takes a step down on most models. Most of the Epiphone pickups are reproductions of the famous Gibson pickups. The potentiometers are also made in China, and all of the wiring is still done by hand, however on a much more massive scale. The Epiphone pickups are usually “BurstBuckers” that mimic the PAF Gibson Custom Shop pickups.
Recently, Epiphone has started to use name brand electronics in some of their models, such as the new Prophecy Series, or the new Inspired By Gibson series. These models are in the upper tier of the Epiphone price range because of the added cost. You also usually find name brand hardware, like tuners, on the upper tier Epiphone models.
The attention to final finishing touches and details is what really matters when it comes to Gibson VS Epiphone. The Epiphones do not receive the individual attention that most Gibson guitars do. Does that make the Epiphone a “worse” guitar? I don’t think so.
When it comes to construction, I have played some outstandingly well made Epiphones. I have also played some really atrocious Gibsons. I have seen Epiphones that looked like a work of art, while I have also seen Gibsons with a paint smear. At the end of the day, what matters is that the guitar you get is made the best it can possibly be.
Gibson VS Epiphone: Point Of Origin
The point of origin is where a lot of arguments start when it comes to Gibson VS Epiphone. This is a huge point of contention for consumers, as they associate “Made In The USA” with quality and craftsmanship.
All Gibson guitars are made in the USA, and all of the parts that make up the guitars are also crafted in the USA. This means the pickups, tuners, and all hardware are USA made. Epiphone on the other hand is made in China, and sometimes Korea. So…what’s the difference?
When you really get down to it, I don’t think there is a ton of differences in the manufacturing process. There may be different woods, and different components. However, I believe that a well made guitar is a well made guitar at the end of the day, and I don’t care where it comes from.
I can see where this would matter to some people. There is also the fact that limited edition Gibson guitars are only made in the USA, along with the Custom Shop models. This can make a big difference for collectors, or someone that wants a piece of history.
Gibson VS Epiphone: Special Models
This is where things are definitely different between the two companies. When it comes to Gibson VS Epiphone, I would say that Epiphone wins when it comes to the variety of models offered, when compared to Gibson. But this is certainly by design, as it’s meant to be that way.
Gibson likes to keep things “historically accurate” when it comes to the models that are offered. A Gibson Les Paul that you bought 20 years ago, may be almost the exact same design as the one you buy this year! Gibson is a “legacy” company that does not mess with the recipe for the designs often. Gibson guitars are very consistent, and vary only slightly year to year.
Unless you count the year that Gibson used those “Robot” tuners on all of their models… woof!
Epiphone on the other hand, takes a ton of risks with the different models they release, and often offer more modern designs. You see more risks being taken with Epiphone, because essentially… it’s less expensive to make them. This lends Epiphone to try out new finishes and designs without changing the legacy of Gibson guitars. Some Epiphone models come in a variety of finishes and options that Gibson doesn’t offer.
Epiphone also produces more “Artist” models than Gibson. These are usually tricked out to the artist’s specs, and have premium features while remaining a budget guitar. Some artists that play Epiphone include:
- Lizzy Hale
- Matt Heafy
- Emily Wolfe
- Brendon Small (Metalacolypse)
- Nancy Wilson (Heart)
- Vivian Campbell
- Tommy Thayer
These artist models almost always have some seriously upgraded features. They may have something like a Floyd Rose Bridge, or name brand pickups like EMG or Fishman. These are some of the most interesting Epiphone guitars to me, as they are usually something Gibson would never make, or would only make in a limited run. Some of these are really cool, and you cannot find them anywhere else!
Gibson VS Epiphone: Price Tiers
Gibson guitars are known for being pretty expensive, for the most part, and price is the core of the Gibson VS Epiphone argument. I just took a look at the recent Gibson catalog and the least expensive model I could find was around $1100. This range goes up from there, and can get above $5,000. The price tiers for Gibson in order from most affordable to most expensive are:
- Tribute/JR Series
- Standard Series
- Custom Series
- Artist Models
- Limited Edition
- USA Custom Shop
The Tribute Series is the stripped down version of a Gibson, and has less aesthetically appealing features. These do not feature the famous Flame Maple tops, or any of the bells and whistles. These usually lack the classic binding as well. Once you get to the Standard series you start to see beautiful maple tops and more intricate finishes, carves, and woodworking.
The Gibson Artist models and Limited Edition are some of the finest quality production guitars that Gibson makes. These usually have hand selected AAA graded woods, and premium upgrades to other features that make them unique.
When it comes to Epiphone though, it’s a little bit more complicated.
Epiphone has always been a more budget focused brand. The Epiphone Les Paul Special II model pictured above sells brand new for under $200. Unlike Gibson, there is not as much structure to the price tiers of Epiphone models, as there are so many of them!
With Epiphone, you definitely get what you pay for, however. The higher the price goes, the more features that are available with Epiphone. Most standard models sit in the $400-$500 range, and are excellent guitars for the money. The Standard series is a great place to start for a beginner to “upgrade” their instrument.
The artist models are usually the most expensive, and we discussed above why. Artist models also come with a case or bag, and certificate of authenticity.
Other Special Models like the 1958 Epiphone Les Paul, and the Prophecy models are at the top of the tier because of the premium pickups and hardware. All of this makes the Gibson VS Epiphone debacle a little harder to digest!
Gibson VS Epiphone: Which One Is For Me?
The Gibson VS Epiphone debate is one that will probably never end, and that’s because different people want different things. It’s not always a question of which one is better. And “better” is not always dictated by the price tag hanging on the guitar. It’s all a little more complicated than that, at least it is for me.
Personally, when it comes to Gibson VS Epiphone, I think that Epiphone wins every time for me. This is because of the huge variety of models and price tiers that Epiphone has. I have owned several of both, and I prefer an upgraded Epiphone over a Gibson almost any day. I feel like I can get a lot more guitar for my money with an Epiphone.
Epiphone has come a very long way since I got my first one, in 1995! Epiphone has definitely branched out, and become a company that is reliable for beginners, and pros alike. I feel like Epiphone is not just the “budget Gibson” anymore, and I recommend them often on this website because they are good guitars for any level of player, plain and simple.
But for you, Gibson VS Epiphone might mean something entirely different. Perhaps Gibson just plays better for you, or you enjoy the luxury of owning a Gibson guitar that is part of a long legacy. That’s ok if you’re not on a budget, or you have saved up for a long time and your dream is to own a Gibson.
At the end of the day, the guitar you choose to play has little to do with the name on the headstock. What matters is that you enjoy playing it. Every time you look at it, you want to pick it up and play! So in the Gibson VS Epiphone discussion, what matters is which one is going to make you play more?
Gibson VS Epiphone: Which is better?
For your money, I think you can get a whole lot of guitar when you buy an Epiphone. The newer Epiphones are packed with premium features and new designs. Gibson makes fine guitars as well, but for a heftier price tag.
Which Epiphone Models Are the Best?
In my opinion, the Standard series, and the Artist Series are well made Epiphones that will suit just about every guitar player’s needs. If you are a pro, the Prophecy Series is also a great option.
Do Gibson Guitars Come with A Case?
Most Gibson guitars in the standard series and above come with a premium hard shell case.
Do Epiphone Guitars Come With A Case?
Artist models, and limited edition Epiphone models usually come with a custom case made for the specific model. Some come with a premium gig bag.
Christoper HortonChristopher has been playing guitar and piano for 27 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. He has toured for years with several bands and music projects. He worked in LA as a studio musician and engineer working with bands like IAMSOUND, Baroness, Kylesa, Black Tusk, Reflux, and Tripping Daisy. In between giving private lessons, he is recording a solo album for 2022-2023. Christopher plays Schecter guitars, BOSS amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.
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