I have been waiting for quite a while to get my hands on one of these to try. Ever since I first saw the first announcement of its launch, I had the feeling that this would be something special. The first Epiphone Masterbilt acoustics came out in 2004 and they were great! The whole idea was to offer customer’s something that was not ordinary or run of the mill. Masterbilt acoustics were exactly that – master built, featuring better grade wood, hardware and build techniques. These guitars are a departure from standard production line model Epiphone.
We now have the Excellente. This guitar was originally an “Epiphone Exclusive” and was manufactured for the first time in 1963. They only made 139 of them in the 7 years that followed before the model was discontinued and faded into obscurity. That is, until now.
For the first time in forty odd years, its back as a cornerstone of the Masterbilt series.
At first glance it is obvious that the guitar is a square shoulder dreadnought, which is easily the most recognizable guitar shape the world over. So how do you make a standard dreadnought acoustic stand out? Well, take a step closer to it and you will begin to take in all its flare, the subtle design features as well as the not-so-subtle ones. The first thing that sets it apart is the beautiful engraved Historic Excellente Pickguard, depicting an eagle landing on a branch. This is an oversized pickguard for sure! But it’s a piece of art all on its own. The bridge is kind of a mustache shape, but different to other mustache bridges we are used to seeing on this type of guitar. The headstock is typically Epiphone and is fitted with Gold “waffleback’ tuners. You can just feel that this guitar is solid when you tune it, it is not going to budge. I really like the tuning stability. The Maple neck is “C’ shaped and capped with an Ebony fingerboard and 20 medium jumbo frets. Excellente cloud inlays help you keep your place, and your 15th fret inlay is a block.
The back and sides are solid Ovangkol, and the top is solid Sitka spruce. Solid is important as it will age and mature far better than cheaper laminate options. The main reason to invest in solid wood acoustics is the resonance that will improve each year with age as well as every time you play it. The 1960’s ones were actually made with Brazilian rosewood back and sides. Can you imagine that!? Those must have sounded something fierce! Be that as it may, you can just tell that the 21st century version of this guitar will age well. Lots of manufacturers are using responsibly sourced tone woods these days, steering away from other endangered exotic species that were readily available 15 odd years ago. Ovangkol is a brilliant substitute for Rosewood. The Sitka Spruce has a relatively open grain which translates into a big open sound.
I really like the combination of ovangkol and spruce as tone woods – the guitar sounds warm but clear and the resonance and sustain are further along the road than other out-the-box guitars. The one I’ve been reviewing is not fully played in yet, but it already sounds nice and rich.
My default strumming chord when I pick up a new guitar is a big open “G”. This guitar delivers tone and resonance in spades, it likes to be played hard, so if you are a rhythm strummer playing with a pick, you will not be disappointed. Don’t be fooled though, the Excellente is excellent at finger style playing too. I found myself chasing runs up and down the fretboard with ease and there was plenty of chime and volume.
It is fitted with a Fishman Sonitone pickup system, so you can plug in to be gig-ready in an instant. The Sonitone gives you a volume and tone control, which is all you really need in an acoustic, in my humble opinion. There is no onboard tuner, but there are plenty of high-end acoustics that don’t have this feature anyway, so I don’t count that as a negative. Grab your favorite clip-on tuner or plug the guitar into a pedal board and you are good to go.
The Sonitone design is unobtrusive, meaning there is no cutting into the body for overkill EQ controls and preamps. Instead, there are two little control wheels that mount inside the sound hole, which are nice and discreet. A 1/4” jack insert doubles up as a strap button at the back of the guitar and you have a neck mounted strap button at the front.
The Excellente does not ship with its own case, but the optional Epiphone E940-DREAD will round the whole package off. If you are hitting the road, then perhaps a molded TSA-ready flight case will be the right answer, or even just a decent quality gig bag will do for day to day moving about. The point is that any decent traditional dreadnought case or bag should fit this guitar. You do just need to make sure the headstock fits though, as Epiphone headstocks extend a little bit further than regular acoustics. When in doubt, a 12-string case will certainly fit.
Epiphone have made significant strides across all levels of their brand to establish themselves firmly as an independent guitar brand. They are no longer a “budget” Gibson, but rather a unique expression of inspiration that dovetails with what Gibson are doing to make sure that the overall guitar playing experience is accessible to all, no matter what your budget or skill level is. The “inspired by” and “Masterbilt” series do an excellent job of bringing iconic guitar models from all historic eras of both Gibson & Epiphone to everyday players. I like where they have taken things and I especially like what they have done with the Excellente, it is well worth checking out.
Gray from TOMS Heritage Square