The Epiphone and Gibson companies were fierce rivals in the Thirties, constantly trying to outdo each other’s designs. But with the death of its dynamic leader, Epi Stathopoulo, in 1943, Epiphone’s reputation for quality and innovation began to slide. In 1957, the East Coast–based company finally threw in the towel and sold its bass line, and the right to manufacture under the Epiphone name, to Gibson.
Subsequently, when Epiphone’s bass supplies arrived at Gibson’s factories in Michigan, the company encountered a fortuitous bonus: full provisions for a line of guitars. So Gibson, which tightly controlled the distribution of its instruments to avoid competition between local dealers, came up with a smart workaround: it slapped the Epiphone logo and ornamentation on what were essentially Gibson models and used them to provide stock to retailers previously denied Gibson products.
The Casino is a prime example of a Gibson in Epiphone’s clothing. Introduced in 1961, it’s essentially an ES-330, a fully hollow thinline electric originally intended as a student model. But beginning around 1965, each of the three guitar-playing members of the Beatles owned Casinos and used them extensively, which is why vintage mid-Sixties models command a premium: in the $6,000 range compared to $3,000 for an ES-330 from the same era.
Epiphone’s 1965 Casino is part of the company’s Elitist Series, which are made in Japan of top-quality components and set up at Gibson’s headquarters, in Nashville, Tennessee. The new Casino sports all of the basic features of the original: a double-cutaway, five-ply laminated maple body with twin f-holes, a set-in solid mahogany neck, and a duo of P-90 pickups with nickel-plated covers. But it also incorporates some thoughtful upgrades for the modern player, like larger fretwire, precise Grover tuning machines, and a second strap button, right below the neck heel.
On account of its thin, hollow build, the Casino is a lightweight guitar. My review model weighed in at roughly 6.4 pounds, a bit more than the Sixties-era ES-330 against which I measured it—a relative featherweight at 5.8 pounds. Nonetheless, the Elitist Casino hangs very comfortably from a strap or positioned on the lap.
The craftsmanship on my Casino was boutique level. Great care appeared to have been taken in grinding and polishing the 22 medium-jumbo frets and in cutting string slots on the Tune-o-matic-style bridge saddles and on the bone nut. The rich, traditional sunburst (also available in natural) was free from imperfections and—although polyurethane instead of the vintage-correct nitrocellulose—managed to lend a handsomely old-school vibe to the guitar.
With its medium-size profile, the neck feels solid and reassuring, unlike the pencil-sized necks found on some Sixties originals. The guitar’s factory-set low action made barre chords a breeze. It would have been a nice touch if Epiphone had used the narrow neck binding found on vintage Casinos, which is a little more refined than that on the reissue.
My test Casino had a surpassingly good unplugged tone—every bit as resonant as its older Gibson counterpart and even a bit louder. In this capacity, the Casino would make an ideal couch-sitting guitar. The guitar is so loud, in fact, that when linked to a Fender Pro Junior, its acoustic sound overwhelmed the amplified signal until the Junior was turned up to three or more.
The Casino sports premium electronics—two U.S.-made P-90s connected with vintage-style braided and shielded wire—so it’s no surprise that it sounds as exceptional plugged in as when unamplified. Like the ES-330, it has a throaty, articulate midrange and more than a little warmth. The Casino also has a versatile voice. Engaging the bridge pickup and cranking the amp quickly produced a convincing “Taxman”-esque tone. With the volume lowered and the neck pickup selected, I was able to coax from the guitar a thick and silky tone similar to that associated with jazz guitarist Grant Green and his ES-330.
All of this is just a long way of saying, of course, that Epiphone’s Elitist Casino is a superlative instrument. It sounds as good as a 50-year-old original but feels and plays a bit better, exactly as a modern guitar should.
While the calibre and heritage of Epiphone’s discontinued, USA-made John Lennon 1965 Casino can hardly be questioned, it had one major drawback: the price!
Retailing on the cusp of £2000, for many guitarists not even the high build quality could compensate. This tale isn’t unique among Epiphone’s American-made guitars.
Keen to redress the balance for those with smaller pockets, Epiphone has launched the new Indonesian-made ‘Inspired By’ John Lennon Casino – £1,200 cheaper than the former USA model and £400 more expensive than the standard Chinese-made Casino.
One event more than any other led to the Casino’s enduring popularity. In 1966, with Paul McCartney already using his 1962 Casino on many famous tracks such as Taxman and Paperback Writer, John Lennon acquired his very own sunburst model.
It’s argued that McCartney’s use of the model was the more impressive from a musical perspective, but Lennon definitely did more for it visually than any guitarist before or since.
Contemporary players such as Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher have also become synonymous with Epiphone semis but, as we know, their inspiration draws directly from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Here, Epiphone has borrowed Gibson Custom’s Historic ‘Inspired By’ moniker as a means to upgrade the standard Casino with USA appointments, but retain that famous artist relation at a modest price – perhaps due to the fact that Epiphone has, as mentioned, discontinued the USA-built equivalent.
Hear it in action in the following audio demo:
The upgraded fittings include two Gibson USA P-90 pickups with dog-ear, nickel-plated covers and a Switchcraft-made three-way toggle switch and output jack.
Like the ES-330, the Casino’s maple laminate body is completely hollow and shares the distinctive twin-cutaway shape with single-layer, off-white binding on the front and back edges, which in this case is extremely well done.
The ‘Inspired By’ also features a more vintage-correct sunburst than its Chinese counterpart, where the ‘burst is wider to the edges and has a more luxurious, deeper gradient as seen on sixties examples. However its scratchplate, as on our regular Casino, is still a little cheap looking and it’s common for players to remove it.
In keeping with the original, the 22-fret neck joins the body at the 16th fret, which is three further back than a centre-blocked ES-335 and one further than our Chinese-made standard Casino.
We also see the inclusion of parallelogram-shaped block inlays placed neatly into the rosewood fretboard, as seen on original Casinos of that period. The slim-taper neck, with its medium gauge fretwire and a 355mm (14-inch) radius makes for a very comfortable feel and low-playing action.
Mind you, the high-gloss finish on the back of the neck is a bit ‘sticky’– some players might have preferred a more ‘played in’ feel.
Further testament to Epiphone’s vintage-correct efforts can be seen in the smaller details: small button vintage Kluson-style tuners, a black ring around the toggle switch, Gibson-style control knobs and a rectangular blue label in the soundhole.
A nickel-covered trapeze-style tailpiece, as seen on the ES-330, and a twin-pillar-mounted tune-o-matic bridge complete the hardware. Surprisingly, the only visual clue to its famed user is a small and subtle gold signature on the back of the long, ‘moustache’-topped headstock.
Starting our sound test with a modest amount of overdrive (and using our Chinese-made Casino for comparison) the Lennon has a wonderfully mellow, airy tone that really fills out a band’s sound and is synonymous with this hollowbody design.
It’s different to the classic ES-335 centre-blocked design, which lends itself to more pumped-up rhythm tones. The American pickups sound notably different to those on the standard Casino, letting the natural acoustic and percussive resonance shine through, bolstering the character and charm of the hollow design.
The bridge P-90 is both angular and sprightly, and does those cutting BB King-style solos with seeming aplomb. Alongside this, the middle and neck positions offer open and expressive jazz and blues-rhythm tones that some of the greats, such as Grant Green for example, built their careers on.
The key to the Beatles tone is in the volume control. Setting your sound with a little more gain and dialling down the guitar’s volume changes the character of the Casino.
Here, you’ll find that acoustic quack and clean bite needed to pull off the kind of tone found on the opening of Taxman – be careful though, due to its hollow construction it will feed back a fair bit, so be wary of your amp’s volume and the amount of gain used.
Overall, this ‘Inspired By’ Casino has that vintage-like tone down to a tee and is wonderfully musical. In comparison, the far cheaper standard Chinese-made Casino lacks the charm and charisma of the ‘Inspired By’ model – both tonally and visually.
In general, artist edition guitars seem to be getting increasingly expensive, so it’s nice to see Epiphone taking a more affordable tack with this Casino. By adding subtle vintage aesthetics that really capture the essence of the original and employing quality American upgrades, it’s a superior package than the standard Casino and way more affordable than the previous USA model.
The price may still seem steep for some, but consider this: the upgrades alone would set you back the £400 difference between this and the standard Casino, it includes an Epiphone Limited Lifetime warranty and a quality hard case, plus a portion of the proceeds from each sale gets donated to the John Lennon Scholarship Fund for music education.
Vintage vibe. American appointments. Range of sounds.
The scratchplate looks cheap, but little else.
A sub-£1000 hollowbody with US upgrades, wonderful vintage Casino aesthetics and sound, plus an affiliation with its most famous user. What’s not to like?