Sunday, April 29, 2012

Epiphone AJ-500RE Masterbilt Acoustic Guitar Review


Many musicians sniff when they see the Epiphone name on low-priced imported guitars, but I have found some fabulous Epis over the years. This AJ-500RE has to be one of the best ones I have played, and it is certainly a fantastic value

The Epiphone of today is owned by Gibson, as an avenue to provide cheaper imported version of their iconic US-made guitars. These include electrics such as the Les Paul and SG, as well as basses and acoustic guitars. The current Epiphone Masterbilt (yes, that is really how they spell it) acoustic guitars are homage to the original Masterbilts that were introduced in 1931.

This AJ-500E is a jumbo-sized acoustic (AJ = Advanced Jumbo) that is made of pretty much nothing but good materials and parts. It is a solid wood guitar (no pressboard or laminates here), with a Sitka spruce top, rosewood sides and back, mahogany neck, and rosewood fretboard and bridge. The guitar is finished in a natural satin finish, which you will see as “NS” on the label.

The neck has a pleasingly thin D shape to it, and an easy-playing 14-inch radius to the fretboard. Epiphone laid 20 medium frets along its 25.5-inch scale length neck, along with tasteful pearloid dot fret markers and stickpin inlay on the headstock. Of course it has an adjustable trussrod.

The hardware is also very good, with a bone 1.68-inch nut and bridge saddle, and gold-plated Grover Sta-tite machine heads. It looks very classy with a tortoise pickguard, bound neck and headstock, and a multi-ply bound top.

This vintage-inspired guitar comes with a first-rate and innovative electronics package. The heart of the system is the eSonic2 preamp, which is a collaboration of Epiphone and Shadow of Germany. The control panel is on the upper edge of the guitar; it includes a chromatic tuner, (which also mutes the guitar), volume, a slider to blend the two pickups, tone knobs for both of the pickups, and a phase switch. The pre-amp/tuner takes two 2032 lithium batteries that may prove tough to find at the last minute if they crap out. Be sure to unplug the guitar when you are not using it, and keep some spare batteries on hand.

One of the pickups is an under-bridge Nanoflex that incorporates active amplification at the pickup to improve signal quality. The other pickup is a Nanomag at the end of the fretboard (over the sound hole) with three samarium/cobalt magnets to provide a wide frequency range.

These pickups are output through two ¼-inch jacks, and if only the main one is used it will be a blend of both pickups. If both jacks are used one will be for the Nanomag and the other will be for the Nanoflex – stereo, baby! I cannot imagine that anybody would ever use this feature, though…

But the sum of the parts are nothing if they are not put together well, and Epiphone’s Chinese craftsmen did a very nice job on this instrument. The AJ-500RE has hand-scalloped Sitka spruce braces, as well as a hand-carved dovetail neck joint and hide glue construction. Plus, look at the tremendously awesome fretwork they did!

The good parts and workmanship come together to make a very nice-playing and great sounding guitar. This one played well right out of the box, and has a warm tone with a very deep and full sound, as well as clear mids and highs. It is not perfectly balanced from high to low, but as the top ages I suspect the strings will have a more even tone. I like the tone of a rosewood guitar more than mahogany, other things being equal.

My complaints about this Epiphone guitar are few and far between. The matte finish looks a little cheap and certainly collects smudges quite easily. My other beef is that it seems to go through batteries at a ferocious rate, and they are not cheap nor readily available. A 9-volt would have been nice.

Anyway, these things are not deal breakers, and the AJ-500RE is a keeper, at least as much as this is possible for me. These guitars (actually all Epiphones) are backed by Epiphone's Limited Lifetime warranty as well as Gibson Customer Service for the original purchaser.

It might be a bit tricky to find these, though, as they have been discontinued. They originally had a list price of $1100, but you can still find a few new ones out there discounted to around $600. It will be hard for you to find a guitar that has the same specs, tone and playability for the price.