Sunday, March 10, 2013

Epiphone Masterbilt AJ-500ME Acoustic Guitar Review


I hear and read a lot of hate that is directed towards Epiphone, as this Gibson-owned brand sells low-priced imported guitars, but I am willing to bet that a lot of the haters have not even tried one. I have played and owned a few over the years and have found them to be a good value for the money. Today we are looking at a Masterbilt AJ-500ME which is a really neat acoustic-electric guitar.

List year I reviewed the sister of this guitar, the AJ-500RE which is also a peach. They are similar, with the RE having rosewood back and side and the ME having mahogany back and sides. Both of these guitars share the heritage of the original Masterbilts that were introduced in 1931. Yes, that is how they spell Masterbilt.”

The AJ-500ME is a jumbo-sized acoustic (AJ = Advanced Jumbo) that is made of surprisingly good materials and parts. It is a solid wood guitar (no pressboard or laminates here), with a Sitka spruce top, mahogany sides, back and neck, and a rosewood fretboard and bridge. The guitar is finished in a natural satin finish, which you will see as “NS” on the label. As glossy natural finish is available too (NA designation).

The neck has a pleasingly thin D shape to it, and an easy-playing 14-inch radius to the rosewood 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 very good, with a bone 1.68-inch nut and bridge saddle, and nickel-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-500ME has hand-scalloped Sitka spruce braces, as well as a hand-carved dovetail neck joint and hide glue construction. Plus, the frets are better than any of the new “real” Gibson guitars I see at Guitar Center.

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.

My complaints about this Epiphone guitar are the same ones I had for the rosewood Masterbilt I played. 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. All Epiphone guitars are backed by their 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 I have recently seen them as low as $400. It will be hard for you to find a guitar that has the same specs, tone and playability for the price.



  1. Thanks for the great review Rex! I have been considering buying a DR-500ME, but it has been hard to find one. The AJ looks like a pretty good value as well. Thanks -Jon

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Jon!