The launch of the first in a series of high-end Epiphone solidbody reissues was one of the big talking points of NAMM 2009. Card-holding P90 fan Huw Price is feeling no pain
Gibson took them over in 1957 and assumed production of a redesigned Epiphone range, and many of the new models – like the Sheraton, the Casino and various acoustics – were easily as good as their Gibson stablemates.
Various Epiphone-branded double cutaway models were introduced with Gibson hardware and pickups. Guitars like the Wilshire, Coronet and Crestwood proved popular amongst aspiring rockers, and today decent vintage examples can attract serious money.
This guitar represents a process that has come full circle. It’s an accurate replica of a 1961/1962 Epiphone Wilshire, and it’s made in the Custom Shop division of Gibson‘s US factory. This is no budget option – it’s part of a limited production run of 100 guitars.
As well as shipping in a vintage-style case with a curly lead and a 1960s-style skinny leather strap, it’s made from premium tonewoods and loaded with Gibson P90 pickups.
It’s finished in nitrocellulose, and you even get a reproduction ’60s owner’s manual and a commemorative T-shirt.
The earliest Wilshires from 1959 had square body edges and slightly thicker bodies. The closest Gibson model was the twin-P90 Les Paul Special, a guitar with a neck pickup that compromised the extension of the neck tongue into the body, giving rise to a notoriously flimsy neck joint, but on the Wilshire the neck pickup was closer to the bridge, allowing more wood-to-wood contact and a stronger joint, like the SG Specials.
Many early Wilshires also carried pre-’59 Epi hardware as Gibson used up the old stock, and interestingly it had a full-on Tun-O-Matic and stop tailpiece – a big step up from the Special’s plain wraparound.
When people refer to South American mahogany on vintage Gibsons they’re generally referring to Brazilian mahogany, but swietenia macrophylla grows throughout South America and the timber used for this Wilshire’s neck and body was sourced in Peru.
Both the neck and body are single pieces, and they look as good as in the old days. The unbound fingerboard is Madagascar rosewood, one of the best sonic and visual substitutes for Brazilian rosewood. The dark chocolate brown is a very close match to my ’61 ES-330 and it looks great with the medium frets and pearl dot markers.
Vintage-style construction extends to the holly-veneered headstock with its winged edges and pearl Epiphone inlay.
There are some minor cosmetic flaws that I wouldn’t expect from a Custom Shop item. There’s a slight ledge on the bass side of the fingerboard where the mahogany hasn’t been sanded flush with the rosewood, and looking under the cover reveals some less than tidy wiring.
The three-per-side tuners are Gibson Deluxe Kluson lookalikes with white plastic buttons and a nicely-shaped Corian nut. Modern players might find the controls a touch cramped, especially with a straight jack lead, so it’s best to use a right angled jack.
It’s all regulation issue with a three-way pickup selector for the two soapbar P90s and individual volume and tone controls. The tortoiseshell plastic pickguard defines the look along with the silver ‘E’ between the pickups.
I always experience a certain thrill when I play an all-mahogany set-neck guitar – especially a light one, because they always feel so responsive and resonant, like an acoustic guitar without the hollow bit. Add a pair of well-made P90s and it’s a surefire recipe for tone.
With its medium-depth neck and wide fingerboard the Wilshire epitomises this vibe, so if you like the sound of Les Paul and SG Specials, you’re guaranteed to like this. P90s are powerful like PAFs yet clear like Fender-style single coils, and the bridge combines a harmonically rich bark with a thick midrange and impressive clarity.
Since the pickups are relatively close together there isn’t quite as much difference between them as some might like, but they combine nicely for a hint of phasey mid scoop and the neck offers a smoother and sweeter option.
Clean country and skanky funk aren’t really on the cards and it’s probably too raw for jazz players, but everything else is pretty much fair game.
Plug into any valve amp and it’s instant garage punk or rootsy rock. Blues players will feel right at home, especially those who play bottleneck, and with a touch of added fuzz the Wilshire nails a late ’60s rock thing.
Metal players might be deterred by the retro looks, but hard rockers shouldn’t be discouraged because these single coils work particularly well with high gain and dropped tunings.
Though it's hard to go far wrong with a lightweight set-neck mahogany guitar with two P90s, Gibson still deserves our congratulations for making a great-sounding and great-playing guitar... despite our caveats about a couple of finishing details. If you've never played a guitar like this, plugging an Epiphone Wilshire into a good amplifier could be a life-changing experience. Be aware, though, that it doesn't offer anything substantially different from a Les Paul or SG Special in tone. Gibson's attempt to sell Epiphone guitars as premium products after they've been relegated to budget status for over a generation is a brave move indeed: the originals are as rare as hen's teeth, with prices to match, and though this is a limited edition instrument, more variants will emerge later this year. So if you love the looks and you've got the money, rest assured that you won't be disappointed.