The Epiphone John Lennon EJ-160E is the licensed version of the Gibson J-160E model, used by John Lennon and George Harrison on the early Beatles records and concerts. It features a mini humbucking pick-up, the volume and tone controls mounted on the top of the guitar and has the same deep sunburst finish as the originals. The two Beatles bought their Gibson J160-Es in Liverpool in 1962 and the guitars can be seen in many studio and concert photographs as well as the Beatles’s first two films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Most acoustic guitar heard on the Beatle’s albums up until about Sgt Pepper is the J160-E, with its familiar thuddy, slighty muted sound without a lot of top end or sustain. This is a characteristic of Gibson acoustics but whether Epiphone has tried to emulate this or produce a more modern sounding instrument will be revealed in this review. One curious difference between the Gibson J160-E and the Epiphone EJ-160E is the scale length – the new Epi version has a 25.5″ scale, completely at odds with Gibson’s usual 24 3/4″ scale.
Because of the permanently installed magnetic pick-up, the guitar is fitted with electric guitar strings. Bronze strings will work, but I doubt they will sound very pleasing when the guitar is plugged in. However, there are no hard and fast rules so experimentation is encouraged. The J160-E was one of the first electro-acoustic guitars and when it was introduced in 1954 there were no transducers or pre-amps as we know them so the magnetic pick-up was installed with the controls placed where they would be on an electric, on the front. If you’re principally an electric guitar player, the knob placement is welcome. Acoustic players may have a different opinion, but the arrangement makes life very easy and a change from fiddling with tiny control knobs on the top of the guitar as on modern electros.
The EJ-160E has a solid Spruce top – boasting hand-scalloped bracing – with Mahogany back and sides and a Rosewood fretboard with crown inlays and vintage style frets. The inlay on the enlarged headstock is a nondecript splodge rather than anything in particular. However, this is not important as what you get in compensation are vintage style machine heads and a ‘stacked’ humbucker rather than the single-coil that was installed on the Gibsons. The body is finished in a deep sunburst and the quality of work is remarkable, there are no blemishes or laquer build-ups and the bindings are neat and tidy. The neck is very slim and although the bridge saddle is not compensated, the intonation is good. Just above the fingerboard on the top is a facsimile of Lennon’s signature in gold which looks as if it has been screen-printed on to the guitar. A portion of the proceeds of sales of the EJ-160E go to the John Lennon BMI scholarship fund.
Acoustically, the guitar rings out but would benefit from the aforementioned bronze strings which would add quality and depth to the tone. Plugged directly into a PA system the tone is mellow and warm but the guitar would benefit from some sort of pre-amp/equalizer to get the level up a notch. Straight into an acoustic amp or even an ordinary guitar amp works well as the pick-up is no different to anything found on an electric guitar. This is an ideal rhythm instrument and would sit nicely in a band situation where you want the effect of an acoustic guitar but without the fizzy top-end of an electro and the sonic interference it causes. Just as an experiment, I plugged the EJ-160E directly into a ProTools session and re-recorded an existing part. The result wasn’t great and to use the guitar like this you would have to employ some vicious EQ or some sort of acoustic simulator to get anything approaching a useable sound.
The Epiphone EJ-160E is a most impressive guitar considering the low cost and – as Epiphone say on their scratchplate sticker – has a FAB-ulous sound with classic looks. You can’t argue with that. Now, where’s my Beatles songbook?