Of all the guitars the Beatles made famous, the only one that John, Paul and George had in common was the Epiphone Casino. Each owned a Casino and used it for countless recordings and performances.
Paul McCartney was the first Beatle to acquire a Casino. Influenced to purchase it by his friend, blues musician John Mayall, McCartney said, “You’d go back to his place and he’d sit you down, give you a drink, and say, ‘Just check this out.’ He’d go over to his [tape] deck, and for hours blast you with B.B. King, Eric Clapton… he was sort of showing me where all of Eric’s stuff was from. He gave me a little evening’s education. I was turned on after that, and [bought] an Epiphone.” Mayall recalls the late-night record sessions. “I showed him my hollowbody guitar that I’d bought when I was in the army in Japan in 1955. When people get together and listen to records, they talk about all kinds of things related to the music, so obviously we must have touched upon the instruments and it struck home. He got a hollowbody after to get that tone.”
The Epiphone Casino ES-230TD that McCartney purchased at the end of ’64 has an early-style Gibson-design headstock rather than Epiphone’s later hourglass-shaped headstock. Photographs taken in December of ’64, during rehearsals for the Beatles’ Christmas performances at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, show Paul playing a new Epiphone Casino still strung right-handed. Another picture shows McCartney and Harrison examining the right-handed Casino, evidently discussing how they would alter the guitar so the left-handed McCartney could use it.
McCartney’s sunburst Casino has serial number 84075, and according to Gibson’s records shipped November 1, 1962. McCartney altered it for playing left-handed, turning the guitar upside down, re-stringing it, and modifying the bridge for correct intonation. A strap button was added to now-inverted upper treble bout. McCartney used his Casino extensively in the studio with The Beatles, including the memorable lead-guitar break on “Ticket To Ride.” He also used it throughout his solo career, and still owns the guitar.
In the spring of ’66, during recording sessions for Revolver, John Lennon and George Harrison decided to join the Casino club. The most obvious difference between these two virtually identical guitars was Harrison’s had a Bigsby vibrato, while Lennon’s had the standard Epiphone “trapeze” tail. Lennon’s was unusual in that it had a small black ring mounted around its pickup selector switch. Both had the more common Epiphone-style headstock and were fitted with gold-colored Volume and Tone knobs.
The first time Lennon and Harrison performed with their almost-matching Casinos was when The Beatles made an appearance on the popular British TV show “Top Of The Pops.” On June 16, 1966, they entered BBC’s London studios to mime both sides of their new single, “Rain” and “Paperback Writer.”
As the group started its ’66 tour of Germany, Japan, and the U.S., Lennon and Harrison chose the Casinos as their main instruments for the tour.
By ’67, The Beatles embarked on the sessions that would produce their masterpiece album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Present and used throughout were all three Casinos. And it was during these sessions that Lennon painted his by spraying a white or grey outline on back of the body and neck.
In early ’68, The Beatles headed to Rishikesh, India, to study transcendental meditation with The Maharishi and friends, including Donovan Leitch. There, Donovan convinced the trio to sand the finish off their instruments, telling them how a guitar sounds better without a heavy finish. After returning to London, during sessions for the self-titled “white album,” Lennon and Harrison sanded their Casinos. Lennon primarily played his newly stripped Casino for the sessions. Harrison said that once they’d removed the finish, they became much better guitars. “I think that works on a lot of guitars,” he explained. “If you take the paint and varnish off and get the bare wood, it seems to sort of breathe.” With the completion of the white album, promo clips were filmed for the single “Revolution”/“Hey Jude.” The clips showed Lennon using his natural Casino.
On December 11, 1968, Lennon appeared as a special guest for the filming of The Rolling Stones’ television special, “Rock ’n’ Roll Circus,” which included a memorable performance by the supergroup Dirty Mac, whose members included Eric Clapton on guitar, Keith Richards on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums, and Lennon playing his Casino. Dirty Mac’s legendary performance of “Yer Blues” was one of the show’s highlights.
Lennon continued to use his Casino during the Beatles’ “Get Back”/“Let It Be” filming and recording sessions. On January 30, 1969, filming climaxed with The Beatles’ celebrated performance on the rooftop of their Apple Corps office building, in London. It was the last public performance given by The Beatles as a band and was documented by a slew of film cameras and still photographers – and an 8-track tape recorder rolling in the Apple basement studio. Lennon played his Casino.
The last studio effort found the Beatles back at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, where they recorded their swan song, Abbey Road. “The End” was intended to be the last song on Abbey Road, and gives the listener an all-too-brief glimpse of a great three-way guitar duel. McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon, in that order, each take a two-bar solo, cycling around three times. McCartney used his Casino, Harrison’s work is pure wailing Gibson Les Paul, and Lennon makes an aggressive, distorted howl with his Casino.
John, Paul, and George would continue to use their Casinos on numerous solo projects and recordings. McCartney still uses his, even referring to it as his favorite electric. “If I had to choose one electric guitar, it would be this,” he said.
Andy Babiuk is the author of Beatles Gear, which was recently released in a newly revised edition. He is also author of The Story of Paul Bigsby: Father of the Modern Electric Solidbody Guitar and with Greg Prevost is preparing Stones Gear, a history of the equipment used by the Rolling Stones. He can be reached at [email protected]
’66 Epiphone Casino
By George Gruhn & Walter Carter
In the Epiphone line of the 1960s, the Casino occupied middle ground. In appearance as well as electronics it ranked well below the semi-hollow Sheraton and Riviera or the solidbody Crestwood Custom. But thanks to the Beatles, it is probably the best-known of all Gibson-made Epi models.
Like most of the Epiphone line of the ’60s, the Casino bore little resemblance to the Epiphones of a decade earlier, much less the ’30s archtops on which the company had built its reputation (be sure to read the feature on the Epi harp guitar in this issue).
With roots in Greece and Turkey, Epiphone was founded as the House of Stathopoulo in the early 1900s. Epaminondas “Epi” Stathopoulo, one of the founder’s three sons, led the company to a prominent position in the tenor-banjo market of the ’20s (an era in which Gibson struggled to develop a competitive banjo model). Epi had the foresight to recognize the rising popularity of the guitar in the late ’20s and, in particular, the role the archtop guitar – an instrument invented by and produced almost exclusively by Gibson – would play in popular music of the coming years.
In 1931, Epiphone attacked Gibson’s dominance with a line of archtops called Masterbilt, playing on the notoriety of Gibson’s L-5 “Master Model.” Gibson responded with more and larger models, and Epi countered with an even larger model. The competition extended to the electric line, where in 1937 Epiphone introduced a pickup with individually adjustable pole pieces, and Gibson followed suit in 1940.
During the production hiatus for World War II, Epi Stathopoulo died of leukemia, and when guitar production resumed after the war, the company struggled. Its six-pushbutton pickup selector system on the three-pickup Emperor was an arguable improvement over the six knobs Gibson used on its three-pickup ES-5, but in most areas of the market, Epiphone lagged behind Gibson. Epi’s brothers were unable to bring the company back to its pre-war prominence, and in ’57 they sold Epiphone to the Chicago Musical Instrument Company, Gibson’s parent.
Ted McCarty, general manager of Gibson, viewed Epiphone as an opportunity for Gibson to expand its dealer network while maintaining territorial exclusivity for existing Gibson dealers. McCarty continued some of Epiphone’s archtop models in the new lineup, and other Epi features, such as multi-ply necks and metal-covered single-coil pickups, also provided continuity between the old Epis and the Gibson Epis. However, most models in the Gibson-made line were completely new.
Gibson had been making thinline electric guitars since 1955 (the Stathopoulos had never introduced a thinline Epiphone), and Gibson introduced the thinline double-cutaway, semi-hollow ES-335 in 1958. Almost concurrently, a similar (and fancier) model appeared in the Epi line – the Sheraton. A year later, Gibson introduced a stepped-down model with the same body shape but with a fully hollow body and single-coil pickups, called the ES-330. In ’61, a model similar to the Gibson ES-330 showed up in the Epiphone line as the Casino.
Structurally, the Casino was the same as the ES-330, with a thinline, double-cutaway hollow body. Functionally, too, it was the same guitar, with one or two “dog-ear” P-90 pickups (with black covers), a Tune-O-Matic bridge, and a trapeze tailpiece. A vibrato was optional. Cosmetically, both models had single-ply binding on the top, back, and fingerboard, pearl dot fingerboard inlays, and an inlaid peghead logo with no other ornamental peghead inlay. The Casino was offered in sunburst or Royal Tan finish while the ES-330 was offered in sunburst or natural.
When Gibson upgraded the ES-330 in ’62 with chrome-plated pickup covers and small block fingerboard inlays, the Casino was also upgraded to chrome-plated pickup covers and single-parallelogram inlays (a pattern not standard on any Gibson).
Gibson designed the Epiphone line to have prices slightly below the equivalent Gibsons, but the only significant difference between the standard Casino and the ES-330 was the brand name. In ’63, Gibson apparently valued the Gibson brand at $15 more than Epiphone. The two-pickup Casino listed that year for $275 and the sunburst ES-330 was $290 (Cherry finish, which had replaced natural, was $305).
Despite the lower prestige of the Epiphone name, the Casino actually topped its Gibson counterpart slightly when it came to the vibrato. The Epiphone vibrato had an anchor bar with a graduated diameter to compensate for the different string diameters. The result was a more consistent pitch change across the strings. Whether the improvement was noticeable to the ears of listeners is arguable, but the Epi-style unit at least had the appearance of an improvement over the simple U-shaped spring design of the Gibson “Maestro” unit, and the Epi unit was not offered on any Gibson model. In fact, the 1963 catalog did not offer any kind of vibrato as an option on the ES-330, while the vibrato-equipped Casino remained a catalog model.
The relative merits of the Casino and the ES-330 – and most other Epis and Gibsons models, for that matter – became irrelevant when Casinos appeared in the hands of the Beatles. Paul McCartney bought a sunburst in 1964, and John Lennon and George Harrison each bought sunbursts in ’65. In ’67, Harrison played his Casino equipped with a Bigsby on a video for “Hello Goodbye,” and Lennon played his on a TV broadcast of “All You Need Is Love.” By September ’68, when the group appeared on the BBC show “Top of the Pops,” Lennon had scraped the finish off his Casino, and Harrison did the same to his shortly thereafter. Lennon played this now-natural Casino on the Beatles’ final appearance together on January 30, 1969, on the rooftop of the Apple building.
If the Beatles had any influence at all on Epiphone sales, it was too little, too late. Through the ’60s, Epiphone sold more than 6,700 Casinos – more than double the sales of any other model – but that was not enough to save it. By the end of ’69, Gibson had scrapped the entire Epiphone line and replaced it with a new line imported from Japan. By the time the Beatles’ rooftop performance was seen by the public in the film documentary Let It Be, it was May 1970, and nothing in the Epiphone line resembled a Casino.