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1992 Epiphone Joe Pass Emperor

While I’m on the subject of archtops, let me introduce you to the Epiphone Joe Pass Emperor. Archtop guitars usually fetch a pretty hefty price. I was glad to see Epiphone fill a market niche back in the Nineties with some affordable models that were very high quality instruments. The Joe Pass is an ornate guitar compared to the Godin previously reviewed—lots of inlay, multi-ply binding, gold hardware, and Joe Pass’ signature embossed in the pick guard. It’s not a guitar for a player who thinks “enough is enough and too much is vulgar.” It’s over the top on decoration. 

The guitar has a laminated spruce top with laminated maple back and sides, which have some flame to them. The guitar came in a few classic finishes: natural, antique sunburst, cherry sunburst, black, and red. This is a small-body archtop with a 16” lower bout. Unlike acoustic archtops which are designed to be played in a jazz orchestra, the smaller body is not a downside. In fact, it’s more comfortable to hold and play. The neck and body on this guitar sit just right and the balance is good.

The electronics are basic and they do a good job delivering dark tones and snappy ones. Two pickups add functionality and you can get jazzy tones to rockabilly as you might wish. The neck on these guitars are really nice, not too meaty but substantial. The fret finishing is great. Put a set of flat wounds on there and the guitar feels fast and seemingly effortless to play.

Maybe it's a question of body geometry, because people come in different sizes, but the design of this guitar seems to just "fit" well to the player. The center point of the neck lines up perfectly with the sweet spot for comfortable playing. I find that certain guitars do this well. It has nothing to do with body shape and size, oddly. I find Fender Jazzmasters and Gibson SGs have that same kind of fit. It seems to do with where the end of the neck aligns with the player's body "centerline." Other guitars, that are obviously very nice, like Les Pauls, for example, don't do this. Really big body archtops and acoustics don't do it. The Joe Pass Emperor does this perfectly. It feels like you could play this guitar all night long without fatigue. It just feels right.

If you are in the market for an archtop, you could do a lot worse. Yes, there's a lot of candy on these guitars, but they are good players. They are still fairly plentiful in the used market and they are very reasonably priced, often under $400. Get one and plug it into a clean amp and you will be in archtop Nirvana.