Epiphone Varichord Lap Steel Electric Guitar (1941)

Epiphone  Varichord Lap Steel Electric Guitar  (1941)
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Item # 12026
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Epiphone Varichord Model Lap Steel Electric Guitar (1941), made in New York City, serial # 5121, natural lacquer finish, maple and primavera wood body, original black hard shell case.

While the instrument not much associated with their name now, Epiphone were among the pioneers of electric steel guitar in the pre-WWII years. At the time the electric steel had a place in some major big bands, and the New York based company engaged several prominent endorsers. The most notable was Anthony Rocco, with whom they developed instruments and the first modern tone/volume pedal in 1935. As the steel guitar became more associated with country players later in the 1940s Epiphone seemed to lose interest.

This amazing creation debuted in 1940 billed as a "triumph of engineering and the instrument maker's art". It was developed with Clyde Doerr and Don Maffei, then guitarist with the Radio City Orchestra. The Varichord is a direct ancestor of the post-war pedal steel, with a similar elaborate pitch changing mechanism but lacking the pedals. Instead it has a panel of hand-operated dial levers on the face which allow each string to be raised or lowered a half- or full step. "Imagine an instrument of this type where the only chord not obtainable is the Lost Chord" ran Epiphone's pitch, and they weren't kidding. With 5 notes available on each string the tuning possibilities are pretty much endless, certainly far greater than anything else available at the time except for Gibson's competing Electraharp. That instrument DID introduce pedal pitch changing, but the advent of the war pretty much killed off these mechanical steel marvels, and it was not until the later 1940s the thread was picked up again.

The Varichord is built on a metal frame, encased in a Primavera wood body bound in tortoise celluloid. A standard Epiphone "Tone Spectrum" pickup is fitted, controlled by tone and volume knobs labeled "Mastervoicer". The fingerboard and tuners are standard Epiphone fittings. The instrument is quite heavy but is not provided with console legs; it could be played either on the lap or on a specially built folding maple stand called the "Electar Grande". The tuning specified was E7 "adopted after numerous conferences" and Epiphone helpfully provided a tuning chart (a copy is included) to illustrate the many extensions available. There is a large single handle mounted over the dial controls which quickly resets the instrument to standard tuning. While obviously technically obsolete (thanks, P.A. Bigsby!) this Varichord is still a fully functional instrument and a fantastic piece of steel guitar history.
 
Overall length is 31 1/2 in. (80 cm.), 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm.) width, and 2 1/2 in. (6.4 cm.) in depth, measured at side of rim. Scale length is 22 in. (559 mm.). Width of nut is 2 1/4 in. (57 mm.).

This amazing slab-o-wood-and-metal creation is still functional, with the elaborate pitch changing system working pretty much as intended. There is some general wear overall, with finish checking and small dings and dents. The top edge binding has been redone, the original having outgassed and crumbled leaving a little dark leeching into the surrounding finish. All fittings and hardware appear original.

There has been some re-working of the ancient electronics but all parts appear original, with some splices to the wires and solder joints redone. The working of the tone control is subtle at best, likely due to aged capacitors but it is functional; it could be made more so with replacement caps but we have elected to leave it original. The instrument retains the original hard shell case; the lining is heavily worn and the latches a bit funky but it is functional. While obviously pretty much a historic piece this is still a playable steel, actually a lot of fun to use if a noticeable load on the average lap! Excellent - Condition.