1965 Epiphone Olympic (a review for the Vintage newbie)

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BridgehouseBridgehouse Frets: 3919
edited June 2016 in Guitar Reviews
1965 Epiphone Olympic

I’d wanted to add a vintage guitar to my collection for quite some time, but was always put off by the minefield that seems to be part of the vintage world - Is it modified? Is it a fake? What’s a fair price? Will it work? What if it plays horrifically? 

When I joined the fretboard I managed to pluck up enough courage and put an ad. into the Classifieds looking for a Melody Maker or equivalent. After much research I decided I’d go light touch and go for the lower end of the vintage market and not risk too much cash!

Well, along came a 1965 Epiphone Olympic for a good price and I got in the car to go and have a look. I was instantly smitten, and cash left my grubby mitts, and it came home with me. 

Now, I’m definitely not a Vintage expert. But I thought I would write this review from the perspective of a new first time vintage buyer. For all of the experts out there - I apologise. This really is targeted at the virgin vintage buyer. Maybe you would like to buy something old and loved but you’re unsure. Perhaps you’ve not considered a vintage before but you’re interested to know what it’s like. I hope someone finds my scribblings useful.

[Chopped up to separate comments due to character limits!]
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  • BridgehouseBridgehouse Frets: 3919
    Description

    The Olympic was Epiphone’s equivalent of the Gibson Melody Maker - a student guitar at a cheap price. Originally they were styled more akin to the late fifties Melody Makers with a sunburst finish and double cuts, but by the mid-sixties they adopted the same body shape as the other Epiphone solid bodies (Wilshire, Coronet etc.) and eventually added the iconic batwing headstock.

    Gibson bought out Epiphone in the late fifties and up until 1969 all the Epiphone solid bodies were made in Kalamazoo, at the Gibson factory. I suspect this Olympic (like the others) is Honduran Mahogany with a Brazilian Rosewood Fretboard (although it’s on the cusp of when they changed). It’s cherry red in finish and is the single pickup version with single volume and tone. It has the Maestro Vibrato fitted, which was standard from ’65 onwards. 

    The Pickup is a single coil, and bridge mounted - it’s exactly the same as the ones Gibson used on the Melody Maker, and that has it’s heritage in their lap steels. Pots appear to be 250k for both volume and tone.

    The tuners are Kluson Deluxe 6-on a strip with white ivoroid buttons. It came with the original crocodile-effect cardboard case which had seen better days, but looked to be original and does at least close. 

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  • BridgehouseBridgehouse Frets: 3919
    Some key facts:

    Year: 1965 (Serial dates it as this according to Gibson site)
    Scale Length: 24 3/4
    Nut Width: 1 11/16
    Frets: 22
    Inlays: MOP dot markers
    Pickups: Single Coil Melody Maker in Bridge Position
    Pots: 1x Volume, 1x Tone - 250k ‘radio’ style with position markers
    Bridge: Gibson style Lightening bridge
    Trem: Epiphone/Gibson Maestro Trem with screw-in arm
    Strap Buttons: 1x Bottom, 1x Top Horn, 1x Heel
    Fretboard Radius: (My rather crude measurement puts it at) 9.5”
    Neck Profile: Chunky C Profile - bit fatter than a 2016 LP Standard, but not as baseball bat as a late 50’s
    Action: 1.1mm at High E, 1.3mm at Low E 
    Strings: 9-46 
    Weight: 4lb 14oz
    Width at widest point in bout: 33cm
    Overall Length: 99cm

    Originality:

    No breaks, cracks or repair work done on it.
    From what I can tell, all is original except for:

    Bridge - been replaced with a Gibson lightening bridge intonated for non-wound G
    Frets and Nut - It’s been refretted (very well) and new nut installed
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  • BridgehouseBridgehouse Frets: 3919
    Comparison with a Modern Guitar for the Non-Vintage amongst you

    So what is it like compared to a modern guitar? Well, obviously it feels old. It’s seen a fair amount of action. The finish is marked with plenty of play wear and dings and knocks. The lacquer is checked and it’s lost a lot of it’s original shine. It feels relic’d in a way that I just couldn’t see how you can recreate today. To me, it just feels authentic. It’s really light weight - almost ridiculously so, and you really feel the resonance if you strum whilst holding the body. 

    The Epiphone body shape is slightly unusual, but it’s comfy when seated, and the upper fret access is unparalleled. However, as a player it doesn’t actually feel as different as you might expect. The neck feels played in - but it’s a really nice worn usable play wear. Fretboard is neat and tidy and when in the groove it’s no different to, say a nicely playing SG neck. 

    It’s as easy to set up as any other guitar I’ve owned, there’s no difference really - truss rod for relief and bridge height adjustment is just the same and just as flexible. I’m surprise really, because I don’t feel that I need to baby it. I originally thought being vintage and 51 years old that in some way it would be delicate. It really isn’t. Once plugged in and playing, the 51 years really don’t make one jot of difference.

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  • BridgehouseBridgehouse Frets: 3919
    The Good and the Bad

    Having lived with it for 3 months or so now, I’m beginning to appreciate that like any guitar, it has it’s good and bad points. Nothing has every really disappointed me with it - and as a first vintage purchase it’s been brilliant. The bug has really bit. However:

    Good:
    Neck is superb to play. Very comfy and is really easy to get a nice low playing action with minimal fuss
    Weight is exceptional as well. It’s a wear for hours and not worry about it guitar
    Looks authentic
    The Sound (I’m coming to that!)

    Bad:
    Maestro Vibrato - It works, and it stays in tune for small tonal changes. Problem is the arm, which when screwed on doesn’t pass over the volume and tone pots - so it gets in the way (it’s a chunky beast!) so I keep it off.
    Tuners - can be stiff and really need a good service. Im reluctant to mess as they are original. Bit of patience and you get used to them, but they aren’t the same as a modern set of locking tuners with high ratio gearing. 
    3 strap buttons - I just don’t know why!!!
    Case - pretty much unusable if you want to take it anywhere!! Finding a case to fit this body shape these days is hard work. Apparently the Epiphone SG Hard Case fits, but I haven’t tried it yet. It’s going to require a trip to a store with it to find out what fits.
    Not a swiss army knife doitall sound
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  • BridgehouseBridgehouse Frets: 3919
    The Sound 

    I originally wanted a vintage guitar as I’d heard great things about the tone that you get from a good ‘un. Now, I know the Olympic is just one bridge mounted single coil, so my expectations were reasonably low, but oh my.. 

    I haven’t measured the pickup output yet, but I would put it at medium/low. It’s not super hot, or a screamer, but it excels at giving breadth to the tone it kicks out. 

    I’m running it through a Helix, and set up a profile specifically for the Olympic when I got it - it sounds best to my ears with either the Vox AC15/30 or Silvertone models. With a light strum you get a nice chimey clean sound - dig in and thrash it and it breaks up really nicely. It’s a bit like a cross between a Tele bridge pickup that veers a bit more towards an SG lower output bridge. 

    I tend to be a slightly more arty farty player - I’m not gigging at the moment, but it would have pulled off a rocky/folky/ambient sound really well when I was. It responds really well to effects  -particularly delays (which I use quite a bit) and I can see it complementing a wide range of instruments in a live situation. It’s a single coil so can be noisy so you need some way of controlling that for recording. The volume pot is nice and smooth across the range, but to my ear the tone pot gets a little bit muddy when rolled right off. Maybe that’s because the chimney brightness is imho the most pleasing sound you get out of this pickup. 

    I’m currently using it for recording - as with most things they are not finished yet (!) but for the media section I think I’m going to post some rather contrived recordings of some different sounds so you can get an idea of what it’s like clean/dirty/chords/etc. 

    It’s not a tone-swiss army knife. You’re limited. Even more than an Esquire to be honest, but in terms of kicking out a real authentic mid-60’s chimey bridge sound that takes effects well and suits clean, dirty and roaring then in some ways I think it’s a sleeper that needs more recognition than it currently gets! If you want a reference for the dirty sound, then have a look at the Pete Doherty (Libertines) sound on Up The Bracket - that’s a ’65 Olympic. 
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  • BridgehouseBridgehouse Frets: 3919
    Good first Vintage or Worth Considering?

    Personally, I’m glad it was my first vintage. It plays so well and the neck is so comfy that it’s shown me that a Vintage guitar can be at least as good a player as the very best made today. It’s convinced me that they are usable and playable every day. I now know that vintage guitars don’t need to be babied or wrapped in cotton wool. They are for playing.

    So here’s a couple of crunch questions and my answers:

    • Does it compare well to a similarly priced modern guitar? I don’t think I could get an equivalent sound for the same money. Or indeed for more or less money. I would say it plays as well as a really good player in it’s price range
    • Is it a good first vintage guitar? Depends on what you are looking for in your vintage. If it’s to replace something you already have and use then be careful - the Olympic is a fab sound - but it’s quite unique and not flexible. If it’s to experience what the vintage thing is all about then absolutely, as this is pukka Kalamazoo Gibson factory goodness (and woods and pickup) for brand new SG Standard money.

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  • BridgehouseBridgehouse Frets: 3919
    edited June 2016
    This first picture shows overall body shape - and gives you a good idea of general condition - it's had a hard life at times I reckon, it's been gigged, played, and well worn, but not abused as there are no noticeable cracks, repairs or accidental damage as such:


    image

    There's still plenty of cherry left in the finish, although it's lost a lot of its gloss though. You can see a bit of the lacquer checking here. Notice the wear on the Maestro Vibrato - yes, it does get in the way a bit when you give it some - it can be a handy rest as it's pretty stiff so you don't get issues with wobble if you rest a palm on it as with some trems (silver lining huh?) Note the lightening bridge with the saddle for the 'G' stepped back (the original would have been forward for a wound 'G'). The original bridge can give intonation issues on plain non-wound 'G's 

    image

    Batwing Headstock (apologies for the green bush reflections!!) - there's quite a bit more checking visible here. It's difficult to tell in this shot, but the headstock is raked back, so you get a decent break angle over the nut. Nice and stable. Truss rod cover reveals a standard Gibson style adjuster.

    image

    Frets are wide and quite flat - they suit the neck pretty well. I'd normally opt for something with more height on them, but there's just something about the combination of this neck and frets that really works. Very comfy. I reckon the neck and playability is the best thing about the guitar actually...

    image
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  • BridgehouseBridgehouse Frets: 3919
    edited June 2016
    Lots of buckle rash and play wear on the back. No cracks though. The lacquer checking is more apparent on the back than the front. On one side it really looks like someone has drunkenly dragged it down the road after a particularly poor gig..

    image

    Reverse of headstock - tuners aren't the best, but they work and they are original. I might service them at some point. Most importantly though is the serial number. It's faint but it's there and it's worth noting that Epiphone used Gibson serial numbers from Kalamazoo so to date 60's Epiphones you can use the Gibson site. Although it's not the most reliable serial number sequence ever made...!

    image


    The gubbins under the scratch plate. 250k pots, very simple. Looking at this, I think the pup wiring might have been changed. 

    image
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  • BridgehouseBridgehouse Frets: 3919
    edited November 2016
    https://soundcloud.com/user-108106819/epi-olympic-clean-sample

    I'm not really happy with this one - Down Down is a proper stress test given that it's an open tuning and capo 4 if you want to play it as per the original.. 

    https://soundcloud.com/user-108106819/epiphone-olympic-down-down


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  • richardhomerrichardhomer Frets: 12802
    Lovely guitar - really interesting review.

    Thanks for posting.
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  • NiteflyNitefly Frets: 1176
    Good review, @Bridgehouse - what a great guitar!
    Nevertheless, she lifted her dress.
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  • BridgehouseBridgehouse Frets: 3919
    Nitefly said:
    Good review, @Bridgehouse - what a great guitar!
    Thanks - I'm hoping to get some media up at the weekend. 
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  • GadgieGadgie Frets: 84
    nice all round. well done.
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  • woody_89woody_89 Frets: 116
    Wonderful stuff! There is a wonderful charm about Olympics and Melody Makers that can't be replicated anywhere else at that price point. Whilst I haven't had any Olympics, I've had several '60s Melody Makers through my hands over the last couple of years (I still have 2 of them) and my experiences and findings certainly echo yours.

    Both of my remaining ones are quite heavily modified. Both have been stripped, and have been messed with electronically. My 62 has a noiseless Fender pickup in it, and I'd put it up there against any Tele in the bridge position! My '65 has a P90 in the bridge, and an old Gibson Humbucker in the neck. It's in the process of being refretted, but it really does give both of my Juniors from the same era a real run for their money.

    Awesome guitars!
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  • marantz1300marantz1300 Frets: 1082

    Great review .

    I'm  thinking about buying a single cut.

    thanks.

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  • Good Review.
    I have  a 1965(I think) Epiphone Olympic Special that I bought in 1981
    I think it was more beat up than yours is now - but nothing too bad. In places it looks as though someone tried to use it as a hammer but it plays great.
    Someone had replaced the original pickup with the bridge pickup from a telecaster, that finally gave up the ghost a few years ago and I replaced it with a p90 from BGpups which sounds great.
    The frets are pretty worn on mine since I don't think they've ever been replaced and it's had a lot of use over the years.
    I used to play it through an old AC30 combo which was very loud and used to get so hot I think I could have fried eggs on  it :-)
    51 years later it's still my guitar of choice.
    Al
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  • Good Review.
    I have  a 1965(I think) Epiphone Olympic Special that I bought in 1981
    I think it was more beat up than yours is now - but nothing too bad. In places it looks as though someone tried to use it as a hammer but it plays great.
    Someone had replaced the original pickup with the bridge pickup from a telecaster, that finally gave up the ghost a few years ago and I replaced it with a p90 from BGpups which sounds great.
    The frets are pretty worn on mine since I don't think they've ever been replaced and it's had a lot of use over the years.
    I used to play it through an old AC30 combo which was very loud and used to get so hot I think I could have fried eggs on  it :-)
    51 years later it's still my guitar of choice.
    Al
    Thought about a refret? It might make a great guitar even greater!
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  • Amazing looking guitar! I lover the headstock, have epiphone used this on any other models?
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  • @A_Particular_Geetar  - yes, around 1965 Epiphone swapped from 3 a side to the batwing headstock on all their solid body guitars - so Coronet/Wilshire/Crestwood etc..

    They stopped around the early 70s when Gibson moved out of Kalamazoo and Epi became their cheaper 'foreign made' brand.

    There are a few reissues around though.


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  • LozboyLozboy Frets: 9
    edited March 28
    Great review.Looks very tidy.What does she weigh?
      My experience with those vibratos is time,patience & more time to get it set right.Trouble is you would rather be playing it rather than working on it.
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