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1. Ready to rumble! A hollowbody Epiphone Emperor Swingster. 2. Officially called the “Wire Handle,” this is the trem arm Chet Atkins preferred on his Bigsby. The guitar’s overwound SwingBucker pickups have alnico 5 magnets and switchable series/parallel coils. 3. The Swingster’s flame maple back is impressive. 4. A close-up of the flame maple sides. Note the sexy 5-ply, black-and-white binding on the top and back.
One guitar missing from my collection all these years is an orange Gretsch 6120, a classic made famous by the likes of Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy. I never seem to find one at the right price—but hey, that’s how BFS (Bottom Feeder Syndrome) works, right?
However, while searching the ’Bay recently I ran across this baby, an Epiphone Emperor Swingster. It’s sort of Epiphone’s version of the Gretsch 6120. I’ve bought other 6120 wannabes before only to be disappointed by their woeful sounding humbucker pickups. You see, Gretsch guitars use double-coil pickups with both coils wired in parallel, while everyone else wires them in series in order to reduce hum and noise. The Gretsch method may be noisier, but it produces a way-cooler sound for certain types of music, like rockabilly, country, and hillbilly jazz.
On the Swingster, Epiphone does this by allowing the player to pull up on each pickup’s tone control to select between that pickup’s parallel and series mode. That feature alone made me want to try one out, so off to eBay I went. After some searching, I found this one from a seller who wanted $500 or best offer. After going back and forth a few times, we agreed on a $435 price with free shipping.
Bottom Feeder Tip #2864: Never be afraid to make an offer when you see “or best offer.” All they can say is no.
When my Swingster arrived, I was really blown away with the flame maple sides and back, which looked a lot better in person than in the pics. And, as advertised, the pickups could easily be switched between series and parallel mode by simply lifting up on the tone controls. I also dig the cool Chet Atkins-style Bigsby tremolo. This baby can do everything from rockabilly to country to blues ... even rock, as long as you watch your stage volume. After all, it’s a hollowbody. Can you dig it daddy-o?
So is it a keeper? Yeah, for now anyway. It comes the closest to a Gretsch of any non-Gretsch I’ve tried so far. Maybe one day I’ll own a 6120. But for the price of the real deal, I can buy six or seven other guitars. That’s just the way a bottom feeder thinks and I can’t change that.
Will Ray is a founding member of the Hellecasters guitar-twang trio. He also does guitar clinics promoting his namesake G&L signature model 6-string, and produces artists and bands at his studio in Asheville, North Carolina. You can contact Will on Facebook and at willray.biz.