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Epiphone ET-280 bass

Solid body bass made at the Matsumoku plant in Japan

The guitar boom of the 1960s created a huge market for entry level guitars, and high-end American guitar manufacturers were repeatedly undercut by overseas manufacturers. This ultimately lead to many well known guitar companies moving production to Japan; re-branding imported guitars to fill the lower end of their ranges. In the 1970s, Epiphone guitar production was subcontracted to Aria, who had them built at the very well regarded Matsumoku factory. And the very first solid body bass in this range was the Epiphone 1820, which would soon be better known as the Epiphone ET-280 bass.

In the 1960s Gibson and Epiphone were complimentary brands, both owned by CMI, and made side by side in the same factory, to the same standard, and effectively filling the same position in marketing terms. These guitars were aimed at professional musicians, and were priced far above the student and intermediate models coming from Japan. A third CMI brand, Kalamazoo, to some extent offered lower priced guitars and basses, but with US production and Gibson-made parts, they still were not cheap enough. And Japanese guitars were getting better and better all the time.

Norlin took over Gibson / Epiphone ownership in late 1969, leading to a significant reorganisation of the company's brands. Gibson continued to manufacture high end American-made guitars, Epiphone production was moved to Asia to build entry and mid-level instruments, and Kalamazoo was discontinued. From a business point of view this was a complete success, replicated by many other companies, and a model that continues to this day.

The Epiphone 1820 / ET-280, was the brand's first solid body bass from Japan, and was a complimentary model to the Epiphone 1802T (ET-270) guitar, and 5120 electric acoustic bass. It was first listed in the October 1970 Epiphone price list, although it is not certain it was available in stores this early; it was standard practice to list new models in prices lists some time before they were actually available. It was a solid instrument, with a hardwood body and bolt-on neck, a nice rosewood fretboard and two single coil pickups. Controls were simple - a master volume and tone with a three-way pickup selector switch. Although not quite as nice as the single pickup Epiphone Newport it replaced, it was tougher, tonally more versatile, and less than half the price! Naturally it sold pretty well.

It was described as follows in the 1971 Pick Epiphone brochure:

1971 Pick Epiphone catalogue

The latest in modern appearance, the 1820 features a graceful modern cutaway design and a high gloss cherry red finish. Incorporates unusual quality, features, and performance at a very popular price. Features: thin modern cutaway design, high gloss cherry red finish. Slim, fast, low-action three-ply adjustable neck - Two powerful pickups with adjustable polepieces, pickup selector switch, rosewood fingerboard with pearl inlays, adjustable bridge, and rest, and foam rubber mute. Chrome plated machine heads and parts. 13 1/4" wide, 17 1/4" long, 1 3/8" thin; 30 1/2" scale, 20 frets.

1971 Epiphone loose leaf "Pick Epiphone" brochure, 1820 solid body bass guitar
The original late 1970 promo sheet from the Pick Epiphone folder, with model designation 1820
1971 Epiphone loose leaf "Pick Epiphone" brochure, ET-280 solid body electric bass guitar
The corresponding sheet from 1971, with model designation ET-280. Note the additional Epiphone 'E' logos and old-style truss rod cover

The fact is, these were not bad instruments at all. Early Japanese instruments have a bad reputation, but this may say more about the people that bad mouth them than the guitars themselves. The Matsumoku plant was arguably producing the very best guitars imported from Japan at this time: the quality of woodwork, finish and hardware were all great. Some people report weak pickups, but this may relate more to the way the magnets are positioned below the coils, and the failure of the foam that holds them in position. It is true that the pickups are not up to 1960s Epiphone standards, but these aside, the ET-280 is a solid reliable bass.

Epiphone 1820 Bass / ET-280 Bass Chronology

  • 1966/67 Matsumoku produce a number of broadly similar basses including the Aria 1820.
  • 1968 The June '68 final Epiphone price list for the American-built Newport EBS at $270.
  • 1969/70 Rosetti (UK) distribute their version of the 1820 as the Eros 9526, only discontinuing the model with the launch of the Epiphone EPI 9526.
  • 1970 The #1820 was first listed in the October 1970 'Epiphone Guitars' price list at $115, with #818 Durabilt case at $16.50. It was described as follows:
    Double cutaway, cherry red finish, hardwood adjustable neck, rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays, two bass pickups, toggle switch, adjustable bridge, foam rubber mute, volume and tone controls, chrome plated hardware
    1970 Epiphone Rosetti catalogue
    Early publicity from UK-distributor Rosetti gives this bass a UK model-designation EPI 9526, and shows it with single-sided headstock. See the 1970 Rosetti Epiphone brochure.
  • 1971 The 1820 now has a 2+2 double-sided headstock. The Pick Epiphone brochure shows the 1820 fitted with a 4-ply pickguard, with finger rest, and arched truss rod cover. There is no Epiphone 'E' logo, neither on the scratchplate nor truss rod cover. The bass pictured has large fret dots (with small dots at the 12th fret). This is an early feature, common to many Matsumoku guitars, and only the very earliest 1820s had this. This page was revised later in 1971, showing a guitar with the same fret dot pattern, but with 'E' logo scratchplate and truss rod cover. The September 1st US price list includes model 1820 at $115 (unchanged), but offers a new hardshell case H-45 at $40, with #818 Durabilt case at $16.
  • 1972 The 1972 'Stay Tuned to Epiphone' fold out brochure shows the bass, now renamed 'ET-280'. Again it has a 4-ply pickguard with finger rest, but also an Epiphone 'E' below the finger rest. The Truss rod cover is the same is pointed arch shape, but with the Epiphone 'E' logo. Interestingly, the bass pictured also has large fret dots. Typically production guitars had uniform small dots by this time. The June 15th pricing booklet lists the ET-280 at $122.50, H-45 hardshell case $42.50, 818 Durabilt case $16. This is the first to contain the ET-285, listed at $149.50.
  • 1973 The June 15th 1973 price list shows the ET-280 with a black single ply pickguard, an Epiphone 'E' between the pickups (under the strings) and (maybe) a squarer finger rest. The truss rod cover shape has changed from a pointed arch, to a larger design with cut-out tip - still with the Epiphone 'E' logo. This is now quite similar to the 1960s truss rod covers seen on the Epiphone Rivoli (check out this 1967 Rivoli), but with three, rather than two mounting screws. Oddly, the pickups in this image are the same type as fitted to the ET-285, and mounted to the pickguard with three screws allowing for height and alignment adjustment. Very few ET-280 basses must have shipped with these pickups, as examples simply do not come up. Small fret dots. June '73 price: $169.50, H-45 hardshell case $50, 818 Durabilt case $17.50.
  • 1974 The Feb 1st 1974 price list illustrated the ET-280 with the same image as used in the 1973 list, above. $174.50, H-45 hardshell case $55, 818 Durabilt case $17.50. In the April 22nd 1974 list the price jumped to $199.50, with H-45 hardshell case $55, 818 Durabilt case $17.50.
    Epiphone showed the new ET288N at the 1974 Summer NAMM show.
  • 1975 model discontinued.
  • 1971 Commodore 180 bass
    Commodore 180 bass from the January 1971 UK Bell catalogue. The basses from which the Epiphone ET-280 were derived had the same body, pickups and other hardware, but typically a four-in-a-row headstock layout.

    Similar Models

    The imported Epiphone guitars of late 1970 were based on existing models produced at the Matsumoku plant since the late 1960s. These were available from numerous dealers worldwide, re-badged, sometimes adapted slightly, but effectively the same guitars. For example, in the USA, Mersen rebranded Matsumoku guitars 'Univox', David Wexler used 'Conrad' and Maurice Lipsky 'Domino'. In the United Kingdom, Rosetti named their line 'Eros'. Not all models were available from all importers, but there are many more examples. Most of the late 1960s guitars were aimed at the lower end of the market, and although fully functional, lacked the extra appointments generally associated with even mid-priced guitars. For example, the headstock motifs were generally a plastic logo tacked onto the headstock. The Epiphone versions were certainly a step up. Some hardware (notably tuning keys) was upgraded, and the plastic logo replaced with a much nicer inlaid 'Epiphone'. Cherry finishes typically replaced Sunburst. The 1820 / ET-280 also changed from a single side headstock to a 2x2 style, in keeping with Epiphone tradition. Another example of this bass, also with a 2x2 headstock, was the Dorado 5988, introduced in 1973. Dorado was to Gretsch as Epiphone was to Gibson, and their version, coming towards the end of the Epiphone's production run is perhaps a little nicer still, with a tasty natural finish and height adjustable soapbar pickups.

    Epiphone guitars and basses had been distributed in Britain by Rosetti since the 1960s, but they had also previously stocked their own line of Matsumoku Eros-branded guitars. The 1971 Rosetti catalog is very interesting in that it includes both the Eros (model 9526 - but now marked discontinued) and Epiphone (Epi 9526) versions of this bass. Note that both instruments use the same model codes. However, the Eros bass is priced at £37.50, whilst the Epiphone is priced £59.75.

    The Epiphone ET-280 remained in the line until 1974.

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    1972 Epiphone 1820 / ET280 Short Scale Bass Guitar  Made in Japan

    1972 Epiphone 1820 / ET280 Short Scale Bass Guitar Made in Japan

    Fairfield, Ohio, 450**, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


    I am selling a vintage 1972 Epiphone 4 string short scale bass guitar with its original case. Made in Japan. I have another guitar just like this with a perfect pickguard and I am going to put this perfect pickguard on this bass. The case is useable
    Added photo: the excellent pickguard I removed from my other ET280 and will put in place of the original pickguard in the photo
    There is a hairline crack on the body top I noticed after I took these photos. Please wait to bid until I get ... more
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