I first wrote this review on March 19, 2007 – I still have my son’s first new guitar, his Epiphone SG Special… It doesn’t look the same any more, but it’s still fun to play. See the bottom of the review for a picture!
Epiphone SG Special Electric Guitar Review
Bargain instruments are prolific in the modern instrument-sales market. There are large numbers of manufacturers, and there are a huge range of choices for the consumer. Generally, the competition and diversity of designs give consumers a wide range of choices for getting started with electric guitars.
About two years ago (about 2006…), my son wanted to go from using one of my instruments to having a guitar of his own. We talked about what kind of music he was enjoying the most, and what he liked in guitars. I played a fair number of beginner’s guitars (in the less-than-$150 range), showed him several pictures online, and took him to the guitar store a few times to play a range of different instruments. He settled on the venerable Epiphone SG Special (sometimes called the Epiphone SG Special II because of its dual humbuckers.) This is the entry-level model of the Epiphone G310, G400, and SG.
It was an excellent choice – one that is still serving him well many years later. He still enjoys it, and I enjoy borrowing it from him from time to time. What got it all started? Tony Iommi and Black Sabbath. Black Sabbath IV was my first hard rock LP, and a black SG was my son’s first hard rock guitar. Seems fitting to me!
Quick Opinion: The Epiphone SG Special is very light, well-balanced, and has respectable sound. It has reasonable intonation capabilities, and the craftsmanship is at or above par for instruments in its price range.
As an all-around instrument, the SG Special competes very well on quality, price, features, and looks. This is a high-value instrument that is very reasonably priced.
Playability: Playability is the Epiphone SG Special’s strongest suit, next to its price.
The neck is a thick “C” profile (in my opinion). It feels like the chunky neck of my 2002 Gibson SG Special… not huge, but still substantial. It’s nice for beginners to get a good grip when they’re learning to rock out! It is very easy to access the entire fretboard with this guitar, largely due to its faithful rendition of the classic SG body design.
Whether you like your strings high up (for slide playing, and those with extremely strong hands), or your strings low – this neck serves very well. The frets are a little thin for my tastes, but they do get the job done in a reasonable way.
The balance of neck to body is excellent, particularly when standing and using a strap. The guitar is light and airy in the hands, but is surprisingly resonant when it is played. I was amazed at how much the body rings with the notes. The light, thin guitar body is unobtrusive to the player’s picking arm, although it is not contoured for ribcage and pick arm rest.
The SG Special came fairly well set up from the factory. The frets were average-dressed for a guitar in this price range. There weren’t, however, any truly bad frets, sharp edges, or major string buzzers (a few spots on the neck, but MUCH less than the typical bargain-priced guitar).
Features: The Epiphone SG Special electric guitar is about par for features in its price range. It is thoroughly average, and has some things that outweigh others in terms of their value.
The body is great. SGs are fun and easy to play, and are a great all-around choice. The neck is a bolt-on affair, with a shallow pocket in the body to accept the heel of the neck. The feel of the neck and the feel/balance of the body are the strongest positives for the SG Special’s feature list. These items, coupled with this guitar’s sound, make the SG Special a good choice for most beginners. It plays great, is solid, and takes a good amount of use and abuse with aplomb.
The tuners are below average in quality – actually, pretty much the cheapest thing you can buy other than Cracker Barrel “guitars.” Most Squiers come with much better tuners. However, many bargain manufacturers use the same type of tuners (maybe even the same manufacturer? Not sure, they look the same, though). I think this was the first thing we did to mod the SG… we put Grover Rotomatics on, tuned up some new strings, and have seen significantly better tuning stability and accuracy. The Grovers made it much easier to do alternate tunings with thicker strings… the OEM tuners did not hold up well with rock-style thicker strings.
The SG Special has two potentiometer knobs, one for tone on both pickups, one volume for both pickups. The pickup selector switch allows the player to choose neck only (Rhythm), both pickups (a little more punchy and a little louder), and bridge only (Lead) for more clarity, growliness, and grind. The neck pickup is best suited for smooth sounds. The bridge is fairly hot/loud, and serves rock styles very well. The pickups are average in quality for this price range, perhaps a little more than average. They are largely quiet, and are the open-face (no cover) variety.
The pickups are easily adjusted with standard screw setups. The frets are a little on thin and shallow side, but work adequately well in the lower positions of the neck. Towards the body, the frets are a little small for my tastes – I like seeing taller frets for cleaner high notes. In the end analysis, the frets are appropriate for the price of the guitar.
Sound: The Epiphone SG Special sounds great through a nice amplifier. It holds up surprisingly well against guitars that can cost almost twice as much. Read on…
Although the pickups certainly aren’t on par with Gibson high output humbuckers or Seymour Duncan humbuckers, they are actually quite nice for a $160 guitar. The stock pickups can do the distortion thing pretty well, and can even pick up enough signal for pinch squeals and slap-plucks. The output of these pickups is pretty good, if not above average. They lack the smoothness and dynamic capability of better pickups – but they do well for beginners. It’s important to note that a beginner will enjoy the pickups just fine. If you want to gig with it or play on a recording, you get what you pay for. The pickups are muddy when you’re trying to do things with lots of different tones at the same time. This guitar is best for note-to-note solos and power “chords.”
I was able to set the intonation of this instrument to very nearly ideal. The neck/length/scale is good for basic set up, but isn’t quite perfect. However, I’ve seen bargain instruments that don’t even come close to the SG Special’s tune-ability.
Value: Brand new, out of the box, the SG Special was ready to be played. I just tweaked the intonation and string height at the bridge, tuned it up, and it was ready to go. The SG has simplified tone and volume controls, and is very easy on the hands… Given the overall quality of the instrument, and the sound it makes, this is an instrument that is in the $199 range for street value – one that you can get for significantly less at your favorite brick-and-mortar vendor or local guitar store establishment.
Overall, the SG Special II is a bargain – one that will last a beginning guitarist for a decent amount of time. I do think it out-lasts and out-plays most Deans and bargain guitars quite well…
Wishes: I do think this instrument could use two volume and two tone controls. I also wish it was offered in other colors (in addition to dark red and black). The tuners could have been nicer cast-metal tuning machines. Really, this guitar could be a glued-in neck for the money. Same for the G310. Seriously, Epiphone.
Update 2012: Here’s a picture of my son’s venerable Epiphone SG Special, complete with Gibson 490r on the neck, the DiMarzio humbucker from hell in the bridge, Grovers, Gibson TOM and stop tail, real Gibby electronics, and his custom white paint accents. I got him a nice red “61 re-issue style” pickguard for it years back – gotta love it! We both treasure this instrument.