Is this Snarly, Tone-Dripping P90 Guitar the One for You?
If your first thought when you think “Epiphone” is that they’re a Gibson-equivalent, cheaper brand, then know that the Wildkat is indeed different. You can think of Epiphones as being split between two categories: Gibson-equivalent budget guitars, and Epiphone-exclusive guitars (oftentimes in tribute to its truly glorious history). The Epiphone Wildkat is part of the latter group – the Epiphone-exclusive lineup. Similar such exclusive Epiphones are models you’ve probably heard of, like the Casino, Sheraton, or Emperor guitars.
Certainly, it’s still an affordable guitar and it’s not an L-5 or a Les Paul Custom, but you’ll be very hard-pressed to find another time-tested axe, built to be played rather than hung, which comes packed with snarly P90s with a Bigsby at hand. The Bigsby alone would run you $140 or more in parts.
With that being the case, you can know that you’re buying a quality axe in the Wildkat, and you’re buying the side of Epiphone which does have a higher tier of quality, nodding its head to the old Epiphone semi-hollowbody ancestors, and not being very far off a true Gibson for the money.
Though, if you’re going to drop some of your hard-earned money for this guitar (or any guitar), it’s worth asking: will this be a guitar you treasure and play, or will you be looking to sell it within months only to opt for something else? Rather than gamble your money, try to tilt the odds in your favour by making an informed decision beforehand. Get a better idea if the Wildkat will be your big win of a purchase, or a gamble gone wrong..
The Rarity of High-Quality Archtops Below $1,000
First off, a couple terms which you’ll want to ensure you’re familiar with are: archtops & semi-hollowbody guitars. An archtop guitar is a guitar which is built with more of a violin-style; the back and top of the guitar actually have a convex shape, which tends to create a more focused, direct tone (compared to flat-top guitars which tend to have more overtones and sustain). Historically, that was favorable since then archtops were able to cut through loud big bands, before guitars had amplification. As well, the tone tends to be a bit mellower and punchy. Semi-hollowbody guitars are guitars which have some acoustic qualities, yet they have a centre block of wood within the body. This allows semi-hollowbody guitars to handle heavier gain and volume; whereas, full hollow-body guitars usually can’t handle gain since they’ll start uncontrollably feeding back.
Note that the Epiphone Wildkat is an archtop semi-hollowbody guitar; its got that kind of punchy, direct sound, retains the beautiful lightness of an acoustic touch, while also being able to sustain heavy gain & snarl if need be. These qualities help the Wildkat make its name as a versatile guitar, fit for a multitude of genres.
It can be tricky to find nice semi-hollowbody archtops for under $1,000; generally speaking, you’re faced with Ibanez models, budget PRS guitars, Epiphones, and some other well-known brands. Certainly, as you’re making your buying decision, head over to a guitar store and try out everything you can get your hands on – nothing will replace that. But know that the Wildkat is a fairly unique option, due to its build which is unlike most others; for example, most use normal humbuckers or have lower-quality tuners (the kind where you make one turn and the pitch really jumps irregularly). More on those nitty-gritty details below.
The Build of the Wildkat Body & Neck
In the days when the electric guitar was being pioneered (these were the late 30s when pickups & amplification were new frontiers), it was a revelation to all players, since – in bigger ensembles – the guitar could finally be heard as a single-note instrument, which allowed its innovation as a lead instrument, rather than just a chonking rhythm box.
However, there was a fatal flaw; the hollowbody archtops would vibrate due to the amplified sound, causing unwieldly feedback which would cap the volume at which these early archtops could be played. Even today, just try buying an old Gibson ES-125 hollow-body archtop and you won’t be able to play it at your next club gig – and forget about even touching any overdrive.
Though, one innovation came along – the semi-hollowbody design, where a centre block of wood divides the guitar into two separate cavities. Adding that stability to the build allowed the guitar to fend off the feedback, while retaining the fluttery-touch sound of the guitar’s acoustics.
That’s exactly how the Wildkat is built, and it allows you to use the guitar in overdrive, playing hard rock or grimy blues, while also playing with a gentler clean tone with more crystal-like clarity.
Going into more specifics about the body, its built from mahogany, which is a tonewood with a more woody, direct sound, without as many overtones (which also can mean less feedback risk). The top of the guitar (the face of the guitar with the pickups, bridge, and so on) is built from a laminate spruce veneer. Spruce as a tonewood is known for its brighter sound, allowing notes to “pop” off with more volume and resonance. It helps when you’re at the climax of your solo, hitting that cathartic bend, and almost driving it like a spear of sound into the audience.
As far as the size of the body, it’s bigger than a Les Paul, while being smaller than an ES-335. For those who like to leverage the body of the guitar, holding it against you, to squeeze out more tone from the strings, it’s an ideal shape; oftentimes, the Les Paul size can be a bit small, especially to hold without a strap. On the other hand, the ES-335 can be bit to wide to be comfortable, and it’s certainly bulkier to carry around. The Wildkat seems to be more of a Goldilocks size for those who like a beefy guitar, but not too beefy. Probably the best comparison for size would be to Gretsch Electromatics, or something similar, though you’ll be paying half the cost which is nice.
The neck has a scale length of just under 25 inches; scale length is the distance between the guitar’s nut and the bridge. This is normal for the Gibson brand; it’s longer than the compact Fender Jaguars and so forth, yet not as long as PRS’, Carvins, and Ibanez guitars. Comfortably, the shape is an unobtrusive, slim-taper “D” profile neck, and the frets are medium jumbo, lessening the challenge of actually fretting the notes. The wood of the neck is again maple, and its got minimalistic dot inlays.
One bonus is that the Wildkat has a “set neck” versus a bolt-on neck. If you’ve ever played Fender Stratocasters, you’ve probably noticed the necks are bolted on, this tends to be popular since it’s less expensive to manufacture; however, it can detract from tone & sustain since there’s less transfer of sound from the inevitable tiny spaces between the neck and body. On the other hand, set (also called glued) necks are a bit pricier, but they tend to have much better “tonal transfer”, resulting in warmer, fatter sounds.
Alluring Hardware: the Bigsby Tremelo & P90 Pickups
The main points, as far as hardware, to discuss for the Wildkat are the tremelo bar and the pickups.
One other point to squeeze in would be its nice Grover 18:1 tuners; 18:1 tuners mean you’d turn the tuning peg 18 times for the shift which bears the string to rotate once. Oftentimes, Epiphone guitars have 14:1 (less precise) tuning pegs, so these nice tuners are another way where this Epiphone differentiates itself from other Gibson-equivalent models. Another way it differentiates itself is with the retro Epiphone headstock label, which is quite classy and harkens back to Epiphone’s days of true glory.
Compared to the standard, out-of-the-box whammy bars which you’ll find on certain Ibanez and Fender guitars, Bigsby tremelos are of a completely different class. You can expect them to reliably stay in tune, and provide you with the ability to play steel guitar-like sounds (pre-depressing the bar prior to playing a full chord, then releasing the arm).
To get an idea of the full capabilities of a Bigsby tremelo, check out Brian Setzer or Chet Atkins, among many others; listening to how they use it, you might get excited about the new possibilities.
Next on the hardware list are the beautiful P90 ‘pups’ (pickups for short)! If you’re not sure about the heavenly characteristics of P90s, which aren’t quite single-coil pickups nor humbucker pickups, you’ll find endless Youtube videos and Reddit threads with users describing the fiery sounds. Words that describe P90 pickups could include: simmering, fiery, hot, piercing.
For example of that sound, listen to players like Grant Green, Santana, or Leslie West (when he recorded Mississippi Queen).. “if you know what I mean?” (Lol.. excuse the pun). Jokes aside, P90s can evoke a thick, warm lead tone while also creating a crispy, edgy sound, making them popular with punk guitarists as well.
Once you try playing with P90s, you seriously may not want to go back to normal single-coils or humbuckers; the sound is unique and it’s as-if there’s this light fire under your fingers as you pluck the notes – it just simmers nicely. It can often be difficult to find good P90 guitars without paying over $1,500, and so – especially to get acquianted with the P90 sound – the Wildkat is a handy option for those looking to diversify their tonal palette.
How Will the Guitar Play In Your Hands?
Overall, the combination of the tools at your disposal (those being the pickups and the bigsby) as well as the build of the guitar (the glued neck, selection of tonewoods, semi-hollow design, among other aspects) will play into your performance with the guitar. But none of those aspects come close to touching how the guitar feels in your hands and therefore inspires your playing.
You won’t know that true feeling until you’re seated in your practice area, with your pedals and amps at hand; though, especially these days where buying online before trying (and then returning) is becoming much more normalized, definitely do your research on whether P90s might be right for the sound you’re looking for, consider if a Bigsby tremelo would be useful for you, think about whether you’d like to incorporate that more 3-dimensional semi-hollowbody sound, and imagine how the size of the guitar would feel in your lap. Also, be sure to watch lots of videos of the Epiphone Wildkat on Youtube, and take note of the different styles it can be used for.
From the videos and reports out there on the Wildkat, it looks like it can be a handy box for punk, rock, blues, and perhaps jazz as well. Should you choose to pull the trigger and give this guitar a try, be sure to please drop us a line and let us know your owner’s-perspective thoughts on what is quite an interesting instrument.
Is it Worth the Risk of Buying?
If you’re in the market for the Wildkat, you’re not quite looking to drop $4,000 on a vintage Epiphone with P90s, you might be more so looking to expand to new sounds, particularly with the crispy P90s on-board.
With its comfortable body sizing, above-market-rate hardware (such as the Grover tuners and Bigsby), and the nice selection of tonewoods, the Wildkat is a sound option for those seeking a multi-purpose guitar at a reasonable price. You’ll be getting functionality in a guitar which can delve into multiple genres, while also being quite beautiful to display in your practice room.
Out of all of Epiphone’s exclusive line of guitars, the Wildkat has come out shining as a success, and is evidenced by its growing popularity among players of all styles.