Sunday, January 24, 2010

Hofner Model 500/1 The Beatle Bass

Karl Höfner GmbH and Co. KG* is a German manufacturer of musical instruments, with one division that manufactures guitars and basses, and another that manufactures other string instruments.
(*GmbH denotes what in the U.S. is called Incorporation. The owners/chief operating officers are called members and have limited liability in legal issues. KG is another form of limited corporate liability.
Both acronyms are German legal corporate law terms.)


The company was made famous through its association with The Beatles.

As I have mentioned before, there was a large import tariff on U.S. manufactured products during the 1950's and 60's, so British musicians primarily purchased their instruments from European manufacturers.

Fortunately for Höfner, Paul McCartney purchased a 500/1 model hollow-body electric bass during the era when the Beatles were living and playing in Germany in Hamburg clubs.

Höfner was started when Master violin maker Karl Höfnerfounded his own stringed and fretted instrument manufacturing in Schönbach, Germany in 1887.

Herr Höfner developed an excellent reputation for producing quality, finely crafted violin family instruments. Because of this reputation, Höfner soon became the largest manufacturer of stringed and fretted instruments in Germany.

His two sons, Josef and Walter, joined the company in 1919 and 1921 respectively. During WWII, the company had its difficulties, but managed to survive.

During the 1920's and 30's acoustic guitars were representing a significant part of the Höfner instrument production. As was true in the United States, the German guitar market was flooded with student quality instrument. Höfner guitars maintained it's reputation to build guitars of excellent quality that were on par with Gibson and Martin instruments.

In 1955 Walter Höfner, perhaps inspired by U.S production of electric bass guitar, invented the company's first model of the violin-shaped bass guitar. Just like Leo Fender, he got it right on the first try.


Beatles like basses from Fanconia
The model 500/1 bass was launched at the 1956 Frankfurt Music Fair.

In 1994, Höfner became part of the Boosey and Hawkes Group, and was able to expand and upgrade its facilities with the influx of cash.

After a near-bankruptcy in 2003 Boosey and Hawkes sold its musical instrument division (including the Höfner and Buffet Crampon companies) to The Music Group, a company formed by rescue buyout specialists Rutland Fund Management, for £33.2 million.

1997 saw Höfner moving from Bubenreuth to a new production facility near the village of Hagenau.

It is there the company continues to build fine quality, hand-crafted hollow-body and bass guitars for new generations of players.

Their archtop acoustic-electric jazz guitars have developed an excellent reputation and are favored by many famous players.

Höfner remained a part of this conglomerate until January 2005, when The Music Group sold the company to Klaus Schöller, who has been the General Manager of Höfner for many years.

In mid-2005, The Music Group (having lost many of its component manufacturers) stopped distributing Höfner in the USA, and the distribution was picked up by Chicago firm Classic Musical Instruments (CMI)

During his early years with the Beatles, Paul McCartney played two slightly different left handed 500/1 models. His first had a pickup below the neck and one in the center of the body. This was purchased in 1961. In 1964 he purchased a second model 500/1 manufactured in 1962 that had a neck pickup and a bridge pickup.

He purchase the second bass in the U.K. during the days The Beatles were playing at the Cavern Club while his first bass was undergoing repairs. He needed an immediate back up instrument. It is this backup bass that has become the one he still plays today and is most associated with him.

The original Höfner bass was used during the recording and video of Let It Be, on the song Revolution. Shortly afterward this bass was stolen.

Although we cannot be certain, perhaps McCartney gravitated towards the 500/1 since the Beatles first bass player Stuart Sutcliffe favored the model 500/5.

 This models body looked more like a guitar and less like a violin. It had a cutaway on the bottom upper bout.


In the days of the British Invasion other bass players decided this was a cool looking instrument and picked up this guitar or the model 500/5 as their choice of bass.

The Höfner bass is much different from any Fender or Gibson bass guitars. First of all, the 500/1 is extremely light. I would venture to guess it weighs in at a mere 3 lbs. The body is hollow. The neck is narrower.

The strings are attached to a trapeze tailpiece and go over a wooden, non compensated bridge. Perhaps it is this archtop-like string set up is what gives it a "woody" sound.

The bass has two single coil pickups.

The controls, like many other European electric instruments of the day, did not use rotary controls for the tone circuit. It came with dual rotary potentiometers to control the volume of each pickup.

Additionally a single tone slider switch to control a treble or bass capacitor, labeled Rhythm/Solo. There are also twin slider switches that control the on/off function assigned to each pickup.


All Höfner instruments are known for their beautiful finishes and the 500/1 is no exception.


In an effort to increase sales and thwart of the existing Asian copies of this bass, Höfner introduced it's Icon model a few years ago. It is now call the Hofner CT 500/1. There is a less expensive model known as the Hofner Ignition that sells for around $500 USD.



Wii has even produced a 500/1 controller for it's Beatles Rock Band program.

The Höfner 500/1 is definitely a most unique bass guitar.







This video is long, but it is worth watching. Hofner Craftsmen are building a 500/1 by hand

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1 comment:

xlthim said...

Close but... While Paul did buy his first Hofner, the second one was given to him by Hofner in 1963.

Also, it wasn't Stu's choice to get the club bass. After selling a painting, he want to buy more art supplies. Paul and John talked him into the club bass. It seems Paul had a thing for Hofners.