Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Höfner 500/1 Beatle Bass

McCartney's 1964 auctioned Höfner

Karl Höfner GmbH & Co. KG, better known as the Hofner Company, has been manufacturing stringed musical instruments for over 100 years. The business was founded by Karl Höfner.

Höfner was originally apprenticed to Anton Schaller, who made violins, violas, cellos and double bass instruments. In 1887 Karl Höfner founded his workshop in Schönbach, own instruments and he established quite a reputation throughout Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and other European countries.

After the first World War he sons, Josef and Walter came into the family business and began the exporting of Höfner stringed instruments into new markets.

Walter, Wanda and Josef Höfner
It was not until the 1930’s that the company ventured into building guitars. The earliest models were steel stringed instrument and all were arched, based on violin design. During these days the company employed around 30 craftsmen and approximately 300 home workers.

Collection of wood at Schönbach factory
During World War II, production was limited and Höfner was conscripted to make transport crates and shoe soles for the army.

At the end of the war, the Czech and German speaking population of Schönbach were expropriated as the result of the company being recognized by the Czech state. This resulted in the acquisition of what was Höfner by the government.

Hofner Möhrendorf, Bavaria.
Due to the situation the Höfner family decided to apply for a leave and in 1948 started the the business from the ground up in Möhrendorf, Bavaria.

It was a struggle to resume the business since supplies were very scarce due to the war. But Walter and Josef Höfner began working on a way to build a new factory and also find houses in which their craftsmen could live.

Hofner Bubenrueth
After extensive negotiations with political leaders, in 1949 Höfner was able to relocate to the small village of Bubenreuth and begin violin making in this municipality and business was resumed by 1950.

It was during this era that many of the company’s best known guitars were created. These included The President, The Committee and the model 500/1 bass guitar.

It was also during the 1950’s that Rock n’ Roll exploded on the scene. This unforeseen change caused guitar production to swell to 50% of Höfner’s overall business.

Nick Smith's Höfner Collection
In the 1950s and 1960s, Höfner instruments were distributed by Selmer of London. They were considerably more accessible to budding musicians than American-made guitars, which were expensive if obtainable at all, thus giving Höfners a place in history as the "starter" instruments of several well known 1960s musicians.

1963 Höfner model 172
By the 1960’s the demand in Europe for guitars was so strong that Höfner began looking for an alternative to body paint, because it took too long for the paint to dry. The solution (which thankfully did not last) was a shell of the body with printed vinyl.

Höfner built a further production site in Haguenau, in order to escape the room shortage in Bubenreuth although also the complex was expanded in Bubenreuth three times.

It was in 1961 when Paul McCartney was living and working as a musician in Hamburg Germany. At the timee didn’t have a lot of money and was looking for a nice bass. The Höfner 500/1 was a great fit; he bought one.

In 1963 he was presented with another, that had a slightly different pickup configuration. This bass was manufactured in 1962. He had no idea that this would become his signature instrument and make Höfner a household word among musicians.

Later in 1961 import restrictions on goods imported from the USA were relaxed and American guitar manufacturers began to take hold in Britain and Europe. This did take away some business from Höfner. Another complicating factor was the proliferation of low priced Asian instruments into the music market.

Christian and Gerhilde Benker
Gerhilde Höfner Benker, Karl's granddaughter and her husband Christian Benker did their best to keep the company competitive, but by 1991 Höfner was sold to the British company Boosey and Hawkes.

In their portfolio, there were already a number of musical instruments manufacturers including the bow manufacturer Paesold.  By 1995 the two companies merged under the Höfner name.

In that same year,1955, Walter Höfner designed an electrically amplified, semi-acoustic bass guitar. The hollow body made this style of guitar very light and easy to play, as well as giving it a rich tone, similar to that of the traditional double bass. The bass was first shown to the public at the Frankfurt Music Fair in the spring of 1956.

Sir Paul McCartney relates, "I remember going along to the shop in Hamburg, and there was this bass which was quite cheap. I couldn't afford a Fender. Fenders even then seemed to be about £100. All I could really afford was about £30 ... so for about £30 I found this Hofner violin bass. And to me it seemed like, because I was left-handed, it looked less daft because it was symmetrical. Didn't look as bad as a cutaway which was the wrong way. So I got into that."

McCartney would acquire two of these models—his original 1961 model, and an updated 1962 model the company gave him in 1963. Afterward, McCartney mainly played the 1962 model, leaving the original as a backup.

Let It Be with 1961 Hofner
It was in 1964, when he had his 1961 model refinished and had new pickups and an updated pickup surround system installed. He can be seen using this bass in the "Revolution" promo video, strangely with the strap attached to the top of the headstock instead of the neck heel strap button.

Let It Be with 1962 Hofner
Sometime during the recording of Let It Be several of the Beatles famous guitars were stolen from Abbey Road Studios. This included the 1961 Höfner 500/1model, George Harrison's Gretsch Tennessean and Harrison's second Rickenbacker 360-12.

McCartney used his 1962 model for the remainder of the album.

Sir Paul is still in possession of the 1962 bass as of 2014 and used it during the 2014 Grammy's Beatles Special TV performance as well as numerous other appearances.

The older model 500/1 Hofner's have no binding on the neck as do most of the newer models.

The modern H500/1, as it is currently know is the top of the line Violin Bass. It has a spruce top with flame maple back and sides. The plastic binding on the top and back are black/white/black, while the binding on the sides is white. The bass is hollow with no center block. It is constructed in three pieces. The headstock is the traditional Höfner design with a decal logo.

The 3 piece set in and bound neck is made of flame maple/beech/flame maple and joins the body at the 16th fret. It is 21 mm at the nut and widens to 24 mm at the 12th fret. All 500/1 basses come with a zero fret. This bass has a short 30"/76cm scale. The fret board is made of ebony and has white pearl dot inlays. There are dots on the side of the bound neck. There is a white heel cap.

The nickel tuners are made by Höfner and fitted with white buttons. The bass's trapeze tailpiece is also made of nickel. The single coil pickups are made by Höfner and are called staple pickups. The electronics panel are produced in house and the potentiometers have a golden colour. The cord jack is on the instruments side.

Höfner makes some variations on the H500/1. These include the CT bass, which is quite similar to the H500/1, but comes in sunburst or black. CT stands for Contemporary Series. Note the lack of binding on the neck.

The Cavern bass is a copy of McCartney’s original 1961 model. This bass comes with a neck pickup and a middle pickup, while the other 500/1 designs have a neck and bridge pickup. This bass has no binding on the neck and comes with an unusual headstock design.

The Mersey model, named after the British town that was home to The Cavern Club where The Beatles and many other bands got their start. This mode has a lighter sunburst finish.

The Ignition model comes with different pickups than the others. The finish on this model has a more pronounced red in the sunburst or it can be ordered with a black finish.

The unique ECO model has a body finished in and ivory colour. The wood materials are similar, but the neck is topped with a light blue fret board made of a composite material and has black dot position markers. The tuners on this bass are slightly different and are called Rugby Ball tuners. The electronics panel is black with gold knobs.

Höfner also continues to build several  models of the 500/5 bass, which is now known as The Club Bass. These basses have more of a traditional shape and a rounded cutaway on the body.

Except for the body design, the specifications are similar to the H500/1 Violin bass.

These basses are offered in several variation; The Höfner Club Bass, which has a traditional sunburst finish, the CT design, which has a black finish, the Höfner Club Bass Limited Edition, which has cream bindings and is finished with violin varnish, so it has a distinct brown colour. The pickups on this model are at the base of the neck and in the center position.  There is also a Höfner Ignition Club Bass with slightly different pickups.

Stu Suttcliffe was The Beatles original bass guitarist. He played a 1960's Höfner HCT 500/5 President bass. Höfner no longer offers this model.

Sir Paul's 1964 Höfner 500/1, which was a gift from the company, was auctioned at Julien's in August of 2013 and the winning bid was $201,800.

This Höfner bass guitar was presented to McCartney in 1964 and was displayed at the London music trade show at the Russell Hotel. In mid-1965, it was then sold by a Bedfordshire music store to a young bassist. It eventually resurfaced years later in 1994 when it was purchased by an English guitar dealer, who, after extensive research, discovered that the bass was indeed the one bass made especially for McCartney in 1964.

This is the same bass pictured above, but Sir Paul added a signed pickguard.

The guitar was taken to Höfner in Germany to verify its authenticity. This was confirmed by Christian Benker of Höfner Musikinstrumente. Additionally, Alby Paynter, who worked for Selmer and Co. in London between 1954 and 1967, also examined the guitar and confirmed this was the bass with which he was personally involved clearing through customs in 1964.

Additionally, Dave Wilkinson, another Selmer employee at the time, remembered the instrument being on show at its central London shop.

McCartney himself discussed the guitar in an interview that appeared in the July 1967 issue of Beat Instrumental Monthly. McCartney was quoted as saying, “I have had a Hofner Violin bass ever since I started. I’ve got three or four models but the ancient one is still my favourite … The only difference in any of they can be seen on the one Selmers had made for me, that has gold pickups.”
©UniqueGuitar Publishing (text only)

This video is long, but it is fascinating to see a 500/1 bass being created.


Gary Wilson said...

Wow, I never see that type of long and beautiful guitar thanks for the post.

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