Hofner Violin Bass’ Long and Winding Road into Rock ’n’ Roll History
Paul McCartney picking on his ’63 Hofner 500/1 bass guitar.
This Hofner violin bass shows oval control panel, close black pickups and tortoise shell pick guard, indicating its date at 1955 to 1956.
It’s no secret that celebrity endorsements increase a product’s sales. It doesn’t seem to make any difference whether the endorsement is paid or unpaid. Oprah endorsed the Clarisonic skincare device on her show, and sales rose from 1.7 million in 2005 to more than 40 million in 2008. Mark Zuckerberg mentioned the iGrill on his Facebook page, and two hours later the iGrill website crashed due to an overwhelming number of visitors.
Paul McCartney played a Hofner 500/1 bass on the Ed Sullivan Show in front of 73 million people, and the Hofner violin bass became a rock-and-roll icon.
The 1959-1960 Hofner model sports 22 frets, separated chrome pickups, rectangular control-panel cover and pearloid pick guard.
Despite the fact that Hofner produced only 250 of the 500/1 bass guitars in the seven years prior to the Beatles’ Sullivan appearance, Hofner was soon forced to increase production of the violin-shaped guitar just to keep up with new orders. Thomas M. Jordan, current sales director for Hofner, says that the Hofner violin bass has “been manufactured in large quantities almost unchanged for more than 50 years and is always attracting new aficionados.”
The journey of the Hofner violin bass, from relative obscurity to icon status, began at the intersection of bad luck and necessity.
You see, Paul McCartney didn’t want to play the bass guitar in the first place. In the early 1960s, The Beatles were playing in Hamburg, Germany, with bassist Stu Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best. Paul arrived in Hamburg as a six-string guitar player, toting a brand-new Rosetti Solid Seven electric guitar that he purchased in Liverpool. In a 1995 interview for Bass Player Magazine, McCartney says of the Rosetti: ” It was a terrible guitar. It was really just a good-looking piece of wood. It had a nice paint job, but it was a disastrous, cheap guitar. It fell apart when I got to Hamburg—the sweat and the damp and the getting knocked around, falling over and stuff. So in Hamburg, with my guitar bust, I turned to the piano.”
In mid-1961, bass player Sutcliffe gave his notice, saying that he intended to stay in Hamburg when the band went back to England. With gigs in England already booked, the Beatles needed a bass player. Paul explained that “none of us wanted to be the bass player; it wasn’t the number-one job. We wanted to be up front, … singing, looking good.”
With little time to find and break in a bass player, it was decided that Paul would play bass, and to do so he needed a bass guitar. Paul admitted that his first choices were a Gibson or a Fender, but at close to £100, their price was out of reach. He found a Hofner 500/1 at the Steinway Music Center in Hamburg for an affordable £30, and the guitar had the added benefit of being visually symmetrical; it would look as good played right or left-handed.
Thus, an icon was born.
The Hofner violin bass was designed by Walter Hofner, son of the founder, and introduced at the Frankfurt Music Trade Show in 1956. Hofner was primarily a stringed-instrument manufacturer of violins and such, but the growing demand for an amplified bass instrument led Walter to seek a new bass guitar design.
Traditional upright acoustic basses were being drowned out by the electric guitars and drums of the 1950’s new music genre, rock and roll. Hofner was already producing electric six-string guitars as well as violins, so Walter designed an instrument that could be manufactured with the machinery that was already in the factory.
The result was a hollow-body, violin-shaped electric bass guitar. The new bass was light, playable and much more attractive than its primary American competitors, the Gibson Electric Bass and the Fender Precision Bass.
An indicator of manufacture date on a Hofner is the raised plastic Hofner logo and bell-shaped truss rod cover, as on this later 1964-1967 model.
The original 500/1 had a 30-inch scale—the length of the strings from the nut to the bridge—with the back and sides made from laminated flamed maple and finished in nitrocellulose lacquer. In early production the top was solid spruce, as with a violin top, but the top was later changed to laminated spruce. The laminated spruce didn’t vibrate as freely as the solid-spruce top, but it was much more durable and less prone to cracking. The guitar’s neck was initially made from solid maple and was quite hefty, but in later models the neck was slimmed down and truss rods were added for strength. The fret board was made from rosewood and had 20 frets. Strip-style tuners were standard on early guitars.
The 500/1 featured dual pickups, located near the neck and bridge in early models, and in late 1956 both were positioned close to the neck. Photos of McCartney playing at The Cavern in Liverpool in the early 1960s show his pickups both positioned at the neck.
After 1962, the pickups were again spread between the bridge and the neck to improve the guitar’s tone.
Dating vintage Hofner violin basses can be problematic; Hofner didn’t put serial numbers on early 500/1 basses. Sometimes, distributors would put their own numbers on the back of the guitar’s headstock in order to keep track of their inventory. If you find what you think is an early Hofner bass with a serial number in that location, it is not a Hofner number.
There are a couple of places on the guitar where numbers can help you date the instrument. First look inside the body of the guitar. Place an inspection mirror in one F hole and a flashlight in the other. Look for numbers on the support struts or elsewhere inside. This will be the date that the body was made.
Next, look at the pots—knobs that control volume and tone attach to these. These are date-coded. There will be three digits; the first two represent the week of the year and the second represents the year. This will only help if you can ballpark the correct decade because the code repeats itself every 10 years. For example 397 would be the 39th week of either 1957, 1967, 1977 and so on.
To add to the confusion, it was common for manufacturers to use parts that they had on hand, so older parts may sometimes appear on newer models. Below are a few guidelines for dating a Hofner 500/1 violin bass. Because of the practice of using up existing parts, these identifiers are not cast in stone. Two-year periods are given because it sometimes took a while for transitions to become complete.
Even late-model Hofner knock-offs can garner big bucks—if signed by Sir Paul. This Indonesian model sold for $11,000 in 2011.
• 1955-56 models: The original 500/1 featured an oval control panel, diamonds on the headstock, a small Hofner logo on the body and 20 frets;
• 1957-58 models: In 1957, an extra fret was added for a total of 21. The diamond headstock logo was replaced by a vertical Hofner logo. The control-panel cover was changed from oval to rectangle. Beginning in 1958, truss rods were added to the neck. Look for the bell-shaped truss rod cover on the headstock. This model’s neck will be thinner than in previous years;
• 1959-60 models: Pickups were improved and pickup covers were changed from black to chrome. In 1960, Hofner went to 22 frets;
• 1961-63 models: Control panel and pick guard changed from tortoise shell to white pearloid, and the tuners completed the transition from strips to individual machine-head tuners; Headstock logo changed once again to a gold script “Hofner.” Closed pickups were added with the Hofner name inside a diamond. Late 1961 saw adjustment screws added to pickups, and in 1962 pickups were moved further apart;
• 1964-67 models: A raised plastic Hofner logo was phased-in during 1964. In 1967, pickups were upgraded to a bar-blade style. Tuners were enclosed with a gear cover, and the logo was once again changed to a smaller design.
Hofner continued to make small changes to the 500/1 violin bass until it was discontinued in 1997. Since then, Hofner has reissued “vintage” basses that are manufactured in various places in Asia and Germany. For a full accounting of the history and development of the Hofner violin basses, I recommend reading “Hofner Violin ‘Beatle’ Bass” by Joe Dunn.
The Hofner 500/1 violin basses with dates from 1956-1967 typically sell in the $4,500 to $8,500 range at retail; older models are the most valuable and, of course, condition is important. Curiously, Asian knock-offs signed by McCartney have been known to sell for $12,000 to $40,000. McCartney signs these guitars to raise money for charities, so it’s likely that his signature and the popularity of the cause are responsible for these high prices.
Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.
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