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Die HŲfnering (collecting Hofner vintage guitars), Part One.

By Stephen Candib, Copyright 1995-1997, used by permission. (Steve is a friend of mine with very unusual vintage guitar tastes. His article on this lesser-known brand of vintage guitars appears here as a special feature. I hope you enjoy it. If you have any strange Hofner questions, feel free to email him, and not me! - VGI editor -).

Go to Part 2, General Model Info.
Go to Part 3, Specific Model Info, models 449 thru 459.
Go to Part 4, Specific Model Info, models 460 thru 470/S.
Return to the Feature Index.
Return to the Main Index.

      Guitar collectors may be a motley crew, but most are interested in the same brands and the same gear - Fender, Gibson, Marshall, Martin, blah, blah. It's a combination of the "icons of pop culture" thing and the herd mentality. As a result, less mainstream brands have remained in the cool shadow of obscurity, pleasantly affordable and oh so mysterious.

      That's ok, because it leaves plenty of room for the contrarians among us, who prefer shadow to sunlight, who gravitate to the vastly less expensive pursuit of stuff that doesn't say Fender or Gibson. It's not that we're cheap or never pursued careers in dentistry (all of which is, sadly, true). It's just that collecting cheap, goofy guitar stuff is still a heck of a lot of fun, compared to verifying the lineage of potentially re-topped 1959 Les Paul Standards at many thousands of dollars a crack. Besides, my assets are all tied up in Eurobonds and Brazilian time-shares.

      My contrarian approach embraces Hofner archtop guitars. They're cool, they're cheap, and they're big fun. And we knowledge professionals know of the long-standing relationship between German and American guitarmaking: Martin, Rickenbacher, Gretsch, Rossmeisl, and Bill Lawrence are just some of the German names in the American guitar pantheon (the guitardome).

      Hofner is one of several European (mostly German) companies that built guitars in the post-war years. These included Framus, Hoyer, Hopf, Klira and a bunch of others, including some great custom builders. Many of these companies shared parts from the same suppliers. One sees the same tailpieces, bridges, tuners, inlay, and the like. By the late fifties most of these companies had broad product lines to rival Gibson.

    Hofner Model Identification.
      Hofner used a simple numbering system for model identification. In arch-top terms, these ranged from the lowly 449 up to the mother-of-pearl-encrusted 471. Even though they changed the system around a bit over the years, their model numbers still provide a great frame of reference. More on this another time. They used the same approach as many American makers: the more crap you can put onto the same basic guitar, the more money you can charge for it.

      Most of these guitars are pretty much the same size as a Gibson ES175ís or L-4ís, with varying depths (Hofner started doing thinlines, copying American styles, in the late 1950's). They vary in terms of details, but the basic guitars are the same. As the model numbers get higher, the laminated wood gets nicer and nicer, the amount of plastic and mother of luncheonette increases, and the hardware gets fancier. They also made a few bigger models in a size similar to Gibson ES350ís or L-5ís. And they made smaller archtops, like the "Club" guitars, which are sort of like ES140Tís or Guild Aristocrat M-75ís.

    What about collecting Hofners?
      In North America, they are pleasantly rare, so the thrill of the hunt is part of the appeal. They never made a dent in the US, and by the time they got US distribution figured out, their prices were totally uncompetitive. In 1968, an electric 470 listed for US$695 through Sorkin.

      Old Hofners in the U.S. are often from England, where Selmer distributed the line. Hofner tweaked a few of its models a bit, put in the odd custom feature, so that the Brits got the Congress (sorta like the 449), the Senator (sorta like the 455), the President (sorta like the 457), the Committee (sorta like the 468), the Golden Hofner (sorta like the 470)... and so forth. They introduced the Ambassador later on, but the idea was wearing thin. Too bad they never got to the Whip or the First Lady.

      Canada is good Hofner-hunting ground, perhaps because the heavy tariffs on American guitars imported to Canada made Hofner more competitive by comparison. Dealers such as Wilfer in Montreal, and Remenyi and Heinl in Toronto, sold Hofners for years.

    But what do they sound like?
      The smaller bodied, L-4/ES175 sized archtops like the 456 or 457 make great electric guitars for the very reason they are not brilliant acoustic archtops: they have tons of top and middle, cut like hell, and have no bass (except what you dial in). The acoustic versions are also very loud. The bigger, L-5 sized archtops sound pretty good acoustically, as well as electrically, because the larger body size adds a fair bit of bass resonance. Their pick-ups and electronics were not great, but are easily to tweak or replace.

    How do they stack up?
      Given the juvenile bent of guitar dealers and writers to make comparisons between instruments ... let's do it! What can we really compare them to in American terms? The first thing to remember is that Hofner themselves confused the issue: their good acoustic archtops were supposed to have carved tops, with laminate tops on the same models as electric guitars. Typically, they screwed up: they often released high-end acoustic archtops with laminate tops, or made the carved-top ones into electrics. Oops!

      Most of their guitars were all-laminate construction, although specific higher-end models did come with carved spruce tops (bad translations call it "pine", or "bohemian pine", but that just doesn't wash among us information workers. As the Rice Krispies guy says - what the heck didja think it was made with?). Unlike Gibson, whose laminates are heavy and have grain with negligible aesthetic qualities, Hofner's laminates are very light-weight and usually use lovely flamed maple, even in the cheaper models. The lack of mass makes their guitars responsive and acoustically loud. Following the discontinuation of the Gibson Tal Farlow, it took years, until the introduction of the ES775 and ES165, for Gibson to use pretty plywood. Sure, the reissued ES350T (with full-scale neck) in the 70's was a step in the right direction, but no one even noticed it, coming as it did in the depths of Gibson's, ahem... "dark period".

      In one sense, the 468/Committee electrics may be compared to Gibson's ES5/Switchmaster/ES350/Tal Farlow model (all the same guitar): pretty wood, all laminate, 17.5" bottom bout, deep-dish big jazz boxers. The smaller guitars can pretty much be compared to Gibson's ES175 if they have laminate tops, and to the Gibson L-4 if they have carved tops.

      Hofner either had some very perverse notions related to build quality or liked to fool its customers, because the undersides of many of the tops also show spruce grain. Mere mortals might assume that such instruments have solid wood tops, but detailed goofoid spasticological investigation reveals that such tops are often laminates, cleverly disguised as solid tops. It's hard to tell the difference at first glance, but tone (or its absence) does not lie.

      Collecting Hofners is not a random choice. It's not as if I might just as easily focused on Hopf or Hoyer. Having seen and played many German guitars over the years, I think Hofner was the only large-scale German shop with a decent aesthetic vocabulary when it came to proportion and scale.

      In general, Hopf, Hoyer, Klira and Framus all settled in on a cartoon guitar gestalt. It's as if they were copying American guitars, but they were really drunk that day. Many of their designs are just plain ugly (even a guitar with a shape as cool as Framus' Strato-Melody series was built to suggest cheesiness). This is not to say that these other companies didnít make some great guitars. For example, unlike Hofner, Hoyer did build some fabulous all-solid wood arch-top guitars.

      Hofner guitars are in a different aesthetic league. Their proportions are quite elegant for their small and large-body archtops, both cutaway and non-cutaway. They draw on the best proportions of Gibson, Epiphone and Stromberg. This kind of aesthetic balance is not rare: many good guitars have it, and it is easier to notice those that have missed the boat than those that have nailed it. For instance, Fender and Gibson solidbodies usually have it; Guild solidbodies never had it. Paul Reed Smith has totally nailed it; Joe Lado just keeps swinging.

      The other thing is the necks: most of them are great big bats of wood, with a beautiful "c" profile: just the kind of thing to make Jeff Beck proud. And with a manly 25.5" scale length on almost all of these instruments, skinny shortscale wanker neck syndrome is avoided.

      Perhaps the best thing about Hofners is the way the necks are attached to the bodies. Until to late 60's, Hofner used a tapered mortice joint, with no dovetail. This kind of joint tends to creep with time, given string pull and exposure to humidity. Old Hofners almost always require neck resets, which are incredibly easy to do as a result of the simple joint. Hey, a neck reset every thirty years keeps the doctor away ... and keeps prices nice and low, where I like them.

    Alas, this too must pass...
      Now that the supply of vintage American instruments is being outstripped by demand, the deus ex machina is turning its attentions elsewhere: Guild is still waving its hand frantically, trying to get noticed, Davoli's are starting to cost money, and everything from Teisco to Weissenborn to Micro-Frets is being thrown into the maw, the ever widening gyre. Hofners are beginning to get noticed.

      There are three books out that deal substantially with Hofners: "Elektro-Gitarren Made In Germany", by Norbert Schnepel and Helmuth Lemme, "The Hofner Guitar - A History", by Gordon Giltrap and Neville Marten, and a wonderful new book, "Hofner Guitars Made in Germany", by Michael Naglav. There must be some serious European-based collectors out there, and these books are a great source, but there are still a lot of missing pieces to the puzzle. These books support the idea that no one knows too much about Hofner. Giltrap's book includes an interview with Christian Benker (who married into Hofner and worked there for many years) that is laughably vague. The real questions still aren't answered, like who designed these guitars, and how many of each model were built. Surely this information must exist, and now that Hofner has been sold to Boosey & Hawkes, who cares about old guitar statistics for models that no longer exist (ie. all of them)?

    Hofner Model Numbers.
      As previously mentioned, there were several Selmer model Hofners that were basically the same as German models. Listed are some notes on German models from the late fifties/early sixties, with an indication of the parallel Selmer models. Because the Germans used model numbers instead of names, and did not use serial numbers on non-export instruments, figuring out when changes were made to specific models, or when models were added or discontinued, is difficult without reference to old catalogues from specific years. Even then, Hofner took a page from Gibson and loaded its catalogues with a combination of puffery and vagueness which leads one to believe that their prime motive was to drive future guitar history buffs to distraction.

      Here is a listing of Hofner hollow-body archtop guitar models. This does not include "Club" or "Verithin" guitars, just straight-ahead jazz boxes.

        Model 449 - sorta like the Congress
        Model 450 
        Model 455 - sorta like the Senator
        Model 456        
        Model 457 - sorta like the President
        Model 458
        Model 459
        Model 460       
        Model 461
        Model 462       
        Model 463
        Model 464       
        Model 465       
        Model 468 - sorta like the Committee
        Model 470 - sorta like the Golden Hofner
        Model 471        
      Hofner archtop guitars evolved from the mid 50's to the mid 60's, parroting trends in North America. Hardware such as tuners, pickups and wiring harnesses became better, but lost much of their charm in the process. As well, several things happened over time to make some model features overlap. Hofner replaced big mother of toilet seat block markers with dot markers on some guitars, changed some of its binding schemes, altered models slightly for export, and were generally up to no good when the foreman was not looking.

      Finally, I can only tip my hat in awe to any company confused enough to build its guitars with beautiful flamed maple laminates, attach its guitar pickguards with common finishing nails, and load its istruments with enough carefully inlaid mother of toilet-seat to furnish the lobby of a Miami Beach hotel.

    Go to Part 2, General Model Info.
    Go to Part 3, Specific Model Info, models 449 thru 459.
    Go to Part 4, Specific Model Info, models 460 thru 470/S.

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