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Building the Hofner Violin Beatles Bass
June 9, 2012 7:07 PM   Subscribe


 
Wow, great, great video. My daughter and I (she's 12) enjoyed it immensely.

Even though I already, you know, *knew* how much actual hand work goes into making an instrument like this, I was still surprised and in awe of the old fashioned craftsmanship on display, and the meticulous, time-consuming work that goes into it. Next time anyone says something about instruments like this being too expensive, this video is the place to direct them to.

A fellow in NYC that I used to work with a little bit (his name is Kramer) had a Hofner bass, which he played. I remember it seeming quite heavy, actually, especially considering that it's not a solid-body guitar. I've also heard people say the action takes a lot of getting used to: that it's not all that easy to play. I wouldn't know. But they sure look good.

And for me, that shape was what I first associated with a "bass" guitar, being as I was a Beatles fan since age 6. That shape just meant "bass" for me. I think I saw that before I ever really saw (or thought about) a violin!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:37 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


That was fascinating, thanks!

I was surprised to see the guy cutting frets slots alongside marked guides, plus drilling dot inlays and grinding the nut shape/height by eyeball. If anything on a guitar was done with mechanical templates, I would've expected those would be.
posted by nikzhowz at 7:50 PM on June 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yea, what nikzhowz said. I could NOT believe that was done by eyeballing the frets and dots.
posted by basicchannel at 7:55 PM on June 9, 2012


I could watch this all day.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:58 PM on June 9, 2012


He marks the frets and dots at 8:40.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:01 PM on June 9, 2012


That was just fantastic; I was transfixed. More videos like this, please, about any kind of crafting!
posted by Songdog at 8:12 PM on June 9, 2012


I was idly wondering how much this hand crafting contributes to the sound of the guitar compared to more mechanized processes. And then I saw the sideburns on the kid who glues the neck onto the body. Those sideburns have got to infuse some rock-n-roll into the end product!
posted by moonmilk at 8:19 PM on June 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Love that he applies the glue with his fingers. Now I don't feel like such a schmuck for doing that myself.
posted by Listener at 8:22 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's happening here at 6:35 where several pieces of material for the necks are being rotated? (My first time linking within a video, so I hope it works.)
posted by Listener at 8:31 PM on June 9, 2012


Nevermind, I figured that out. So the label inside at 13:41 says "(Model?) 500/1 Vintage '63 (Serial Number?) D09181. But I guess this video isn't from '63. Uploaded by Hofner in 2011, from archives. I'm just wondering how old this video is.
posted by Listener at 8:44 PM on June 9, 2012


Afellow in NYC that I used to work with a little bit (his name is Kramer) had a Hofner bass, which he played. I remember it seeming quite heavy, actually, especially considering that it's not a solid-body guitar. I've also heard people say the action takes a lot of getting used to: that it's not all that easy to play. I wouldn't know. But they sure look good.

I dunno about the weight: I played one for years and years, and it was maybe half the weight of my Fender Jazz, and surely less than a third that of my roommate's Les Paul. They are a slightly shorter scale length, though, so they can be a little tricky to play if you are unused to that 30" scale length (as opposed to the much more common 34").
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:13 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Check out premier guitar.com factory videos. They have some pretty cool vids of guys soldering pickups hand building amps and making guitars. I was really surprised how much of it is done by hand as well.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:29 PM on June 9, 2012


$2,449
posted by stbalbach at 9:36 PM on June 9, 2012


They are pretty light and small overall, compared to a Fender bass. And pretty loud unplugged in comparison. You can totally practice by yourself without an amp.

I don't know the story behind McCartney adopting the Hofner, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that had he used a Fender, or even a Burns, the Hofner violin electric bass would have been nothing more than another footnote among all those other weird German post war instruments.

Not only that, the association has totally allowed the handmade premium shop like this to exist. Hofner's asian Beatle Bass is a fraction of the cost of the German model, and almost certainly more automated. I'd be surprised if it were any less well made, except perhaps some details purposefully, in order to differentiate the premium hand made model.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:39 PM on June 9, 2012


I dunno about the weight: I played one for years and years, and it was maybe half the weight of my Fender Jazz, and surely less than a third that of my roommate's Les Paul.

Yeah, we're talking a 25-year-old memory here, so I could be off. And maybe Kramer had a brick stuffed into his, in case he needed to fend off some indie rocker looking to get paid!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:41 PM on June 9, 2012


He turned Don Fleming into a newt!
posted by mintcake! at 9:54 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Flapjax, do you mean the Kramer?
posted by kenko at 10:13 PM on June 9, 2012


Or just some guy, also named Kramer?
posted by kenko at 10:14 PM on June 9, 2012


(the Kramer.)
posted by kenko at 10:14 PM on June 9, 2012


I could NOT believe that was done by eyeballing the frets and dots.

EYEBALLING the frets? You have got to be kidding. And people actually pay money for that? That isn't a musical instrument, that's a washtub bass. I mean, this just isn't acceptable in a world where systems like the Plek Pro computer fret dressing tool exist.

I just can't believe people pay $2500 for a reissue of this bass because it was purchased by some amateur lefty who couldn't afford anything better when he wanted to join a band. I don't even want to know what an original Hofner sells for.

Meanwhile, a few years ago, I discovered a very fine ~1964 Framus 5/150 Star Bass my sister abandoned years ago when she stopped playing bass. I asked her if she wanted it but she didn't, and I don't play bass, so I sold it. It was a beautiful hollow body, the same model played by Bill Wyman. The body and neck was in perfect condition, it needed restringing and a little work on the elecrics, but you can still get original parts manufactured in the 1960s, direct from the Framus factory in Germany. I listed it for months and months and the best offer I got was from a luthier in Nashville who offered me $100 if I'd pay shipping. Yeah right. I finally sold it for $75. The college kid who bought it looked like he died and went to heaven when he saw it. He couldn't wait to shove the $75 in my hand and run out the door, like I'd change my mind before he got away with it.

It is a world gone mad when people will pay $2500 for a modern reproduction of a very poor bass, but a real vintage 45 year old bass of much better quality is only worth $75. In maybe 10 or 20 years, that kid probably will come to understand that I practically gave him that bass for nothing, just because he appreciated it.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:17 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


EYEBALLING the frets? You have got to be kidding. And people actually pay money for that? That isn't a musical instrument, that's a washtub bass.

He might be extremely good at what he does—the frets could, after all, be properly placed. I mean: the neck is the same length every time, right? After years and years, he could have it in his fingers.
posted by kenko at 10:39 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh. Framus was one of the names I was thinking of when I mentioned "other weird German post war instruments".

Yes, as mentioned, the guy doesn't eyeball the frets ( he bangs a template onto the bare fretboard marking the wood with indentations), but he cuts them freehand, which does surprise me a bit for a production instrument. In a "why would they do it like that" kind of way. It's kind of funny. I used to build musical instruments as a profession, as part of a very small high end professional shop. LOTS of hand work. But from my perspective, hand work doesn't carry a lot of weight. Some folks see "hand made" and think "quality". I see "hand made" and think "more places where things can get fucked up". Ideally, we would have much preferred to replace a lot fo the hand work with automation. The problem was that a small shop staffed with a handful of craftspeople could never raise the capital needed to automate.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:41 PM on June 9, 2012


Yup, Kenko, that Kramer. I'm on one or two of his rekkids, y'know...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:42 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


... some amateur lefty who couldn't afford anything better

Yeah, dude couldn't play bass for shit. Couldn't write songs either. Faded right away into the obscurity he deserved.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:44 PM on June 9, 2012 [11 favorites]


I love watching videos like that. Totally fascinating and kind of mesmerizing.
As far as the Hofner goes, I'm no bass expert, but wasn't it kind of a shitty, cheap bass at the time the Beatles were starting out? Obviously it's become THE BASS now, because of Paul and it's distinctive shape, but from what I've read it was a pretty unimpressive instrument in the day, with crappy intonation that would go out of tune above the third fret...but he liked because (A) cheap! and (B) light and easy to play?
While his bass playing was always awesome, I'd posit that most of the more definitive "Paul" basslines came after he switched to the Rickenbacker in 1965. But the Hofner makes better iconography, like the Abbey Road crossing and Beatle Boots.
Great post.
posted by chococat at 10:48 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love watching any crafts person at work--it's a joy to watch someone with deep skill do their thing, and instruments are just so beautifully visually and tactially, as well as aurally.

Hofner's asian Beatle Bass

I dunno, depends which Asian country. My guitar teacher, while not a luthier himself (although he repaired them and demoed for one in Santa Cruz whose instruments started at $15k; his demo model was a more expensive one), said that after the US and Mexico, (some) Japanese and Korean guitars and bass guitars were generally quite good. My first and favorite guitar is Korean-made, and it plays so pretty and has such great action that I sometimes wonder if he didn't give my parents some sort of ridiculous discount on it. Granted this was the late 80's, so things may have changed.
posted by smirkette at 11:18 PM on June 9, 2012


Paul could pluck a seagull, John could strum a uke, George could lead on a kazoo and Ringo could provide the backbeat on a washboard and it would still rock.
posted by jabo at 11:26 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Former bass player here, never could play on a Hofner and hated the sound out of an amp. Great video but you can keep your Hofner.

My baby is a 1963 P-bass with the "C" neck. Thing is solid as a rock, weighs a ton, but perfectly balanced and absolutely perfect tone on very string up and down the neck. Bought it when I was 14 for what was then (1978) a very steep $350. Ha ha. I've been offered $2500 for it on the spot by a fellow player once he tried it. No freaking way, dude. Shame on me for leaving it in a closet for the last 15 years.

posted by spitbull at 11:26 PM on June 9, 2012


I just can't believe people pay $2500 for a reissue of this bass because it was purchased by some amateur lefty who couldn't afford anything better when he wanted to join a band.

An amateur is one who does something without making money. Not how I would describe Paul McCartney.
posted by John Cohen at 12:11 AM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


For example, I am an amateur comment writer.

Great video, as mentioned above, I love anything like this that shows the building of something from start to finish. And I know you can probably get better basses or whatever (not a player, myself) but I like living in a world where guys can hand-saw frets and smear glue around with their fingers doing something they can take pride in. But I'm weird; I like things where you can obviously see they were made by hand and not machine.
posted by maxwelton at 12:48 AM on June 10, 2012


I've got one of the cheaper reissues of this bass, and I find it fantastic.

This is partly because I play guitar mainly, and so the smaller neck and scale length of the Beatles bass means you can play it exactly like a guitar. This is pretty much what Paul liked about it too, because he had played guitar in the Beatles for years and didn't really want to shift to bass. For any guitar players who need a bass knocking around the house for experimenting, for £200 these are great.

Paul also used a pick (made of felt, you can still get them) and flatwound strings (cheaper Hofners don't come with these fitted, but they are also still available). Both of these contributed to his sound, and the speed, attack, and accuracy with which he was able to play very busy basslines like 'I saw her standing there'.

I also think the reduced size of both Paul and John's instruments (both very small scale guitars) was a part of their early appeal - guys like The Shadows were hiding weedily behind those big Fenders, but the Beatles were right up close to you and had the guitars strapped high, way above their balls. Check out how Paul swings his lightweight bass around on stage, and John's original alder body hollow Rickenbacker apparently weighed just 5 pounds.
posted by colie at 12:53 AM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


As someone who has made a bass, my fear of cutting into the fretboard means that it's a fretless to this day.

That was awesome. I see these in music shops every so often and wonder if I should. They are a lovely looking thing. Guy I was in a band with years ago had a Hofner semi acoustic, he used to get the most blood curdling feedback from it.

Great post.
posted by the noob at 2:15 AM on June 10, 2012


I was surprised to see the guy cutting frets slots alongside marked guides, plus drilling dot inlays and grinding the nut shape/height by eyeball.

I remember seeing a documentary about the making of Fender basses and being astounded that the four holes for the tuners in the headstock were done by a guy holding it up and pressing it against a drill with only his eyeballing as a guide, and quickly, too.
posted by Philofacts at 3:27 AM on June 10, 2012


Oh, hey, speaking of vintage guitars and such, the estate of Les Paul is currently on auction. Thumbing through the auction catalog, wow. What an amazing treasure trove. Kinda makes you wanna be rich, you know?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:29 AM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


And, getting even closer to the subject of this FPP, from the Les Paul auction catalog, here's a GIBSON violin bass.

And man, on and on, page after page, that catalog is just chock full of incredible stuff.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:34 AM on June 10, 2012


What an amazing treasure trove. Kinda makes you wanna be rich, you know?

You can get a print version of the catalogue for $100. Seems a good deal.

Thanks for the link, it's amazing. Page after page of beautiful vintage guitars separated by page after page of what appears to be 'old man garage junk'.
posted by colie at 4:45 AM on June 10, 2012


'old man garage junk'.

Heh. Lotsa that from a pretty high end garage.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:50 AM on June 10, 2012


It's so lovingly photographed and presented, it's Old Man Garage Junk porn.

Rule 34 strikes again.
posted by colie at 5:37 AM on June 10, 2012


I just can't believe people pay $2500 for a reissue of this bass because it was purchased by some amateur lefty who couldn't afford anything better when he wanted to join a band.

it wasn't a matter of affording anything better - fenders were just about impossible to come by in the uk in the early 60s - it should be noted that once paul managed to find a fender bass, he recorded with it

i've played the asian copies - they have a nice round sound, surprisingly deep for a 30 inch scale (but not as deep as a p-bass), pretty precise - i could see someone deciding that this was their sound, but it's not mine

of course, the one i played had roundwounds on it, which is ahistorical - if you want that 60s bass sound, you must have flatwounds - i'm sure it would have been even better with those
posted by pyramid termite at 5:56 AM on June 10, 2012


it should be noted that once paul managed to find a fender bass, he recorded with it

This isn't true - Paul was presented with a Rickenbacker 4001S bass on August 29, 1965, but before that, the bass you hear on all Beatle recordings is the Hofner.

The Rickenbacker bass was first used on "Think For Yourself", recorded 8 November '65.

Paul did use a 1966 Fender Jazz for five tracks on the White Album.
posted by colie at 6:13 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Rickenbacker bass was first used on "Think For Yourself", recorded 8 November '65.

"Fuzz" bass!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:23 AM on June 10, 2012


Anecdotally, a fellow I know loaned me the first Fender bass (a P) that landed in South Australia. He got it new in 1961. I strongly suspect that they'd have been easier to come by in London than in Adelaide, but yeah, this is my story, and others have their own.

A year of that — thanks, Dick! — will spoil you for a lot of other basses.
posted by Wolof at 6:39 AM on June 10, 2012


This just confirms that a luthier's two best friends are the jig and the clamp.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:10 AM on June 10, 2012


About 15 years ago I wandered into this incredibly weird used instrument shop in a suburb of Denver, that was full of cats. It was a whole strip mall full of used instruments which is unfortunately gone now. One room was full of nothing but violin basses of various brands, including some Hofners. After goofing around for a while I made a deal for a Vox violin bass which is the best feeling bass I have ever played. Still keeps it's tone, lighter than the Hofner and a skinny little neck that fits my fingers perfectly. Thank you Paul for popularizing this goofy style which I love so much.
posted by evilDoug at 7:27 AM on June 10, 2012


Plus that was a really cool vid.
posted by evilDoug at 7:27 AM on June 10, 2012


Paul could pluck a seagull...

Sometime in the 70s, Yoko recorded a track featuring a 'dead rat solo', according to the Goldman Lennon biography.

They took a dead rat in a shoebox into the studio and the sound engineer miked it up. I think the rat nailed it in a single take.
posted by colie at 9:44 AM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh holy crap, that Les Paul catalog is worth a FPP all by itself. Yes, I'm going to do it. I'm going to make that my very first FPP.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:54 AM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Former bass player here, never could play on a Hofner and hated the sound out of an amp. Great video but you can keep your Hofner.

Oh, man, i disagree. I don't own a Hofner, but I've recorded one through an Ampeg B12 (one of their flip-tops) and I freaking loved the way it sounded. Lovely attack, smooth tone, and decent bottom end (though it did seem to lack the modern super-low rumble). Given that no one really uses them except Beatles fetishists, I was expecting it to be pretty one-dimensional.
posted by Zerowensboring at 10:55 AM on June 10, 2012


my first bass was a terrifyingly poorly-made nameless early 60s Japanese copy of the Hofner, super basic and just awful to wrestle on stage. The neck was about twice the weight of the body, and the action was so high and stiff it was like fretting anchor cables.

I think I paid $70 for it in a rural pawn shop. I had no idea when I bought it that it was a copy of Paul's early bass; somehow I made it into my twenties without ever closely looking at an early performance photo of the Beatles, I guess. It came with flatwounds, so I suppose they may well have been the original strings. The combination of the strings and the hollow body meant it produced just crazy overtones and would feed back if you looked at it funny.

All in all, it made me a better bassist, because I had to learn to work with all those weird sounds and difficult use characteristics. I still really like bizzarro no-name knockoff crap because of that.
posted by mwhybark at 11:27 AM on June 10, 2012


this got me to look up a few other guitar building videos. the main thing that struck me is how non-gingerly these instruments are treated in production, it makes me feel like i'm handling mine with kid gloves just by not beating them with rubber hammers and wrapping them in giant rubber bands
posted by camdan at 6:10 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


colie: "They took a dead rat in a shoebox into the studio and the sound engineer miked it up. I think the rat nailed it in a single take."

colie, are you sure you didn't intend to post this comment in the current necrophilic animal rape thread?
posted by IAmBroom at 9:38 PM on June 10, 2012


I’ve never been that crazy about them (I don’t hate them either) but now I want one. I guess it worked.

It’s a completely different sound than a P-Bass, comparing them is like saying "why would anyone use a Tele when they could use a Les Paul?" People use them because they want that sound.
posted by bongo_x at 10:38 PM on June 10, 2012


wow. never in a million years would i have guessed strings THEN pickups. i was also amazed at how seemingly easily the nut was finished. I've carved a nut from bone by hand before and it's a little tricky. I suppose maybe not so much so if you've got a fret for the open string but still.
posted by mexican at 11:40 PM on June 10, 2012


Yeah, strings, then pickups... almost everything about the Hofner is quirky. Including that the nut was cut by hand. Why? Because the Hofner has a zero fret. This makes it easier to understand how the nut was cut so quickly. But harder to understand why it's done that way, since the spec hasn't changed in, what, 50 years? There's absolutely no reason to not use a pre-made nut, since it's merely a string spacer, and ironically, a cost cutter.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:50 PM on June 10, 2012


The Beatles’ first visit to EMI, part 1

The balance engineer disappointingly assessed the battle-scarred drums, guitars, and amplifiers as they settled onto the studio floor. He recalls having to “tie string around John Lennon’s guitar amplifier to stop the rattling.” McCartney’s relatively new violin-shaped Hofner bass presented few problems, but inside the homemade amplifier and speaker cabinet, the internal electronics and soldered connections needed attention.

For the production crew, an important part of knowing how an artist would sound involved evaluating musical instruments and equipment. For this session, Norman Smith spent time on McCartney’s bass rig, borrowing equipment from EMI’s stash of musical and technological miscellanea as well as improvising solutions. Equipment constituted a significant issue at this point in the Beatles’ career, beginning with Decca’s complaints about their instruments during their ill-fated January audition.


Amateurs.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:13 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Amateurs.

That's still an inaccurate characterization.

Even though their gear was raggedy, they had already started making money as a band, which, by definition, even at that early stage, makes them *not* amateurs. They were in the studio because they had a recording contract. That means they're *not* amateurs. And they'd logged plenty of stage hours as a band. *Not* amateurs.

Look, the condition of a musician's equipment does not, I repeat not confer upon him the status of "amateur". "Not yet rich", sure. But "amateur"? Uh-uh.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:48 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Norman Smith spent time on McCartney’s bass rig, borrowing equipment from EMI’s stash of musical and technological miscellanea

In 61 or 62 Paul got a guy called Adrian Clark, who had been in Merseybeat band The Big Three (known for a big bass sound) to build him something even more powerful: The Coffin (see below). The Coffin is likely to be what freaked out Decca's engineers and later EMI's:

"Also, once I got into it, this engineer in Hamburg named Adrian made me a great bass amp that he called the coffin. It was a quad amp with big, round knobs-just bass and treble. No sophisticated graphics. He had these two 15" speakers in a big black box that looked a lot like a coffin. And, man! Suddenly that was a total other world. That was bass as we know it now. And, in fact, they wouldn't let me record with that. They were too frightened. It was like reggae bass: It was just too right there. It was great live."


Paul's equipment may have been rickety and damaged by this time, but it was a big part of why they sounded so good. The Beatles had an enormous, unprecedented bass sound live, and many who saw the band before 1963 claim it was never captured on record. Lennon said that live, 'the music was dead by 1963' and complained bitterly in later years that Paul and Ringo had always been too quiet in the recordings. The memory of Paul's bass power is heard in Hold Me Tight and Money and I want to hold your hand for example.
posted by colie at 2:51 AM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Pic of The Coffin, the unsung hero in the story of Paul's bass sound.
posted by colie at 2:56 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


to state the obvious, the first "paul is dead" pic?
posted by camdan at 2:00 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


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