Beyond the Beatle Bass: The Hofner Guitars You Should Know

“The first guitar I ever bought,” Phil Manzanera tells me, “was a red Hofner Galaxie. I was sort of living in South America, and I bought it on credit from the Bell’s shop in Surbiton [south London]. I played it right up until I joined Roxy Music.”

1964 Hofner Galaxie 176. Photo by The Music Locker.

He was not alone. The connection between Hofner and The Beatles is well known—mostly down to Paul and Stu’s basses and John and George’s guitars in the band’s early days—but thousands of young British guitarists started off with a Hofner. As well as Phil Manzanera, they included Ritchie Blackmore, Peter Frampton, David Gilmour, Peter Green, Mark Knopfler, Albert Lee, Hank Marvin, Mick Taylor, Roy Wood, and many, many more.

None of theses lads would have cared much about where their Hofners were made, but in fact they came from Germany. Hofner first produced guitars in the ‘20s, although the Karl Höfner company had been making instruments since its foundation in Schönbach in the 1880s. The firm introduced electrics in 1954, three years after it moved to its new HQ in Bubenreuth.

The huge popularity of Hofner guitars in Britain from the mid ‘50s well into the ‘60s was down to a restriction on US imports and the initiative of the Selmer company. It’s these instruments we’ll concentrate on here.

Following the end of World War II, Britain controlled American imports to try to improve the nation’s poor financial position. From that time, new American guitars were rarely seen in UK music shops. Broader restrictions announced in 1951 applied mainly to food and manufactured goods, such as records and several categories of instruments, including guitars.

The restrictions were eventually lifted during 1959, but in the meantime Selmer in London had been importing Hofner acoustic and electric guitars from Germany. Hofner acoustics first appeared in the UK in 1953 followed by electrics a few years later. Most were made or modified to Selmer’s specifications, and all were given new Brit-friendly model names.

Hofners with Air Inside

Selmer’s first Hofner-made guitars were acoustic archtops, introduced into the British firm’s line in 1953: the non-cutaway Congress (the UK version of the German 449 model) and Senator (455); and the single-cutaway President (457), and Committee (no German version). Selmer added electric versions a few years later of the Senator, President, and Committee.

The Committee was aptly named, apparently designed in collaboration with a group of six professional British guitarists: Frank Deniz, Ike Isaacs, Jack Llewellyn, Freddie Phillips, Roy Plummer, and Bert Weedon.

19580 Hofner Committee. Photos by The Guitar & Pedal Exchange.

The electric Committee sat at the top of that trio of hollowbody models, with two pickups, showy fingerboard markers, an ornate headstock (Selmer called it “frondose,” a suitably fancy word for leaf-like), and an inlaid body back. The other two electric models, the single-pickup Senator and two-pickup President, each had distinctive triple-dot fingerboard markers.

By the end of the ‘50s, Selmer–Hofner was offering nine UK-only hollowbody electrics: the Golden Hofner, Committee, President, Senator, Club 40, Club 50, and Club 60. Selmer described the Golden Hofner, in acoustic or electric form, as Hofner’s “masterpiece of guitar perfection,” and it was certainly the most ornate and attractive electric Hofner.

1959/'60 Golden Hofner. Photo by New Kings Road.

Selmer began to sell the Golden Hofner, this most luxurious of models, around 1959. The natural-finish guitar sat at the top of the British pricelist and featured fancy pearl inlays on the ebony fingerboard and the “frondose” headstock, decorative inlay work on the flamed body rear (there was also a Thin version with thinline body), ornate binding, and gold-plated metalwork. Few were made, and it has become the most desirable Selmer–Hofner among collectors.

Hofner had reflected Gibson’s thinline concept with those Thin versions of some of its hollowbody models, but the double-cutaway Verithin, launched in 1960, was a more obvious Gibson-alike. There’s no doubting from its name that the Verithin was a thinline, and it had the Gibson 335’s double cutaway, too, but lacked the internal block, making it more akin to a 330.

Other Hofner hollowbody models during our period included the double-cut Ambassador and the Violin Guitar, a guitar version of the Hofner violin bass famous for its Beatle connection.

Bert: Selmer's Secret Weapon

Bert Weedon, the busiest UK session guitarist of the ‘50s, was a star Selmer-Hofner endorser almost from the start. “Xmas stockings will be an odd shape this year if predictions of the biggest ever guitar sales come true,” Melody Maker reported in December 1957.

“So popular is the instrument in Britain today that Selmer has organised an airlift of Hofner guitars from Germany. The first Lufthansa plane delivering nearly 1,000 guitars was greeted at London Airport this week by Bert Weedon. To help budding guitarists, Bert is making personal appearances at music stores giving advice and demonstrations.”

Bert worked backing US stars visiting the UK such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, and in the studio he helped to create Britain’s take on rock’n’roll with acts such as Billy Fury and Tommy Steele (another Hofner user). Bert started his career with an English Abbot-Victor guitar but soon moved to Hofner, at first adding a pickup to an acoustic Committee and later playing various electric Hofners.

His hugely influential Play In A Day teaching book was first published in 1957, with Bert and Hofner prominent on the cover. He made regular radio and TV appearances and had his first solo hit in 1959 with “Guitar Boogie Shuffle,” a cover version of The Virtues’ electric arrangement of Arthur Smith’s late-‘40s “Guitar Boogie” instrumental. Bert was a great ambassador for the guitar and, at the same time, for Hofner.

Join the Club

Hofner’s Club 40 and Club 50 electrics first appeared in 1955. These one-pickup (the 40) and two-pickup (50) models had small single-cutaway hollow bodies and no f-holes, loosely styled after the shape and size of Gibson’s recent new Les Paul models. The Club 40 was Selmer’s version of Hofner’s own model 125, and the Club 50 was the British equivalent of the German 126.

Like most of Selmer’s early Hofner electrics, the Clubs can provide us with two main visual clues to their period of manufacture. The earliest British examples had thin pickups with black plastic covers, coupled with a distinctive oval-shape panel for the guitar’s controls

1960 Club 40. Photo by The Music Locker.
1961 Club 50. Photo by Copper Chord Music.

By 1958, the style shifted to a new rectangular control plate, which Selmer called “the new flick action change,” and soon after that the electrics were given more conventional looking metal-covered pickups of various types.

The better quality two-pickup Club 60 model, with its ebony board and fancy inlays, was added to Selmer’s line in 1958, and the two-pickup Club 70 model appeared toward the end of the ‘60s after the demise of the 40, 50, and 60, notable visually as the only Club with controls mounted to the body.

Exploring the Galaxie

Selmer’s first solidbody electric Hofners were the Colorama models, introduced around 1956. These first versions were cheap looking and basic (but “virtually indestructible,” Selmer noted helpfully), with a single cutaway, offered in one or two-pickup versions, and in various colors with a contrasting pickguard.

1959 Hofner Colorama. Photo by Dayton Vintage Guitars & Amps.

Later Coloramas included models with a double-cut body and Fender-style six-a-side headstock, and by the late ‘60s they had an offset body style. Other Selmer–Hofner solids were the offset V series in the early ‘60s and the Strat-style Super series a little later in that decade.

In 1963, Selmer introduced its most convincing solidbody Hofner, the offset Galaxie, the one that so attracted the young Phil Manzanera. It had strong stylistic hints of the Fender Stratocaster, combined with Hofner’s flair for detailed control systems, a typical German touch of the period.

The Galaxie had a Solo/Rhythm boost switch, three individual pickup tone wheels, a master volume wheel, and three pickup on–off switches marked Bass On, “Discant” On, and Treble On.

Selmer’s catalogue, never a document to hold back on the hype, claimed that the Galaxie was “backed by the craftsmanship that’s made Hofner a name to be reckoned with.” It was a name, too, that defined an era for many British guitarists who began their love affair with the guitar at the time.


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include Electric Guitars: Design And Invention, Echo And Twang, and Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

comments powered by Disqus