Did Paul McCartney play simple bass lines

Vintage classics: Paul McCartney & his Höfner Beatles Bass

Höfner Violin Beatles Bass 500/1
by Josef Urbanek,

In addition to the VW Beetle locomotion instrument, hardly any other noise generator made in Germany has written as much history worldwide as the Höfner Violin Bass 500/1, also known as the Beatles bass, since Paul McCartney made it his main instrument.

The first model in 1956 already had the typical characteristics: hollow violin body without resonance openings, two pickups, pickguard, movable, height-adjustable wooden bridge with small, attached pieces of fret wire that could be moved for octave purity and a short trapezoid tailpiece. The four controls for volume and tone of each pickup initially sat on an oval plastic plate, with a cross-shaped mother-of-pearl emblem in the curved headstock, which can also be found in a similar form on very old Framus and Hopf instruments.

This ingenious design by Walter Höfner gave way to a Hofner logo on the following model in 1959, the two pickups (model 510) were moved closer together, towards the neck position. From this point on, the control electronics sat on a smaller, rectangular plastic plate with a mother-of-pearl look. It had the following functions: Volume 1 controlled the neck pickup, Volume 2 the bridge pickup; In between there were three small sliders with also simple functions: Rhythm / Solo lowered the volume, "Bass On" cut the highs and "Treble On" cut the bass. A simple, small, passive system - but effective.

These first Höfner basses had another special feature. Instead of the rear strap pin, a so-called spike could be mounted with a screw clamp, with the help of which the instrument could also be played upright, i.e. like a double bass, that certainly looked funny ...

In this context it must be mentioned that Walter Höfner's inspiration for this idiosyncratic instrument certainly did not only come from classical instrument making. Gibson had already released the Model EB in 1953 in response to the Fender Precision. And this "electric bass" with a one-piece bridge / tailpiece, a painted F-hole, alnico magnet pickup and two controls can be seen as a less than successful forerunner of the Höfner violin bass. This early Gibson EB (which later became the "SG-Bass" EB-3 played by Jack Bruce) also offered the possibility of upright use.

Back to the history of the Beatles bass: With the 1960 Höfner model, another change came into play, the famous toaster pickups (model 511), both of which also sat in the neck position.

The successor model 1961 then had the same pickups, but they were now in a metal case that was closed at the top and had the Höfner logo engraved in a diamond; They were called "Diamond" pickups. This model is still produced by Höfner today under the name "Cavern Bass"; because the instrument was played by Paul McCartney in the early 1960s, before he and the Beatles became famous, far down in the Cavern Club in Liverpool.

The most famous Höfner bass was and is certainly the following model 500/1 1963. Significant changes were the 3D logo of the Höfner lettering stuck to the headstock and the new 511b pickups on which the pole pieces could be seen. This rather simple model in a brown sunburst finish, with a large white pearloid pickguard and the small, also white plastic strap pins, quickly got the name "Beatle Bass", which is also often used for other Höfners of this type. “Paul McCartney plays a Hofner Original. Why don’t you? “Asked the manufacturer and its British importer Selmer, London, the beat bassists of the world. And more and more of them apparently felt addressed, because Höfner's sales rose. Ultimately, this instrument made the manufacturer legendary and kept it alive for decades until today.

The Höfner company existed as a violin-making company in the Egerland (later CSSR) since the end of the 19th century and after World War II first moved to the vicinity of Erlangen and then to Bubenreuth. At the beginning of the 50s, the first strike guitars were made, some simple models made of pressed plywood, but also high-quality solid instruments with carved tops and bottoms. In the 1960s it was mainly semi-acoustic instruments with pickups that were in demand, which were also very successful in England. Just like the violin bass. The many bass players who, besides the well-known ex-Beatle, used this instrument include: also Lee Sklar, Bryan Adams, Hugh McDonald, Tony Garnier, Rob Wasserman or Alan Anton from the Cowboy Junkies.

The 1967 model that followed the 500/1 in 1963 deviated somewhat from the classic design: the pickguard was made of simple plastic, as were the wings of the tuning mechanisms, and the control unit no longer looked so elegant. Why the beautiful, large plastic buttons with the round brass inlay were given up will remain a mystery. And the new 513b pickups with the inserted black plastic strip also looked rather boring. Was the big time over? And it was exactly this model that was also available with wide, fat celluloid inlays in the fingerboard - not really nice.

Apparently they wanted to respond to the signs of the times with the noble series 5000/1: Away from the classic violin design, the bass was now delivered in a light maple / spruce natural look, framed by elaborate, dark binding. A pickup selector switch complemented the old control unit, and even that had been significantly increased: The Höfner bass had active electronics, the so-called "sound mix" unit.

The gold-plated hardware and the floral headstock inlays, on the other hand, went back a step in purely aesthetic terms to the early 1960s. Likewise, the double dot inlays on the beautiful ebony fingerboard seemed somehow inappropriate. In this context, it has to be said that all the major manufacturers - Fender, Gibson, Marshall, Fender, etc. - had in one way or another just grabbed the wrong side when they tried to break away from once successful, classic designs. The Höfner 5000/1 then looked much more homogeneous than the 1993 model: a somewhat simpler headstock design, the body again in a light natural look, but the old control plate and the simpler 511b pickups had returned. A beautiful instrument and a successful classic variation.

Today Höfner still offers five violin basses: Ignition, CT, Vintage ’61 ‘Cavern, Mersey and 500/1. Of course, there are also copies of this successful model. On the pages of the eBay online auction, more or less beautiful imitations of the manufacturers Career, Jim Harley, Johnson and others can be found again and again. on offer. Epiphonic Viola Bass may seem Höfner-inspired, but is much closer to the older Gibson's EB-0.

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