It’s time to don a leather jacket, quiff up your hair, shorten your strap to chin-tickling length, plug into the band’s shared Vox AC30 and party like it’s 1963. Review by Gareth Morgan
Description: Hollowbody bass. Made in China
Contact: Barnes & Mullins – www.bandm.co.uk
Although Hofner has been making guitars since the 1930s, the company will always be best known as the one who made instruments played by the Beatles. For some this conjures up images of the Club 40 or President guitars played by Lennon and Harrison, but most – especially members of the Bass Players Union – instantly think of the little Violin bass that Paul McCartney bought in a Hamburg music shop sometime around May of 1961.
But there’s more Hofner/Beatles history than just that, for the man holding down the bass job before McCartney’s enforced switch was Stuart Sutcliffe, and his choice of Hofner bass was a little different – he chose the single-cutaway acoustic archtop model known at the time simply as the Hofner Electric Bass. Although Sutcliffe didn’t endure as a bassist, the bass carried on, renamed as the President in 1963 with the same shape and basic layout (although with rotary controls on some models and different pickups).
Fast forward 50 years, and Hofner has re-elected the President as part of their Chinese-manufactured Contemporary Series. First, note that the President is a true hollowbody with no centre-block – light, but big. The top is spruce, punctured by a pair of f-holes, and the back and sides are sumptuous flame maple, with the back being a two-piece affair. All the edges, including the f-holes, are bound in either creamy white or a black/white multi-ply combination, and the old-school Hofner logo sits in its rightful place above the neck. Hofner has chosen not to fit a pickguard, a feature present on both early Electric Bass and President models; it half-obscured the lower f-hole and, to be honest, it’s no loss.
The neck is attached to the body via the set-in method (a mortis-and-tenon or dovetail joint secured using appropriate adhesive) and the heel is capped with synthetic cream pearl. The maple neck has a central beech stringer running from tip of headstock to heel of maple and its slim ‘C’ contour is really comfortable under the hand, almost as if to balance the problems caused by the bulk of its body. The headstock is bound in cream with a repro of the original floral logo and a set of appropriately diminutive Wilkinson tuners with pearl buttons. A three-ply plastic nut organises the string-spacing over the zero fret, and the rosewood fingerboard carries 22 frets. There’s a triumvirate of dots at the 12th fret and we’re glad Hofner didn’t make it three dots at each point, a fussy feature you’ll find on original President basses.
Hofner has employed a traditional floating ebony bridge – complete with the typical ‘fretwire’ saddles – plus a nickel trapeze tailpiece. Needless to say, intonation adjustments are not easy and you’d be wise to seek the services of a trained eye if the set-up goes skew-whiff on you.
The President comes fitted with a pair of Hofner Staple ‘Black Bar’ pickups, in similar manner to the late ’50s/early ’60s Electric Bass, either the one or two pickup version (the President model from 1963 had chunkier chrome ‘toaster’ units with the bridge pickup just in front of the bridge itself). Here you effectively get one in the neck position – and it couldn’t physically be any closer to the neck – and one placed in the centre.
Presidents from the ’60s had four rotary controls but this Contemporary version bears a Type 2 control panel, described in original Hofner sales literature as the ‘Double-Plate Flick-Action Console’. It’s essentially an oblong plastic plate with a tortoiseshell face that houses a volume for each pickup and three switches – two for turning pickups on or off (Bass on/off, Treble on/off) and Rhythm/Solo where selecting rhythm provided a 70 per cent reduction in the set volume. It still appears to work in the same way.
When you sit down to play the President the only thing about it that feels ‘big’ is the body. The neck is very much on the narrow side; add the 760mm/30″ scale and it’s a real joy to play, weighing next to nothing and balancing beautifully on your lap. It just takes a bit of time to get used to fact that the comfortable playing position involves positioning your right elbow a couple of inches forwards of your chest.
Acoustically it’s excellent, with plenty of projection and an honest, earthy tone with a pleasing thud and evenness across the fretboard. Plugging in, the D and especially the G strings acquire a slight nasal tinge which actually do help give a little more shape to the note. The midrange is smooth and solid with a weighty punch, while the bottom end is big and warm, giving a real feeling of air being shifted when you play in the low register.
Overall, it sounds just the ticket for laidback pop or blues.
If you love the Hofner’s acoustic tone, then the best way to replicate that plugged-in is to solo the neck pickup, giving a light, woody sound with a distinct acoustic archtop rasp and a definite roots, folk and jazz feel. The President plays well all over the neck, and notes in the higher registers have a sweet and singing quality.
Switch to the centre/bridge pickup and this Hofner sounds a lot spikier. The bass end becomes tighter and the focus of the midrange shifts towards the high side, giving the E, A and D a brighter punch that’ll push you further forwards in the mix. It’s the nearest that the President can get to sounding modern. The G string has a bit of a nasal edge, but the treble response is still nice and even, if not as sweet. All the same, upper-fretboard melodics are still rewarding pastimes.
Incidentally, selecting the Rhythm simply knocks the volume down with no discernible change in tone – great for any gigs where you get to play lead on top of the band: use the Rhythm setting, and just flick the switch to Solo.
Sometimes you only really have to look at a bass to know exactly how it’s going to sound. That’s the case with this Hofner; that big body, those retro looks – the President is all about the thud and the groove. Once you’ve got used to the physical issues involved in playing it, there’s a lot of fun to be had. The only issue is the price, especially as you can get a good quality acoustic bass for about half this money, but come on… is there any acoustic bass out there that looks even half as cool?