On June 18, Sir Paul McCartney turned 76 years old. It is tough to know where to start and what tale to tell of this sage song-writer and musician. What do you say about a man who helped create rock and roll and continues to shape it decades on? Well, for starters, there’s that bass guitar: the Höfner 500/1 violin bass, better known by some as, the “Beatle bass.”
As guitar shapes and designs go, there’s no shortage of diversity and creativity these days. However, few have become as associated with a single artist as the hollow-body, violin-shaped, four string that is the Höfner 500/1. So where did this guitar originate and how did it fall into the hands of McCartney?
As Rolling Stone reported, the initial meeting between McCartney and the Höfner happened in the early Beatle days during a pass through Hamburg, Germany in 1961. At the time, McCartney was on the keys. During the tour, original Beatle bassist Stu Sutcliffe exited the band and McCartney stepped in to fill the other half of the rhythm section. Now, if that happened today, the fix would be quick: pick up a new bass online, rush ship it, and you’d be geared up and go to go the next night. If it came from Riff City, you’d even get a cookie in with the shipment. But these were simpler times with less gear and less free cookies. McCartney needed an instrument, and fast.
In an interview with Bass Player, McCartney recollected that, “Eventually, I found a little shop in the center of town, and I saw this violin-shaped bass guitar in the window.” The price? Around $45, around half the going rate of the Fenders McCartney eyed up. This original purchase was a righty model. So McCartney pioneered what generations of lefty’s would do after him: flip it around, restring, and get on with the show. To say the rest is history is an understatement, but, you get the point.
So, that’s McCartney’s side of the story, at least for the initial meetup, but what is this guitar?
Höfner musical instruments has been in the biz of hollow-body builds for over 130 years. With a home base in northern Bavaria, in Hagenau, the company is founded on the idea that hand-crafting makes inspirational gear. While the company now has a large deep catalog of acoustics, electrics, and basses, none are as famous as the Beatle bass.
The earliest model of the violin bass was made in 1955 and introduced to the world the following year at Frankfurt Musikmesse (think a European version of NAMM). This means that by the time this sleek and symmetrical guitar turned four, it met its match in McCartney.
With the sonic and visual success of the original Höfner 500/1 violin bass, a number of clones have cropped up over the years from the likes of Epiphone, Tokai, and Duesenberg. While McCartney has used other bass guitars intermittently in his career, most notably a few Fenders and Rickenbackers, none have quite attained the eye-grabbing and iconic association as the Höfner he spotted in that shop window in Hamburg.