Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 50

COLUMN The (Way) Back Beat

SOMETHING BORROWED,
SOMETHING BEATLES
Violin-Shaped Basses in the '60s
By Peter Stuart Kohman

"

Mediocre artists borrow; great artists steal!" The
adage is often applied to music and art, but the
same goes for musical instruments - the violin as
perfected by Stradivarius and Amati, the classical guitar
by Torres, and the dreadnought flat-top by Martin have
been subject to endless copies and evolutionary variations.
That's how instruments evolve. But, there are also many
instances of the look, feel and (if the copyist cares)
sound of a specific instrument being knocked off for
purely commercial reasons. Japanese-made Les Paul
copies of the early '70s are familiar, but there was
an earlier, more definitive example of design theft
- the Höfner 500/1 "Beatle Bass" was the inspiration for a number of makers after the Beatles' rise
to worldwide fame.
While the Strat, Jaguar, Les Paul, and Mosrite
inspired many guitars of the period, the distinctive
look of the "violin" bass is a particularly obvious tell,
as it hardly gained notice before becoming a Beatles
trademark. The story allows for easy fingerpointing, as

VINTAGE GUITAR

50

(Top, left to right) From Wisconsin, The She Five -
Rickenbackers, a Höfner, and shiny boots! The bass that
launched a thousand variations; Höfner's 500/1.
(Left) The 500/1 in Selmer's' 64 catalog. Only 58 guineas!

they were often called violin basses even by their makers,
though the idea was to evoke the bass fiddle.
Of course, it all started with Paul McCartney; if
he'd traded his 500/1 for a Gibson in 1963 (as his
bandmates wished, according to an anecdote by
The Merseybeats' Bill Kinsley), these instruments would not exist. The 500/1 was not
particularly popular (or even imported to
England) before the Beatles began their rise;
Höfner's U.K. distributor, Selmer, preferred
the guitar-shaped model 500/5 (as used by
Stuart Sutcliffe). This changed rapidly after
'62, and in early '64, Beat Instrumental opined,
"...probably the best known instrument in the
pop world today is Paul McCartney's violin
bass... one of the most in-demand guitars
in this country."
The 500/1 was hardly a new idea,
having been introduced in 1955/'56 as
one of the earliest Euro-made electric
basses. The body was scaled to resemble
a miniature upright and used many of
the same materials - early examples
even had a carved spruce top. The look
and feel were completely different from
the solidbody Fender Bass, itself just a few
years old. In comparison, the Höfner, with its

February 2018


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Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Vintage Guitar - February 2018

Contents
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - Cover
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - IFC
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 3
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 4
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 5
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 6
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 7
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 8
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 9
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - Contents
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 11
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Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 14
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Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - IBC
Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - BC
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