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Old School: 1964 Höfner 500/1 “Beatle” Bass

Editor’s note: After publishing this story, Adrian Elton discovered that his bass was actually a 1964 model, not a ’66 as advertised. We’ve corrected the title and text for this story since then.

Adrian Elton with 1964 Höfner 500/1 "Beatle" Bass
All photos by Dean Schmideg

Bassist, designer and copywriter Adrian Elton shares his beautiful 1964 Höfner 500/1 this time around.

Karl Höfner GmbH & Co. KG began building instruments in 1887, later becoming the largest manufacturer of string instruments in Germany.

Much of the company’s popularity is attributed to Paul McCartney’s use Höfner 500/1 bass, three quarters of a century or so later. To this day, the bass is commonly referred to as the “Beatle bass.”

The semi-acoustic 500/1 was first manufactured in 1956, with a lot of variation between models over the years.

According to the Höfner article on Wikipedia:

McCartney played two left-handed 500/1 basses during most of the group’s career – a 1961 model with pickups mounted close together towards the neck, and a 1963 model, with the second pickup mounted closer to the bridge. McCartney used the 1961 bass until the recording of With The Beatles in late 1963, when he obtained his second 500/1. McCartney used his 1963 bass almost exclusively during The Beatles’ touring career, using his 1961 bass (which was repaired and refinished in 1964) as a backup. Although by 1965 McCartney had begun using a Rickenbacker bass in-studio, he did bring out his 1961 model for the “Revolution” promo film in 1968 and for the documentary Let It Be the following year. During the shooting, however, the 1961 bass was stolen, and McCartney used his newer Höfner for the remainder of the film, including the famous rooftop performance. McCartney has continued to use his 1963 Höfner extensively throughout his solo career and continues to use it today.

Here’s the story behind Adrian’s 1996 Höfner 500/1…

How long have you owned it?

I’ve owned this little gem since it arrived at my studio on April 4th, 2012. But for the sake of accuracy, the online transaction took place on March 20th, 2012.

How did you come across it?

I searched high and low on the internet and missed out on a few eBay auctions. Eventually I came across a link for a little guitar shop in London – New Kings Road Vintage Guitars. This really was the fantasy-come-true as it was a genuine German vintage Höfner from bang smack in the middle of the era of some of The Beatles most innovative recordings being sold in 2012 in a specialist guitar shop, bang smack in the middle of London.

Stock or customized? Give us all the specs!

It’s vintage and as far as I understand it’s in its original condition – short of having had the wiring rewound before it was sold to me.

Any special characteristics?

There are no special characteristics so to speak, but one of the original cream dials is missing its gold concave covering which leaves a rusty screw visible as can be seen in some of the amazing photographs taken by the super talented Dean Schmideg. While I originally intended on tracking down a vintage replacement part, I kind of like it the way it is, as it’s like evidence of its age and its journey, and underlines how remarkable it is that it has been around for this long and that’s the worst that has happened to it. Of collector interest is probably also the fact that it came with its original Selmer case, which given its age, is in fantastic condition.

What’s your favorite story about the gear?

As I’ve only had the bass for such a short time, there’s not really much to tell that’s of any interest. Probably the most extraordinary thing about it is that I didn’t have to pay a single cent for it as my family and friends all contributed on account of it being for a milestone birthday. It was all coordinated by my rather incredible partner, Rachel. Everyone’s generosity really blew me away. Let’s just say that it certainly took the edge off turning a decade older.

Any notable bassists (other than yourself, of course) play the same instrument/use the same gear?

I’d love to be able to say that Sir Paul has played this particular specimen but unfortunately that’s most unlikely as it’s a right hander. Sadly I don’t have any other information about who has graced her slender, woody neck. In terms of other musicians who are associated with this classic instrument though, it can be heard most recently and to magnificent effect on the two ‘Tame Impala’ albums, Innerspeaker and Lonerism.

Any special history or story behind this instrument or the company who made it?

There’s quite a special story behind the company who made it. They’re a mob from Germany called Höfner.

Do you use it on gigs?

At this stage it’s something I’ve been using exclusively in my studio. I have a few other basses in my collection including a Fender Jazz bass (fretted and fretless models) and a custom Steinberger-style headless bass. Each has it’s tone and it’s place – but that said, there is something magical about the Höfner violin bass. It just oozes this woody, honey-like tone. Would love to experiment with it live, but kind of scared to take it out of the studio. It may be sturdy as oak but emotionally I feel like it’s made out of balsa wood and must be protected at all costs.

What else do you want to share about your gear?

I’m a bit of a gear freak and this causes all sorts of cash flow problems. I have a slightly awesome home studio setup and am currently tracking audio via a Neumann U87 and AKG C414 which are fed into a Neve 1073 preamp and through to an RME Fireface 800 digital audio converter which feeds into an i7 iMac spec’d to the hilt, running Logic 9.0. Interestingly I don’t record bass or guitars with any live amps, preferring to use amp modeling software like Native Instrument’s Guitar Rig, IK Multimedia’s Amplitube and Universal Audio’s Softube Amp Room. The ability to chop and change, long after the source performance is tracked, is a Godsend for tweaking the tone.

Any other vintage gear?

  • Höfner Electric 1963 Model No. 4520E2 (it’s like a cross between a J17, a President and a VeryThin)
  • Fender Rhodes – Seventy Three – Mark I
  • Yamaha CS70M Synth

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m an all round creative kind of guy. I don’t discriminate between disciplines or mediums. If I can tell a story of with it, I’m all over it. To that end my day job is as a graphic designer and advertising art director and copy writer. You can find out more about my work at www.adrianeltoncreative.com.

I also dabble in film making and happily sink my teeth into audio production projects as they come up.

I’ve also played in lots of bands in Melbourne, Australia, including “underground” ’90s outfits Alice In Wonderpants, Aubergine and Grannyflat.

I also just mastered a track at Abbey Road studios with their senior mastering engineer, Steve Rooke, who among squillions of other era-defining recordings also mastered the Beatles Anthologies. I can’t overstate what a privilege it was to work with such a luminary of the industry. Here’s the track: