The Höfner 500/1 is a German electric bass guitar, which has been in production since 1956.
It is quite likely that this hollow-body, short-scale model (76,2 cm = 30″) would have been destined to become a mere footnote in bass history, if not for one small incident in 1961. A young, newly ”elected” bass player from Liverpool – named Paul McCartney – was browsing the local instrument stores in Hamburg (Germany), for a mid-priced electric bass, preferably left-handed. He found the Höfner 500/1 – and the rest, as they say, is history…
During the first years of production many of the 500/1’s specifications were changed on nearly a yearly basis.
The first production models came equipped with two long and narrow singlecoil pickups, which were placed in the neck and middle positions. An oval control plate sported two volume and two tone controls.
In 1959 Höfner changed the control layout: a long rectangular plate offered two separate volume controls, as well as three two-position sliders for turning each pickup on or off and choosing between solo (full power) and rhythm mode (slightly dampened). This switching (Aggregat E2 B) also gives you a fat, treble-deprived signal, whenever the middle (later bridge) pickup is turned off using the slider switch – Reggae-bass galore.
The singlecoils were switched to humbucking pickups in 1960. The metal covers on these units are stamped with a diamond and the Höfner-logo. This model is the bass that Paul McCartney bought in Hamburg (it had to be ordered left-handed):
In 1962 the second pickup was moved close to the bridge. Shortly hereafter it the 500/1’s humbuckers were switched to the so-called staple-top-pickups, which, despite their look, are singlecoils. The pickups got their nickname, because the bridge-facing polepieces look somewhat like staples. In 1963 Paul McCartney received/bought (the available info is not quite clear on this) this type of Höfner 500/1 – which he continues to use to this day!
From 1967 onwards Höfner’s new blade-pickups were installed on the 500/1.
The Höfner 500/1 stayed more or less this way until the latter part of the Nineties, before the Beatles Anthology -series kicked off a renaissance.
My own 500/1 -bass is a January 1990 -model. Then, demand for Beatle-basses was so low, that Höfner only built them on order, and for a very advantageous price.
My Höfner sports a maple neck, which is one-piece save for the neck heel. The tuners are sealed Gotoh guitar models.
The top of the hollow body is spruce plywood, while the sides and back have been crafted from anigré-plywood (lat. aningeria spp.).
The Höfner’s sound is big, fat, huge and warm, but still has ample zing and growl with roundwound strings.
I’m mainly a fingerstyle player, but tend to use a plectrum whenever I play the 500/1, because its strings sit rather high above the body and are quite close to each other.
For some strange reason my Beatle-bass sounds fantastic plugged directly into a mixing console or soundcard, even without using a DI-box!
These days Höfner produces the excellent mid-price Contemporary-version (made in China) alongside its more pricier German reissues:
The main difference is that the Contemporary 500/1 is semi-solid, with a maple centre block running the length of its body. This adds some sustain, as well as making the bass less susceptible to feedback than an original.
The Höfner 500/1 -sound is probably known to all of us – listen to virtually any Beatles-record pre-1966. Later examples include the Beatles-tracks Get Back and Come Together, as well as McCartney’s solo-single My Brave Face.
…and rounding it all off, here’s a snipped I copied from one of my ProTools-sessions: