A good friend of mine owns a couple of vintage Hofner Club guitars from the late fifties and early sixties and from time to time I get to have a go on them. On picking the first one up I instantly fell in love with it. It’s not just the history of them, or the beautiful and unique design and workmanship, but they just fit me perfectly. It may be to do with my awkward finger style of playing, but having the archtop style front and the trapeze tailpiece, yet in a small body, means the strings are raised quite high from the body. Also they are incredibly light, and they are most comfortable when playing seated.
Well, I decided that I’d like one of these, but for me to spend that kind of dosh would be way too much, simply because I would not dare take one to a gig. It’s not necessarily the expense, but the responsibility of looking after a heritage instrument. And to have a guitar sitting at home not getting gigged doesn’t appeal to me. So I kept an eye out for a ‘Contemporary’ HCT version on Ebay. There are always plenty of the ‘solid’ versions, which to me are just Les Paul copies, but not the out-of-production hollow body versions. These are Hofner’s higher-end Chinese-made instruments, with German pickups but with an added sustain block to prevent acoustic feedback. I have the violin bass from this series and after a couple of mods it simply cannot be faulted. Never goes out of tune, an action like butter and a joy to play.
My Hofner HCT Club guitar
I was astonished to pick one up for £202 and when it arrived I checked it over and found that although it was in need of a clean, it was in good condition. However, plugging it in I realised that although the pickups worked there was an obvious wiring fault.
Initial observations, comparison with the original German model
At first glance, there’s something that makes it NOT like the vintage ones although I can’t really put my finger on what it is as I haven’t compared them side by side. The feel is very nice, still with the raised bridge feel that seems to suit me but not as high as the original. This is largely due to the neck joint, on the new version, it is flush with the front of the body, whereas on the originals there’s a large gap at the end of the neck that tapers off. (The contemporary violin bass retains the gap and apes the original faithfully). The contemporary version is much heavier too, partly down to the sustain block I suspect, but again, my bass feels only slightly heavier than the original.
Another detail that my bass has but the guitar doesn’t is the zero fret. For me this is a big omission, it’s one of the many things that Hofner has got right over most other manufacturers. It means that open and fretted strings will sound the same tonally, and nut height is precise beyond question.
The workmanship is of a very high standard, beautifully bound and the fret ends are nicely rounded and polished, overall, as good as you’ll find on a high end guitar. The finish is blemish-free and inlays are perfect. It is an extremely resonant instrument that feels alive even acoustically.
So in summary, the Contemporary (HCT) violin bass seems to faithfully reproduce the original, whereas the Club guitar does not. I imagine this is by design, possibly sales of the German bass were diminished if customers could get almost identical for £1,000 less.
Improvements and fault-finding
I left it for some months and then found time to look at it. On removing the control plate I could see from the atrocious soldering that it had been tampered with and there was no way it could work properly. I assume the the owner thought the controls weren’t working as they should and tried to correct it. This is all down to the ‘quirky’ labelling on the switches, as discussed before. Following a diagram found online I rewired it and soon had it working. But while doing so I noticed that there were four wires from each screened cable from the ‘Diamond’ mini-humbuckers (many humbuckers are wired internally). So I experimented with tones, shorting out the ‘slug’ coils and immediately noticed the Fender ‘twang’ when tapping the coils.
So, I rewired it again, this time upgrading the pots to CTS and the jack to Switchcraft for reliability. In place of the resistor / capacitor arrangement on the DPDT ‘rhythm / solo’ switch I connected the South and North wires from the slug and hot coils respectively on one side and earthed the centre tags. So now in the ‘rhythm’ position, we have a lower output as expected, but with the single-coil Fender sound. Of course as we are using only half the approx 7,000 windings of the humbuckers, volume is reduced quite a bit in that position. In the solo position, these pickups have a massive output anyway, much higher than for example a strat.
As the pickup cables were rather short I extended them into a single 4 wire screened cable which made wiring the control panel even easier.
To complete the control panel mods I replaced the knobs with Hofner ‘tea-cups’.
Correcting neck dive on the Hofner HCT Club guitar
When I first tried playing the guitar standing up I was disappointed at the balance, it was neck-heavy. This would be an annoyance to say the least. I wondered how heavy the machine heads were so I took one off. They ARE really heavy. The look of them is also totally wrong, and although technically they work perfectly and hold tune I wondered if I could replace them with something lighter.
Machine head / tuner upgrade
It isn’t possible to fit the correct ‘strip’ tuners as the holes are not in a straight line, they follow the contours of the headstock. So I started looking around on the web. I noticed that stamped on the back of my tuners were the characters ‘JHR-4’. I identified these as manufactured by Jinho of South Korea, the factory that makes Wilkinson hardware. This led me to their ‘JHR-1’ model which are identical except they use pearloid keys with a slightly shorter spindle. I ordered a set from ‘Black Dog Music’ via their Ebay presence, and at only £18.99 for the set, including bushings and screws, I thought it worth a shot.
How lucky I was, they fit exactly, no modification whatsoever and the difference in weight was enough to cure the neck dive in five minutes, well, a little longer because I changed the strings and oiled the fretboard.
This is a highly recommended mod, I cannot imagine why they aren’t fitted in the first place, maybe it’s to add another difference to the German model?
Also, note the absence of the zero fret.
Another difference from the German model is that the ebony bridge is mounted on studs as with a tunomatic. I suspect this is to satisfy players not used to the floating bridge that I actually prefer over this system. I suspect that a floating bridge will give improved tone transfer and while they can slip I seldom have such a problem on my bass, and because it can be angled, it is possible to achieve, with patience, perfect intonation. Although I’m not unhappy with this, I may one day remove the bushings and insert a normal floating bridge base, that’s an easy one.
On changing the strings, to Ernie Ball Super Slinkys I notice that the bottom nut slots are now very slightly sloppy. I checked the original set with a caliper and they are quite a bit heavier. I will get my luthier friend to cut me a new nut at some stage but it’s a very minor point.
I am absolutely over the moon with this guitar and was so fortunate to acquire it for this price. It’s always the one I reach for now, I will end up wearing it out. A friend came round a few weeks back and I had to take some calls for work so I gave him the guitar to keep him occupied. He has now bought one after considerable searching.
I will save up for a German one now, but a new one, it will be something to aim for, and a guitar for life for me. Maybe this winter! And yes, I will gig it.