Sunday, 6 December 2015

Höfner Shorty - Test Drive

In 1975 I bought my first Made-in-Germany electric guitar, a Höfner 173 (3-tone sunburst circa 1963). The sellers were two brothers, John and David Lewis, who played bass and guitar respectively, with a band called Just Purple at the Hotel Inter-Continental Lahore (Pakistan).

Those were great times, bands played, people enjoyed themselves and Höfner guitars ruled the music scene. Compared with Fender and Gibson guitars, Höfners were popular because they were cheaper but nicely built in Germany. 
As more years rolled by, I amassed a mini collection of Gibson, Guild, Martin and Ernie Ball-Musicman guitars.

Paul McCartney of the Beatles back in the 1960s made the violin-shaped Höfner 500/1 bass famous; its in vogue again. My 40-year itch to get back to Höfner suddenly went out of control and I prepared myself for only one shock: a Chinese Höfner that would compare poorly with a German one.

Spoilt brats

If one has been playing top quality guitars for years, cheap Chinese products will be a great turnoff. 
Guitarists back then always preferred (and still do) original Made-in-USA guitars. Top brands whose cheaper models were Made-in-Japan were considered undesirable'.

Now Japan is making instruments that are as good as the American ones, the Chinese however still have a lot of catching up to do. Since playability, finish quality and resale value count, ace players prefer vintage American instruments from the 1950s and the 60s; each had an individual soul.

About ten years ago, while purchasing several acoustic guitars for my friends, I noticed that far-east factories of famous American manufacturers did not produce guitars that were properly setup. These instruments always seemed a bit out of tune on higher frets and required expensive setups by guitar repairsmen.

Höfner 173 (3-tone sunburst) circa 1963
There are several reasons why guitars display such physical problems, quite unlike modern electronic keyboards that do not require tuning and calibration. The low-cost mass-produced instruments from far-eastern factories may look beautiful but do not play or sound great. Because one must pay for quality, the original American guitars (Taylor, Martin, Gibson, Fender, Guild) are usually set up quite well and are comfortable to play.

The Shorty

I already had a 
Martin Backpacker steel-string acoustic guitar (from 1994) in my arsenal and only needed a compact electric travel guitar. Since Höfner had been making Shorty since 1985, I decided to buy their new Made-in-China guitar from an English shop for a ridiculously low price of GBP 129.

While the reviews and YouTube videos painted a rosy picture of the Höfner Shorty, by the time I unpacked the guitar, I knew less money buys less quality. I will highlight my disappointment in this article and in the follow-up piece show you how to attain Short(y)-lived happiness through DIY tinkering.
Höfner - pink 173 ii

Availability and price

None of the shops I visited in England had the Shorty in stock; not to have something this cheap even on display seemed strange. Soon I realised the guitar had to be special-ordered. Research showed that although the prices in USA were low ($150), adding the state tax brought the Shorty to around $165. Beware: the tax is non-refundable in America.

By contrast, the VAT (value-added tax) in England is refundable once you take the guitar with you as a tourist. While exiting, the Customs usually inspect the goods and then stamp the VAT refund form which you'll post back to the shop for a refund sent directly into your credit card account. Hence a GBP 129 guitar would cost you 107, with a 21 Pound refund back into your pocket.

How wrong could one go with something as cheap as a Shorty? I decided to gamble and placed an order.

In the box

At the shop all seemed fine until I brought the guitar home and carefully inspected a host of faults. In the carton was a very flimsy padded soft bag with "Höfner since 1887" embroidered over it. A poster and an Allen key for truss-rod adjustment were in there too.

The supplied guitar cable was of such an exceedingly low quality that when I plugged the Shorty into a guitar amplifier, it produced hellish hum. However, when I used my own quality cable, the hum totally disappeared.

The looks

There was a time when these guitars had matched coloured headstocks but the new Shortys don't; mine was painted black.

Mike Oldfield's custom Shorty

The paint-job

The finish was not great by any standards as spots could be seen on the body against the light. This meant they used improper sanding and paint spraying techniques. The headstock had a very thin coat of black.

The body

As for the Basswood body, I noticed three pieces glued together (as apposed to one solid piece). This meant, odd bits of ugly leftover wood were put to clever use by the Chinese.

While playing with a plectrum, there was no place to anchor the right wrist or the pinkie.

The single-ply black pick-guard was screwed flat to the body, quite unlike the floating type on a Gibson Les Paul. Hence, one was forced to play with the right elbow suspended on the air and which tended to slip towards the neck instead of staying anchored close to the bridge. As a result, playing suffered due to abnormal body geometry and unnatural centre of gravity. When I tried resting my wrist over the saddles, their sharp ends hurt. There was no escape.

Strap buttons

Although large, the strap-buttons seem to be in the wrong locations. Even while wearing the guitar with a strap, the headstock repeatedly tipped down. Forget playing this instrument for hours on end; this is just a fun thing fit to be played infrequently.

The neck

Probably the best part of this guitar. It 
felt slim, was made out of one-piece Maple wood but without any visible grain.
Paul McCartney with Höfner 500/1 bass

The neck was absolutely straight and provided no relief (dip) in the middle. Although there was no audible buzzing, the adjustable truss-rod required a minor loosening up.

Intonation and action

These required adjustments because the bridge sat too close to the humbucking pickup. When played at the 12th fret, all the notes sounded considerably sharp compared with open notes.

The fretboard and frets

Thankfully we had Rosewood here which felt fine and comfortable. The Shorty is a full-scale two-octave guitar with 24 medium-jumbo frets. Usually cheap guitars have painfully sharp fret ends sticking out but the Shorty 
felt smooth and very useable. However, I noticed touched-up cuts along the side of the fingerboard.

The plastics and nickel-coating

For so little money it was futile to expect quality parts and real chrome hardware. Höfner claims having used a bone nut; I wonder which poor animal lent its bone to the Shorty because the nut looked like a rough bit of plastic.

The tuners

These caused the 
tuning to drift repeatedly. Continuously having to re-tune the guitar was a huge turnoff.

Tone and volume pots

There was one each for volume and tone adjustment. The knurled black metal knobs were a nice touch that made Fender Telecaster style v
olume and tone swell tricks possible. The only discomfort the knobs' close proximity to one another.

The humbucking pickup

With a single 'broad-range' open Höfner humbucking pickup, it sounded harsh and heavy on treble when tried through various amps. Since there is not much wood in the body, the 'meat' or 'balls' were missing in the bass region. Perhaps changing the pickup to a better one would do the trick. Or maybe trying a tone capacitor with a different value will help.

Baby you're Shorty

The nickel-plated jack socket was not very firm in holding the plug in. At one end, the mounting plate was not screwed flush with the body.

I found no internal shielding to protect the electrical signal from stray hum introduced by poor grounding. Using aluminium shielding I lined both the cavities (for the pots and the pickup). The tone and volume pots themselves were of cheap quality and the neatness of wiring was of an average.

In conclusion

For the kind of price you will pay for the Höfner Shorty, the guitar is playable and enjoyable up to a certain point. Although it would make a nice gift, beginners would be put off while mid-level players will be quite happy to own one.

All experienced guitarists know how they imagine the guitar to be like a curvy woman. This Shorty woman has a very shrill voice, a stick-like body and a soul that can't be loved.


Höfner Shorty - DIY modifications that tame this little lady in red 

©Tahir Gul Hasan, 2015

Photos credits and interesting links
Pink Hofner 173 ii
Sunburst Hofner 173 ii
Mike Oldfield with his custom Hofner Shorty
Mike Oldfield's travel guitar up for grabs