Much like the scant records of almost every large-scale American guitar manufacturer, production logs at Höfner’s headquarters in Hagenau, Germany, aren’t big on details. So when it comes to researching instruments built more than a generation ago, the facts are subject to the time-addled recollections of the human mind.
But of course that doesn’t reduce the fascination any Höfner aficionado is stricken with the moment they lay eyes on an instrument like the Fledermausgittare!
Designed by Walter Höfner, who began building guitars in the factory owned by his father, Karl, when he was 17, the Fledermaus (that’s “bat” in English) was conceived in 1958 or ’59 essentially as a showpiece for the 1960 Musik Messe trade show in Frankfurt, Germany. Being a “concept” guitar, only a handful (lore says anywhere from two to 10) were made, which presumably makes it the rarest Höfner guitar.
With a spruce top and maple back and sides, for as radical it was in terms of body shape, its materials were very typical of Höfner’s efforts in that era. “Inlays were celluloid, machine heads probably Van Gent, but they could also have been from one of the local makers,” said Graham Stockley, Guitar Product Manager at Höfner. “Bubenreuth, the city where Höfner was located until the early ’90s, was full of musical-instrument makers and they all made parts for each other – and it’s very difficult to find records of who made what for whom. If a builder needed something, they simply walked down the road and found what they wanted. There were no ‘official’ suppliers to Höfner in those days.”
The Fledermaus’ electronics – including its built-in four-watt solidstate amplifier – were developed by Franz Pix, a subscontractor that at the time made Höfner’s electronics. The setup, which was a precursor to the company’s active electronics that appeared later in the decade, included two Type 1 pickups manipulated by the E2 electronics setup with three slider switches to manipulate output signal; the two-position sliders were labeled “Treble On,” “Bass On,” and “Rhythm/Solo.”
“The guitar’s control panel was not connected to its internal amp, but works in the standard fashion when the guitar is plugged into an external amp,” said Stockley. “The amp controls are basic Volume, Tone, and an on/off switch, adjacent to a three-way pickup selector. And it sounds great – it has a classic fuzz distortion sound when turned up.”
The amp was an early version of the one used in the early 1980s by Höfner in its Model 181 Shorty “travel” guitar, and in shipping, that instrument sometimes had issues.
“The factory was often called by the post office and the police because the guitars would turn on if they were knocked around in shipping, and they’d feed back. So postal employees became worried about all this squealing coming from the box.
“The easy thing would have been to disconnect the battery before they shipped it,” Stockley added jokingly. “But apparently, that wouldn’t have been as much fun!”
Three holes with plastic grommets line the top/bass bout edge, allowing heat to escape from the amp. The Höfner logo on the speaker cover is hand-made, and though it looks like wood, Stockley said it’s actually plastic.
In terms of playability, the Fledermaus’ neck is standard-issue ’60s Höfner – a bit thick, but with a nice shape that’s comfortable to play. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the instrument’s weight; its amplifier was initially powered by a motorcycle battery, though local resident Christian Benker owns one that now uses a PP9 (an oversized style of 9-volt used in early transistor radios, metal detectors, and other devices).
“Given that it was considered strictly a show piece, designers didn’t concern themselves with the weight,” said Stockley. “So, yes, it was too heavy to be used as an everyday instrument.”
Dieter Fischer, master luthier and head of Höfner’s workshop, has been with the company for 50 years. He recalls that the Fledermaus was conceived, designed, and sent to dealers as a showpiece, never intended for sale. “They weren’t made for presentation to distributors,” Stockley added. Höfner kept none of them, and thus doesn’t own one, though at least a couple of them stayed near Bubenreuth – Benker’s, and one displayed at a private musical-instrument museum.
“I’ve heard there were 11 made, but Dieter says to make it easy to track production, they always built guitars in groups of 12, so there must have been 12,” Stockley adds before posing the rhetorical question, “Maybe a sample, and then 11 were for show exhibits or sold to dealers?”
Whether it was too “bulky,” too gimmicky, or simply designed just for show, it’s no surprise that in the eyes of most Höfner-heads, the Fledermaus is a true heavyweight!
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.