At the end of World War II, the town of Schönbach, in western Bohemia, became Luby, Czechoslovakia, and the people of German ethnicity were expelled. The changes affected the fortunes of more than Framus and Tatra guitars – it also redirected the trajectory of Höfner guitars, perhaps best known for the “Beatle bass” played by Sir Paul.
What became Höfner guitars was founded by Karl Höfner (1864-1955) in Schönbach in 1877, though the history almost certainly goes back far longer. Höfner had been apprenticed to violin maker Anton Schaller. Whether or not that individual is related to modern Schallers is unknown, but it’s a good bet. Höfner built a good business selling violins, and later, other bowed instruments throughout Europe. Following World War I, Karl’s sons Josef and Walter joined the business. They continued to have success and in the 1930s expanded into steel-stringed acoustic archtop guitars.
World War II ended Höfner’s instrument making, and the subsequent partition of Europe with the Iron Curtain ended the company’s tenure in Schönbach/Luby. It’s not clear if the family was expelled or simply appropriated by the State, but in any case, they moved to Germany, settled in Möhrendorf, Bavaria, and re-opened in 1948. The location was not particularly suitable, and the Höfners soon set up a working community with shops and residences in nearby Bubenreuth, which began operations in 1950. Two good resources for information include the company website, hofner-guitars.com, and, for vintage instruments, vintagehofner.co.uk.
According to factory records, Höfner began producing concert or classical guitars in 1948, but it’s unlikely that production was especially large. Early Höfner classicals had a three-digit model designation. For better or worse, Höfner tended to keep model designations for long periods, even as specifications changed. The earliest Höfner concerts included the 484 (spruce, laminated mahogany), 486 (spruce, flamed maple), 487 (spruce, laminated mahogany), 488 Masterclass (spruce, birdseye maple), and 494 (spruce, birdseye maple). Like most German makers, Höfner’s favored materials were maple and ribbon mahogany. Some rosewood was used, as on the 1950 Model 497 Masterclass.
German guitar makers generally gave different treatment to concert guitars, probably because the German tradition of lutherie focused on bowed instruments and apprentices learned to make acoustic guitars because they were in-demand money makers. Thus, concert guitars tended to receive more care in production, resulting in higher quality than other mass-market instruments.
By the mid ’50s, it was clear that electric guitars were going to take off, and Höfner (like every other maker) hopped on the bandwagon. While electric guitars and basses may have still exhibited excellent quality, they did not receive the attention of classicals (we’ll discuss Höfner electric guitars at another time).
The Höfner Model 485G is a good example of the sometimes confusing subject of Höfner classicals. There were actually two versions – the 485 and 485G. The 485 was introduced after the move to Bubenreuth, and, like the 485G, had a “fine spruce top” and highly flamed maple body. However, its body was stained brown and had smaller dimensions, with a 27.5-centimeter upper bout and 36.5-cm lower bout. The most striking feature of the 485 was that instead of the ring or mosaic rosette, it had a hand-carved rosette consisting of triangle reliefs often referred to by collectors as “dragon’s teeth.” The 485 was kept in production through 1981. Höfner’s distributor in the U.K. was Selmer and a number of standard-issue 485s were sold there as The Vienna model.
The Model 485G was introduced in ’53 and differed primarily in size and color. The body had larger bouts (28.5 cm upper, 38.5 cm lower), and the flamed maple was left blond, not stained brown. Produced until 1970, it appears that until ’68, Höfner gave it an older scroll/medallion-shaped label with an oval space where the year of production should be written. Plenty of guitars were shipped without the date, however, and plenty of owners have written over the original date, so one has to triangulate and be wary of label dates. There is evidence that, circa 1969, Höfner switched to a round label showing a troubadour lute player. This is generally seen on guitars into the late ’70s, at least. The one you see here has the printed word “Anno” (year) and a black space for writing in the year. The guitar had no date written, or, if it did, it was in pencil and has long gone. But, since the 485G was retired in 1970, this would have to be from 1969 or ’70, based on the label design.
Höfner 485/485Gs are the subject of some controversy among collectors concerning whether or not the top is solid, with proponents pointing to the carved rose as proof. Sorry. This guitar has a laminated maple body with a low-grade mahogany that looks like luan inside. The top is three-ply spruce, straight-grained, cross-grained, and quartersawn underneath, with three tapered fan braces. A close look at the carved “dragon’s teeth” rose reveals that it was cut separately from slab-cut spruce and dropped in like a normal rosette. Not as romantic, but practical. It’s possible, but highly unlikely, that earlier examples were made differently. This is one of those laminated-top guitars that has excellent, crisp tone and great projection with good volume.
Most vintage enthusiasts think of Höfner for its electric guitars and basses, but there are fans of Höfner concert classicals, which were hand-made and not produced in huge quantities. The guitars won’t break your budget, have a great pedigree, and, well… How can you argue with dragon’s teeth?
This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.