An old photo of Schönbach, with the Höfner residential house/workshop identified as #386, Bahnhofstrasse.


Karl Höfner and Schönbach

Well, it all started with beer barrels. Karl Höfner, the founder of the company, was born into a family of coopers in 1864. Both Josef his father and Johann his grandfather had made wooden beer barrels for the local brewery at Schönbach, a small town in Bohemia which is now called Luby u Chebu in the present-day Czech Republic. It was therefore no surprise that the young Karl Höfner first began his life-long career in the fashioning of wood by helping his father make barrels for beer.

Schönbach and its neighbour Markneukirchen comprised one of the main centres of musical instrument making in Europe. A large proportion of the population were involved in the manufacture of orchestral stringed instruments, some working directly on the premises of the several large Instrument manufacturers in the area. However, many more worked in their homes producing components for the various instruments using tone-woods supplied by one of the large companies. These workers were paid on piecework, after they had taken the components back to the manufacturing companies premises for assembly and varnishing into completed instruments by master luthiers. This “home-workers” system was the traditional way of working in that area, and indeed the present-day Höfner Company still continue to adopt it some extent in Bavaria.It has been suggested that as well as making barrels for breweries and also individual households, coopers in Schönbach probably also supplemented their income by carrying out preparatory work on raw timber which was then supplied to the many instrument makers in that area.

Perhaps that is how young Karl became drawn into violin making. Whatever, Karl was obviously keen to expand his skills from barrel making into something a little more demanding, and so in 1879 he was lucky enough to be apprenticed to Anton Schaller, a master violin maker in Schönbach for three years until March 1882. He subsequently became acquainted with probably the best luthier in Markneukirchen, Heinrich Theodor Heberlein, from whom he learnt the essentials of producing the top quality instruments that Herberlein was famous for. By 1887, Karl Höfner had sufficient knowledge and confidence to set up in business himself in Schönbach, producing high quality violin bodies for sale to the large manufacturers of Markneukirchen. On the 8th September 1887, and at the age of 23, he sold his first violin bodies to a company in Markneukirchen.

Walter (seated) in his workshop at Schönbach .

Karl was successful. The business quickly gained a good reputation, and his violin bodies were supplied to many of the top master luthiers of the day; not just in Austria-Hungary where Schönbach was then geographically located, but also in Germany, France, and Russia amongst others. A high point was when he worked on a violin body at the request of a major Markneukirchen company that had been specially commissioned to repair the violin, which belonged to the king of Saxony. Apparently the king was so pleased with the violin that the Markneukirchen company was granted the right to describe iteself as “By Appointment to the Royal Court of Saxony”! This has actually been replicated in modern times by the Hofner company being commissioned just a few years ago to produce a fine archtop guitar for placing in the saloon of a certain Head of State’s private yacht!

Family life for Karl Hӧfner was also good. He married Rosalia, the daughter of Schönbach master luthier Anton Pӧtzl, and they had seven children. Unfortunately, two of these died young in a diphtheria epidemic, but the other five together with Rosalia herself all helped in Karl’s workshop. Of these children, two sons were destined to play a major part in the history of the company – Josef and his younger brother Walter.


Josef Sets the Company Rolling.

Josef Hӧfner was the eldest son, and was born in 1892. After serving as a Lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War, and studying at the Royal Imperial Export Academy in Vienna, he entered his father’s business and effectively took control of it from 1919.  Josef had tremendous drive and business acumen, and very soon the Hӧfner Company was a recognised manufacturer in its own right, instead of being simply a supplier to the established manufacturers of Markneukirchen. In no time at all, the Hӧfner Company was exporting their stringed orchestral instruments to the United Kingdom, the USA, and Japan!


Josef Hofner home on leave from the 1st World War - 1917

Walter Hӧfner – the Practical Man.

Born in 1904, Walter was the youngest of Karl Hӧfner’s surviving children. Brought up literally in the workshop, he nonetheless qualified in Business Studies at the Pilsen Academy of Commerce in 1921. However, Walter was a born luthier, a very effective leader of men, and perhaps most importantly as far as history is concerned, an innovator touched with genius. When he had formally commenced working for the Company in 1921, the two brothers with their very different skills provided exactly the right mix of business management and technical expertise to ensure a very successful musical instrument manufacturing company.


Walter Hofner, with his wife Wanda and daughter Gerhilde in the 1930's.

A Time of Change.

The Karl Hӧfner Company had always made orchestral stringed instruments. However, musical fashions and styles were changing, driven in particular by trends coming from the USA. Josef would have been well aware of these changes through his contacts in the USA and perhaps to a lesser extent in Britain. Back then, there was an old saying in the business that what happens in America arrives a year later in the UK, and two years later in the rest of Europe.

There had been flat topped guitars with round soundholes made in Europe, particularly Spain and Italy, since the time of the Renaissance. Lutes, zithers, and yes even a few guitars are known to have been produced by other instrument makers in the Schönbach area since the 1820’s. Please therefore don’t get the impression that the Karl Hӧfner company was the first in Schoenbach to make guitars!

The Martin Company in the USA, founded actually by the son of a cabinet maker and luthier from Markneukirchen, had of course been making that style of guitar in the US since the mid 1830’s, first in New York City and then in Pennsylvania. In fact, it would appear that one reason that C. J. Martin left Markneukirchen was that being a cabinet maker he was prevented from making wooden musical instruments by the restrictive practices of the Violin Makers’ Guild in that area. Karl Hӧfner, after serving his formal apprenticeship with Anton Schaller, would of course have been accepted in the area as a bona-fide luthier who was therefore un-restricted in his business operations.

Such acoustic guitars would initially have been used for “parlour” home playing, but they also began to be used by general entertainers in the form of groups of musicians, usually together with banjos, mandolins or ukuleles, all of which were far more popular than the guitar in the first quarter of the 20th Century. The popularity of singing cowboys such as Gene Autry, on American radio and in the movies of the late 1920’s and 1930’s, substantially increased interest in the acoustic flattop guitar, and also implied that it was an “outdoors” instrument, suitable for taking on picnics and accompanying singing around the camp fire.

From around 1915, Hawaiian guitar music had taken on an increasing popularity in the United States. The origins of this style of music followed the introduction of European-style instruments, in particular guitars, to the Hawaiian Islands by European sailors and settlers and their adoption by the islanders. Once the music had found its way to the US mainland however, initially played there by Hawaiian musicians, commercialism took over and by 1916, Hawaiian music played on either guitar or ukulele was the most popular recording style in the States. The guitars were strung with steel strings, and fretted by means of a “steel” (short steel bar curved in section) which was slid along the plucked strings over the fretboard in order to create the traditional Hawaiian sound. In order to ensure that the strings responded to the steel and were not damped by the frets and/or fingerboard, the nut was usually raised in order to provide additional string clearance above the fingerboard. The guitar was generally played in a horizontal position on the lap, hence the name for such instruments later being described as “lap-steels”. Naturally, guitar manufacturers in the US were not slow to see the commercial potential of this new style of music. Gibson for instance introduced their first Hawaiian guitar kit in the early 1920’s. This included a nut extender, thumb and finger picks, and of course a “steel”. Gibson guitars of course were ideally suited for use as Hawaiian guitars as they were designed to be strung with steel strings - but more of that later.


Do We Really Need to Make Guitars?    

I am not sure exactly when Hӧfner produced their first commercial guitar model. The Company’s records for that period have been almost entirely lost. Certainly in advertising literature dating around 1925, there is no mention of guitars being offered for sale; violins, cellos, basses - yes; guitars - no. However, in the 1931 catalogue, no less than twelve flattop acoustic guitar models are on offer, with seven of these also being available set up as Hawaiian guitars with steel tailpieces to cater for steel strings, separate high bridges, nut extenders, and supplied with steel slider bars, finger picks, and thumb ring! 

One slim but still relevant piece of evidence relating to the matter of production start-dates has survived the ages, and this within the Hӧfner/Benker family albums. The photograph below shows Walter Hӧfner lying in a meadow surrounded by young ladies... and playing a flattop guitar. With that sort of company, he is still obviously un-married! That would place the date of that photo as being around 1930. So probably, the most likely date for the commencement of guitar manufacture by the Hӧfner Company is at the end of the 1920’s. That would have been just seven or eight years after he had joined the Company; just long enough for him to have found his feet and to begin challenging the situation whereby the Karl Hӧfner Company were manufacturers of orchestral stringed instruments only. No doubt his father Karl would have been seriously perturbed at the suggestion that they should move away from the more traditional instruments to the rapidly-becoming-popular guitar. There is a very strong possibility however that Josef also would have been fully aware of the trends in America and he would have realised that it was just a matter of time before they would spread all over the World. In any case, The United States was a country that Josef was already working hard to export Hӧfner’s products to. It is obvious that the two brothers got their own way!


 Walter Hӧfner in the 1920's, entertaining the local youth with a guitar that he probably made himself.






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