CHAPTER 13: INTO THE 21st CENTURY (1997 – 2005)

The year is 1997 and things are at a low ebb for Hӧfner. The major management changes described at the end of the previous chapter had all served to un-settle the company, but none more so than the move out of their traditional “home” of Bubenreuth. There had necessarily been a reduction in guitar output leading up to the day of the move. The stockpiles of part-completed bodies and necks accumulated over the years, many of them made for long-obsolete guitar models, were disappearing from out of the factory in large quantities after being sold off to dealers and luthiers.

Production of the old faithful archtop models – the 457, 463, 470, and 477 - has ceased, as well as the AZ guitars, leaving only the Jazzica and Nightingale models in the catalogue. Admittedly, these are two fine modern instruments, and Hӧfner are still producing large numbers of classical guitars but even so, Hӧfner’s traditional archtops and semis market was being seriously neglected. So, what was to be done?

Dieter Fischer, one of the Hӧfner master luthiers, inspects a prototype of the proposed new Verythin model in 1999.

The Hӧfner New President and Hӧfner Vice President

Herr Schöller had set about designing two new full-bodied archtop models for production whilst the key Bubenreuth luthiers were still arriving at Hagenau. One was to be a traditional electric archtop with two pickups mounted without routing directly onto a solid carved spruce body table – the Hӧfner Vice President. The other was to be a jazz guitar in the format that was now considered necessary by most modern players; i.e. an archtop with a solid carved spruce table and with a single floating twin-coil pickup suspended above the body table from the end of the fingerboard – the New President. The name “President” was significant as this was the name given by the Selmer Company back in 1952/53 to that famous archtop which had been the workhorse of so many British guitarists back in the 50’s and 60’s. Indeed, the 457 model that had only just been discontinued has often been erroneously called the “President” by many people.

1999 Hӧfner New President.

c2002 Hӧfner Vice-President.

Both guitars were launched in 1998 and the New President in particular was very popular, with monthly sales immediately matching those of the Jazzica. The Vice President, which had been conceived to provide Hӧfner’s catalogue with a two-pickup archtop to provide more people with more versatility, actually struggled to sell half as many as the New President. Perhaps this was because the time for full-depth acoustic bodies subject to feedback when amplified was now disappearing, and because of more competition in its sector from the thinline semis of both Hofner and other manufacturers.

The basic specification of both guitars was identical with, as mentioned above, the 16¼” wide solid carved spruce body table, African Maple (Anigree) rim and back, single piece European rock maple neck, and ebony fingerboard. As with the Jazzica, a 25¼” (641mm) scale length was adopted, with the neck meeting the body at the 16th fret which, although providing greater access to more of the fingerboard than the traditional 14th fret neck set, does give the guitar a slightly different feel.  Again, as with the Jazzica 24 frets were provided, although this was reduced down to 22 frets on New Presidents made after around 2006/07.

The same composite material headstock fascia with bell-flower design as later used on the Jazzica Custom from 2000 was also specified. The hardware on the two guitars did however differ – a Lyre-style tailpiece being provided on the Vice President as opposed to an ebony wood faced tailpiece on the New President as fitted to the Jazzica and Jazzica Special. No pickguard was fitted to the Vice President, but the New President was given a polished ebony wood guard on which the volume and tone controls were fitted in order to avoid compromising the acoustic performance of the carved spruce top.

The New President was supplied in natural blonde nitrocellulose lacquer and gold hardware, where-as the Vice President had the option of Sunburst or Black finish, both with nickel-plated hardware. A hand-purfled inlay in the shape of a Fleur de Lys, just as had been the case with the old 1950’s/60’s Hӧfner Committee, adorned the body back on early examples of the New President. Unfortunately, this was soon discontinued due to it adding too much cost to the guitar. The workmanship involved in this feature had also come in for some criticism by reviewers who, unlike in the days of the old Hӧfner Committee, now expected the absolute precision of computer-guided machinery.

The New President was removed from the catalogue in 2013 after total sales of around 800. From 2002 onwards, quite a few of these guitars were finished in Violin Varnish (Shellac), which although easily scuffed is almost as easy to repair (by a good luthier!). The Shellac finish is very attractive and unusual on an archtop guitar, and so this finish proved to be very popular, hence encouraging Hӧfner to apply it to even some Verythins and Club basses.

c2004 Hӧfner New President, finished in Violin Varnish.

Like the Jazzica, the New President proved popular with many jazz guitarists, including Peter Leitch and also Kenny Poole who can be seen using his Hӧfner on many videos.

The Vice President was discontinued in 2004 being replaced by a thinline guitar – the Hӧfner Thin President, perhaps due to the disappointing sales figures referred to above but also more probably because of the enforced cancellation of Hӧfner’s Jimmy Bruno endorsed guitar, from which the initial version of the Thin President was developed. Approximately 130 VPs had been produced over a period of 7 years. Towards the end of the Vice President's production run, its specification had been reduced slightly by the use of a rosewood fingerboard and abalone fret-dots rather than the ebony board with mother of pearl fret markers on the earlier VPs.

2003 Hӧfner Vice President, with dot fret-markers which replaced the earlier block fret-markers from 2002/03.

Is it a Hӧfner Verithin or a Verythin?

 Hӧfner’s one and only thinline semi, the Nightingale, had been running now for almost 15 years, and had proved fairly successful, but certainly not a smash-hit. As referred to before, Rob Olsen had arrived in Hagenau in 1999 in order to help with suggestions as to how the Hofner sales figures in the US could be improved, and these included ideas from dealers and players regarding the Nightingale. The consensus of opinion was that it was too much like a Gibson. If Americans wanted a Gibson-look-a-like, they would buy a Gibson and not a Hofner!

Ideas regarding up-grading the Nightingale coming from the States included “let’s try the Jazzica-style sound holes”, “get rid of the complicated and un-necessary stereo electrics”, “how about some pickups that look and sound like proper humbuckers”, and “get rid of the fancy birds-eye maple and let’s have a proper spruce top and flame maple body”. There was also the question that was continually being asked by the many faithful Hӧfner enthusiasts, i.e. “When are you bringing back the Verithin”, followed by “I used to play one of those back in the 1960s and they were great guitars”.

 A rare Hӧfner Nightingale with Jazzica-style soundholes that was made as part of the development process leading to the birth of the new Verythin range.

Actually Hӧfner had also finally realised that nostalgia did sell guitars. They had learnt this very slowly with the famous Hӧfner Violin Bass. It had taken their Japanese distributors, Music Ground in the UK, and hundreds of individual bass guitarists from all over the world many years to persuade them to produce re-issues based on the 1960’s version of that iconic little bass, and following the introduction of the V61 “Cavern” and V63 500/1 in 1994, by the turn of the century they were selling like hot cakes! A modest toe had also been dipped in to the nostalgia-water with the “President” models in 1998, even though the New President however could not really be described as being anything like a re-issue of the old President archtops.

It is believed that going back to the old Verithin body shape was actually Hubert Kaa’s and Dieter Fischer’s idea. These two long-serving Hӧfner luthiers were following on with same traditions of involvement as Janez Janus’s earlier involvement with the Jazzica development which was described in the previous chapter. A new Verithin model could be made with a close appearance to the 1960’s guitars with their spruce and flame maple bodies and traditional Hӧfner humbucking pickups. The only real “improvement” that had to be incorporated would be the sustain block which of course is hidden inside the guitar’s body.

Just one problem – the name “Verithin”, which was the name given to the guitar by Ben Davies of Selmer London. Although that company had ceased trading many years ago, Hӧfner still had to consider who now owned any rights to the name. There was however an easy solution - simply change the letter “i” for a “y” and call the new guitar the “Verythin”. Easy!


The Verythin Classic

A few prototypes of the new Verythin were made up in late 1999; some initially with 24 fret fingerboards and some with the finally adopted 22 frets. Various types of hardware were also tried before the by-now fairly large committee of interested parties, Messrs Schöller, Fischer, Kaa, Olsen, and Stockley, were satisfied. The Verythin Classic was born.

Hubert Kaa working on a Hӧfner Verythin Classic.

Hӧfner introduced the Verythin Classic model in 2000, a guitar that certainly had the same body shape and very thin 30mm depth of the old 1960’s model, but there the similarity ended. This new guitar was intended to impress, with its blonde nitrocellulose finish, beautiful figured African Maple (Anigre) back and rims, ebony fingerboard inlaid with mother of pearl block fretmarkers on a European rock maple neck, gold plated hardware, oh and those stylish “slash-design” soundholes. Perhaps Hӧfner decided to also provid it with the gold-plating, ebony fingerboard, pearl block fretmarkers in order to help span the differences between the new model and the old Nightingale that it replaced and so achieve a smoother transition of style.

2003 Hӧfner Verythin Classic.

A spruce sustain block was of course fitted to the centre of the body. Two Kent Armstrong designed mini-humbucking pickups (Type 514) with traditional Hӧfner “diamond logo” covers were fitted, together with what appeared to be conventional individual volume and tone controls, plus three-way selector. However, the two tone pots were far from being conventional, as both controlled the “Clear Contour” circuits which provided a twin-coil sound up to “8” and a single-coil sound from “8” to “10”.

Rob Olsen had actually been the person who made an approach to Kent Armstrong about designing a mini-humbucking pickup for Hӧfner. Kent agreed to work on providing Hӧfner with the best specification for the pickups to suit Hӧfner’s purposes. The pickups were then manufactured by Schaller in Germany, and these are still the ones being fitted to many Hofners up to the present day.

No pickguard was fitted as standard, but an option of a black celluloid guard was in fact offered in some catalogues. I have yet to see a Classic so equipped.

Another 1960’s feature that was incorporated into the Classic’s design was the use of a “Lyre” tailpiece instead of the “stop-tail” units that had been fitted on the Nightingales and the “T” semis before that. All–in-all, the Verythin Classic showed signs of typical committee design confusion and compromise, but this actually resulted in a very attractive and certainly an individualistic guitar. Current owners of this model tend to hang on to them, as can be seen by the fact that very few are seen up for sale. The Classic remained in the catalogue for over ten years, up to the end of 2010, when it was replaced with a lower specification but less-expensive version called the Verythin Special which is described in Chapter 16.

Hofner resurrected the Verythin Classic and Standard models for a short period in 2018, this time with dot fret-markers on the fingerboard of the Classic model instead of the previous mother of pearl block markers. Only a handful of these German-guitars were produced, perhaps because by that time Hofner were producing various Verythin models in their Far East workshops at a much more competitive price level.

 2018 Hӧfner Verythin Classic.

The Verythin Vintage

After a year in 2001, Hӧfner introduced another variation on the Verythin Classic - the Verythin Vintage. This guitar was basically a Classic finished with brown violin varnish and with a traditional Hofner rectangular control console fitted for the electrics instead of the much more comprehensive arrangement of the Classic. On the console, two of the slide switches turned each pickup on and off, with the third switch providing series or parallel wiring on the bridge pickup.

 2002 Hӧfner Verythin Vintage.

The Vintage was in fact the first Hӧfner guitar model to be given a violin varnish finish, followed soon after by a few of the President archtops. Perhaps Hӧfner were again trying to achieve a “traditional” look in order to attract the old customers but still make sales to guitarists looking for a good quality but individualistic guitar. No one playing a Verythin Vintage could ever be accused of following the Gibson crowd!

Unfortunately, very few Vintages were sold, perhaps less than 20, and so the model disappeared from the price lists at the end of 2005.


The Verythin Standard

In 2002, Hӧfner finally introduced a Verythin version that was more similar in concept to the old Verithin of the 1960’s. The Verythin Standard appeared as a straightforward, no-nonsense semi with a 30mm very thin body. It still managed to resist the urge of the herd to look like a Gibson 335, although in fact the replacement of the Classic’s lightweight Lyre tailpiece with a heavy stop-tailpiece was intended to provide for a darker sound than the Classic, more akin to that of the Gibson.

2002 Hӧfner Verythin Standard.

Conventionally shaped F-holes replaced the Classic’s slashes, and a laminated African maple (Anigre) top was specified as for the back and rims. The fingerboard was honest down-to-earth rosewood with fret-marker dots, and there was no sign of any gold plating. Hӧfner were now back in the business of producing workhorses. Even the “Clear Contour” tone control was absent!

The pickups were initially the Kent Armstrong designed mini-humbuckers, but these were changed from around 2005/06 onwards to full-size Schaller units (Type 515). The intention of this was to provide the Standard with an even darker sound, more suitable for playing the blues. The Verythin Classic continued to use the mini-humbuckers in order that the potential customer should still have the option of these lighter-sounding pickups.

Of course, Hӧfner being Hӧfner, a little bling was still required. This actually came by the bucket-load in the beauty of the Anigre figured body which was highlighted even more by the nitrocellulose Transparent Cherry and Transparent Amber finishes on offer. The guitar looked fabulous! It immediately became a much better seller than the Classic, with initial sales of around 90 units per year and a total of about 450 before it was discontinued in 2008.


The Verythin JS Signature

The “JS” stands for John Stowell, the famous American jazz guitarist and guitar teacher. Rob Olsen bumped into him in 2000, and they began discussing Hӧfner guitars. John explained that he liked the looks of the Jazzica, but felt that it was too large an instrument for him. Rob showed him a Verythin, and he liked it but asked if it could be made to look more like the Jazzica. So, Rob put the problem back to Hagenau and after a few ideas had been passed around, the JS Signature model was born.

2009 Hӧfner "JS" Signature Model.

The design that John and Hӧfner came up with comprised of a Verythin Classic, with its laminated spruce top and (maybe strangely for a jazz guitar) a center spruce sustain block, but with a single mini-humbucker pickup located at the neck. On earlier examples of the model, this pickup was mounted directly onto the top of the body top, whereas on later guitars it had a floating pickup suspended from the end of the fingerboard. Single body mounted volume and tone controls were fitted, and a “Clear Contour” circuit was controlled by the rotary tone control.

The body edge purfling of the Classic was retained, as was the mother-of-pearl block fretmarker inlays in the ebony fingerboard and the gold plated hardware, but a New President style ebony faced tailpiece and ebony pickguard were also included in the package. Two finishes were available – the nitrocellulose natural blonde or the brown violin varnish.

The model proved to be popular, with Ringo Starr and Paul Carrack both being owners of violin-varnished “JS” Signatures. Other Jazz guitarists to use the model include Sid Jacobs and Jimmy Wyble.

The first examples were shipped in December 2001, and from then steadily on until 2010, with a total of around 150 being produced. This is all rather odd, as the JS didn’t appear in the general Hӧfner catalogues until 2004 and the price list until 2005, when it was described as being “New”! A check on the shipping destinations prior to 2005 shows that these guitars were almost exclusively being sent to the US, and so it would appear that the US distribution organisation at the time had got right behind the model from its inception in the days of Boosey & Hawkes.

The Verythin Evolution 3

Just as back in the 1960's with their 4575 model, Hӧfner in the new 21st Century could not resist the idea of putting three pickups onto a Verythin. So, in 2009 the Verythin Evolution 3 model was introduced. This totally German-made guitar was based on the Verythin Classic model, with "slash-style" soundholes, and ebony fingerboard, and block fretmarkers. The same Hӧfner mini-humbuckers were used as previously fitted to the earlier Verythin Standard guitars, but with a fairly complex wiring. Together with a single master volume control, two tone switches were fitted which operated on the neck and bridge outer pickups and these allowed the output of the centre pickup to be blended in with either or both of the outer pickups which themselves were controlled by a conventional 3-way selector switch.

2009 Hӧfner Verythin Evolution 3.

With its beautiful brown sunburst nitro-cellulose finish, the Evolution 3 was a visually stunning guitar. However, it was only produced for a year or so, before being replaced in 2010 by the lower specification Verythin Custom model, a guitar which formed part of a range introduced by Hӧfner in 2010 and intended as more-affordable Verythin semi-acoustic archtops.  However before that happened, the next major development in the modern-day Verythin saga had come along in 2005 in the form of Hӧfner's "CT" Contemporary "budget" range from the Far East - as described in the next chapter.

Violin Varnish

The idea of using Violin Varnish, otherwise known as shellac, as a finish for guitars came from Sid Jacobs, the US Jazz guitarist who had accompanied Rob Olsen on the first visit to Hagenau in 1999. Whilst looking around the workshop, he noticed the varnish being applied to violins and took an immediate liking to that finish. Hӧfner took up his suggestion and began experimenting with shellac in an attempt to make the finish more durable, and hence more capable of absorbing the punishment that guitars are expected to suffer “on the road”. After failing to improve shellac’s wearing properties however, Hӧfner finally decided that shellac couldn’t really be improved in that respect. Owners would therefore have to accept that slight draw back in comparison to conventional finishes, but be rewarded by their guitar looking and sounding great.

Most people love the Violin Varnish finish, but of course there are still a few owners who can become concerned about pore lines, pit marks, and general wear, all of which has to accepted as part of owning a guitar with such a traditional finish.

 The rear view of a beautiful Hӧfner New President, finished in Violin Varnish.






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