I suppose this saga begins, as it had with most kids, on the evening of February 9, 1964. This was the first American performance of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. I was only 12 years old, but certainly enthralled with this “new wave” of music coming to America. Watching on our black and white TV, through the normal transmission static, there they were…..these four young guys from Liverpool, England, with very different haircuts, clothing style, and most importantly, different music. At that time in my life, I was just beginning to explore an interest in music, and trying to find the instrument which allowed me to express a yet untried talent.
The piece that immediately caught my eye, and in years to come would have a very distinct effect on me, was the violin-shaped bass guitar of Paul McCartney. I can’t explain why exactly, but I think some things in life stick with you, and you are just incredibly attracted to them.
Well I did end up finding my instrument of choice, and playing for years in a band through the late 60’s and 70’s, but it wasn’t a bass guitar. It was drums. Yea, surprising, I guess. But the upside was, that throughout those band years, and with the help of my bandmates, I did learn to play guitar. No, still not bass guitar.
Over the next 20 years came the responsibilities of raising a family, mortgage, job, etc., etc. I still stayed connected to music though the odd fill in and studio session, but continued to play guitar ( no, still not bass) casually with friends from time to time.
Throughout all those years, though, I never lost the love of that 1963 Hofner 500-1 violin bass of Paul McCartney’s. I had searched from time to time to acquire one, and did in fact find a few, but with all the other responsibilities of life still surrounding me, it was next to impossible.
Flash forward to 2008. I had all but given up on my dream. A friend of mine had called me to show me his new acquisition……… a 1964 set of “Ringo” Ludwig drums that Ludwig had been used as a touring set through the 60’s to travel from music store to music store. Absolutely correct and original, it still had the Beatles logo on the front bass drum head. Awesome, indeed !!!!
Well, as you can imagine, I was totally inspired. Yes, as a drummer and a Beatles fan, I was certainly impressed. But…………it had another very interesting affect…………. I wondered if I could at last find the guitar I had searched for all my life.
At this point in time, it was 50 years later. Although there had been much documentation on the McCartney-specific 1963 Hofner violin bass, there were likely not many left in reasonable condition. But, I figured with the help of this “new tool” called the internet, I should be able to make some headway, so I will give this search another shot.
I should point out that, to most people, the Hofner violin bass through all its years of production look identical. It’s actually not. There were a number of changes both physically and electronically from year to year. Unlike automotive production which completely retools each year for the new models, Hofner guitar production in the 50’s and 60’s would “slowly” blend into the next year of production as the parts bins depleted. What this means is that an early year model could still have parts from the previous year. This is, in fact, how the McCartney 1963 Hofner 500-1 was produced, and what makes it unique from a collector’s point of view. It’s generally known as a 1963 model, with 1962 specs.
Ok, so here I go spending hours on the internet searching and searching. I went through e-bay, personal ads, music store ads. It was getting very, very frustrating. I ended up contacting Hofner USA. After we progressed through them trying to sell me a re-issue of that guitar, they finally understood my plight. They mentioned that in the early 60’s, there were very few of those guitars shipped to North America, and likely, after all this time, probably not many, if any at all, surviving. The suggestion was to try European sites, as most of these guitars were shipped there. Away I go, and spent the next several weeks on European sites.
The more I researched, the more I found that all roads seemed to lead to one specific music store in London, England which specialized in vintage guitars. I immediately made direct contact with them via e-mail, and hence started a load of communication on my search.
Well, as fate would have it, they knew of the exact guitar I was looking for being sold out of a private collection. When the pictures were sent to me, I couldn’t believe my eyes ! This was not only in pristine condition with the original finish, but it was “ McCartney spec”… to every detail and piece, right down to specific numbers and stampings. Incredible !! This guitar would have to have been assembled within days of McCartney’s !
Now comes the negotiation phase, which took the better part of a month to complete. Once we came to an agreement, I was not about to hand over any money until I actually saw and played this guitar ( yea, ok, I still didn’t play a bass).
My plan was to fly to London, England for a couple of days, checkout the guitar, and return ( Hopefully with it ) Sounds simple, eh ?
Step one……… running this idea by your wife. OK, I thought it would be easy. Mmmmmmmmm just a little mistaken. So my two day trip to London, turned into “ why don’t we both go for a week’s vacation. Ok, dear, no problem. And off we went. Although, I jest, I didn’t realize this was the start of an incredible personal adventure which I will remember for the rest of my life.
The date was April 2010. We had just landed at London, Heathrow airport, and discovered we were the last flight in before they closed the airport due to the Icelandic volcano eruption. What luck !!
We found the hotel, and the next morning made our way to the music store that I had been communicating with. Well, due to the closure of all European flights, my guitar, which was to arrive from another country, was held up in Germany. The proprietor was quite gracious, and knowing we had never visited England before, asked if we would like to accompany him to a local pub. He showed us some of the local area, and we spent a great deal of that afternoon chatting with him. The more we talked, the more we found out about each other. Turns out he was an original member of Jethro Tull. Wow! This opened up a whole plethora of conversation and interest. Over the course of our stay, we ended up having some very interesting conversations ( and many beverages) with him.
So, the skies are shut down, and no travel in or out, and my guitar is held up in Germany. So my wife and I decided to make the best of it and do the “tourist thing”. We walked, took bus tours, ate the local fair…………………….for the next two weeks !!! Yes, the skies were still shut down, as this was a very serious event, indeed.
We did make it to Abbey Road studios, and 3 Saville Way just out of shear interest. Many people don’t realize that Abbey Road is a very busy thoroughfair. Also, we ( as every crazoid tourist does) got a picture walking across the famous zebra crossing at the corner by the studio. Not long after the two week point, flights were beginning to move, and my wife headed home. I refused to leave without this guitar. I had come so far, and waited far too long for this.
Over the next subsequent week, I checked in regularly with the music store, but ended up spending many evenings with “Jethro Tull man”. He owned a number of music stores in the area, but asked me if I would like to see one of his acquisitions, which happened to be the studio where The Rolling Stones had done some early recordings, and The Kinks recorded the final version of “ You Really Got Me”. Awesome ! I was not going to refuse this, for sure. Great opportunity, indeed.
Well, my flight home had been rescheduled a few times through that third week, but I was to be leaving on the Friday. We final received confirmation that my guitar would be arriving Thursday afternoon at Stanstead airport north of London. So off we went, and picked it up. Couldn’t wait to see it. Once I opened it, there was no question…… this was the “real deal”, and what I had been waiting for over so many years.
Once back at the music store, we checked it out thoroughly, and completed the deal. This was around 5pm on the Thursday evening. We were pretty much wrapping things up and saying our farewells, when he said to me, “ Hey, you are a Beatles fan. Have you ever seen Paul McCartney’s office ? With that, we walked a few blocks from the music store to a little courtyard with all very well-kept century old, mulit-floor buildings. One, though, had a very modern glass front, and the letters MPL over the front door. ( Paul McCartney Limited ) As we approached ( and I was snapping pictures ) he said,” look, there’s Paul McCartney’s car. ( a red Lexus ). I said, “ How do you know Paul McCartney’s car ?” He responded by saying “we all know it around here.
Do you recognize the driver?” I say “Sure, It’s the guy who catches and throws McCartney his guitars on stage, and has been with him over 25 years as his guitar pro/personal assistant”. So off I go to snap a few shots of this guy, the car, and the licence plate. I’m beside the car which is parked directly in front of the building, with no-one around, when I look to my right, and who is getting off the elevator but Paul McCartney himself ! Wow, I couldn’t have timed it any better. I was certainly going to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As soon as he exited the building doors, I said “ hey Paul”. Now from what I had heard he was very pompous and unfriendly. Certainly not the case at all ! He looked at me ( I was carrying the guitar in it’s case),saw the guitar, and said “ all right then” and walked over to me. After giving him my “ elevator pitch” of what led me to London, we talked for a few minutes about the guitar. I think he was both surprised and relieved that I didn’t mention anything about the Beatles or ask him for an autograph or picture.
My intention was to keep him talking longer, as the conversation would be over if I asked something of him. As we were talking someone did pass by and ask for his autograph, at which time I snapped a quick photo, but I was surprised that when finished signing, he turned back to me and continued our conversation. We were wrapping up and he raised his hand, and we shook. Wow, I was just so star struck. All-in-all we spoke for maybe 5 min., but it is the most memorable 5 min I can think of, and certainly something which not only capped off my guitar adventure, but provided a great moment in my life !
Now to get this guitar back home in one piece. I think everyone has heard of the guy who was transporting his Taylor guitar with him, and American Airlines forced him to put it in cargo. As he watched out the window, the airline staff were loading the guitar by throwing it into the belly of the plane. Needless to say, the guitar was seriously damaged. I decided this was not going to happen to me !!! I was flying Air Canada back to Toronto, and they told me the same thing. It must go in cargo. Mmmmm not a chance in hell ! My solution……………I bought a seat for it. My Hofner sat right beside me for the entire trip. Safe and sound.
OH yea…………… Today, I still don’t really play bass guitar, but it’s fun learning !!