This is meant as only a very basic and historical overview; the field of German guitar history and collecting is very challenging due to limited sources of information, language barriers and the relative rarity of most German guitars in America. For the purposes of this overview I am only referring to the period between the late 1950’s and early 1970’s, and any reference to “guitars” should also be understood to mean bass guitars as well.
Most German manufacturers built to a high degree of skill and artistry; German archtops are among the most beautiful and desirable of that style of instrument and the Hofner “violin bass” models have remained popular since they were introduced almost 50 years ago due to their sound, feel and aesthetically pleasing design. I would suppose that the limited success of German guitars in the American market is due to two simple factors:
American guitars and basses for any range of players from beginners to professionals were already available.
Other U.K., European and Japanese manufacturers got to the U.S. market during the big sales boom of the ‘60’s and there wasn’t enough demand for most German instruments other than the Hofner “Beatle Bass.”
WEST GERMANY Federal Republic of Germany (FDR, 1949-1990)
A long history of stringed instrument production, post-war occupation by American armed forces and the popularity of jazz and rock and roll music in the 1950's-60’s created an environment in West Germany that was uniquely suited to the proliferation of guitar builders. In the aftermath of World War II and the subsequent Cold War era, America’s Armed Forces Network (AFN) set up radio stations across Europe with a particularly large presence in a number of major German cities including Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt. AFN broadcasted American jazz and pop music and was extremely influential, since radio in most European countries was state-run with limited and strictly controlled broadcast content. French national radio, for example, had (and still has) a quota requirement of a majority of broadcasted content being in the French language. Despite considerable public interest in American music throughout Europe, it was rarely played on the radio. Thus, AFN provided the most accessible American music to European listeners, with Germany as the central hub.
The combination of a large and established guitar manufacturing industry, the influence of American music broadcasted by AFN and the presence of thousands of American service personnel stationed in Germany would create a particularly energetic musical environment in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. German youth culture in the 50’s and 60’s was quite enthusiastic about both jazz and rock and roll music. Beatles historians will be familiar with the wild shows and incidents during their Hamburg period of 1960-62, and they were just one of many British bands playing the German club circuit at the time. Elvis Presley notably picked up a black Isana archtop while stationed with the Army in Bad Nauheim, and certainly many other U.S. service personnel did the same from the 1950’s onwards.
The German guitar manufacturers of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were busy supplying quality instruments to jazz, pop and rock bands across Europe and in the U.K., where American instruments were either unavailable or priced too high for most musicians (especially beginners) to afford. This would remain true in Britain until the mid-sixties due to economic factors and import restrictions and tariffs. Various other European countries also manufactured guitars but aside from Italy few of them had anything close to the industry or established history of the German luthiers. Germany had a long history of producing stringed instruments, and after WWII most instrument production was centered around the Erlangen/Bubenreuth region in the south of the country.
These manufacturers varied considerably in their production numbers, model standardization, distribution and other factors. Hofner and Framus stand out as probably the largest scale of builders, with relatively high production numbers and multinational distribution. Klira, Hopf, Hoyer, Isana, Roger, Dynacord and other builders had varying levels of production and distribution and the international market became much tougher when American instruments were more readily available in the U.K. and Europe; American instruments by Fender, Gibson and others were desirable not only for their quality but their intrinsic connection to American music, and many musicians were quite willing to replace their British and European made instruments for American guitars they had long been admiring from afar.
In 2014 Randy Bachman (expert and collector of German archtops) stated that “The Hoyer and Hopf factories weren’t even factories, more like garages” and it can be observed that the same pickups and hardware are often interchangeable through many brands, and eventually almost all the solidbody guitar makers would experiment with vinyl or plastic body finishes. Pickups, tuners, bridges and other components would likely be made in machine shops supplying several manufacturers and the guitar builder would be primarily concerned with the woodwork aspect. Thus we see Hofners, Hopfs and Isanas that all have similar components and the difference is primarily in the construction and finishes; Hofner usually being fairly conservative in design (excepting the notorious “Fleidermaus” showpiece guitars that featured a bat shape and internal amplifier) Hoyer being avant-garde and extravagant in the use of inlay, carving and celluloid and the other makers using a wide variety of designs and materials.
Two hardware peculiarities are notable in German guitars, West and East:
The use of separate bridges and tailpieces (often trapeze type tailpieces and floating bridges) on solidbody instruments. There is no easy explanation for this; was it simply traditional construction or just trying to use the same kinds of parts for solidbodies and archtop/hollowbody instruments to save money and inventory? In any case, it seems odd and quaint now.
The use of guitar-sized tuners for basses; these might be all-metal Schallers or pearloid/plastic buttoned but the small tuners remained on many basses later into the 1960’s after falling out of use elsewhere.
Graham Stockley, Guitar Product Manager at Höfner stated in an interview for Vintage Guitar that “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.”
When the international guitar boom started to wane in the latter 1960’s, German manufacturers struggled and tried to find ways to stay solvent by different strategies. Some brands focused on making higher quality versions of American guitars (Framus,) some stayed with their traditionally popular models and reduced overseas export (Hofner,) and others simply got out of the electric guitar market (Hopf.)
Other than Hofner and Framus making some inroads in the North American market in the 1960’s, most German guitars remained fairly rare in North America until the age of the internet and international shipping in the 2000’s, although I have seen a fair number of Kliras around since the 1980’s, which makes me wonder about their distribution. I have also seen a catalog of the Vitali Import Co. of Maywood, CA from 1976 that included 2 Klira basses and one Huttl guitar, but a catalog page alone is not necessarily proof of significant numbers being shipped. I have not seen any indications that Hopf, Hoyer, Dynacord, Isana or other German guitars were ever imported in to the U.S. and thus I would assume that any that are in the States have only arrived through private sales and shipping.
It has been observed that any products including musical instruments made in West Germany between WWII and 1960 would often be labeled “Made in Germany;” the distinction between West and East on labels of exported goods was not very prevalent until the 1960’ s. And East Germany (the GDR or DDR) didn’t export much to western countries anyway.
EAST GERMANY German or Deutsche Democratic Republic (GDR or DDR, 1949-1990)
Official Communist media in the GDR ridiculed Western popular culture, especially jazz and rock music and tried in vain to dissuade East German youth from interest in decadent Western trends. Unfortunately for them, the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and AFN were audible in most of the GDR, and the state did not shut down production of musical instrument factories.
In the general assessment of collectors and players, instruments from the Eastern Bloc can be rated in quality by country of manufacture. While many of these are now interesting for historical value or very odd design features, it is generally agreed that the East German and Czech guitars were the best available behind the Iron Curtain and the others usually lagging far behind in all criteria.
It is also worth noting that many of the East German manufacturers (as well as the Jolana Musical Instrument Company, in Czechoslovakia) and regional centers of guitar building had a long history of musical instrument manufacturing going back several centuries and rooted in the violin family of instruments. The general assessment of players and collectors is that the quality is not as high as western instruments in terms of lutherie and the woods used are not standardized; probably a lot of this can be ascribed to lack of quality control without the motivation of a free market of competition and irregular supplies of necessary hardwoods.
In looking at Eastern Bloc guitars one can observe that whatever woods were available were used as best as possible and as long as models looked right the woods used on bodies and necks were not always the same on the same models. This in itself is not as bad as it sounds; it has been revealed that Fender did the same quite frequently dependent on supply. One particularly interesting observation of Eastern guitars is that if rosewood or ebony was not available then beech fingerboards were simply stained or painted to simulate the look!
East German manufacturers are even harder to research than West German. Manufacturing records or histories are either not accessible or are only available on German language websites and frequently the guitars seem much the same except for different badging. Without a capitalist economy the marketing factor was also missing or substantially reduced, of course. One factor that stands out on East German guitars is the use of colored celluloid or plastic (“bowling ball” or “mother of toilet seat”) finishes on guitar bodies and headstocks late into the 1960’s if not 1970’s, by which time those materials were considered quite out of style in Western countries.
WHERE DO I FIND VINTAGE GERMAN GUITARS? Well, this has become much easier; Ebay, Ebay.de (Germany) several online dealers (mostly in Germany and Europe) and just keeping your eyes open can pay off. The guitar business of the 21st century is a lot smaller than it used to be, thanks to technology.
LIST OF MANUFACTURERS/BRANDS Some of these may be sub-brands, particularly the East German list. Following the brand name is the estimated founding of the company, if available. This is by no means a comprehensive list, just the main brands that I am aware of.
West Germany Hofner (1887) Hopf (founded 1669) Framus (founded 1946) Klira (1887) Hoyer (1874) Roger Isana (1951) Huttl Dynacord
East Germany Musima (1952) Migma (1943) Meinel und Herold (1893) Perlgold Herrnsdorf TACO (Tauscher and Co.)
Selected Bibliography and Websites Used as Reference