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This article was originally published in issue #40
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Sweden's Hagstrom may not have been at the forefront of guitar design but for a while back in the 1960s, the company did have a following and, particularly in Europe, achieved some success. Originally an accordion maker, by 1958 it had got into the spirit of Rock and Roll and was making its own idiosyncratic guitars. They're much liked by the sort of people who like the design of Italian guitars of the early 1960s but, not to put too fine a point on it, they were much better made and far more playable than most of the Italian rivals. In both cases, however, think sparkly finishes, pearloid plastic and stamped metal logos!
Hagstrom had a number of 'firsts' too - including the first 8-string bass, the H8, which was made a bit of a legend by Jimi Hendrix. They also made a number of semi-acoustic and Jazz models, some of which command quite high prices today on the vintage market. One feature the company was particularly proud of and which is still is in use is its H-Expander truss rod system.
So Hagstrom certainly played its part in guitar history and has been bubbling around once again, since it was reintroduced as a brand a few years ago with a range of models inspired by those 1960s guitars. They are very much aimed at the Indie player who really does not want to be seen with a superstrat, a Fender or a Gibson.
The model we're reviewing here is the Impala, heavily based on a model launched in 1963 - and doesn't it look it? Let's say now that liking the looks of this guitar (or not) is really an aesthetic decision. You either get it or you don't! Our reviews concentrate, as far as possible, on the objective points of a guitar, so we'll leave the decision about whether or not you like the Impala's looks to you.
Pulling it from the case it certainly is a unique looking instrument and one of the first things you notice is the array of switches, leaving you wondering what they all do, and probably whether they are they all necessary! This was a common design 'feature' at the time. European guitar makers decided that the more switches and knobs you put on a guitar the better would-be players thought it was - a design feature which went to some pretty absurd lengths at times! Mind you, Fender might have caught a dose of the same bug at the time when they designed the Jaguar and Jazzmaster, so no one was immune.
The finish on our sample was of a pretty high quality though, personally, I'm not a fan of the stamped metal name on the body, but, again, it fits with the 'tradition'. The neck is mahogany with a rosewood fingerboard, and it's a set neck - in other words a traditional glued joint, so there's no bulky neck joint to get in the way and the perfect marriage between body and neck. As with all Hagstrom guitars, the Impala uses the company's unique H-Expander truss rod. “Providing tension at both ends and running the entire length of the neck, the rigid yet light-weight alloy truss rod allows for a very low action and thin neck”, the company says. The Impala does actually have a very thin neck making it an easy to play guitar, however, our sample didn’t have a particularly low action - not that that's necessarily a bad thing. The slightly higher action meant there were no fret buzzing issues or intonation problems, for example. I did have a slight issue with the nut on our example, though. Exuberant bends on the high E string tended to pop the string out of the nut, which was annoying. This could be sorted easily with a little light file work, but you don’t expect to have to do that kind of thing on a new guitar.
The mahogany asymmetric double cutaway body was comfortable to play and the use of mahogany throughout gave a warm tone while making the guitar fairly in light weight. The Impala is fitted with a Hagstrom Vintage Tremar tailpiece which looks kind of cool and very vintage, but it is never going to stand up to much abuse. If dive bombs and whammy bar tricks are your thing this is definitely not the trem for you, any more than would be a vintage Bigsby. On the other hand, if you like a light shimmer on chords then this should hold up fine and I didn’t have any tuning issues.
The two Alnico 5 Retro S pickups deliver good quality sound with clarity, depth and sparkle, which leads me on to all those switches... Getting your head round all the options is going to take some time, and annoyingly there was no instruction book that outlines “this switch does this” which means trial and a lot of error. From what I can make out, you can switch between pickups, or a combination of both, there is a mute switch (but this only works depending where the other switches are) and a bass cut which, although useful, seems to drop the overall volume too, which is unfortunate.
There is absolutely no doubt that you can get a great number of different sounds out of this guitar from the multitude of options and to be fair the tones are very good, from cutting highs to deep lows, but boy it's a complex set-up! I can also see that switching whilst playing could be a bit of a nightmare. It's not like just switching a pickup selector with your little finger: here you have a row of SIX switches and you have to be aware of where they each are to get the sound you want and not inadvertently switch the mute on! This will be right up the street of players that like complex control options like those found on a Fender Jag, but if you want a pick up and play type thing then this may well just annoy and frustrate.
The Hagstrom Impala is a good sounding guitar and for the most part well made (hopefully the nut issue noted above was a one-off). It plays well and the set neck makes upper fret access a breeze, the body was comfortable to play and the overall balance was very good. I would be nervous about giving the tailpiece too much stick however and the switching options are a bit to over the top and not clear enough for this reviewer. If you like something unique with options above and beyond anything you could dream of, and you like that vintage look then the Impala could just be what you are looking for but this is one you are definitely going to want to audition for yourself before you buy.