“Lead me to your door”The Long and Winding Road, The Beatles
THE GREATEST MYSTERY IN ROCK AND ROLL
The trail of the Lost Bass
The trail of the Lost Bass starts in Hamburg.
In April 1961, The Beatles started a four-month residency at the Top Ten Club in the Reeperbahn; Hamburg’s boozy, red light district. The line up was Paul McCartney on piano and guitar. Stuart Sutcliffe on bass. John Lennon and George Harrison on guitar. And Pete Best on drums.
But this line up was short-lived. When Sutcliffe announced he was leaving the band to study at the University of Fine Art in Hamburg, The Beatles “elected” McCartney to take his place on bass. But there was one problem. McCartney didn’t have a bass. So in Spring 1961, 19-year-old Paul McCartney went to one of the most prestigious music shops in Hamburg, Steinway Musikhaus at Collonaden 29, and made his way to fourth floor where the guitars and drums were on sale.
From interviews given by McCartney, and from memories shared by the sales assistant at the Steinway shop, we know that McCartney didn’t have much money to spend. Despite working eight days a week on stage at the Top Ten Club, he had a budget of around £30. The Fenders were out of his price range. But he could afford a Höfner.
The sales assistant who sold McCartney his first Höfner bass was Günter Höper. When Hoper realised that McCartney was left-handed, he offered to order a left-handed bass from Höfner. Without knowing it, history was made.
“I’d gone out to Hamburg with a red Rosetti Solid 7, which was a real crappy guitar, but looked quite good. Stuart Sutcliffe was leaving the band and he wanted to stay in Hamburg, so we had to have a bass player. So I got elected bass player, or lumbered as the case may be.”
“I got my Violin Bass at the Steinway shop in the town centre. I remember going along and there was this bass which was quite cheap. It cost the German Mark equivalent of £30 or so.
“My dad had always hammered into us never to get into debt because we weren’t that rich. John and George went easily in debt and got beautiful guitars. John got a Club 40 and George had a Futurama – which is like a Fender copy – and then, later, Gretsches. Then John got the Rickenbackers. They were prepared to use hire-purchase credit. But it had been so battered into me not to do that, I wouldn’t risk it. All I could really afford was about £30.”
“So for about £30, I found this Hofner violin bass. And to me, because I was left-handed, it looked less daft because it was symmetrical. I got into that. And once I bought it, I fell in love with it.”Paul McCartney
McCartney used his 1961 bass until October 1963, playing hundreds of gigs and making numerous recordings when The Beatles . The Beatles’ first two albums were recorded with this bass, and all of their singles up to and including “She Loves You”.
This is the bass you hear on ‘Love Me Do’, ‘She Loves You’, and ‘Twist and Shout’.
It certainly worked hard! By the summer of 1963, it was starting to need some repairs, not surprising when you consider just how much it had been used, thrown into vans and generally moved around. The neck pickup frame had broken and was held together with black tape, a fix made, perhaps by Mal Evans, to keep the bass playing. At some point in the summer of 1963, a replacement bass was ordered and delivered to McCartney in October. The 61 would now become the backup bass.
In the spring of 1964, the 61 bass was sent off to Sound City for an overhaul and repairs though it is not known who decided to do this, nor precisely what they requested should be done. Whatever, the bass was significantly altered. It was completely resprayed, possibly by Burns, in a three-part dark sunburst poly finish, the two pickups were mounted in a single large (presumably) wooden housing, and the original “tea-cup” knobs were replaced with what seems to be knobs from a radio. Why such drastic action was taken is not known, as all it really required was a general overhaul, the broken pickup frame replaced and a thorough clean.
It would now be used as the backup bass and can be seen in several photographs, propped by the side of the stage, as The Beatles continued to tour. McCartney may have played it live once when a string broke on his 63 bass, and it is assumed not to have been used on any further recordings until 1968. It was used by McCartney in 1968 for the film of the song “Revolution” and is possibly the bass heard on the track on the White Album, though his Rickenbacker 4001 was probably used on the single version.
In January 1969, The Beatles began filming the Get Back/Let It Be sessions at Twickenham Film studios in London. The 61 and 63 basses can be seen in the ‘Get Back’ Peter Jackson documentary released in 2021 film, with McCartney using both guitars. On 7 January 1969, McCartney started writing Get Back, using his 1961 bass to build the driving rhythm.
On 21 January, filming was moved to the basement of Apple HQ at 3 Saville Row on January 21st. This is the last known sighting of the lost, bass with its distinctive sunburst body – days before John, Paul, George and Ringo went up onto the roof on 30 January 1969 to play for the last time.
At some time after the sessions, the 61 bass disappeared. It has not been seen since.
Nobody has ever clearly established where the bass was stored after the Get Back/Let It Be sessions, and nobody has come forward with an account of what happened to it. In this void, numerous theories and false sightings have occurred over the years.
Rumours and Fakes
Over the last 55 years, all sorts of rumours have emerged about where the bass went, and where the bass could be. One rumour says ‘someone’ stole McCartney’s bass from a closet at Abbey Road, along with two of George Harrison’s lead guitars. The thief is said to have simply picked up the guitars and walked out the front door, before disappearing into Swinging London.
Others say the bass went missing from the basement at the Beatles HQ at 3 Savile Row, whilst various bands and characters from the music industry partied 24 hours a day in the offices above.
Or perhaps it simply disappeared in some other way. Nobody really knows.
In 2015 the trail switched to Canada, and a mysterious McCartney fanatic known as ‘The Keeper’.
This sinister-sounding lead came from an impeccable source; author Philip Norman who wrote ‘Shout’, the definitive book on The Beatles, and ‘The Life’, the McCartney biography.
Norman was tipped off about The Keeper, who lives in Ottawa, by a taxi driver from Liverpool. Norman in turn told Paul McCartney, when the two met backstage at a concert in Liverpool in May 2015.
When McCartney left, one of his security team was seen speaking to Norman, typing details into his mobile phone.
And when McCartney’s team heard about a 1961 Höfner 500/1 Violin Bass coming up for auction in Los Angeles, Nick Wass was asked to fly to LA to verify that this was indeed McCartney’s original Höfner. But soon after, the bass was swiftly withdrawn from the sale. The murky world of stolen guitars is now awash with forgeries and fakes.
The Lost Bass Project
The Lost Bass team is carrying out targeted research based on existing information and insights – and they are gathering and responding to new information and insights, shared with the project by people around the world.
If you follow and support the project you can learn how to identify Paul McCartney’s original Höfner bass – and rule out the fakes. You can see the trail the lost bass has been on, following the mystery since 1961. You can get updates on the search today. And if you have credible information about the bass, this is your chance to share it and be part of music history.
With a little help from our friends – from fans and musicians to collectors and music shops – we can return the bass to where it once belonged. Paul McCartney has given us so much over the last 62 years. The Lost Bass project is our chance to give something back.
Nick Wass, who co-wrote ‘The Complete Violin Bass Story’ and is the world’s leading expert on McCartney’s missing bass, said: “While nobody really knows what happened to the bass, it was very likely stolen. To this day it remains a mystery. There have been rumours over the years, but this is all they amount to – just rumours. But someone somewhere knows what happened to this bass and where it is now. This information is out there if only the right person would come forward.”
To solve the greatest mystery in the history of Rock and Roll, Wass is working with Naomi Jones, a TV producer who has led major investigations at the BBC and Channel 4.
Naomi Jones said: “Paul McCartney’s lost bass changed the world. It’s a symbol of the amazing cultural and social revolution that The Beatles created in the Sixties. With this year marking sixty years since Love Me Do was released, and next year being the 60th anniversary of She Loves You, it’s time for fans around the world to come together, to help find the lost bass and get it back to where it once belonged.”
GUESS YOU KNOW IT’S TRUE?
The Lost Bass Mythbuster
As part of the project, we want to do a little myth-busting from time to time and answer any questions you have – so the focus is always on the facts.
Nick Wass is the world’s expert on Höfner and the missing McCartney bass. Nick co-wrote the definitive book about the Höfner 500/1 Violin Bass – ‘The Complete Violin Bass Story‘ – and has published several articles about Paul McCartney and his use of Höfner basses from 1961 onwards.
Myth Number One: McCartney purchased a right-handed bass and converted it to a left-handed bass.
NW: This simply isn’t possible without putting a whole new top onto the bass.
Myth Number Two: Steinways had a left-handed bass in stock and so sold him that one.
NW: There are no records and no evidence that Höfner had built a 500/1 bass left-handed before the bass that was ordered by Steinway for McCartney. Höfner’s catalogues and price list didn’t include a left-handed bass. There are no photographs of a left-handed bass before 1961, and nobody has ever claimed to have owned one. How likely is it that Höfner suddenly and speculatively decided to build a left-handed 500/1, that Steinways just happened to take delivery of, before McCartney just happened to walk in.
The Lost Bass Q&A
Q: Why did McCartney decide to buy a Höfner 500/1 bass?
NW: It is a question that has intrigued many over the years and a question that has no definite answer. Here are a few things we know, and a few things we can only speculate about:
- Höfner was a brand that McCartney was familiar with and would have known they were good quality. They were well known in Britain in the late 50s and early 60s, indeed there were very few, if any, American guitars available at that time. Harrison had used a Höfner President guitar and then swopped that for a Höfner Club 40 guitar. Lennon’s first electric guitar had been a Höfner Club 40. Sutcliffe had purchased a new Höfner 500/5 model bass and was still using it; McCartney is quoted as saying he used it for a while, playing it upside down.
- In 1960 the Silver Beetles (soon to change to The Beatles) were the backing band for Johnny Gentle on a tour around Scotland. During this tour, they played at the Northern Meeting Ballroom in Inverness on May 21st 1960. Also on the bill that night was Ronnie Watt and the Chekkers. Watt was the bass player and owned a 1957 Höfner 500/1 bass which he showed to McCartney, possibly the first he had seen. Did he remember it a year later when he was at Steinway? Who knows?
- The Beatles knew Tony Sheridan and his band The Jets who were also working in Hamburg. The bass player, Colin Melander (Crawley) owned a 500/1 bass which McCartney must have seen. Did this too influence his buying decision?
- My good friend Clement Cachot-Coulom, owner of Guncotton Guitars, told me recently that McCartney probably saw the 1956 film “The Girl Can’t Help It” which included Little Richard and his backing band. The bass player used a Gibson EB1 bass, which was also violin-shaped, although not very much like a Höfner 500/1. McCartney was a big fan of Little Richard. Did he remember the shape of that bass? Again, we simply don’t know.
- Perhaps he simply saw the bass, liked its look and how it played and decided to buy it because it was one he could afford.