European guitar builders made some of the most interesting 6-strings of the ’60s. Many Italian companies flirted with affordability and radical designs. Germany’s Hofner relied on more staid and traditional approaches. Sweden’s Hagstrom often took the middle road, and with pop-art-influenced styling and impossibly thin necks, their guitars looked and felt strikingly original. It’s little surprise that musical adventurers like David Bowie (who played a Hagstrom-built Kent during his Ziggy period) and Noel Redding (who single-handedly made their 8-string bass collectable) gravitated to the brand.
Given those ’60s psychedelic bonafides, it’s no wonder that the reigning king of psych-pop, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, was pictured sprawled out in his home studio on the back of the Lonerism long player with a Hagstrom Impala at the ready. (Perhaps the model’s name had a little something to do with it?) But the best part of the Parker/Hagstrom connection is that it prompted Hagstrom to revisit one of their coolest ’60s axes. And this new version combines many of the best and most idiosyncratic elements of the original with some smart concessions to the modern player.
The Vikings Return
My Impala arrived in a gig bag stout enough to allay concerns about not using a hard-shell case. It’s compact and light, yet surprisingly rigid and robust—perfect for tossing into a car, carrying around town, or on a plane. The guitar itself is very balanced. It feels nice hanging from a strap and is comfortable to play when seated. While many basic design elements seem rooted in the Fender aesthetic, some features hint at Gibson inspirations, like larger frets, a 24 3/4" scale, and a flatter fretboard radius.
A lot of moderately priced guitars leave the factory with a lousy setup. That’s certainly not the case here. All 22 frets were polished and smooth. The guitar came strung with .010s and I was easily able to lower the action even more and switch to my personal preference of .011s without experiencing any fret buzz. The set neck is flawlessly joined to the mahogany body. My hands comfortably moved up and down the neck, and bends felt great. Deep bends, in particular, felt relatively effortless thanks to the 15” radius. And even with the flat neck, chording felt easy for the presence of the larger frets. Some players may miss the fast, skinny profile of the original Hagstroms, but the C-profile neck on the modern version feels much more universal.
To conjure a little bonus ’60s spirit, I plugged into a Vox AC15 and got to work sussing the functionality of the electronics. The original Impala had a bank of eight switches on the lower body section that were labeled and organized by color. The reissue has six, but this time they are uniformly black, unlabeled Fender Jaguar-style sliders. This will be a letdown on the aesthetic front for many players (the original switches looked amazing). It also presents a practical problem, because there are no visual cues to differentiate the switches on a dark stage. While approximating the original switchwork was undoubtedly an expensive proposition, it seems that Hagstrom could have sourced sliders in different colors.
The switch layout isn’t totally confounding once you’ve worked with it a bit. But switches like the mute, bass cut filter, and tone controls are unconventional by modern standards and can lead to some confusing moments if they are accidentally activated in the middle of a song. I unintentionally flicked the mute switch a few times, and I’m not sure why it’s not located in the most logical position in the row—last.
Original Impalas also had a traditional volume knob and a second volume lever situated at the treble waist carve, which was easy to adjust on the fly for swell effects. The new model relies on a single master volume knob, but for the most part it’s an equally effective design.
The tone switches are less flexible, in most respects, than conventional dials, but I occasionally switched the bridge pickup tone switch in and out, which added low-mid heft or thinned the signal as needed.
In the studio, the switchable tone options are a more manageable asset. The treble settings can be glass-shatteringly bright, but in a very cool way. I often play 12-string, and the Impala felt bright enough to work as a substitute—especially when I used a compressor. The more bass-heavy switch settings were darker than Stockholm on the winter solstice, but came to life and sounded great when I added a bit of grit. With a Devi Ever Gish fuzz box in the mix and the bridge pickup on the brightest setting, I got a killer, piercing “Heart Full of Soul” tone. I was very impressed with how period-correct the Retro-S alnico 5 pickups sounded in all settings.
The Tremar vibrato system is true to the original design: It has plusses and minuses. A unique height adjustment enables you to position the arm so it’s closer or further from the strings, depending on your preference. On the downside, there isn’t much pitch travel, you can’t perform pitch-up bends, it requires a little more effort than some vibrato units, and reducing tension can create tuning issues. But while the Tremar may not be as smooth as some Fender vibratos or a seasoned Bigsby, it is authentically period-correct Hagstrom.The Verdict
At just less that 600 bucks, the Impala is a lot of guitar for the money. The quality and setup are excellent. The pickups sound splendidly ’60s. The only real drawbacks are quirks inherent in the switchwork and vibrato, which Hagstrom elected to keep for reasons of authenticity. For garage rockers or experimental guitarists who may gravitate toward the Impala, it’s unlikely these are insurmountable issues.
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