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Hagstrom HJ-500 Guitar

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It’s been a while since the name Hagstrom was kicked around by jazz guitarists. In the ’60s, the Swedish company manufactured a Jimmy D’Aquisto-designed guitar with an oval soundhole and a floating humbucking pickup. It resembled an Epiphone Howard Roberts model, though at a more affordable price. Hagstrom is now back on the scene with their new line of affordable jazz-friendly guitars introduced at this year’s NAMM show.

The new HJ-500 and the old ’60s D’Aquisto are two entirely different animals unplugged. A sound block underneath the HJ-500’s saddle braces the maple top and back. Two HJ-50 humbuckers are routed into the top along with four pots mounted to the body. Very little acoustic sound emanates from its f-holes, but one gets the impression that archtop resonation wasn’t the objective here. When plugged in, the HJ-500 boasts a warm and punchy tone, electric in nature with lots of sustain. There’s a patented new design that may be a contributing factor, a wood composite “Resinator” fretboard that also aims to maintain solid intonation and eliminate buzzing strings, dead spots and wolf tones. The fretboard, sound block, pickups and composite graphite nut all seemingly work together, producing enough sustain to make even Nigel Tufnel smile. The 16-inch body with a depth around 2 7/8-inches makes for comfortable seated playing, and its weight is moderate enough for easy stand-up play.

Getting around its fretboard is a breeze due in part to the H-Expander truss rod traveling the entire length of the neck. The fast action had nary a buzz anywhere, even with a practically straight neck. With the 24.75-inch neck’s lower tension, guitarists may want to swap out the stock strings with something heavier. A set of .013’s could improve the acoustic tone and fatten up the electric sound with greater resistance for the picking hand. All 21 factory jumbo frets look and feel superb. The block inlays are spartan with a slight variation at the 12th fret. Hagstroms still have their unique headstock shape that resembles a seven-string headstock with its flanged extension on the treble side. The binding on the headstock is a nice touch, quite ornate for a guitar with a street price of under $700. The pick guard shape remains unchanged except now it’s made of ebony. The trapeze tailpiece gets a new look closely matching a classic Guild tailpiece. Our post-NAMM model sported a fine black gloss finish with gold hardware. Other choices are a more traditional cherry sunburst or natural finish.

Inside the guitar there are a few corners cut, such as an absence of bracing along the sides. The maple top and back are maple on top of plywood, and glue streaks are easily spotted from the f-holes. My old Aria Herb Ellis model had the same issues. The bridge is reportedly ebony but perhaps of a below-average grade. Though an ebony bridge is a classic feature on many jazz guitars, I’m a bit surprised that a tune-o-matic bridge wasn’t used in its place. For guitarists wishing to switch the factory unwound “G” string to a wound “G,” an adjustment from a guitar tech may be needed. Since acoustic tone is minimal, the tune-o-matic may have been a better fit, insuring better intonation and easier setups. The tuners are Hagstrom 18:1 die-cast gold-plated with an art-deco nod to Grover tuners. They are a little small and hard to grip, but perhaps it’s just a matter of getting used to them. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like to know where my guitars are made. After looking the guitar over with a fine-toothed comb, it remained a mystery. The Hagstrom Web site will not reveal this fact, either. Are they made in Sweden like the Hagstroms of yesteryear? Nope. The HJ-500 was manufactured in China, as is the case with most of today’s budget jazz archtop guitars.

The bridge pickups on jazz boxes don’t always sound so good on their own. I found that blending the two pickups and adjusting the dual tone and volume pots offered up a nice array of tonal variances. This ax is comparable in its versatility to a semi-hollow-body guitar. The sound blocks eliminate feedback, and its two pickups make it a good all-purpose guitar. The laminated maple top works well for the HJ-500, making the guitar less finicky about changes in humidity than a solid top. For those who prefer a laminated spruce top, Hagstrom has the HJ-600, which comes in vintage sunburst and natural finishes. Their sturdy hardshell cases have thick padded handles that save your hands for the gig.

The new Hagstrom jazz models are solid student guitars and good backup axes for the pro player. Among the many guitars in this price range, the HJ-500 stands up favorably to the competition. For the player seeking nice acoustic tone I would advise going elsewhere. If electric tone and sustain with classic looks are what you’re looking for, the Hagstrom is a good buy.

Originally Published