Online reviews, especially those solicited by Amazon and their ilk, tend to be pretty useless. Most people that are compelled to write a review of something seem to do it out of a particular love for that thing, or conversely, because of a particular axe to grind. You see few 3/5s on Amazon.com, and I recently trawled all the reviews available on Guitarcentre.com and found little that did not represent amazing value.
For all of this, I could find little online in the past year to feed what I freely admit was becoming something of an obsession with the Hagström Viking semi-hollowbody electric guitar. I think I first read that these instruments were being reissued in late 2008, but you don’t see many in the wild, nor indeed, many reviews.
So, why the obsession? Well, I tend to be a fan of semi-acoustic guitars in general, although very few ever seem to match original Gibson models. But just a quick glance at the Viking tells you how much character it has, and if Hagstöm cannot boast the heritage of Gibson, the Viking can at least call upon quite some pedigree of its own. Secondly, Hagström is a Swedish brand, originally producing all their guitars from Älvdalen in central Sweden until the early 1980s (a casualty, it seems, of the trashy Strat copy business that sprung up at that time). And lastly, today’s Vikings are really, really cheap. I determined that if I got one, I would provide as full a review as I could – what you now see before you.
I took the plunge, then, breaking the golden rule (try before you buy) and ordered a Viking online. It saddens me to think that local guitar shops will suffer, but I was able to save about €200 doing so, bringing the Viking in at around €600. If I compare to my other semi-acoustics:
The Epiphone Sorento (on the left) cost €700 in 2002, and the Gibson ES-335 was $2,000 in 2007. The Hagström Viking is on the right.
the Viking is very competitive. Looking at the other two models, the Epiphone is Korean made, and retains a very faithful 1950s shape to it. The Gibson is the “dot” model with only a “satin” finish, making it just one step up from a studio model, but it is made in US. The Viking, by contrast, is the deluxe model, which was around €100 more than the standard. The components are mostly manufactured in the US, the guitar is assembled in China (and it is of course, still designed in Sweden).
There is one very important difference between these guitars: the Epiphone is a true hollow-body, while the Gibson and the Hagström are semi-hollow bodies (meaning that the neck is a single piece that continues through the length of the body, making two small sound compartments, rather than one large one).
I tend to look at a lot of guitars, and love-at-first-sight with anything that is not a Gibson tends to be rare for me, but I will admit, it was the Viking’s looks that ensnared me.
The Viking immediately gets placed in the ES-335-clone camp because that is essentially its capability (semi-hollowbody, two humbuckers, two cutaways, dual volume and tone controls). And yes, the 335 is a design classic (and without wishing to give too much away, remains my ultimate guitar). But the Hagström is daring, has its name splashed over its (daringly shaped) pick-guard and has a tighter body shape. The body is more squat, flaring lower down, and the horns are slightly pinched, giving the whole instrument a slightly more “attacking” feel, compared to the ES-335’s more feminine shape:
While the Gibson feels fairly timeless, the Hagström is more of a style piece, having something of a 70s feel -the Guild Starfire (no longer in production since Guild were bought out by Fender), has similar lines to the Viking. But it is not the body shape that really stands out on the Viking. It is the sheer quantity of design and accoutrement.
For example, the Viking sports a luxurious tail-piece and bridge:
proudly showing the Hagstrom crest and boasting “Swedish Design”. The very distinctive bridge anchor is not in fact unique to Hagström – Rickenbacher have similar pieces – but it is an obvious indication that the Viking is its own guitar.
I bought the slightly upmarket Viking Deluxe which has block inlays and is available in a natural finish. The finish is impressive – thick and even lacquer and showing off two beautifully flamed pieces of maple. This model also has unusual f-holes (unusual in the sense that they are not a lowercase ‘f’ any more, but more like an “s”). Compare the Viking’s flame top with that of the (more expensive) Epiphone:
Both the Gibson and the Epiphone have single-piece tops, but the Hagström has by far the better looking wood. I think the Epiphone’s sunburst is great, (and the Viking is available in a truly horrid amber sunburst) but neither the Epiphone’s wood grain nor finish are anywhere near the Hagström’s standard.
The Viking’s delightful narcissism is properly reflected in the headstock.
The depth of detail and willingness to be different – the wave shape, the sculpted tuning-knobs and the fleur-de-lis all speak of self-confidence. The Viking is not imitating anything – it almost feels like it is daring other guitars to be so stylish.
There does come a time when you do need to stop just looking at the Viking and play it.
Hagström do the eminently sensible thing of having a technician set up the guitar before they ship it. So, the guitar that came out of the box was very, very playable. My only quibble would be a slight buzz on the lower E string which I might get around to adjusting.
The guitar stays in tune very well and the tuning pegs have a nice feeling of even stiffness about them, and my only real concern at the moment is the lead plug which already appears to be coming loose. It can be tightened, but an electric guitar with poorly-installed electrics is very close to becoming an acoustic guitar.
Most importantly, the Viking’s neck really surprised me. First, it is both shallow and narrow. I have quite big hands and like both the depth of a Gibson’s neck and the width of a Fender neck, so I was apprehensive, but as I note, the guitar is very easy to play (easier than, say, the Gibson which does ask more of you). The neck has no dead-spots and I only registered a very little buzz on one string. Up the neck, the fret spacing seems as perfect as my ear can tell.
What is really interesting about the neck is (stop yawning) the structure and composition. There is some discussion of this on the Hagström site but nothing there actually tells you just how good the neck is: I have never played an instrument that offered so much real sustain (I say real sustain as opposed to the artificial, electronic variety or indeed, the overdriven feedback kind). The guitar really encourages left-hand vibrato and just seems to resonate with the body extremely well. The Hagström offers more sustain than the Gibson then, and has me working on my technique in anticipation of further rewards.
If the Viking is sounding too good to be true, then read on. I was actually quite relieved to see the flaws in the build quality (and, surprisingly, component quality), because I wanted to know just where it was that my money was not going. So happily, it does not take much digging to see the corners which are cut in producing the Viking. The crest itself actually contains a flaw in the mold (between the upper stanchions of the letter H).
A peek inside the f-holes s-holes shows that the wood has been fairly roughly gouged to fit the wiring in, and there is quite a mess of glue inside.
The bridge-piece had not been terribly well cast:
And the join of the neck to the body showed a little distress:
If these things seem trivial, they are, but it is worth noting that these kinds of details are perfect on a Gibson.
And there is one thing that no blog can convey. Even at 3 years old, the Gibson still has a soft, sweet smell of maple wood. The Hagström, by contrast, smells entirely of glue.
So, let’s say it: the Hagström sounds great. It has a bright twang, a reasonably soft neck pickup and plenty of bite on the bridge. I play exclusively with a clean sound, so I have not gone looking for much crunch, but even at the slightest hint of overdrive, the Viking performs well. It might not have the Gibson’s manageable power (and by the way, I have played a few unmanageable Gibsons too) but it has plenty of body. It sounds authentically like a semi-acoustic, much more so than the relatively weedy Epiphone Sorento.
And yet, and yet, if we compare with the ES-335, the Hagström, inevitably, comes up short. Same amplification, same licks:
and the Gibson’s tone is markedly more distinguished: more warmth and sweetness which lend more sympathy and authority to the playing.
The remarkable thing about the Viking is that I find myself comparing it not to a guitar in a similar price bracket (the Epiphone Sorento), but to an instrument that would cost up to five times as much, the Gibson ES-335, and it certainly looks like an instrument in that range, at least at first blush.
I cannot score the Viking better than the ES-335 because, in the end, it is all about the sound. And what’s more, the ES-335 is an icon to me, and to many other guitarists.
For all that, anyone considering a semi-acoustic should consider a Hagström Viking. It really is a lot – a lot – of guitar for your money (for the price of the Gibson you could buy a Viking and a high-end solid body and still have change) and still seemingly a relatively well kept secret. Hagström are to be commended for this instrument.