Hagstrom Viking

Full disclosure: I’m a Hagstrom fan. As the proud owner of the ’60s-era 6- and 12-string Hags featured in the November 2001 issue of GP, I’ve known for years that if you wanted something a little left of center on a tune, an old Swedish Hagstrom will get you there quicker than you can say “Gardar Svarvarsson” (he discovered Iceland or something). The company stopped making guitars back in the early ’80s, which made those cool old instruments—seen in the hands of everyone from Bowie to Elvis to Zappa—even more sought after by the pawnshop cognoscenti. Well, Hagstrom is back in a big way with an edgy artist roster and a whole host of new designs. Not many people know that famed archtop luthier Jimmy D’Aquisto designed guitars for Hagstrom for a time. Plenty of his powerful mojo is evident in the Hagstroms of yore, as well as the newer models, such as the Viking reviewed here—a semi-hollow beauty that is well equipped to conquer new lands.

At first glance, the Viking might appear to be another 335 wannabe. You quickly see that it has a lot of unique things going for it, however. The off-kilter headstock makes a strong statement with the Hag logo, fleur de lis emblem, and awesome 3-ply binding—all rendered in luxurious pearloid splendor. The rest of the binding is cream colored, which prevents things from getting gaudy. The proprietary Hagstrom tuners kind of look like melted Grover Imperials, and they lend a groovy, art-deco-on-acid quality to the Viking. The trapeze tailpiece, which sports two excellent lions in its coat of arms, echoes the lines of the headstock, and it ties the look together nicely. The tobacco sunburst finish is neat and classy, and the frets are clean—although there are a couple stray file marks here and there.

Unamplified, the Vike has a snappy, woody tone that is noticeably louder than an ES-335. The neck is a little shallow for my big mitts, but this guitar plays fast, smooth, and easy. Big bends don’t fret out, and the sustain is impressive.

My only real gripe was that I initially had to do battle with the Viking to keep it in tune. Once the strings got stretched out, this was less of an issue, but it was a little frustrating.

I plugged the Viking into a Fender Deluxe Reverb, a Cornford Carrera, and a Hughes & Kettner zenTera for some high-volume pillaging. The controls and pickup layout are firmly in the 335 camp (although the Vike’s pickup selector is on the bass-side horn, as opposed to being positioned by the knobs—an upgrade in my mind), and the tones certainly reflect that. The Hagstrom humbuckers are voiced on the hot side of vintage, and they produce good barkiness with nice detail. Their tone is a little dark, but in a very musical way—think smoky, not murky. They cleaned up great when I turned down, and the separate volume controls provide all the complexities of the two pickups. Later Cream-era Clapton tones were easy to get with the Cornford amp—throaty on the bridge pickup, and womanly on the neck. Plugging into the Deluxe brought about a tone reminiscent of Larry Carlton (if he had been named Sven), and the neck humbucker sounded particularly sexy. The Viking’s Tone controls are also very musically voiced, and they provide many more great sounds. I liked everything but the very extreme rolled-off tones, which were too dark for my tastes. Calling up some Marshally and Boogie-like sounds on the zenTera, I was able to coax feedback and gorgeous sustain from the Hag. The feedback was useable, and not at all squealy, but I definitely needed to ride the Volume knobs carefully to keep it in check. Once I found the sweet spot, though, it was a blast to have pretty much endless sustain on tap whenever I wanted it, and then turn down to 5 for rhythm parts and cleaner textures. The Viking is so lively—and it has so many tones on tap—that you could definitely get through a gig with a one-channel amp.

Compared to a gorgeous Gibson ES-335, the Viking was louder, and it had considerably more low end. It couldn’t match the Gibson’s detailed, complex sound, but the Vike had better sustain. Given the drastic difference in price, the Hagstrom fared very well. This is just a great guitar, and an even better deal. Players can differ on the fat neck/skinny neck question, but for a semi-hollowbody with a slim neck, I haven’t seen many guitars in this price range that could vanquish the Viking.