Hohner: HTA490 The Artist and The Artist Elite

RARELY DOES A COPY GUITAR ENTER THE pantheon of gear lore, and when it does, you can be sure it’s because some mega-star artist has taken it to his bosom and made it his own. Such is the case with the Hohner HG490. I can clearly recall watching Prince strut his stuff in some early-’80s music video (was it “Let’s Go Crazy”?), wrangling sizzling, wiry leads out of a guitar branded with a name more familiar from twenty-dollar harmonicas, and thinking, “Why is this guy playing a Tele copy? He could buy any guitar under the sun.” The truth is, though, that the HG490 was no mere Tele copy, but a guitar built in Japan for Hohner that departed in a number of crucial ways from the ingredients that make a Telecaster a Telecaster, other than the lines of the seminal single-cut body and maple neck.
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So, the story is simple: Prince gets a HG490 and the HG490 becomes legendary. As is the way with such iconic instruments, demand for original examples has outstripped the supply, but after frequent requests from Prince-ophiles, Hohner has replicated the guitar Prince plays (using his original HG490 for reference) and reissued it in two outwardly similar guises aimed at two different price points—the Chinese-made HTA490 The Artist, and the costlier Czech-made The Artist Elite.


I’ve never had the honor of noodling his highness’ Hohner in person, although I did briefly haul an HG490 off a pawnshop wall some time back in the mid ’80s. Outwardly, the HTA490 The Artist looks very much the picture of the original. Distinctive details include its bookmatched flame maple top and back (sandwiching a soft rock-maple body core), walnut center stripe, tortoise-shell binding, and tortoise-shell pickguard and bridge plate. The most notable absentee from the ’70s original is the too-closeto- a-Telecaster curve of the headstock on Prince’s example of the guitar, which is now has a more porpoise-nose shape. Also, this headstock sits on a plane that’s relatively much lower to that of the fretboard than is traditional on bolt-necks S- and T-style instruments, giving the strings an unusually sharp break angle over the nut. Pickups are alnico Strat-type singlecoils made by Tesla (6.8k½ bridge and 5.8k½ neck); controls are the standard Volume, Tone, and 3-way blade switch, and the tuners are enclosed Wilkinson high-ratio design. The onepiece, 25.5"-scale maple neck wears 21 Dunlop 6105 frets and has a shallow C profile. I find the fretboard edges a little sharp in the hand, but the fret ends are smooth and hitch free and it’s a fast, easy-playing neck overall. Also too sharp for my liking are the tops of the adjustment screws in the six-saddle bridge, which proceeded to scour the edge of my palm throughout the demo (if this were my guitar, I’d take a file to those things pronto).

I wasn’t expecting the HTA490 to sound particularly like a classic T-style guitar. The bridge pickup is mounted into the body, rather than suspended in a steel bridge plate, and is positioned closer to the bridge and at less of an angle than that of a Fender Telecaster. I played both guitars through a ’54 Fender Pro Amp and a Matchless HC30, with a range of pedals. Starting up at the neck pickup, I discovered an appealing dose of throaty richness, a good snapshot of that warm, emotive Strat-style neck tone that so many more authentic T-style guitars fail to nail. Some nifty round, open, funky tones lurk at the middle setting, while the bridge pickup played clean lacks a little of the oomph of the neck selection. It’s snappy and cutting, but runs toward the shrill. With the Tone control dialed back a little, though, and some overdrive engaged, it wails with a sharp, penetrating voice that is sure to keep you front and center of even the most muddled live mix.


Handmade to order by Staufer Guitars, with a lead time of approximately three months, The Artist Elite looks much like the more affordable HTA490, but represents a bundle of upgrades in woods, components, and quality of assembly. As for the incidentals, body binding here is black rather than tortoise-shell, pickguard and bridge plate are more of a leopard print—and three-ply—and the bridge has die-cast rather than stamped-steel saddles. More significant, perhaps, is the more graceful (and more Tele-like) curve of the upper bout down toward its upward notch at the neck, whereas the HTA490’s plummets all the way to the neck joint. The Elite’s body core is of swamp ash, and there’s a little more depth to the flame in its maple top and back. Pickups are custom-wound alnico single-coils from German maker Haussel (6.6k½ bridge and 5.7k½ neck), and the neck carries 22 Dunlop 6105 frets rather than 21. Neck width and profile and headstock shape are the same, although the Elite’s headstock sits on a plane that’s more traditional relative to that of the fretboard. The fretboard edge is again pretty sharp, but the fret dress and overall setup are excellent, and it’s a very playable neck overall—if no smoother or faster than the HTA490’s.

Once again, this is not an archetypally Telesounding guitar, but in the bridge position, with the amp set fairly clean, it garners something closer to a hardtail Strat’s quack and spank, with an appealingly nasal edge and less of the HTA490’s spikiness. Things get driving and a little gnarly when you advance the volume up toward crunch territory, and there are razor-sharp lead tones to be had with a little fuzz or distortion introduced. The middle selection is a little richer on the Elite, but still plenty round and snappy (and humcanceling, something the HTA490 lacks), while the neck pickup nails all of its sibling’s buoyant, vocal S-style goodness, but with a little more depth and dimension. All in all, this is definitely the more refined of the pair, but their personalities—both sound and feelwise— are close enough that you’d definitely know they are kin.