1960s KAPA Challenger Electric Guitar

A customer of mine sent in two KAPA guitars -- one for fix-and-return and the other for trade towards work and whatnot. This one is the "trader" and it's an early-production KAPA Challenger. These instruments bear a Made in USA label or stamp on them but they're truly trans-national creatures. The necks, pickups, and bridges were almost always supplied by Hofner in Germany but the bodies, tailpieces, wiring, and many of the tuning machines were made in the US. They were put together in Maryland and a friend of mine in town even worked at the factory as a teenager (another local acquaintance was related to the owner of Harmony Guitars in the '60s -- what a small world).

KAPA stands for Koob-Albert-Patricia-Adeline -- the first names of members of owner Koob Veneman's family. Mr. Koob was a Dutch immigrant to the US and seems to have been trying to take hold of a bit of market share in the "guitar boom" by making his own Fender-ish products. Every KAPA guitar I've worked on has been interesting and wonderful in various ways, but all of them were terrible players "as-is" due to inconsistencies during production as far as I can tell. This one was no stranger to that, for sure!

This guitar seems to be early in production to me because the neck lacked any sort of string tree or downpressure bar at the headstock. This meant that the high E and B strings were certainly never good-sounding or practical-in-service when it was made. Work included a fret level/dress, string tree addition, remounting of the pickups so they're closer to the strings, a replacement wiring harness and shielding for inside the body, longer screws for the whammy unit's housing so it's more supported, and general cleaning and setup work.

With all that done it's a hot-shot player and it has an early-'60s Fender vibe to the neck feel -- a bigger round C-shape with 1 11/16" nut width, 12" radius board, and 25 1/2" long scale. Action is spot-on at 1/16" overall at the 12th fret with a good, straight neck and a fully-functional truss rod. I have it strung with 46w-10 gauges but the G is a wound 18 to suit the original bridge which is compensated for a wound one.

The guitar is mostly original save for the wiring. It has a sunburst finish, wild-looking tortoise celluloid pickguard, and numerous signs of wear and tear throughout.

The rosewood-on-maple necks were made by Hofner in Germany and similar ones can be found on Hofner Colorama guitars. They were clearly aping Fender and while most of these guitars have thin, modern-feeling necks, this one had a thicker, rounder shape that I associate with earlier KAPAs.

The finish on this neck has yellowed like nuts and is getting close to a nut-brown color. Note the vintage tuner ferrule that I've turned into a string tree.

The frets were on the medium side on this guitar and so I leveled and dressed them. Often, KAPAs have pretty narrow/thin frets that are close to being at the limit of their playability by the time they're adjusted properly.

The pickups are just wonderful -- they're Hofner "staple" humbuckers and, while somewhat low-output, have a gorgeous tone. They're bright and relatively microphonic and to my ear they give a very Gretsch tone in the FilterTron mold. If you add a little slapback echo you can definitely get a Chet Atkins vibe stirred-up.

With a bit of drive to the tone, however, these get a sound reminiscent of that kerrangy "gold foil" (humbucker versions, of course) thing going on. It's a very useful sound.

Note the "amp jewel" at the upper-bout horn. The original 3-way switch was there but the switch itself was falling-apart and the location was stupid-stupid-stupid. I put the jewel in there as -- well, jewelry -- and moved the switch to the control area.

Usually the "tabs" on these pickups are mounted to the rear. I mounted them to the front to get them closer to the strings and then stuffed some foam under them to give the units a little bit of height-adjustability.

The original heavy-metal bridge rocks beautifully with the whammy unit and so I left it in place and cleaned-up its string slots. I did drill some holes in its base so I could mount it securely in place ones I had intonation set correctly.

The whammy unit on these guitars was made at Veneman's shop and is, essentially, a copy of a Fender Jazzmaster/Jaguar trem. The key difference is that there's no tension-adjustment for the spring and I'm assuming that's so that he could avoid patent issues. Otherwise it works in the same manner and -- friends -- it works beautifully and stays in-tune!

When I took the unit off I found that the screws used to mount it were pickguard-length screws and so I swapped three of them over to ones with a length almost the same thickness as the body itself so it'd have a solid footing.

The "original" wiring harness was a little funky and so I replaced the whole thing. The new layout is volume, 3-way switch, and tone. I re-used the knobs that came with it but I'm pretty sure they're not original to the guitar.

I re-used an original tone capacitor but my potentiometers are 500k rather than the 250k these came with. 500k suits the humbuckers a bit more.

Usually KAPAs have some pretty cheesy tuners, but these are actually factory-installed nice-quality Kluson openback tuners. They work well and aren't drifting with heavy whammy use, so they're on there for good.


Nicholas Ratnieks said...

The owner of there two axes is a member of Phi Beta Kapa!

Jake Wildwood said...

Nice one, NR. :D