If you put the hammer of Thor and a Gibson ES-335 into a blender and then produced the resulting guitar overseas to keep the sticker price reasonable, you would have the Hagstrom Viking Baritone. The folks Hagstrom boldly assert that the Viking will “shatter all of your baritone stereotypes.” Does the Viking live up to Hagstrom’s claims? Read our review to find out three reasons you owe it to yourself to check out this Swedish machine.
Note: This review has been edited based on feedback from Hagstrom Viking users. Buyers should be aware that fret and electronic issues may represent long-term problems for the Viking (read on for details). If I were to change the title this article with this information in mind, I'd call it "two reasons to check out the Viking and one reason to think twice."
Reason One: the Viking is different (but not cheesy).
We’ve all seen guitars that end up being different for the sake of being different, with no thought given to how an actual musician would use them (I am picturing a BC Rich Warlock). These “gimmick over substance” guitars end up flooding garage sales and have no chance of becoming tools of the serious guitarist’s trade.
Thankfully, the Viking Baritone stands out without being cheesy. The guitar boasts multiple unique features that make it distinctive in tone and playability, not just looks. For starters, the Viking’s semi-hollow body is unique among production model electric baritones. No other manufacturer is producing a baritone in the Gibson ES-335 style body.
Like a Gibson ES-335, the Viking features two larger hollow wings around a solid center block. Because of this design, you end up with some of the tonal characteristics of a big jazz box guitar (smooth-yet-ample bass, bell-like mid tones, mellow highs) and the attack and sustain of solid body guitar. The presence of the center block also means you can increase the distortion and the volume without worrying about feedback
Other unique features include the Viking’s full-sized P-90 neck pickup and its composite fretboard. Both play a prominent role in subsequent sections of this article and, as such, I will wait to unpack their implications.
Reason Two: This Swedish baritone packs a viking-longboat of tonal possibilities.
The clean tones from the Viking Baritone are among the best you will hear from a production model baritone. The folks at Hagstrom have gifted the world with a full-bodied baritone that can produce deep and smooth jazz lines, snappy vintage colors, and arpeggios and finger picking tones that will have you closing your eyes and soaking in the music. The Viking’s clean tones are especially exquisite when the neck position P-90 is engaged
In terms of overall quality, I would put Viking’s clean tones up against that of the Reverend HC Baritone. However, it is worth stating that comparing the tones of the Reverend HC to that of the Hagstrom Viking is a bit like comparing an excellent Chicago deep dish pizza and an excellent New York thin crust pizza. Both are great, but personal preference will end up being the determining factor in deciding a favorite.
Surprisingly, the Viking can also deliver a lot of distortion-soaked crunch and still a render clear, articulate, and musical tones. This is most likely the result of the Vikings’ combination of pickups (a Hagstrom designed humbucker at the bridge and a P-90 at the neck) and Hagstrom’s novel choice to build the Viking Baritone mostly out of maple, a tone wood known for sharper attack and greater high end response.
All tones considered, this Swedish baritone is a versatile machine. Yes, some might prefer the Reverend HC and thrashers and metalheads might gravitate towards the Ibanez RGIB6, but this Viking can hold its own. If you don't believe me, check out this great demo video coming to us from somewhere inside continental Europe.
A Reason to Hesitate: Quality and Durability
Now, I know that some of you dismissed this baritone once you read that it was manufactured in China. However, a lot of great premium products are made in China: I-phones, I-pads, most computers, and nearly all of the air conditioners the southern half the United States uses to stay cool in the summer come from the land of the rising sun. If we can trust “designed in the US, made in China” for these products, can we trust “designed in Sweden, made in China” when it comes to a guitar? Unfortunately, the answer here seems to be "no" for the Viking Baritone.
The Viking fretboard is made of a proprietary composite material that the folks at Hagstrom call “resonator,” which provides a traditional feel while being stronger than a traditional fretboard. This composite wood appears to have no negative impact on tone. As a side note, it also removes the ethical sourcing concerns associated with some high-end fretboard woods such as Brazilian rosewood or ebony. Personally, if it doesn’t hinder tone or playability, I welcome novel design alternatives to deforestation.
The Hagstrom composite fretboard features a 15 inch radius, placing the Viking firmly in the modern “wide and thin” family of neck styles. Earlier models featured a 12 inch neck radius, resulting in a more strat-like feel.
Sadly, quality of materials concerns show up once we consider the Viking's frets and electronics. Since this review was originally published, I've received several reports of the Viking suffering from the following issues, many of which seem to pop up after some period of regular use:
The Hagstrom Viking Baritone offers scrupulous and versatile tones and a design that is unique among baritone guitars. Should you throw down the cash for this Swedish musical warrior? If the only factor were tone, the answer might depend on the following:
Do you prefer warmer, smoother tones (think ES-335 meets Les Paul Special) over brighter and edgier tones (think Stratocaster or Tele)? If you answered yes, it will be hard to find a better baritone for you than the Viking.
On the other hand, if you lean more toward the Fender side of the tonal force (and can afford an extra $300), consider the Reverend HC Baritone. If metal and shred are your jam, check out the Ibanez RGIB6. Or, If you need an electric baritone for under $500, check out the Eastwood Sidejack.
However, tone is not the only consideration when one purchases a baritone guitar and the Hagstrom Viking's quality of build issues should be a cause for hesitation.
The folks at Hagstom deserve kudos for offering the world a unique baritone that looks good and sounds great. With some improvements in the quality of its frets and electronics, this could be an amazing guitar. As it stands, the Viking belongs in the buyer beware category. Still, if you get the chance, take the Viking Baritone for a test drive. Your ears will thank you.
Give us your thoughts...
What do you think of the Hagstrom Viking Baritone? Let us know in the comments section. Also, if you enjoyed this post, check out our growing list of baritone electric reviews.
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