Recent Relics

Early Hamer Guitars

Part I. The Standard

by Baker Rorick

A couple of "Relies" readers have requested a column on Hamer guitars, but there's too much good stuff and not enough space, so you're getting two! This month we'll look briefly at Hamer's early history and the development and specifications of their first production model, The Standard, a guitar that's becoming increasingly valuable today. Part Two will cover the Hamer Sunburst, their second production guitar, which became the basis for many subsequent innovations and models. Used Sunbursts are particularly excellent values right now. These two early models embody a philosophy that's still evident today, 20 years later, at Hamer: respond to players' demands for quality American-made guitars and basses at a price the working musician can afford.

In the very early 1970s, Paul Hamer and Jol Dantzig were partners in Northern Prairie Music, a Chicago area store specializing in stringed-instrument repair and restoration, and doing a booming business in used guitars. These were mostly good used guitars, made by companies like Fender, Gibson, and Martin that today are considered vintage instruments. The big touring rock acts of the day, especially English bands, were paying hundreds of dollars for '50s and '60s Strats and Les Pauls that could be found in local pawnshops for a song--like, $35 for a Junior! Their repair operation had been ordering so many supplies and parts from Gibson that they were invited to tour Gibson's Kalamazoo, Michigan, factory, and Northern Prarie was made America's first authorized Gibson warranty repair shop. A regularly gigging musician at the time, Jol Dantzig built himself a short-scale bass with Gibson electronics, a Les Paul-shaped body, and Les Paul Custom appointments (black with layered white binding). It attracted a lot of notice and prompted some orders for custom-built electric guitars. Hamer and Dantzig began taking examples of these instruments along with them on their backstage sales trips, and by 1973 had taken orders for instruments from members of Wishbone Ash, Bad Company, and Jethro Tull, among others.

At that time, the Gibson Explorer was one of the most mysterious and desirable American solidbody guitars. The Explorer's futuristic, angular body shape was surprisingly comfortable and well-balanced, and made a striking visual statement onstage. Hamer and Dantzig were both avowed Gibson enthusiasts. Though their first pieces were Flying V's, many of their early custom guitars were Explorer-shaped, with numerous refinements, and can be considered the prototypes for later production guitars. Gibson hardware and salvaged pickups, many custom rewound by Larry DiMarzio to accentuate the spread between the neck and bridge positions, went into these "pre-Hamer" guitars. Jol Dantzig developed a tone control that really worked--especially for rock: a tone contour that provided distinct useful sounds throughout its sweep insted of the "on/off" range (full on bright to total mud with no in-between) of previous systems. They used gorgeous, bookmatched, figured maple tops with binding, and beautiful lacquer finishes.

Prices for "vintage," pre-CBS Fenders and McCarty-era Gibsons were rapidly climbing out of reach of the average player ($750 for a '57 Strat, $1,500 for a '59 Les Paul Standard), and those companies, at that time, seemed unable to provide the public with quality instruments at a reasonable price. Hamer and Dantzig saw their niche, and incorporated as Hamer U.SA., setting up their own factory in Palatine, Illinois. They didn't expect to make a lot of guitars, though.

Hamer's first catalog, dated Fall, 1975, showed only Explorer-shaped instruments. With no model name, they were referred to only as "the Hamer guitar," and their handmade construction using the finest materials was stressed. This first production guitar, later named the Standard model, had a suggested list price of $799, without case. They had one-piece bodies of select British Honduras mahogany, available with or without a bookmatched, curly maple top. The one-piece, set-and-glued necks were "carved from the same choice mahogany," with a six-in-line "hockey-stick" headstock. The Inbound rosewood fingerboards had 22 frets, with pearl dot inlays, and were available in a variety of shapes and sizes. Scale length was 24 3/4". Grover Deluxe tuning machines were used, as was a tune-o-matic style bridge with stop tailpiece.

The Standard was the first American production guitar to use PAF pickups individually designed for neck and bridge positions. Hamer Standards made before mid-1977 often have original, Gibson Patent Applied For (PAF) model humbuckers in the bridge positionpickups that were lovingly retrieved from old parts bins at Gibson's Kalarnazoo factory. Neck pickups were custom wound, on Gibson Patent Number model bobbins, by either Larry DiMarzio or Seymour Duncan. By 1978 there were no more PAF's to be had, and all Hamer pickups were being made to their specs by DiMarzio. They were mounted in cream plastic rings, with no pickup covers. A 3-way pickup-selector toggle switch, two volume controls, and a master tone control completed the electronics. Standard finishes included tobacco or cherry sunburst, natural wood grain, or opaque black or white. Ebony fingerboards, Les Paul Standard-style "crown" inlays, and decorative fingerboard and headstock binding were available for an upcharge. A Hamer Standard with deluxe trim adorned Hamer's first ads, under the company's motto: "The Ultimate."

Jol Dantzig says that Hamer made maybe 50 standards from 1975 to '78, only 10 or 15 per year. Coincidentally, Gibson reissued their Explorer in early '76, and shipped over 3,300 from then through '78. Hamer was known as a custom or specialty company, but their reputation was growing. Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen was certainly their most visible exponent--he's got their very first, pre-Hamer Explorer, #0000. By the early '80s, Hamer Standards had been prominently used by quite a variety of players, including the late Tommy Bolin (who used a pre-Hamer Explorer with Deep Purple), Roy Buchanan, Steve Clark (Def Leppard), Lita Ford, Dave Hlubek (Molly Hatchet), Mick Ralphs (Bad Company), Paul Stanley (KISS), and Warren Zevon.

The 1978 introduction of the more workmanlike and lower-priced Hamer Sunburst was a huge, and somewhat unexpected, success that overshadowed the Standard, by then tagged at $1,199.95 retail for a basic model. This forced the company to start producing guitars in large numbers. In 1980, their growth led them to a larger factory in Arlington Heights, Illinois, where all Hamer instruments are still made today. The Standard eventually came to be the custom, high-end, flagship guitar of the Hamer fleet, and continues to be produced in extremely limited numbers.

Used, these fine guitars are currently priced from $1,000 to $2,000, depending on age, features, and condition, of course. Certain pieces can carry an asking price approaching 8,000, but their quality of materials, handcrafted workmanship, and limited production make them extremely collectible. Now on the verge of being considered "vintage," early Hamer Standards more than realize their goal of being better instruments than the classics that inspired them. Next issue, we'll look at another early Hamer that's still realizing its goal of affordable, versatile quality, and at a much lower price: the Hamer Sunburst.

a thanks to Jol Dantzig und Jim Allen of Hamer Guitars for valuable info & literature.

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