Recent Relics

Early Hamer Guitars

Part 2 The Sunburst

by Baker Rorick

What does a vintage Les Paul Standard go for these days? Don't even think about it: a beater can set you back five figures. Even Specials and juniors from the '50s cost thousands of dollars. So do new Les Pauls with nice tops. And as good as Gibson has gotten again in recent years, there are still many who feel that "they just can't make 'em like they used to." Here's a fantastic alternative: a late-'70s/early-'80s Hamer Sunburst.

Inspired by the classic cherry sunburst 1958-1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard (thus the name), the Sunburst combined the best features of some proven ideas, improved on others, was virtually handmade in America, and was an unbelievable value for its price. It still is today. One of the earliest offerings of a company now entering its third decade, the Hamer Sunburst is destined to be a classic in the 2lst-century vintage market. Right now they're well under a grand.

In the last issue we looked at Hamer Guitars' early history and their first, extremely limited-production, Explorer-shaped "Standard" model guitar. Starting with some big players (Bad Company, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash) and only four authorized dealerships in 1975, Hamer soon had a reputation for quality and value, and twice as many dealers, all clamoring for a less expensive model. Conceived as a workingman's guitar, with affordability the key word, Hamer cut no corners and packed an incredible amount of deluxe features into a mid-priced instrument. Four prototype Sunbursts were displayed at the '77 Summer NAMM convention in Chicago. (These guitars have no serial numbers, are a bit thinner than production models, and have bakelite/phenolic backplates instead of the later stamped aluminum. Keep your eyes open for 'em.) Once again, Hamer used a Gibson design from the late '50s in this case the1959-60 slab-bodied, double-cutaway Les Paul juniors and Specials as a starting point for basic shape, materials, and construction, but added deluxe features and electronics (flamed-maple top with binding, humbucking pickups, and other details normally found on a Les Paul Standard) to create a hybrid that improved upon its inspirations in almost every way. Jol Dantzig, Hamer co-founder and Director of Design, says that it was "priced as a loss leader. We figured we would make one or two a week, but we did 15 a week right from the start."

Original suggested retail price on June 1, 1978 was $699.95 for the Hamer Sunburst with dot inlays, plus $99.95 for a hardshell case. The body is made from "one piece of select British Honduras mahogany accented by a one-piece curly maple overlay trimmed with cream binding." Jol Dantzig says, "We went with the Model T theory: Any color you want, as long as it's sunburst." The gorgeous cherry sunburst finish is hand-finished in lacquer, lightening from dark red at the edges to a glowing, golden egg shape at the center. Back, sides, and neck are cherry red. The one-piece neck is set and glued to the body at the 21st fret, and has 22 jumbo frets on a rosewood fingerboard with pearl dot inlays. Les Paul Standard-style "Crown" inlays cost an additional 80, which included fingerboard binding, as well. The Sunburst marks the first appearance of Hamer's trademark, three-on-a-side, "snakehead"-shaped headstock, with its "open book" indentation at the top that harken back once again to Gibson, as does the bell-shaped, laminated truss-rod cover. Tuning machines are enclosed, chrome-plated Grover Deluxe models, and the bone nut was cut on the guitar after installation to ensure correct string spacing and distance from the fingerboard edge, instead of using pre-cut blanks. At the other end of the 24 3/4" scale length is a chrome-plated, fully adjustable, deluxe Strat-type bridge of solid, milled brass. Very early models have stamped, not milled, base plates. The bridge is mounted on an ebony "sustain block" that is sunk into the body, and the strings pass all the way through the body, Tele-style, from inset ferrules in the back. The sustain block also serves to heighten the low-profile bridge to match the neck angle.

The Hamer Sunburst was one of the first production guitars to use two different humbucking pickups for neck and bridge positions, each designed for a specific tone. Made to Hamer's specs by DiMarzio, the zebra-stripe (one cream coil and one black coil) rhythm pickup is like a hot PAF, and the double-cream lead pickup is similar to DiMarzio's Super Distortion model. The pickups are mounted in cream surrounds without covers. Controls are straight forward: a 3 position toggle switch, two volume controls and one master tone, with black barrel, or "speed," knobs. The tone control is a tapered contour that offers clear, usable sounds throughout its range, without mud or loss of presence. A Hamer hang tag from the late 70s gives half a dozen sample settings for various tones--including "Brilliant," "Funky," and "Hollowlead"--"some of which are not found on any other electric guitar," as the tag reads. The wiring is contained in a shielded cavity, accessed through a stamped aluminum cover plate (very early examples have bakelite backplates), and the jack is on the side of the body. Early Sunburst users include Martin Barre (Jethro Tull), Andy Summers (The Police), Elliot Easton (The Cars), Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner (Rockpile), and Joe Walsh. With a Les Paul look, sound, and feel, but lighter and with a wider range of sounds, the Sunburst was such a success that Hamer was able to expand considerably, and in 1980 they moved from Palatine, Illinois, to a larger, 12,500 square-foot factory in Arlington Heights, also near Chicago. The Sunburst became the basis for many subsequent models and variations, including the semi-hollow, acoustic electric DuoTone. Historically significant in Hamer's early develop-ment, Sunbursts are easy to date, as they have sequential serial numbers: #9-015, for instance, would be the fifteenth one made in1979. The bottom line is value. When I started thinking about this article a year or so ago, used Sunbursts were selling for $325 to $500, but bargains don't last long. Currently, they're fetching from $500 to $800 in excellent condition, and that's still a great deal for a great American guitar.

Thanks again to Jol Dantzig and Jim Allen of Hamer, especially for all the early catalogs. You don't want 'em back, right? - Baker Rorick



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