Arlington Heights - Stories from the Chicago Tribune
Instrumental Guitars With Clients Like Mick Jagger And Lonnie Brooks, Hamer In Arlington Heights Really Rocks
By John Flink. Special to the Tribune.
Hamer builds tools, and building tools is all it has ever done.
What Hamer builds are the tools of rock 'n' roll. Buy an album, listen to the radio or watch television, and you'll hear a Hamer guitar. "We used to say we were the smallest manufacturer or the largest custom shop. We're a little bigger than that now, but we don't make cookie-cutter guitars," said Frank Untermyer, 42, vice president and general manager of Hamer Guitars, which is based in Arlington Heights.
Hamer makes about 4,200 guitars a year in its facility on University Drive. By comparison, major competitors such as California-based Fender Musical Instruments and Tennessee-based Gibson Guitars churn out hundreds of thousands of guitars every year.
Some of those guitars are excellent, Untermyer said, but some are just cheap. Hamer doesn't bother with cheap. If Gibson and Fender are the General Motors of the guitar industry, that makes Hamer the industry's Ferrari.
There's an ever-swelling list of contemporary guitar players who have chosen to play Hamers. Like progressive rock guitarist Gary Hoey, Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam, Dweezil Zappa, Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing of Judas Priest, Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades of Damn Yankees, Eddie Jackson and Michael Wilton of Queensryche, Cliff Williams of AC/DC, Andy Summers of the Police, Wolf Hoffman of Accept, Vernon Reid of Living Colour, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, blues guitarist Matt "Guitar" Murphy and Sammy Hagar of Van Halen.
Felicia Collins plays a Hamer every night on the David Letterman show as guitarist for the CBS Orchestra.
The list goes on and on. "I've been associated with the company for a long time. I should be a VP," said Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, who said he counts 50 Hamers among his collection of more than 200 guitars. "They're people I can work with. It doesn't take a year to get something, even if I have three or four projects going at once. They're just great."
Nielsen has endorsed Hamer guitars for years, appearing in advertisements with the quote, "Life's too short to spend it with a crappy guitar. Get a Hamer." The company is currently building him a new five-neck guitar. "They're very firmly based in classic tradition, and they do it well, but I think they've surpassed the tradition in terms of sheer enthusiasm for their guitars," said Jeff Golub, leader of Avenue Blue and former guitarist for Billy Squier and Rod Stewart. "They're also great values. They're not cheap, by any means, but some companies make $10,000 guitars that most people can't buy. What's the point? Hamer makes great guitars, and most serious guitarists can realistically afford them. That's just one of the reasons why I endorse them."
Most Hamers sell for $1,100 to $2,200. Perhaps the most enthusiastic endorsement comes from Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks, a die-hard Gibson man who learned to play on a Fender. "I played a Hamer once, but I didn't like it. I didn't have time to set my amp right for it," Brooks said of his first experience with a Hamer. "Then one night, I was on stage and I broke a string. I said to my son, who's my guitar technician, `Hand me that Hamer.' Man, my amp must have been set just right because that guitar kicked out and I just went crazy. People were saying, `What's wrong with him?' Twenty years came back. I haven't put down that guitar since."
Brooks' revelation occurred in February of this year; by March, he was shooting ads as the newest Hamer endorsee. "I went out to the plant, and they put a lot of pride into their work," he said. "And their man Frank, he's just so nice. You don't meet people that nice in this business."
Hamer was founded in 1976 by northwest suburbanites Paul Hamer and Jol Dantzig as a small shop in Wilmette specializing in vintage guitar sales and service. Hamer provided the musical background, and Dantzig had the engineering expertise. They began to manufacture their own custom guitars and moved to bigger quarters in Palatine.
Untermyer, who provided the business skills, came aboard in 1978 as a graduate student in business administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He had already studied woodworking in Germany, spent a year in Japan and saw in Hamer an excellent opportunity to satisfy two needs: a job and a thesis. "I was always interested in musical instrument manufacturing, but my spin was international sales," said Untermyer, who is also a CPA and is working on a law degree. "We sold, and still sell, a lot of guitars in Europe."
While writing his MBA thesis on international sales, Untermyer traveled around the world selling Hamer guitars. His fluency in German helped to make Germany the company's No. 1 export market, followed by Britain, Canada and Japan. "I loved that," he said of his early experiences. "It gave me a mindset and set the foundation for our export business."
The company moved to its present location in 1981, and Hamer and Dantzig left to pursue other things. In 1988, the company was purchased by Kaman Music of Bloomfield, Conn., which also owns Ovation Guitars in New Hartford, Conn., Trace Elliott Amplifiers in England and several other music businesses that cater mostly to professionals.
Archrivals Gibson and Fender both went through buyouts in the 1960s and '70s that made them appendages of massive conglomerates. Both companies have since been returned to more caring hands, but the years of ivory-tower domination still rankle musicians and have made them even more wary of people who wear ties. "They were lucky," Untermyer said of Gibson and Fender. "Their problems have been solved, and they're both high-quality companies again. Our relationship with Kaman is different. Bill Kaman has at least 30 guitars in his office. He has the longest hair in the company. . . . I can't imagine a better relationship."
If it sounds like Untermyer is paying homage to Gibson and Fender, his competition, that's because he is. The companies defined the electric guitar's place in rock 'n' roll simply because the first rock music to be made was made with their guitars. "When an instrument is created, it is defined in many respects," Untermyer said of Hamer's design philosophy. "You can make improvements and play with it a bit, but if you get too carried away it's not the same instrument anymore. We built a prototype for a new bass once that I killed because it had too damn many knobs. I don't go in for gimmicks."
Hamer has staked out its territory by offering the best possible quality and carefully balancing technology with traditional craftsmanship. "The big guys engineer all the soul out of the instrument, and the small guys try to do everything by hand, which is inefficient," Untermyer said as he led a tour of the Hamer factory. "You'll see a lot of big machines back here, but you'll also see that most of the people are engaged in doing the fine, careful work."
Machines are used to cut individual pieces of each guitar from large pieces of wood. Hamer guitars use AAA-graded hardwood, including mahogany, rosewood, ebony, curly maple and African korina. Good wood means good tone and explains the company's motto: "Tone to the Bone."
The rough-cut pieces then move to another part of the factory to be turned into guitars by craftsman who each have a different responsibility. "My title? Neck Department Guy, I guess. I don't really know," said Bob Powers, 26, of Buffalo Grove as he looks up briefly from his job of carefully planing a neck to its perfect radius. "I just know I love this job." "The degree of craftsmanship necessary to complete the instrument and the quality of the materials is extraordinary," said plant manager Steve Ward, 39, of Elgin, a 16-year veteran of Hamer. "I've been working with wood my whole life, but I've only been plant manager for about a year and I'm still learning about finishing and electronics. It takes a lot to pull this off." "I started as low man here," said Mike Caouette, 41, of Richmond, who has 13 years with Hamer and is foreman of the wood shop. "I used to run a sawmill and design and build furniture. The wood we use here is the cream of the crop and that's really rare these days, even in the furniture business."
Caouette, like many of Hamer's 37 employees, does not play guitar. But he owns two Hamers anyway. One is a custom job he made for his son from cherry wood. "They're like a beautiful piece of furniture you want to have in your house," he said. "These things get 14 coats of lacquer."
It can take a couple of weeks to several months, depending on the complexity, to manufacture a guitar. Hamer can handle a rush order, if needed. "It's like a benevolent Marine Corps," Untermyer said, finishing the factory tour. "Everybody gets in early, and we all work hard. The thing that makes me proudest is that we have people who started with us at 16 and now they have kids, houses and full lives, and they're still here. We did it."
Untermyer and his wife, Karen, 38, son Adrian, 6, and daughter Ava, 4, moved from Highland Park to Connecticut last year so he could take over management of Ovation, which makes acoustic guitars. Despite the fact that Ovation is celebrating its 30th anniversary year and is five times larger than Hamer, it's the lessons learned at the smaller company that will guide Ovation's future. "For Hamer, I want us to grow, but not a lot," Untermyer said. "I want us to continue to build great guitars. Right now, I'm trying to bring the Hamer spirit to Ovation. I'm very proud of what we've accomplished here."