Hamer Guitars: Early History 1973-1977

Hamer Guitars: Early History 1973-1977

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This week’s article is written by my friend and guest columnist, Scott Olson. In addition to being a gifted writer, Scott is a longtime guitar player and professional luthier specializing in finishing and finish repairs. Part of his career journey included years on the manufacturing floor of Hamer and Washburn during their heyday of the 1980s. Scott remains actively engaged building custom guitars and performing exquisite repair work. If you have a special project or repair, please visit Scott’s LinkedIn profile and message him through the platform where he is an integral member of a thriving guitar/music community. Thank you Scott for writing such a definitive piece and allowing Guitar Gavel to republish your work! 

Scott Olson working a Jackson Dinky with his own “Wall Of Sound”

Hamer guitars are world renown for their aesthetic appeal as well as their tone and playability. The guitar company came from humble beginnings and was actually an afterthought, a result of building a reputation with professional musicians for excellent repair-work and a can do attitude. From a storefront selling and repairing vintage guitars in 1973 to the sale of the Hamer brand to Kaman Music Corp. in 1988, the Hamer guitar has become the epitome of the rise of the boutique guitar.

Paul Hamer took his passion for guitars serious enough to start a small shop which specialized in buying, selling and trading vintage guitars. In 1973 Paul opened the doors of Northern Prairie Music in Wilmette Illinois in a small storefront. In 1973 the electric guitar really had only been around for 24 years, however models built in the 50's and early 60's by manufacturers such as Gibson and Fender were sought after by working musicians. Especially due to the superior construction and quality compared to what was then available by the big two, Fender and Gibson. Paul had inadvertently tapped into that vein of thought by cultivating relationships with a great many working, professional guitarists. With his knack for finding the perfect guitars to buy and sell he solidified his reputation among musicians and other buyer/sellers of vintage guitars as a major player in that realm.

It was this reputation which propelled Paul forward and towards the manufacturing side of guitars and drew him away from the buying/selling and trading aspect of his business. Starting with being asked to do some extensive modifications to a beloved Gibson Les Paul Recording model owned by Focus guitarist Jan Akkerman. Paul and John Montgomery known as Monty, put a book-matched flamed maple veneered top and routed the body for humbucking pickups then finished the top with a cherry sunburst. A very ambitious project which inspired the look of what would be Hamer guitars.

There were a few other builds by Paul, Monty, and Jol Dantzig before the first actual named and numbered Hamer guitar existed. There was a Flying V built for Jan Akkerman sporting a book-matched flamed maple top done in a cherry sunburst. There was a Flying V bass which was crafted by Jol Dantzig and Monty using a Gibson EB-3 bass cut down with Flying V wings added to it. The body was bound and painted black and Dantzig added a tremolo to add to its look. Eventually the headstock was emblazoned with 'The Hamer' as this bass was used by Dantzig playing with his band at the time, Heartbreaker. The band was active playing the Midwest club circuit and Dantzig and the bass gained quite a bit of attention. The bass was used to impress potential vintage customers. However there were some with a desire to own something like the bass.

Paul wanted to build a guitar of his own. He wanted an Explorer type guitar. A model he had wanted since seeing one played by Leon Russell's guitar player. A few years later he got to handle a Gibson Explorer and it was settled on what kind of guitar Paul was going to build. By this point Paul was quite confident in guitar building with the help of Monty and Jol Dantzig. Northern Prairie Music had been a great training ground with repairs and experiencing a variety of guitars. As well as being one of the first authorized factory service centers for Gibson. This was like schooling and it was time to graduate.

The guitar was built with a single piece mahogany body, a mahogany neck with a rosewood fingerboard. The top was a book-matched flame maple veneer with ivory binding. A Gibson stop tailpiece and tune-o-matic bridge matched by a pair of PAF humbuckers said to be from a 59 Gibson V. Finished off in a brilliant cherry sunburst.

Shortly after the guitar was completed Paul and Jol went to see Wishbone Ash and brought Paul's new guitar and some vintage pieces for them to look at. The evening ended with both Andy Powell and Martin Turner being impressed with Paul's guitar. Turner went further and asked them to build him an Explorer styled bass which they did. It was a black metal-flake with Gibson Thunderbird pickups supplied to Hamer by Turner himself. The guitar was stamped with #0001, Paul's guitar was stamped #0000. The very first of the 'four digit' Hamer guitars.

The next order came from Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, an old acquaintance of Paul Hamer. He wanted a guitar like Paul's only with a natural flamed top finish. The guitar was taking longer than expected to complete so Paul gave his guitar for Nielsen to use in the meantime. Nielsen ended up buying both guitars from Hamer.

By June of 1975 the crew at Northern Prairie Music had over ten orders for custom built guitars. Some of which were destined for large profile guitarists such as Martin Barre, (Jethro Tull) Mick Ralphs, (Bad Company) and of course the above mentioned Rick Nielsen. What started as a sideline to Northern Prairie Music was now becoming a business of its own. The time was approaching where they needed to organize and standardize what was becoming a guitar company.

The core group building the guitars was quite small four guys altogether. Paul Hamer, Jol Dantzig, John (Monty) Montgomery, and Jim Walker organized themselves into The Hamer Guitar Company. The Explorer styled guitar was the first model and at the time was just referred to as 'The Hamer Guitar.' Later it would be renamed 'The Standard.'

Like Paul's original guitar The Hamer Guitar bodies were built with one piece of Honduras mahogany along with a set in Honduras mahogany single piece neck. Topped by a rosewood fingerboard and hockey stick styled headstock. The first several guitars used Gibson PAF pickups from a stockpile Jol had collected. Eventually they would have Larry DiMarzio make them their pickups. The bodies would be topped with a single piece of flamed maple veneer. The choice was made to go with a single piece of flamed maple veneer opposed to book-matched veneer due to the difficulty of keeping a clean seam. The finishes were to duplicate the look of older vintage sunbursts. Hamer Guitars was heavily influenced by Gibson going as far as sourcing most of the hardware from them.

It comes as no surprise that Paul and Jol had more affection towards Gibson guitars. They had made many trips to Kalamazoo and visited the manufacturing facilities. It was during one of these trips where Jol was given a box of Gibson pickups many of which were used in the very first Hamer guitars. The pricing of a Hamer guitar was also loosely based upon Gibson guitar values. In 1975/76 a late 50's Gibson Les Paul could fetch $2500 while a new Les Paul would cost about $500. A new Hamer was roughly in between those dollar figures.

The early press wasn't sure to make of these guitars. They didn't understand what Hamer was trying to do. Hamer found there was a market of working guitarists who wanted a well crafted guitar or bass which felt and looked like something vintage. Hamer had the recipe to make a new niche which was slowly being filled by other guitar builders like Bernie Rico and B.C. Rich, Alembic, and Dean.

Late 1975 saw Hamer start a modest marketing plan. First by assembling a list of authorized dealers to sell the guitars and some print ads in music and guitar magazines of the time. The look of the Hamer Standard really stood out. Not only was it a striking looking instrument, Explorer guitars were exceedingly rare. Gibson hadn't built the model since the late 50's and there was likely less than 50 examples of those Explorers in the world in 1976. Ibanez had the Destroyer which was released around this time and Gibson eventually did build a reissue of the Explorer. However Hamer had the market on explorer styled guitars for a brief period.

The year of 1976 would be a very active year for Hamer Guitars. Paul and Jol set across the USA setting up camp in dozens of hotels showcasing the guitars they brought along to show dealers. There was a catalog featuring The Standard printed up and the print ads in magazines continued featuring Rick Nielsen and Martin Barre with the guitars. Paul and Jol shared a booth at the NAMM show with Larry DiMarzio and Rick Nielsen coined the phrase, 'The Ultimate' when referring to Hamer. Soon t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase would be for sale and seen worn by some high profile musicians.

However with all the positive energy the company was receiving they were cash poor and two of the core four were looking to leave for other things. The year ahead would be challenging. Monty and Jim Walker who were instrumental with the woodworking aspect of Hamer wanted to move on and do other things, Walker wanted to continue with graduate school. While Monty who was older than the rest wanted to slow down and start building mandolins. Paul and Jol bought the two out relieving them of any further obligations with Hamer Guitars.

Jol and Paul knew if they wanted to keep the Guitar company going they needed to move to a full fledged facility to build the guitars and hire more help. The guitars were being built in Monty's basement and the backroom of Northern Prairie Music. They eventually moved to a larger facility in Palatine Illinois in early 1977. Jol also had cultivated a relationship with a guitar manufacturer in Tennessee who he worked out a deal with to do the vast majority of the woodworking involved with production guitars. The guitars would then be shipped to Palatine where the final stages of the build would be accomplished.

It was after the move to Palatine where Paul and Jol came up with the design of their production guitar. 'The Sunburst' built and inspired by and for the working guitarist. The design was based upon the simple Les Paul Junior updated with a flamed maple top. Available with a sunburst finish. Again a single piece of Honduras mahogany for the body topped by a flame maple veneer and a mahogany set neck with rosewood fingerboard. The strings passed over the bridge and went through the body. Now they had two models to showcase in the marketing literature.

1979 Hamer Sunburst

The introduction of the Sunburst model during this transitional period in Hamer would be a learning process with moving to a larger scale of production. It was during this time the necks went from one piece to three piece construction process for added stability and strength. The sourcing of hardware which was of consistent quality was also an issue. Especially when it came to the bridge for the Sunburst. Eventually Jol had a local machine shop machine the bridges for Hamer. They loaded the guitars with DiMarzio PAF pickups and retained the black/white bobbin combination at the neck pickup.

With continued high profile guitarists using Hamer guitars and consistent marketing, Hamer created a small demand which increased need for production. Taking another step in its journey to being a world renowned guitar manufacturer and still learning and applying that to what they are building. Creating a quality brand step by step and well on their way.

Link to Scott's original article.

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