A Conversation with Jol Dantzig

by Dean L. Farley

The Hamer Guitar company’s beginnings can be traced back to 1971, when Paul Hamer and Jol Dantzig owned one of the first vintage guitar stores in the United States, Northern Prarie Music. Paul and Jol made their name and reputation by visiting many of the famous rock groups of the time who stopped in the Chicagoland area on tour dates. It was very common for them to flag down customers by waving some fine vintage guitars like old “Sunburst” Les Pauls, Flying Vs, Explorers and the like aimed at these group’s tour bus entry doors for getting their prospective customer’s attention. They had sold many instruments in this fashion, and as a result, Northern Prarie Music became the favorite source for guitars and repairs in their native area. As the word spread around concerning the quality of their restoration work, Gibson authorized them to become a warranty station for the repair of their instruments. Little did Paul and Jol realise at the time what was ultimately in store for them; the manufacturing and marketing of their own line of guitars, which surpassed the quality of even some of the biggest names in guitar building. This interview was very enjoyable for several reasons; there was none of that background noise on the tape recorder which plagued the NAMM material, this interview wasn’t conducted on the phone with somebody I have never spoken to before…this story was done in the privacy of Jol Dantzig’s quiet Kentfield, CA home, after we had some time to “shoot the bull” and play around on some prototype Hamer instruments beforehand. In addition, we had not seen each other for a few years so it was nice to catch up and see what was new and current with Hamer in its present context.

VG: In this first installment, we want to concentrate on the early history of the Hamer company. What were the chain of events which led up to forming Hamer Guitars?

JD: Paul and myself started Northern Prarie Music in 1971. The store was located in Williamette, Ilinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. We were actively selling “vintage” instruments and doing a lot of restoration and repairs on things like mandolins, mandolas and banjos as well as electrics. Gibson became kind of curious because we were ordering a lot of refinishing and rebinding supplies and that sort of stuff, so they contacted us and wanted to know what was going on, so we made the pilgrimage up there to find out what was happening. The cool part was to get to hang in the old building, and to hang out with the guys who actually built the guitars in the Forties and Fifties.

VG: Do you remember any of their names?

JD: You know, I cannot. It was a much more casual thing and I wasn’t thinking at the time that this was something I should remember for posterity! This is the here and now, although we were really excited about going to Gibson; it was like “Mecca”…it was the coolest place on earth! We were Gibson fanatics. We were also Fender fanatics, too, but mainly Gibson. We were into vintage guitars back when they weren’t ” vintage” guitars. Nobody called them “vintage” guitars {we called them “vintage” guitars} but everywhere you would go to find them, they would be called “used” guitars! A Les Paul Sunburst was only twelve years old. We recognized that they were better than what Gibson was making at the time in the `70s, but Gibson didn’t. Anyway, we were up there and it was exciting to be with these guys. One of the interesting things that happened was that when they took us to the electronics department to show us around, I noticed a cardboard box full of used pickups and said “Hey, what’s this?” and started digging through it and found a PAF humbucker! I showed it to Paul and said “Check this out!” The guy who was showing us around might have been Jim Derloo, and we asked him whether we could have some of these pickups. He said that they were pickups that were replaced on guitars that came back to the factory to get repaired. Some were replaced just because the nickel-plating had worn off of the pickup covers or some person had asked them to replace the pickups because they were “worn out” and they wanted new ones. They {at Gibson} weren’t thinking that these were collectible pickups or anything, they just moved on to the new ones! So, there was this big box full of “soapbars” and I’d found another PAF, so the guy just said that we could take the whole box and dig through it later. I was thinking like, “No Problem!” It ended up that there were 14 usable pickups in there, some were dead.

VG: Did you end up fixing any of those?

JD: Some of them were just a matter of the lead wires had come off…other ones had deeper damage and those further on down the line were used after Larry DiMarzio re-wound them. What this this purported us to do was to use these PAFs in the first Hamer guitars. We never intended it to be a large manufacturing operation, we never thought that we would make twenty guiars!

VG: I seem to recall that the DiMarzio PAF pickup was especially designed for your Explorer-style instruments.

JD: I seem to remember that they had their “Super-Distortion” pickup, which at the time the idea was a guitar sounding so bad acoustically because of poor workmanship, you could slap a pair of those on any junk guitar and you’d sound like Kiss!!

VG: Exactly!

JD: You know it was a brilliant thing that Larry and Seymour{Duncan} had done creating these “distortion” pickups because you could take a pretty junky guitar and put those pickups in it and you would at least get enough output to drive the guitar into distortion. So, that was great for the masses, but it didn’t work in a Hamer guitar…because the guitar was built to be resonant to begin with, to have a good acoustic sound.

VG: I do recall you being the first to have a “zebra”pickup in black and white with a complementing double white-coil pickup as a visual contrast. These were DiMarzio pickups that were made to your specifications?

JD: Yeah, Larry{DiMarzio} was always really cool about winding pickups exactly the way that I wanted them. In example, rolling off a little of the bottom-end on the neck pickup while increasing the mid-range on the bridge pickup. The whole idea of taking the same pickup, like Gibson would do, and putting them in both neck and bridge positions; you’re only getting a spread of this much, that’s the only difference. We wanted to enhance that spread to a wider contrast so when you put the pickups on together, you’d be getting a weirder, wilder sound.

VG: That wasn’t the “out-of-phase” sound, was it?

JD: No, that was something that came later on. First, we when to Seymour{Duncan} and he wasn’t really interested in winding pickups differently then what he was doing at the time.That seemed weird, because he has always been about “custom” pickups. For some reason we just wound up going with DiMarzio’s pickups because he was cool about it and real flexible. We also wanted something closer to the PAF, because you couldn’t buy a box of PAFs even back then! After we had made about ten guitars, it was pretty obvious that we were also going to run out of old Gibson bobbins for him to rewind. That’s when we decided for him to make a custom pickup for Hamer, they said “DiMarzio” on the back of them for awhile, then we changed it to “Hamer” even though they were DiMarzios; they were always built to our specs!

VG: I think I was one of the first guys to have a set of DiMarzio PAFs in an Ibanez Destroyer I owned a long time ago {1976} and they sounded really good. I still wish I had that guitar…little did we know at the time. I know that the set of pickups I had were not the same as yours.

JD: The interesting thing about that pickup is that we eventually called it the “Slammer” pickup. Paul and I were early Fleetwood Mac fanatics, you know…Peter Green, Danny Kirwin that whole sound. One thing about Peter Green’s guitar was that “out-of-phase” tonality.

VG: We covered that subject quite heavily in one of my columns not too long ago.

JD: To get that “sound”, we reversed the wiring on the neck pickup internally, so when you soldered the pickups in the normal way, you would get that sound automatically. That was the whole idea. The cool thing about it was that the two pickups sounded different, they both had their own electronic “signature”. By using the two volume controls at different places, while the pickup selector was in the middle position, you would get all these tonal combinations that you wouldn’t get using two of the “same” humbucking pickups “in-phase”. You could acheive that real shimmering Rickenbacker sound, that Peter Green sound, and you could get the normal Gibson sounds like on an ES-345 just by changing the volume controls.

VG: The tone controls on the guitar were very effective and useful as well.

JD: Well, it was obvious to me that the Gibson people had no concept of the type of music that was being played on their guitars by the time the `70s came around.

VG: Weren’t they {Gibson} using 300K ohm pots back then instead of the standard 500K ohm pots of before the `70s?

JD: You’re right, I think they did use 300K ohm pots! My experience was with the older guitars which normally had 500K pots. It was just a matter of re-adjusting the value of the capacitor so you kept more of the mid-range. At Gibson they used a .022 cap which rolled-off everything…you were left with murk!

VG: You could just roll the tone control down one number and you were destroyed!

JD: Not only was it kind of abrupt, but it took everything away when you set the tone all the way down. That might work okay when you’d play jazz with a clean sound, but when you cranked up the amps and played with a lot of distortion, you couldn’t use the tone control. All I did was change the values, and did it by ear. Just by backing the tone down until I got that kind of “hollow” tone.

VG: Kind of like biasing an amp by ear…that’s the only way to do it in my book!

JD: Right! And, that’s why the Hamer tone control is so usable. Because we’ve rolled-off some of the bottom on the neck pickup, which we still do to this day, you can play on the neck pickup with the tone control all the way off and still get plenty of “bite” on a low “F”, say. You will get that flexibility on any of our two humbucking guitars. You can still play lead and rhythm without it getting totally mushy. The funny thing was, as far as the Peter Green thing was concerned, years later in the early `80s, I got to know Gary Moore. We made a number of guitars for him and he owns Peter Green’s Les Paul. Gary came down to my office and hung out there for three days; instead of staying at the hotel, he would sit in my office and serenade the entire factory playing this guitar at top volume. The factory was freaking out, it was great!

VG: He didn’t change Peter’s guitar one iota, did he?

JD: No, we were talking about it and he would sit across from me playing a Peter Green lick looking at me like, “Pretty cool, huh?” Then, he would hand me the guitar and I would play back, so I’d be thinking, “God, I’m playing Peter Green’s Les Paul in front of Gary Moore, like, how much more nerve-racking can this be?” I’d always been curious about his “middle-position” sound…

VG: Ah, the mystery is un-ravelling! Finally, someone who has actually played and seen that holy axe!

JD: You’d put it in the middle-position and there it was ! So, I said to Gary, “Let’s take this apart and let’s see what the deal is.” What I actually found was that the neck pickup magnet had been reversed, and sure enough, that’s what it was! It was wired out-of-phase by the magnet being turned around, not by the leads at the pot reversed-wired. I can’t say whether it was done by a repairman or done at the factory originally, who knows?

VG: Was the neck pickup’s pole-pieces facing towards the bridge when you examined it?

JD: Peter Green always had it with the poles facing the other direction, but that wouldn’t change a thing as far as it being out-of-phase is concerned. When I saw it, I believe it was exactly the way Green had it.

VG: I believe that if the poles are further “south”, the sound could change slightly due to the string vibrating a little less than they would right over the front of the neck pickup. This would most likely make a brighter tone, right?

JD: Yeah. The interesting part was that it was years later after we had obtained this kind of “Peter Green” sound with our guitars.

VG: Okay, let’s get to the Jan Ackkerman story about his Les Paul. This will be a cool fact for our VG readers who are familiar with him…Jan Ackkerman, in my eyes, is one of the very first Continental European guitar super-heroes!

JD: REALLY! You still run into people who don’t know about him, but he was doing all that wild stuff long before Yngwie and Michael Schenker were. He was definitely ahead of his time, just amazing!

VG: For sure…tell our readers what you did to his guitar, okay?

JD: Jan was playing a Les Paul Recording model, but he wanted it to look like a Les Paul Standard, so we put a two-piece maple overlay on the top. Then, we rebound it with a creme binding after gutting the guitar of its weird low-impedence pickups and electronics. We installed humbuckers in it and the standard three-way toggle switch with the normal tone and volume configuration. Of course, we had to plug up all the holes from the original routing. So, we coverted it to a Les Paul Standard!

VG: That’s why I couldn’t figure out what was “wrong” with the look of his instrument, the cutaway didn’t seem right at all, much less politically correct!

JD: That’s correct. The Recording model has a rounder horn on the cutaway than on a Standard Les Paul.

VG: The only thing that struck me as being really off-the-wall is Steve Howe’s converted four-pickup Les Paul Custom.

JD: Well, if three pickups are good, four must be better!

VG: [Laughs] This conversion you did for Ackkerman must’ve been done around 1973 or so. How did Jan fit into the Hamer endorsee/user list later on?

JD: Jan has one of the first Hamer guitars ever made. The first three guitars were Flying Vs, the very first one is a bass which I made for myself which looks like a black Les Paul Custom because of its creme binding and its crown inlays. It has an EBO scale-length, a PAF pickup in the neck position with an EB3 bridge pickup on it which I had put a humbucking pickup ring around it. This Bass had a white pickguard on it [ ala a ’67 Flying V] and a Gibson Vibrola handle which I bolted onto the two posts of the EBO bridge that enabled me to give it a little vibrato when I wiggled it. My idea was to have a bass which looked like a guitar, so it had binding around the peghead. I played this guitar in my band when we played shows. When we first started making guitars we didn’t have a name on them, so Ackkerman has or had a pre-Hamer Hamer guitar.

VG: When did Rick Nielson enter the picture?

JD: Rick was a friend of ours and for our fourth guitar, serial # 0000, we built an Explorer style guitar which we intended to keep as a shop guitar. We hadn’t really decided to really make guitars on a full-scale level, so when it took us a long time to deliver him custom-order Explorer just like the fourth one, we just gave him the original maple-capped Explorer. It had the volume and tone controls in a straight row instead of following its body angle and it had Grover keys that were slanted at the headstock so you could get to them easier. We took the second Explorer to shows backstage with all of our other vintage pieces and we would just wave a ’67 Flying at Leslie West or whoever else and they said, Come on in…show us what you got.”

VG: Is that how you got hooked up with Martin Barre of Jethro Tull?

JD: Exactly. He had bought a large amount of vintage guitars from us, including two sunburst Les Pauls, and a Fender Broadcaster with a serial number of 0048! That guitar sold for something like $1200.00 then…and it was just a killing guitar!

VG: Dream on, huh?

JD: Yeah, I sold a ’59 “V” for $2500.00 and I thought I was making a killing! We sold ‘Bursts for anywhere from $1200.00 to around $ 1850.00 and sometimes $2500.00 depending on the piece. Paul sold his personal Sunburst Les Paul for around $8000.00, but that was the going price for them during that time frame.

VG: What about the five-neck guitar you built for Rick Nielsen? That must of been a huge burden to make!

JD:That was a love/hate thing…it has always been a love/hate thing with Cheap Trick because Rick always wants these spastic guitars and we’ve always enjoyed tackling these projects. With the five-neck thing, he originally wanted it be be a three-neck instrument, but I said, “Hell, why not make it a five-neck?” Its always been like that…how about an eight-string Bass? “Why not twelve?”

VG: Why not eighteen strings on the damn thing as it turned out!

JD: Exactly! It was always a matter of enjoying that, but at the same time, not along the lines of what we wanted to do as a company. We didn’t want to be known as a company that made characature instruments. You know, cartoon guitars.

VG: I think that actually worked out to your advantage, really.

JD: Yeah, in the long run it did. We owe a debt of gratitude to Cheap Trick. I hope that Rick feels a debt of gratitude to us. We were just friends growing up in the business, and players making guitars and it was kind of fun, just cool. It was like “Hey, make me a wacky guitar!” and he was in a cool band, so it was hand-in-hand. We grew up together and have a great relationship.

VG: Who was your first customer for Hamer?

JD: We were friends withs the guys from Wishbone Ash; Andy Powell, Ted Turner and their bass player Martin Turner. They were the first guys we showed the Explorer to. Powell liked it because he played Gibson “Vs”, but it was Martin Turner who placed the very first order. He said, “Can you make me a bass like that?” We knew that we could even though we had never made an Explorer bass before. He asked us to put Thunderbird bass pickups in it along with the creme binding with a light black metal-flake finish. We said “Sure.” Martin then said he would pay whatever it cost to build it. They went on stage and we thought, “Well, we have an order, let’s go build it.”

VG: Then it started to escalate from that point, correct? JD: Yeah. We got orders from Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander,and we also sold Mick Ralphs of Bad Company a guitar that was like the Les Paul that Jeck Beck used on the back cover of “Blow by Blow”. Tommy Bolin bought an Explorer which can be seen in that box-set of his {Tommy Bolin: The Ultimate} I sold him a ’57 gold-top Les Paul with humbuckers on it and he was so out of it. When he saw the finish checking on it, he said, “Wow, man, nice grain!” He’s even wearing the shirt that I gave him which says “The Ultimate” on it {in the CD box-set} while he was playing in Deep Purple.

VG: Is that not STILL your slogan, Jol?

JD: {Laughs} No, it still is…it’s still on the boxes we’re shipping! In the first couple of years, we just made handful of guitars. We made ten or twelve guitars in the back of our shop. At a certain point, when I had five or six orders in hand, I called a meeting in the back of my van with Paul and a couple of guys who worked with us as repairmen and told them that this guitar-making thing seemed to be going someplace and asked them whether we should actually form a company. They all agreed, but we didn’t have a name for the guitars. We started kicking around names, including all of our last names. I was the one who thought of the name “Hamer”, because it sounded like “Fender” and you could easily visualise it on the headstock, plus it was short and sweet and sounded like a guitar company name. Never in a million years did we ever think that we would end up making tens of thousands of instruments over a period of twenty years! We kept a lot of records, and I have records of most of the guitars we made back then, but it’s a little sketchy in the very beginning. We never conceived that we would have an international brand with a life of its own, with so many great players using our guitars! It’s really satifying in that regard, I consider it a total sucess to have just created something that has gone on this long.

VG: I think that if people form companies with the intention of just making revenue, the money eludes them in the long term. If you really love what you’re doing and the product speaks for itself, then everything will take care of itself.

JD: I think that there’s a lot to that theory. You know, that’s been my motivation from day one. I was doing something that i enjoyed and was cool!

VG: I believe that if you don’t enjoy what you do, hang it up and do something else!

JD: That’s so transparent…I think the people really understand whatever you’re doing, like painting, writing songs, or in business, if you BELIEVE in what you’re doing, that really comes across.

VG: What would you consider to Hamer “firsts”?

JD: We were the first to use Floyd Rose tremelos on a production guitar. This is when Floyd was still making them in his basement on a bridgeport that he bought. I believe that this was before Van Halen had actually picked up on it. We started getting bridges from him, but we couldn’t get enough of them because he didn’t have his manufacturing on them down yet. He was sending us bridges that were un-plated, and we would have them black-chromed by an outfit in New Jersey that we had gotten hip to. Nobody was doing black-chrome, so we would take regular chrome Schaller keys and strip them and re-plate them in black. I wanted to make an all-black instrument with EVERYTHING on it black! After we had showed it at a NAMM show, Kramer introduced their all-black “Carrera” guitar!

VG: Just out of curiosity, what was Helmut {Schaller’s} reaction to this?

JD: They didn’t have the process to do it at that time, and at first they didn’t quite understand it, but after Kramer started doing it, they started realising the popularity of it, and it became the big thing for a long time…having the black hardware. Now, when you look at it, it doesn’t look all that special, but back then having an all-black instrument was very unique!

VG: Is that black look still a trademark?

JD: We still offer it on some models, but we have gone back to that classic nickel or chrome hardware on most of the guitars. We have returned to what the company was all about in the beginning. This vintage-based, modern guitar is what we’ve always felt comfortable with and our customers have felt comfortable with that as well. That is taking the aesthetics of a vintage guitar and updating them mechanically and electrically. Not so much for tone, because we offer a lot of different pickup configurations. I’m talking about making the guitars stronger with better truss-rods, making sure that the frets are seated better, mechanical things like that.

VG: Making them more road-worthy and stable, right?

JD: Absolutely. One of the things that I’ve learned on the road as a musician, and working in the studio and being a tour manager/roadie (for Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades when they opened for Van Halen) in addition to producing and engineering records, is that electric guitars are just being woefully underbuilt for the job that they’re supposed to do as far as a touring instrument is concerned.

VG: That’s extremely hard on them to put it mildly!

JD: Oh, it’s incredible! I had a situation just last year when I was the tour manager\tech with Tommy and Jack at the Oakland Colisseum. Twenty minutes before they’re going onstage, they decide to check the batteries in their wireless units. Well, as I’m checking the batteries with the probe just to make sure that the transmitter won’t go down in the middle of the show, the lead of the battery breaks right at the circuit board which is jammed way up in the unit! So, here I am balancing a guitar on it’s strap with the wireless unit, on top of a road case with a flashlight in my mouth, in a very low lit hallway trying to solder the wires back on the circuit board!

VG: Oh, I know that hallway like the back of my hand…there’s almost no light!

JD: You know, with no strain reliefs on these things, and checking the batteries every show, you take the batteries out about 50 or so times, something’s sure to break sooner or later. Whether you’re playing in front of 20,000 people or 200, you can’t afford to have your equipment go down in the middle of a show. So, this has taught me a tremendous amount about making guitars that are more road-worthy so they are truly “working musician’s” instruments rather than just a museum piece or a collector’s item to hang on your wall and look at.

VG: Personally. I’d rather be playing that guitar than looking at it!

JD: There is certainly that aspect of an instrument being beautiful to look at, that you would want to display, but obviously that is only a small part of what that instrument is created to do. You have to have the entire package.

VG: Okay, did the graphic part of Hamer’s history start with Rick Nielsen?

JD: Well, Fender did the paisley finishes before, and they also had some Mustangs with the racing stripes long ahead of when we came on to the market. But as far as taking it into an individualised situation where you could order your own custom graphic or a whole series of different graphics, that’s something that we started in the Seventies, and that was an outgrowth from Rick’s idea of creating a checkerboard guitar look for the band and the checkerboard stage. He even had their amps painted in that checkerboard pattern. So, he wanted a guitar that was painted to match his theme. I remember that checkerboard Standard, which is pictured in the new catalog. It took me nine hours to tape that and to spray it and then peel each individual checker off one at a time!

VG: (laughs) Oh, God, I don’t think I can handle this!

JD: We used half-inch checkers, so it would be very eloborate, something really wild so when you looked at it really close, you could see the incredible detail. In fact, the knobs were even screened so when Rick had his standard settings on the volume and tone knobs, they matched the checkerboard pattern exactly! In other words, we would rotate the knobs to those settings and then spray them! There’s a story which I’m not sure about, that Van Halen played in Chicago, and all of their gear got lost, so Rick had loaned him one of his guitars. Rick also had a checkerboard “V” and he had lent Edward one of them. It may or may not be true, but this is possibly where Edward got the idea to paint up his guitars. This just may be part of the Rick Nielsen legend…that’s the way I understood it happening.

VG: Who else was into graphics as far as the early Hamer endorsees?

JD: We did some stuff for the Pretenders and Dave Hlubek of Molly Hatchet had some “Star and Bar” graphics with the Rebel Flag on it. I’t hard for me to remember all the guys, but Rick was the guy who really wanted the crazy stuff. Totally Wacky stuff!!

VG: Were all the graphics done in-house?

JD: For the most part it was. In the beginning it was all done in house, whether it was silk-screening or airbush or photo-tranfer processes. A lot of this was due to my graphics arts background, I was schooled in graphic arts and photography so I just applied it there. As we grew, we would commission various artists to actually create different instruments. Whether they came up with the concept or I did, we did whatever struck our fancy whoever actually painted it. It was a period of expression, that whole thing with the `80s.

VG: Kind of like Peter Max doing guitars!

JD: We did a collaboration with Yaacov Agam, a famous Israeli artist on a heart-shaped guitar that was actually first displayed at the Peace Museum in Chicago; it was part of the John Lennon exhibit. Yaacov designed the guitar via telephone and fax from Israel and Paris, but he knew nothing about guitar construction, that was our thing. This guitar was striped and had the neck going through the center of the instrument, you actually had to put part of the outside of the “heart” over your shoulder to play it. This instrument had heart-shaped pickups on it too. He actually wanted the player to climb inside the guitar to play it. This was in 1983.

VG: What about the harp guitar that you made for Andy Summers?

JD: That was a twenty string guitar which had two sets of seven strings for the harps and then the regular six strings for the guitar. It was a large body that had a carved spruce top beingabout as big as a jazz box, but a little thinner in depth. This was made roughly around the “Ghost in the Machine” album. The whole ’80s was a strange time in guitar construction because the fad was “heavy metal” guitars with pointy headstocks, Floyd Rose tremelos so you could “divebomb”. It was neccesary to make guitars like that to survive. A lot of our customers wanted the kind of instrument with that kind of quality and construction that they knew we were capable of making, but their heads were in a totally different place. They weren’t into the classic lines and aesthetics of vintage instruments like we were. As you know, one of my loves is motor racing like in Formula One and Indy cars. You know, high performance, high tech carbon fiber stuff…I’m just a gearhead! The Floyd Rose and all those types of things wanted me to make a guitar like it was going 250 m.p.h.! It really appealed to me just as much as the vintage craftsmanship, woods and the aged finishes. It was just two sides of my character, and two sides of the company’s character. Towards the end of the ’80s, we started to realise that we had to blend these ideas together rather than make one instrument or the other. We had to be true to the roots of the guitar and what Hamer was founded around, which was creating a guitar which took from what came before it, and adding modern flourishes so the working musician would have a more road-worthy guitar. We also were interested in developing better processes to achieve a much better built instrument. In 1989, we started getting back to the fine woods and creating what might be called “Modern vintage” or “Modern classic” instruments. Our tag line is that we’re creating “brand new classics for a modern world”. At the same time, we updated the hardware, etc. After taking the excursion through the ’80s and building instruments that went to the outer limits like having guitars with all kinds of crazy devices built in, weird finishes, lights built into the neck and so forth, we reached a point were we have a really good balance between that technology and the old-world craftsmanship. We are really comfortable with what we’re creating and the customers are comfortable with it as well.

VG: What can you tell us about the Hamer Custom Shop of today?

JD: All along I think one of the things that I’m the proudest of, is that we created the concept of a “Custom Shop”. It isn’t so much like we had a Custom Shop, everything we did was “Custom” when you looked at the entire shop itself. When I was talking with Frank at the factory the other day, we were talking about a Limited Edition Korinawood Standard that we are doing. We had about 800 board feet of wood or some ridiculous amount which to Hamer will only enable us to produce a total of 26 guitars. This type of Korina is very difficult to work with and has a very low yield as compared with other woods. The wood we select for Hamer guitars is much more stringent as compared with any other company.

VG: So, what you call a Limited Edition are produced in very small numbers as compared to say, 1,954 of the 40th Anniversary Fender Stratocasters as an example?

JD: The whole point is that Hamer guitars are produced in a number that would equal the production of another company’s production in one day! That’s to say our yearly production of Hamer instruments are Limited Editions in that sense, because we produce a very small quantity of instruments as compared with any other company, excluding the really small builders. Frank was joking and saying that he did not view these instruments as Limited Editions, because everything we do is a Limited Edition!

VG: So, your “Custom Shop” was always geared around your customer’s custom orders, right?

JD: Absolutely. Anyone could call us up and say, “Hey, can you make me an arch-top guitar, but with a “V” neck?”, or the neck a little heavier. Everything can’t be changed without cost, but it’s something we’ve always been capable of doing. In the ’80s, it got totally out-of-hand, we were making huge numbers of custom-order guitars. It seemed that everything was a custom-order every single day. They would make six custom guitars, which was a whole day’s work. Now, I think we’ve fine-tuned the product line and the range of models available to the point that we don’t get that many requests for custom-order variations like we used to. I think that’s testimony to how well we’ve done our homework and where the instruments are heading.

VG: In Hamer’s present, what would you consider as being your flagship models?

JD: On the guitar side, the Standard is the flagship, that’s the flame-top Explorer that we started with. We have re-issued that model this year again, by the way. Then, we have the arch-top Custom and the arch-top Studio model. On the bass side, the big one is the twelve-string model ( as played by Doug Pinnick of King’s X) and the four-string model is called the Cruise Bass. We are planning to do a second batch of the Korina Standards as soon as the proper quality material has been found. I want to mention that Hamer rejects 70% of the wood that is presented to us. That 70% is bought by other people to make guitars out of.

VG: It’s kind of like “We will sell no wine before it’s time!”

JD: You know, that really is true. When I used to give factory tours and we would get to the fingerboard material, there would be a huge stack of rosewood and ebony. People would say, “Wow, that’s a lot of fingerboards!” I would tell them that these were reject blanks and THEN take them over to the drying chamber! (both laugh) I mean, it was really amazing, we would pay a premium to all of our suppliers so we could have first shot at the best wood before any of our competitors. This gave us the chance to inspect it, and most of it was rejected. We had a deal where we would pay the shipping back of the rejected wood and then it would be sold elsewhere. This was “AAA” wood we’re talking about. We just really laid down the law, when it came to materials, and that came straight from Bill Kaman {president of Ovation}. That’s his philosophy about life and his philosophy about his company.

VG: When did Bill Kaman acquire Hamer?

JD: In 1988. We originally approached him about distribution of Hamer instruments. Bill is a player and a collector and just loves music and loves instruments, so he was familiar with the Hamer story. He saw an opportunity for us to come together, and how to use the resources of Kaman to build the absolute premier electric guitar company. He liked what he saw, so he bought the company. We saw this as an opportunity to pay top dollar for the right materials, but the most spectacular thing was, that we were able to warehouse an incredible inventory of guitars in various stages of completion, which allowed us to let the wood cure for incredibly long periods of time. Something that most guitar manufacturers cannot do. Even the biggest ones with the most amount of money can’t afford having $500,000 or $1,000,000 worth of wood sitting around at all times. For them, that would be like having a tremendous amount of wood sitting around and aging and not really producing any guitars in the meantime.

VG: Who’s in charge of the wood selection at Hamer?

JD: The first stop is Frank. He was doing all the purchasing of the wood. Then, a number of individuals would inspect the wood for curl, grain and moisture content. Here’s another important thing; Hamer did all its own drying in these electro-static drying chambers. This is another expensive way to go…instead of force-drying the wood in a steam kiln in a matter of days as it’s done most places, we dried it in a very controlled electro-static drying process which draws the moisture off very slowly. We’re talking about a matter of months as opposed to a matter of days. When you heat the wood up quickly in a kiln, the moisture comes out of it from every single direction which breaks down the fiber of the wood as opposed to naturally drying the wood as we do in the chambers. With the dedication of the Kaman company, Bill Kaman really believed that the quality was going to be better than we had already established. He invested in the equipment so these proceedures could be done. We also had the huge inventory of wood which would allow us to dry the wood for months and then build our guitars in stages. At one particular point, work could be going along on any instrument and then we could allow the wood to adjust before going any further. By the time the guitar is finished, the wood had done most of its movement and it would be a much more stable instrument because we let time adjust the wood by itself. We could just build the guitars quickly and install the frets and let the guitar’s wood move on the dealer’s wall or in the case in your bedroom.

VG: In a lot of cases when I’ve bought a new guitar, I’ve had to remove the truss-rod cover on the headstock because I know that I’d be tightening the rod about a sixteenth of a turn every week or depending on the weather, every couple of days! It can take a long time for the wood to settle in.

JD: What I worry about the most is not the back and forth movement of the wood in the neck, but the side to side twisting than can occur in necks from time to time. We’re trying to avoid that at all costs! VG: I know that move real well, and that’s the biggest pain in the ass. I remember one time in San Jose, my car broke down on the freeway during the middle of summer. Here is was over 100 degrees outside and I had to walk about a mile to a telephone. I left my guitar (a 1974 Les Paul Custom) in the trunk of the car not realising what trouble I was in for when I returned. We can probably guess that the temperature reached over 130 degrees in the trunk. As you might gather, that neck was gone…it looked and felt like a piece of melted taffy! Nothing we tried could and could never fix it after that.

JD: (Laughs) In the early Eighties, we developed what I called a “stressed neck” system. This is a three piece neck, rather than a one or two piece neck, or even a three piece randomly laminated neck. This addresses two different things; a lot of people will tell you that a laminated instrument will not sound as good as a solid instrument. To a certain degree, that’s true. I think that the myth has grown up around the idea of flat-top guitars with laminated tops. What I will argue, is that when certain combinations of disimilar woods are laminated together, like a butcher block guitar, do not resonate in a predictable manner. Or, if they do resonate, they don’t resonate like a single piece of wood. Sometimes you can laminate different types of wood together and they work in concert with each other and it sounds great. Other times, (within the same species) you can laminate two pieces of mahogany together, and if the density of the wood matches, you can get it to work like a single piece of wood. Perhaps you have increased the strength because you’re opposing the grains of the two woods, because they counter-balance each other and won’t twist or warp.

VG: What about like the way a big jazz box has a five-piece maple neck with the extra laminations of different wood used for more stability?

JD: Once again, is there good or is there bad? You might be able to create a laminate of ten different pieces of wood utilising five different varieties of wood, and by balancing them just right get a great sound. It’s all in what you consider good sound. The type of sound we’re going after, we like to use the same species of wood and have a neutral-grain middle piece while having the other two parts of the neck opposing each other which locks them together.

VG: I envision it like you’re on a highway and there’s the middle median with the north and southbound lanes going against each other.

JD: Actually, what I liken it to is having two muscles in your upper arm, your bicep and your tricep. When you contract one, your arm moves one way and when you contract the other, your arm moves the opposite way. When you tense them together, your arm becomes rigid and straight because it’s an isometric situation where you’re creating more tension and more strength by opposing the forces.

VG: That’s a real good analogy…I’ll buy that, Jol!

JD: That’s what you do by opposing the grains in the neck. You actually create a more rigid piece and actually a piece of wood that has an internal tension that gives it a resonance like a drumhead. It makes the guitar much more alive! It’s more willing to transmit the vibrations to the body, much more readily. It does a number of different things and once again, it’s a tedious proceedure, because you have to go through incredible amounts of wood to match up the pieces for density and grain and when they’re opposed, they’re absolute mirror-images. The amount of man-hours is so far beyond just random laminating which is what’s done in the rest of the industry. Let’s just say that it takes a talented person several days to match up a cartload of wood, to sort through it and then mark them up and number them so they are reassembled in groups of three. A cartload of wood might be a couple of weeks’ production at best. When you look at the time we spend on making our guitars, it’s just amazing that we can sell them for the prices that we do.

VG: What’s in store for Hamer in the future? What are your goals?

JD: To continue to draw upon what is truly the heritage of our guitars, and never lose sight of why our company was founded, and that is to create true working musician’s instruments.

VG: You know, I really like the fact that you deal with so many different musical genres as far as your customers are concerned. Most companies hang their hat on just the big acts and don’t even consider what’s coming from the street.

JD: There’s a lot to learn from any good musical form, I spend a large part of my day talking with old customers, potential customers and just regular guitar players.

VG: It’s refreshing to know that there’s somebody out there that hasn’t lost sight of WHO their customers really are! What’s your favorite backstage anecdote?

JD: There was one time I was backstage and another guitar company’s rep was there with five boxes of guitars to show the group. Well, this one player said to him that he wanted it in white instead of the color presented to him. While the rep was out at his car getting the white model, these guys were just throwing the other guitars in the air and missing them on purpose so they’d hit the floor!! (laughs)

VG: My all-time favorite story was involving Jeff Beck. He was shown a guitar backstage and the dressing room was four flights of concrete stairs up from the stage. Well, after strumming one chord on the the guitar, he went out to the stairwell and threw the guitar down the stairs. When the rep got back down to the stage level, this guitar was shattered in a million pieces! One of Jeff’s English roadies made the comment ” Didn’t like it, did he?”(laughs) That just killed me, just classic! I would of loved to have seen that from a fly’s perspective.

JD: That’s pretty good! Well, I know that this type of thing would never happen to a Hamer guitar, because the artists we deal with have respect for me and realize that everyone has to make a living.

VG: Amen!!

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