A Hamer Guitars specific Rick Nielsen Interview

On Thursday November 5th, 2001, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with the reason I picked up a Hamer guitar in the first place.

Rick Nielsen Talks about Hamers with Ted Martin.

TM: The first thing I want to ask you was how you came to meet Paul and Jol and got involved in the whole Hamer thing? Was that because of Northern Prairie Music?

RN: They were one of the first places that actually sold what we now call vintage guitars. Back then there was only a few people that specialized in the older good stuff and they decided they could probably make guitars and I got the first one.

TM: That’s serial number #0000 right?

RN: Right. You’re asking me questions that you already know the answers, your just like a lawyer, (laughs) … It’s got the straight knobs that are in line with the neck instead of that angled ones. If you got my book it’s in there.

TM: So you knew Paul and Jol before the actual shop?

RN: Well I knew Paul Hamer, He was actually a mailman and he flew to Philadelphia because he knew that I collected guitars and he knew that I had a Les Paul, sunburst, Standard – this is 1972 – so he flew to Philadelphia to see me. I believe that he paid me 2500 bucks for the guitar and I was a broke musician, so that was a lot of money back then.

TM: That was a lot of money back then!

RN: I think that the most I ever spent up until 1976 was probably 500 bucks. That was the top dollar for anything, and you could buy anything if you had 500 bucks cash. Stratocasters were $250, Les Pauls, the top ones were 500 bucks. New stuff was $350.

TM: So the rich mailman shows up…

RN: So the rich mailman shows up and gives me 2500 bucks cause I needed the money, because my wife was expecting our first kid and I needed the money – haha.

TM: Was that previous to the Sick Man of Europe days?

RN: That was Sick Man of Europe days.

TM: So you met Jol through that obviously?

RN: No, I met Jol later. Probably 1974-75

TM: So when did he come after you saying “Hey, here’s the guitar we made. Check this out.”

RN: We were sort of hanging around a little bit about ’74-’75 – something like that – and you know, they knew I had vintage stuff and they had vintage stuff so there was an attraction there.

TM: When you first saw the first Hamer Flying V bass that he made, did you think, “WOW, this is pretty decent!” or “Ah, couple guys trying to make a guitar”?

RN: No, they made ’em real well. They made good stuff, and plus they used vintage parts too. I hate saying the word vintage but it saves time.

TM: Well Serial #0000 has original PAF’s in it from the original factory.

RN: Yeah, well I gave them the pickups.  I still have some original PAFs from the 50’s.

TM: Well that brings us into now, since those aren’t around anymore what do you use?

RN: Well, I think we use Seymour Duncan and Dimarzio I guess.

TM: Hamer went through the whole early period with Dimarzio. Were you a fan of those pickups from back then?

RN: You know, I guess. I’m not a tech head at all. I like what I like, and if it sounds good I don’t care if you made it or if I made it. If it sounds good that’s all matters. I mean, there were bad Stratocasters, there were bad Les Pauls, but there’s good stuff too.

TM: The whole Budakon album (which happened to be the second album I ever bought) you were changing guitars as much then but your tone doesn’t seem to change drastically from song to song. Is it that its all in the fingers or…?

RN: Fingers… Amps… It’s all in the way I play.

TM: Is that overdubbed a lot?

RN: Not hardly, you can get the actual bootlegs of that show that show you its the real deal. I mean we repaired a few things like on “Ain’t That a Shame” Robins guitar wasn’t recorded loud enough, so we had to boost it up. The bass drum on the actual recording they had sounded like a cardboard box, so we had to round it out a little but Bun E. didn’t play his drum parts over by a long shot.

TM: I want to ask about what I think is the most famous and that’s the checkerboard standard. Where did that idea come from? You were using the checkerboard straps…

RN: The checkerboard straps were actually camera straps. I have rather long arms or longish arms and I like to play my guitar low, and they didn’t make regular straps long enough for me, so I had to take two and sew them together. And then I started having them made.  On my straps there’s no buckle one sizes fits…

TM: You!

RN: Or screw ya!! If you want to change the size you have to double it up or duct tape it!

TM: Was the Checkerboard the first custom guitar they made for you?

RN: Well, I had some guitars refinished (by them) or fixed, you know if a guitar has a busted head or thing. I was never in to the mint condition and don’t play it, I’m a player and I wanted have stuff that I played and wasn’t afraid to drag around with me, so if a guitar’s got something screwed up – fix it. Make it so it plays good.  Then I came up with the idea for the Les Paul Jr. single cut away with a single humbucker in it and they did that for me. If you look in my book you’ll see it.

*Bun E. comes in here and announces that he’s done with his drum check – Thank god for sake of transcribing.

TM: That brings us to the Mandocello. There’s not many people that knew what a mandocello was before…

RN: Still don’t. (Laughs)

TM: Right. Exactly. Where did that all come from?

RN: Well I didn’t invent it, but it was made in the late 1900 I believe. A lot of salvation army bands, string bands used those things. They had guitars, mandocellos, mandobasses, upright basses lots of strings and stuff.

TM: Did you one day say, “Hamer make me a mandocello”?

RN: We were doing the song “Heaven Tonight”, and that was done on a mandocello, so I said I needed an electric one otherwise they didn’t exist. There wasn’t an electric/acoustic one. Really I think there are only 3-4 electric mandocellos anyhow. I had the only one that I ever heard of. I think Darryl Hall had one made for him.

TM: I think there were only 2 Hamers made, with the second one showing up again recently. Did you have the songs written and called up and said…

RN: “I need one made.”

TM: Were there any custom guitars where they said no way!
RN: No.

TM: They made whatever you want?

RN: Well I never asked for anything too ridiculous.

TM: Well a 5 neck guitar is a bit…

RN: That’s past ridiculous.

TM: It looks to me that it’s hard to play all the necks on that.

RN: I think just playing guitar is hard to do. I needed a challenge. I used to stack guitars on top of one another.

TM: You’re not doing that so much anymore.

RN: I don’t do it at all anymore. I did it just cause I did it. I’d play a lick then I wanted another and I’d hate to go back and switch so I just kept stacking ’em.

TM: Always a Standard on the bottom.

RN: Yep, yep…

TM: It kinda held them all. A good base.

RN: Yep, yep.  I’d see other guitar players playing one on a stand, one on their neck, and I thought, “If your gonna be ridiculous, then lets be real ridiculous.”  That’s kinda my theory of life.

TM: Was it always you that came up with the idea for the wacky guitars ?

RN: No, no… They have some bad ideas too.

TM: Like uncle Dick

RN: No that was me. And they had to make it right or it didn’t make sense. But they made it right.

TM: Did they ever send you something and you said, “No”?

RN: Well they sent me some of those Californians and I said, “No, this isn’t me,” you know.

TM: You want the more traditional

RN: Yeah they were shaped… not right for me.

*As a special highlight Aerosmith happened to be attending the show and got up for a version of “Train Kept A Rollin'”

TM: I don’t see you often with anything other than a more traditional shaped or super crazy instrument…

RN: …yeah…

TM: …out of those guitars that they made you, did you ever pick one up and go, “Boom! There’s a song”? I had once heard that “Dream Police”, that the checkerboard Standard created that one.

RN: No, I wrote “Dream Police” years before that – well the idea – the finished product was not the way it was until the record. I had been working on it for years but I was 80-90 percent there until the record. But there was something missing.  Eventually the middle part was part of a song called “Ultra Mental” with Tom and I. I had a double neck 6 string and bass and we did kind of a battle of the bass bands.

TM: Did you lead Tom into the 12 string bass territory ?

RN: No, that was his idea. We had seen the 8 string Hagstroms and the idea was cool but none of them sounded very good, and so Tom was messing around with stuff and we always liked the 12 string sound, so it just kind of evolved.

*At this point Rick excuses himself to talk to the sound man about the pitch of the opening sound effect tape being incorrect.

TM: Do you have perfect pitch?

RN: Yes.

TM: Is there any specific song were you have to have a certain guitar for certain songs?

RN: Yeah, there are certain guitars that I use for certain songs every night, but I can use whatever.

TM: So you don’t have to use Checkerboard to play “Dream Police” every night.

RN: Oh yeah, I have too, (laughs) No.

TM: That all comes around to the Rick Nielsen signature model that is coming out. Did you pick the Futura as the…

RN: 50/50 the good ideas are mine and the others are theirs. (Laughs)

TM: Would you be adverse to them saying we want to make a Rick Nielsen checkerboard model?

RN: No, I don’t want that.  You know to most people is kinda like a joke guitar but for me its part of like what we’re up to. To have a flock of those out there doesn’t make any sense.

TM: The picture of it has spent two years on my refrigerator, my wife really like the fact that…

RN: You took it off?

TM: Well The fact that I had it up there for two years.  It’s kinda like my Holy Grail so if you’d leave it to me in your will that would be great.

RN: ummm, I got my own children … but you can keep the picture. (Laughs)

TM: Any idea how many picks you’ve thrown out over the years?

RN: Well lets see… 500 a night and we’ve played about 5000 shows, so that’s about so that’s about 2 and a half million.

TM: Well I’ve got two.

RN: Well probably less than that but there’s a lot out there.

TM: I don’t know if your aware or not of how many people pick up Hamers and actually started playing guitars because of you.

RN: That’s why I wish they’d send me royalties but I don’t get any. (Laughs)

TM: Did you ever ask?

RN: I tried to buy part of the company years ago and they told me forget it. Then Paul Hamer was gone and I could have used his share.

TM: So you were that attached to the company that you wanted to be a part of it.

RN: Well you know, if I have a dollar and I wanted to keep getting the quality of guitars, then maybe I could help their company. It’s not like I want to go sit and work in the shop. It’s probably cheaper to invest with them than expect them to give you something. I don’t know but it didn’t work out.

Ted Martin
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