Goodbye Arlington Heights – My two Hamer factory tours

by Tom Bollum

I first got into Hamer guitars after a friend, Ted (who happens to own this site), turned me on to them in 1982 – 10th grade. I knew nothing about guitars, but Hamer looked cool, and I contacted the factory for some literature. At the time, I didn’t play guitar.

I started to play guitar in 1983, and after saving vigorously at my part-time job washing dishes at a local cafe, I bought my first Hamer, a Blitz model. From this point forward I was hooked on Hamer.

In 1985, I ordered a custom, Black Cherryburst Steve Steven’s model from Pete’s Guitar in St.Paul. (I was told in ’95 that records show this was the only SS produced in that color.)

My first factory Tour – Summer ’85

That same summer, my friend Dizzy (really his name is Doug) and I, attended a Memphis vintage guitar show. My interest in Hamer at the time was very high. On the way back from Memphis to my home state Minnesota, Dizzy and I made a trek to the holy land, Chicago, with hopes of being granted a tour of the Hamer factory in Arlington Heights. The powers that be granted the tour, although we were lucky because the members of the heavy metal band Ratt, were due to arrive in the afternoon.

I can’t remember the person who gave us the tour or many details, but I do remember being impressed with the time that went into every guitar Hamer made. The shop floor was VERY wide open and workers had a lot of space to work. We stopped at each station and were told about each process. As a 17 year old kid with my own Hamer I just remember being wide eyed and slack jawed. We thanked them for the impromptu tour and were each given a checkerboard finish Standard pin as a memento of our tour. This would keep me satiated for 11 years in the comfort of knowing that my guitar – along with every other Hamer – was in my mind the best on the planet,

My Second Factory Tour – 11 years later Spring ’96

In 1994 I played a new Cherry Special model, I knew I had to have it. Hesitantly, I traded the SS for the Special. My wife and I had a trip scheduled to Chicago to go pick up some Japanese food products – she’s Japanese – and I thought about maybe stopping by the Hamer factory again. Sure enough, I gave Kevin Theil (Hamer purchasing and customer sevice) a call, and he told me to stop on by. YES!

My wife and I were greeted at the door by Kevin and we proceeded on to meet Mr. Jim Allen (Hamer sales). From there, we went into the back working area. We started by looking at the wood that Hamer uses. The first thing I noticed was that the work area was very crowded compared to 1985. There was LOTS of wood, naturally, and to compound matters, they had just gotten a shipment of guitar cases. Kevin told us about how wood was selected and the drying process they use. We were able to watch one of the workers cutting wood that would eventually become necks. This was amazing for me. They had all this wood glued together and it looked just like, well, like plain old wood. However as we watched, the expert craftsmen and women at Hamer magically turned this plain old wood into the ultra-smooth, great playing Hamer necks just like the ones you’ve been drooling over at you local shop.

After the wood section, we moved over to some tables where workers were meticulously sanding Studio model bodies. I wondered how the workers could consistently make bodies the same size? I mean, they were hand sanding everything! Kevin explained that after time spent on the job, they just know. Plus, the foreman keeps a very strict quality control over all the work that is done. From there we moved over to a wall that had two workers polishing bodies with machines. They were standing in front of these big machines, giving some Cruise basses the shine of their lives. I didn’t envy their jobs one bit, this was a lot of work. They looked pretty tired and were covered in sweat. Think about this the next time you look at your Hamer, then make YOUR music come alive through your own hard work and sweat.

We proceeded on to the Set-Up shop. There were pickup assemblies for Daytonas in boxes and some finished guitars were in plastic, carefully placed on trays in what looked like something bakeries use to stack their bread in. It was then that I saw the next guitar I MUST HAVE! It was a blonde T-51 with the tortoise shell p-guard. It will be mine!

I saw a huge flight case over in the corner that could have been used to put a small coffee table inside. Kevin indicated that this was Rick Nielson’s old 5-neck and they were taking measurements on it in order to build his new one. Kevin said that Mr… Nielsen was supposed to come in that day, but due to the unfortunate illness of his father, he had to cancel. In another case next to the 5-neck was a vintage Les Paul that Hamer was taking the measurements on in order to build another guitar for R.N.

From there, we went into the finishing room where one of Hamer s expert craftswomen was putting binding on a future Archtop Custom. We also got to see another person spraying guitar bodies. I’ve seen factory tour pictures from other companies where tons of bodies are going through this assembly line getting painted. Not Hamer. These were done one at a time, by one or two guys. This definitely wasn’t the wham bam, next body please, rigum-a-roll routine that other companies may employ. You could see the attention to detail in their work. Nothing seemed to escape these workers and you could tell that even after what must be thousands of guitars there was never one more important than the one they were working on at that very moment. Very impressive!!

Next up was the Set-Up Section. I think there was two people, but maybe it was one. Kevin let me know that I was in the presence of the Set-Up God. Unfortunately, I can’t remember his name, but every time I pick up my Special, he is etched in my mind. Kevin said that their set-up people had no allotted time for set-up. The Set-Up God could spend an hour or a all day setting up a guitar. The point being, no guitar left the factory until it was ready. This was very evident back in my favorite shop in St. Paul – Willie’s Guitars (blatant plug). Nate at Willie’s, said most Hamers are ready to go right out of the box, while the others almost always need to be set up. Thank you Set-Up God.

The tour was almost over. We went into a small Artist Relations room which had a small Mesa Boogie guitar amp, a Trace Elliott bass amp, and to my delight, a new vintage orange Artist Archtop. Kevin took a picture of my wife and I holding the AA. I wanted to somehow put it under my jacket and take it home, but …….. Kevin gave me a couple new catalogs, one for me and one for my buddy Ted and we met the secretary, Annette, with whom I’ve spoken to a million times, took another picture, and Kevin showed us out. Ahhhhh…. What a great day. Little did I know that the factory would move later on in the year.

I was very fortunate to have seen the Arlington Heights factory and will never forget that tour.

Before going to the factory, I had visions of working in the guitar business. You know, meeting rock dudes, blues guys, hanging out with cool people and playing the latest instruments….. NOT! The impression I came away with was that this was hard work, and the people at Hamer really love what they do. There certainly isn’t big money in it, but I’m sure the workers didn’t care. They were putting a little piece of themselves, their souls, into something they really cared about. Their real reward was when artists played their creations and great music would flow out. With company the likes of Andy Summers, Gary Moore, Felicia Collins, Mike Keneally, and of course Rick Nielson, I think they can take great pride in their work.

Yes, I am a Hamer fanatic. Unfortunately, I’ve always had to sell one to move on to the one I liked more. I’m not a pro, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the guitar any less. If you enjoy rambling about the best guitars on the planet, Hamer, drop me a line. Meanwhile, I’ll be here in Japan doing my best to convert the masses of Gibson and Fender devotees. When I finally get my Special over here, they will see the light. Yes, indeed they will.

Tom Bollum Nagoya, Japan

Latest posts by Ted Martin (see all)