Paul Hamer Building the impossible guitar

By Lloyd Sachs
Reprinted from ROLLING STONE – 1980

Paul and Joel circa '80

Hamer (left) and Dantzig at the guitar factory – Photograph by Micheal Weinstein/Photo Reserve

We’ve really learned our lesson, says Joel Dantzig, shaking his head and grinning. “When someone comes up with a crazy idea for a guitar now, we don’t say it can’t be done. We just go ahead and do it”.

Dantzig does not use the word crazy lightly. Since he and Paul Hamer began custom-manufacturing guitars under the Hamer Inc. banner, they have seen designs for instruments that would make Flash Gordon gawk. By successfully taking on the impossible, though, they have delighted any number of technology-crazed musicians and have established their company (located in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights as a leader in a rather specialized field.

Their list of satished customers is impressive. It included John Entwistle and Pete Townshend of the Who, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds of Rockpile, Paul Stanley of Kiss, Andy Summers of the Police, and Johnny Ramone. And then their is Cheap Trick, a band they have been close to for some time as friends, as fellow musicians (Hamer and Dantzig. both of whom play guitar and bass used to jam with the band) and as co-conspirators in fretboard follies.

For Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, they’ve built a veritable toy chest of flashy axes, including an eight-string mandocello; a “flags of the world” model, with interchangeable flag-panels; two checkerboard guitars; and a “coffee-table” guitar decorated by an elaborate photocollage of song lyrics reviews, a coffee cup, Johnny Ramone’s guitar pick and Cheap Tick’s logo, among other things. Nielsen has also purchased variations on Hamer’s regular models: the Hamer Standard, which is shaped like a Gibson Explorer and sells for $1200, and the prototype Hamer Sunburst, which lists at $820.

Not even Nielsen, though, has given them as much trouble as Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson, who asked them to make him a twelve-string bass, our immediate response was “No way!” says Dantzig. “We thought that would be too many strings that their would be too much tension on the neck.” But after an overzealous fan hung from the neck ofa ten-string bass Hamer had made as a compromise and caused no damage to it, they went full speed ahead wim the twelve-string.

Dantzig: “People start suggesting things just to top themselves. And we have to make them!”

Of course, not just any twelve-string bass would do. Now Petersson and band wanted a quadrophonic twelve-string bass, one with a miniature mixing console built into it that would allow each set of strings to be placed anywhere in the quad mix. “The more ideas get kicked around, the more out of control things can get.” says Dantzig.who came through for Petersson. “It gets to the point where people start suggesting things just to top themselves. And then we have to go and make them”

One reason Hamer and Dantzig have been so successful is that they compliment each other exceedingly well. Hamer, 27 is a tall. husky fellow with medium-short hair who has a disarmingly off hand manner and an infectious laugh. A book collector who specializes in first editions of authors like Hemingway and Cheever (“That should tell you how staid I am). He sees himself as the “motivator of the two.

Dantzig, a gaunt-looking twenty-seven year old, is the Mr. Wizard of the pair, a gadgets freak and car nut who introduced a radiophone to Hamer Inc, so he could stroll around the premises while carrying on phone conversations. He also convinced the 3M Company to invent a new kind of tape that would make the production of checkerboard guitars easizer. Dantzig, who dropped out of art school to join a rock band with Hamer, exorcises the frustrated musician in his soul by jamming at customers sound checks.

Hamer and Dantzig started making guitars five years ago partIy because they wanted better ones than they owned. They’d had some experience putting instruments together, having sold and traded guitars (often hard to get vintage models) and having done warranty repair work for Gibson. “But we really had no idea what we were doing.” says Hamer. “Amazingly enough though, the first guitars we turned out were fabulous. When people turned up looking for old Les Pauls or whatever, we showed them the ones we’d made, and a lot of them liked what they saw. Many had only heard of the Explorer; Gibson only made 100 of them in the Fifties and this was before they reissued them.”

Hamer’s early customers included Wishbone Ash’s Martin. Turner, Bad Company’s Boz Burrell and Mick Ralphs, and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and Martin Barre. “I had never played anything but a Gibson,” says Barre. “But I could really get the sound I wanted from the Sunburst, and a lot of other sounds too. It made everything else obsolete.”

When Cheap Trick hit it big the Hamer name got an even greater boost. Recently, the company was able to take over a huge, oppressively clean rectangular factory building in Arlington Heights when a staff of ten turns our an estimated inventory five guitars a week. “The figure varies though” says Hamer. “Because difference amounts of time are required for different custom orders. It took three months, for example, to make three guitars John Bellushi ordered as presents for Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Wood’s son Jamie. Those guitars had names inlaid on the fingerboard in mother-of-pearl.”

“Dot” or “Crown” inlay patterns made of pearl are featured on all of Hamer’s guitars The fingerboards are rosewood, and the bodies are mahogany with curly maple overlays. Two different DiMarzio humbucking pickups are used. (Larry DiMarzio is an old friend; Hamer and Danaig knew him when he was a guitar repairman in the Chicago are. and theirs was the first company to feature his pickups.)

For all of the sounds musicians have gotten out of Hamer guitars (“I’ve never come to a dead end.” says Barre),” no one has really gotten the one sound the guitar was designed to make:’ says Hamer. “lt’s a sound you get with the toggle switch and tone control in a certain position.” The sound, he explains. is very close to –and was inspirrd by– the one Danny Kirwan used to get when he was with the old Fleetwood Mac.

“I don’t think it will be long before someone finds it,” Hamer says. “Hopefully it will make the Hamer as identifiable as say the Les Pauls were in the late Sixties and the Rickenbackers were in the eatly Sixties. Needless to say,that would make us very happy.”

Ted Martin
Latest posts by Ted Martin (see all)