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O’Hagan Guitars

Jaws Invades the Upper Mississippi
Jaws Invades the Upper Mississippi

By the shores of Gitche Gumee, Minnehaha gives a little yelp of surprise. There, just behind Mary Tyler Moore, cutting the murky waters of Old Muddy with its triangular fin and tell-tale bubbly wake, she spies a swimming Shark. Has Jaws returned for #4? No, it’s just another O’Hagan guitar, making its way home to the headwaters whence it was spawned.

Even though in a printed interview Sammy Hagar once praised his red O’Hagan Flying V (he’s reputed to still own it), O’Hagan guitars are hardly a household word amongst guitar aficionados. At best, some of you may recall the funky Shark ads that ran in magazines like Guitar Player back around 1981 or so. Now it’s time to tell the tale of another of those Midwestern guitars of the remarkably fertile late 1970s.

Jerry O’Hagan, clarinetist
O’Hagan guitars were the brainchild of Jerry (Jerol) O’Hagan, then of St.Louis Park, MN, a next-door western suburb of Minneapolis. O’Hagan (born 1942), an affable fellow who speaks with that rising Norwegian lilt typical of MIN-ee-SOA-tuh, had studied music in school, specializing in clarinet, saxophone and piano, and around 1970 was making his living playing and teaching music at retail music stores in the Twin Cities area. In around 1971-72 O’Hagan took a job as a rep for the great musical instrument distributor out of Chicago, Targ and Dinner, and later with a local outfit called Meloway.

The guitar boom that had gone into a hiatus in the late-’60s had begun to pick up again at this time (disco was yet to come). In around 1974 or so, O’Hagan became aware of the very high quality Japanese acoustic guitars built by Yamaki, which were imported into Canada by Great West out of Vancouver. O’Hagan was so impressed with the quality of these Yamaki guitars that he looked into the possibility of importing them into the U.S., but found out there was some sort of legal restriction in the way. Still, he thought that selling guitars was a good idea, and decided to go into business for himself.

Grande acoustics
In 1975 O’Hagan set up his own importing company and began marketing Grande brand acoustic guitars from Japan. This lasted for a few years, but by 1978 O’Hagan had begun to realize that the times they were a changin’. As O’Hagan himself puts it, “John Denver was no longer on the charts.” Besides that, believe it or not, the life of an importer/distributor isn’t a road paved with gold, and O’Hagan was tired of always being at the mercy of his supplier, who would always give preference to the orders of the biggest customers with the most dealers.

Ahead of his time…and wrong
This is when O’Hagan’s intuition yielded two major ideas, both of which were about twenty years ahead of their time and proved dead wrong for that point in guitar history. The first idea was that there was no reason a good, affordable guitar couldn’t be produced here in the United States. The second was that the advantages held by the imports would eventually go away. The O’Hagan guitar company was born.

Here comes the Shark
The first O’Hagan guitar to be made was the Shark, a sort of Explorer design which, as O’Hagan points out, is much more comfortable to play than the Gibson when you’re sitting down. It was designed by O’Hagan and debuted in 1979. Like all subsequent O’Hagan guitars, these were essentially handmade instruments made of maple and walnut and featuring neck-through construction, which O’Hagan preferred for its sustain and easy string alignment. Controls usually consisted of two volume and one tone pot. The early Sharks had unbound dot-neck maple fingerboards, usually with a birdseye or other interesting figure. A few of these early Sharks were made of a maple/walnut/ash combination. Shark headstocks were a large, asymmetrical 3-and-3 design which was sort of like if the Flintstones did Gibson. Color choices were either natural or black. The earliest guitars have Jerry’s signature inside the control cavity.

Again, as you look at the shape of the Shark, you should keep in mind that this was the era when hard rock was still king (even though disco and punk/New Wave were busily chipping away at the throne’s foundation) and weird guitar shapes were in vogue. The Shark hit the market at a time when Dean Zelinsky was selling his exotically-shaped guitars, as were Hamer, Carvin, Gibson, Ibanez, Washburn, D’Agostino and just about everyone else.

Shown here is a 1981 natural Custom. One of the first things you notice about this guitar is that it is very comfortable to play sitting down. This has a pair of DiMarzio pickups, a threeway selector, two volume and one tone control, plus a mini toggle for phase. The volume pots are push-pull and serve as coil taps, so you can get a pretty wide tonal variety out of this guitar.

The line proliferates
A number of more conservative designs followed quickly. Next was the single cutaway Les Paul copy called the NightWatch, followed by a double cutaway Les Paul Junior/Special also called a NightWatch (cf. the Hamer Special), both of which proved very popular. These had asymmetrical headstocks as well, similar to the Shark, but somewhat less exaggerated. These featured two pickups and two volume and one tone control and other appointments like the Shark.

In 1980, O’Hagan introduced the Twenty Two, a maple and walnut V copy, which proved to be his most popular design. All these designs, by the way, came in a bass version as well. Terry Lewis of The Time, the popular Minneapolis band, requested a white Twenty Two bass, which was made. One two-octave NightWatch Double Cutaway Bass was custom made for a fellow in Omaha. The Twenty Two had a rounded point arrowhead headstock, similar to Gibson’s V, with an extra scallop at the nut. Otherwise the electronics were the same as the Shark and Nightwatch guitars.

On the back of the ca. 1980-81 O’Hagan catalog, by the way, is a note written by Richard John Reeck, “Musician; Luthier; Product Director for O’Hagan Guitars,” just so history remembers!

In 1981 the O’Hagan line was capped off with the Laser, a somewhat Bizarro-shaped Strat-style guitar. Lasers have a headstock which is kind of a cross between a six-in-line Strat and Jimmy Durante’s nose. They came either with three single coil pickups configured like a Strat or with a single lead humbucker.

According to the 1981 catalog, the following O’Hagans were available: Shark guitar and bass, NightWatch Single Cutaway guitar, NightWatch Double Cutaway guitar and bass, Twenty Two guitar and bass, and the Laser guitar. Left-handed options were available for each.

The Shark Special Bass, by the way, differs slightly from the six-string Shark guitar in that the back bass-side bout horn has been cut off and does not extend out as far.

Regarding the Shark bass design, Jean-Paul Emery of Resound Music in Virginia, MN, recalls a customer ordering a Shark bass. When it arrived, it was the same shape as the guitar, but was way out of balance due to the extended rear bout. It was returned to the factory and came back with the fin cut short. The Shark basses came with the abbreviated fin thereafter.

Basic list prices (without case or options) were: Shark $529, Twenty Two $529, NightWatch Single or Double $479, Shark Bass $539, Twenty Two Bass $539, NightWatch Regular Bass $559, and the NightWatch Special Bass $679. Cases were $120.

Most six-string guitars featured two humbuckers, except for the Laser, with either the humbucker or three single-coils option. The Regular Bass had one pickup. The Special Bass had two pickups.

Pickup evolution
Pickups, by the way, evolved over time. Initially, from 1979-80, O’Hagan used Mighty Mite pickups from L.A., but had lot consistency problems. In around 1981 Jerry switched to DiMarzio pickups, but found he had to dip them in beeswax to eliminate feedback problems. From about 1982-83 O’Hagans came with Schaller pickups, which Jerry felt offered the best consistency, quality and hot output.

A lot of options
O’Hagan offered quite a few options, so you’ll probably encounter many variations. All had brass nuts. You could choose either rosewood or maple fingerboards, both unbound (you might find a couple ebony boards out there). Guitars and basses came with Schaller finetune bridges (earlier O’Hagans had BadAss bridges), but a Kahler vibrato option was also available for guitars. Hardware could be chrome or gold (some brass parts were used, but not for long since they didn’t hold up). Tuners could be either Gotoh or Schaller (a very few were built with Grovers). A fretless option was available for basses.

Natural maple, coffee and black were regular finishes all 15 to 16 coats of urethane. Red, blue, sunburst, walnutburst, walnut/maple, redburst, silverburst and blueburst were available for additional charges. (A very few guitars were made with birdseye maple tops, but these would be very rare.)

Most models were offered as Standard for the list price, Deluxe (undefined) for $60 extra, Custom with gold or chrome hardware for $90 extra. “Custom” indicates push-pull volume pots to tap the coils (Standards were not tapped).

Finally, there were a number of basses which featured active electronics, with an onboard preamp. Jean-Paul Emery recalls seeing an O’Hagan Strat with a bolt-on neck which was supposed to have been a custom order.

On carving and logos
There seems to be some variation in carving on O’Hagan guitars. Generally these are slab bodies. Some had a bevelled German carve edge around the headstock, others (like these Sharks) had the bevelled German carve edge around the body’s top, others no edge bevel at all.

Also, a word about logos. Some O’Hagans featured a decal “O’Hagan” logo on the headstock, however, there were also glued-on raised “OH” logos, made of a green pearl, and inlaid cloverleaf. These latter logos were made for O’Hagan in Japan. There are some reports of O’Hagans with just the cloverleaf, but Jerry suspects these may just have lost the original O’H.

Since O’Hagan guitars were essentially handmade and many were custom-ordered, you should not be surprised if you find pieces which depart from the standard format.

The Jemar Corporation
As the ’80s got underway O’Hagan began adding people to try to meet the growing demand. At one point he had as many as 1200-1500 backorders. By 1981, O’Hagan employed between seven and nine workers and became the Jemar Corporation (Je=Jerry; Mar=Mary Ann, his wife). He began advertising in Guitar Player.

According to O’Hagan, the influx of new people caused a few quality control glitches while they got up to speed, but by 1983 O’Hagan felt he had a very good product. At least one dealer with whom I spoke was a little less charitable about this period. He had been working in the shop of an O’Hagan dealer in Minnesota during that era, and recalls seeing some pretty inconsistent guitars, including one with a knot like you see on knotty pine den panelling that wasn’t even filled in with lacquer. He also recalls far more extensive variations in wiring and controls than the O’Hagan catalog would indicate, although this may simply be a perception due to the simultaneous encounter of a non-tapped Standard, a tapped Custom and one of the active basses. We’ll never know for sure.

Widespread distribution
O’Hagans were distributed through a fairly broad-based network of about 600 dealers, with outlets in and around the upper Midwest as well as in Buffalo, Boston, New Hampshire, Bridgeport (CT), New York City, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Texas and California. To be a dealer you had to order six instruments. O’Hagans were also actively exported, with some going to Canada, England, Scotland, Paris, Switzerland and Sweden.

Changing times
Then in 1983 things began to unravel quickly. The main culprit was the recession of the early ’80s, which by 1983 was in full swing, especially in the upper Midwest. O’Hagan also suspects that one of his reps may have been clustering dealers too close to one another, which sapped enthusiasm. However that may be, back-orders began to be cancelled. Dealers started closing doors, owing O’Hagan money.

I suspect the change in tastes which occurred at that time also had more than a little to do with the company’s demise (other companies like Dean were also affected at this time). Strat-mania began. The imports which O’Hagan was sure would lose their advantage took over as kings of the guitar hill.

There are a number of rumors circulating about the end of O’Hagan, most of which have elements of truth in them, but as usual are mostly wrong. Some typical business problems occurred. Partners had been taken in, and some soured personal relationships followed. However, the end really came when a bank called in its note, which O’Hagan couldn’t pay. The I.R.S. was owed money and confiscated remaining O’Hagan stock and auctioned them off. Reportedly a Minneapolis music store bought most of them and then liquidated them fairly inexpensively. O’Hagan guitars entered the annals of guitar history.

Relative rarities
During its roughly four years of existence, O’Hagan Guitars produced at most 3000 instruments. Jerry did not have hard figures, but guessed that of these maybe only 200 maple/walnut Twenty Twos were built, maybe only between 100-150 Sharks, and probably only around 100 Lasers. The majority of O’Hagans were the double and single cut NightWatch guitars. About 25 or so of these were made with birdseye maple bodies. Somewhere between 300-400 instruments went overseas. Any O’Hagan you find will be relatively rare.

In theory, dating O’Hagans should not be difficult because all were supposed to have a stamped coded serial number, although you might encounter slight variations in these code patterns, and the natural Shark pictured here had no serial number at all (pots were coded January ’81). On the back of the headstock on earlier guitars should be stamped just a serial number. (Also recall that the very earliest guitars were also signed inside by O’Hagan.) Later, a “Made in U.S.A./Product of Jemar Corporation” decal joined the serial number. The sequence can be simply deciphered. The basic scheme is year/month/# of guitar that month. Sometimes the number is prefixed by a letter. The letter may or may not have any significance. The NightWatch shown here has a serial number of B 11008 which would translate: Unknown (B)/1981 (1)/probably January, but possibly October (1, or is it 10?)/8th guitar (008). The black Shark pictured has serial number A34006, which translates: April (A)/1983 (3)/April (4)/6th guitar (006). The A prefix in this case is redundant, assuming it stands for the month.

Here are other key features which can help date an O’Hagan. From 1979 to 1980 they had a stamped serial number only (or maybe not). From 1981 to 1983 there was a stamped serial number plus Jemar Corp. decal (or maybe not). From 1979 to 1981 O’Hagans sported Mighty Mite pickups. In 1981 pickups were changed to DiMarzios. From 1982 to 1983 they had Schaller pickups.

Back to the clarinet
Jerry O’Hagan was still active in music at the time this information was collected, although not as a distributor or manufacturer. In addition to working with several business ventures, he was busy running Jerry O’Hagan and His Orchestra, a for-real 16-20 piece Big Band specializing in swing jazz.

Like tracing the life of the legendary Hiawatha, tracking down the mysterious O’Hagan guitar is now the domain of the cultural anthropologist and antiquarian. Namely, guitar collectors. These guitars were well built and represent a very interesting, if brief, chapter in American guitar history, one of the final spasms before the triumph of the imports.

1981 natural finish O’Hagan Shark Custom, the company’s most distinctive design, a neck-through-body modified Explorer shape that is easier to play sitting down.

This article originally appeared in Guitar Stories Vol 1 ’95. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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