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!

Laservision
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