The History of Hamer Guitars

High-End Boutique or Budget Vintage, Part II
Part Two
’86 Hamer Chaparral Custom, an early model with custom-ordered Kahler and OBL pickups built for Fernando Von Arb of Krokus. Photo: Steve Matthes.

Hamer was started when Jol Dantzig and Paul Hamer, partners in Northern Prairie Music in the early 1970s, moved from repairing old guitars to making new, improved versions of their “dream” vintage guitars. Their idea was to make inexpensive options for those into expensive vintage guitars, though they were greeted like high-end boutique.

The first instruments were the Flying V bass in ’73 and the upscale flametop Explorer copy, soon to be called the Standard. In ’75 they got their first order, and Hamer USA Guitars was on its way. In ’78 the team was rounded out with the addition of Frank Untermeyer. Thereafter began a series of classic early Hamers including the Standard Bass, Sunburst, 12-String Quadbass, 8-String Bass, Special, Prototype, Phantom, Vector, Blitz, and CruiseBass. We pick up the tale in the early ’80s.

As the Reagan years moved into mid-decade, the roles of Hamer’s principals began to shift ever so slightly. Paul Hamer continued to handle sales, doing a lot of global traveling. Dantzig and Untermeyer ran the factory, with Dantzig focusing on marketing issues and product development, Untermeyer handling international affairs and the business aspects.

Hamer continued to garner support from many top professionals. This would lead to Hamer’s first “artist” models.

Gary Moore Special
The plethora of big-name guitarists using Hamers inevitably led to the introduction of models named for individual artists. One of the earliest to get an artist association was a version of the Special introduced in ’84, and carrying a Floyd Rose double-locking vibrato system. This guitar was like the regular Special except for its an all-mahogany body (no flamed maple) and a slightly smaller headstock. Pickups were Hamer Slammer humbuckers. A rosewood fingerboard with dots was standard, but an ebony fingerboard with crown inlays was offered as an option. Models so equipped are often called the Gary Moore Special because they were favored by the great Irish guitarist. The Floyd Rose/Gary Moore Specials were offered only until ’85.

Steve Stevens
Fusing the rather disparate image posturings of New Wave and Heavy Metal was the early ’80s band that backed singer Billy Idol. Idol’s guitarist, Steve Stevens, caught the attention of the guitar world and in ’84 he hooked up with Hamer to create the Prototype SS. The Prototype SS was Hamer’s first “superstrat” (at least in terms of pickup layout). It differed significantly from other Prototypes in that it had two equal cutaways, a wider mahogany body, and a six-in-line headstock. The neck continued to be glued in, with a 22-fret unbound fingerboard of either rosewood or ebony, with dot or crown inlays. The ebony and crown version was sometimes known as the Custom. The pickup layout consisted of a bridge humbucker and two parallel single-coil pickups, the classic superstrat layout that had been introduced on the Dean Bel Aire and Kramer Pacer in ’83. One volume and one tone contour control continued, with pickup switching done via two toggles, still behind the bridge. Standard was now a Floyd Rose double-locking vibrato system, with a Kahler as optional (these were the days before Rose won his patent rights). These were advertised as being, “…small, lightweight, versatile, and aggressive.” Finishes were either custom colors or graphics.

In ’86 the Prototype SS became known as the Steve Stevens model, a name it enjoyed until its demise in ’92. Also at that time the 22-fret fingerboard was extended to 24 frets, although some 22-fret models continued to be made. Beginning in ’87, some came with Fender-style 251/2″ scale.

To keep things interesting, from ’86 to ’87 a second model was offered, called the Steve Stevens II. This looked more like the original Prototype but with sharper, more pointed horns. The body was one-piece Honduras mahogany. Pickups included a backward-slanted Slammer at the bridge (closer to the bridge on the bass side) and a backward-slanted single-coil pickup at the neck. Still with one volume and one tone, this now came with a three-way select. Again with a 22-fret Fender scale, this came with rosewood and dots or ebony and crowns. As usual, these were available in a variety of finishes, including graphics and airbrush painting. Finishes in ’84 included Ice Pearl, Metal Gray, Red and Black Zulu (a kind of animal-fur shield pattern), Day-Glo Zulu, Lazer Pearl, Candy Red, and Day-Glo Pink.

Judas Priest
Another celebrity model also appeared in ’84, the Vector KK, designed for guitarist K.K. Downing of the English heavy metal band Judas Priest. Downing was strongly associated with the Flying V, so the Vector was perfect. The Vector KK was essentially a Vector with a single Slammer at the bridge, mounted on a small pickguard that sat under the strings and descended just a little along the lower edge of the Vee. The top was flamed maple, the head a slightly narrower, more pointed version of the triangular Gibson design. The Vector KK was equipped with a Kahler Flat-Mount double-locking vibrato. This model was offered in translucent and custom colors until ’87.

Egyptian Scarab
1984 also saw the introduction of another original design, the Scarab. It continued the Explorer theme, but in a sleeker, more modern rendition. Take the Standard, slim down the cutaway horn, and make it more pointed, trim the waste to make it narrower, then cut a wave-shaped notch out of the lower bout, and you have the Scarab. The neck was glued-in, with a six-in-line Hamer headstock. While all Hamer guitars could be had in a variety of custom-ordered options, the Scarab offered a rather broad range. 22-fret, 243/4″ scale fingerboards were either rosewood or ebony. Inlays could be pearl dots, crowns, or LED lights! Kahler Top Mount, Floyd Rose, or other vibrato systems were available. Finishes could be custom pearl, candy, day-glo or phosphorescent. Two guitars were offered, the Scarab II, with two Slammer pickups, three-way select and volume and midrange contour tone control, and the Scarab I, the same but with only a bridge humbucker.

The Scarab Bass was the same shape as the guitar, with P and J-type pickups. Controls were a three-way select plus two volume and two tone controls. The fingerboard was 21 frets on a 34″ scale. The bridge/tailpiece assembly was the old Sustain Block bridge.

The Scarab I and II guitars were available until ’86. The bass lasted until ’90.

Secondary Blitz
In ’84 Hamer revised the Blitz Guitar. This was essentially the Explorer concept, but with a “scimitar” or “banana” six-in-line headstock. Most new Blitzes had locking Floyd Rose vibratos. In ’86 they featured two-octave fingerboards. It lasted until ’90.

Clearly, Hamer was on a roll in the mid ’80s. But the times they were a-changin’ again. Arguably, the ’70s, were dominated by a Gibson taste, reflected in the Standard, Sunburst, and Special. As discussed, the rage for heavy metal hit in ’83 and Hamer responded with guitars like the Scarab and the Vector. By ’85, tastes were shifting again, this time under the overwhelming influence of guitarists like Edward Van Halen, whose pyrotechnic technique was dominated by two-handed tapping and dive-bomb vibrato. By the mid ’80s a double-locking vibrato was de rigeur, and the “superstrat” (a Strat-style guitar with – depending on whose definition you accept – a humbucker/single/single pickup arrangement), a form pioneered by the Dean Bel Aire and Kramer Pacer in ’83.

Some of Hamer’s Gibson-style trappings began to fall away, although these were replaced by others. The first version of the Sunburst ended in ’83. The unbound Special lasted until ’84, the “Gary Moore” one year more. The venerable Standard “Explorer” bit the dust in ’85, the year Hamer released a flurry of new models.

By ’85 the Strat-style guitar had begun to dominate. Hamer’s crosstown competitor, Dean, had begun to switch from its own upscale Gibson variations to the “superstrat” form, and Kramer was phasing out its ’70s aluminum necks and was well on its way to dominating the American guitar market with its Strat-shaped models. Hamer entered the Strat-style sweeps in ’85 with the introduction of the Chaparral and Chaparral Custom. The Chaparrals had contoured offset double-cutaway mahogany bodies, very Strat-like, but with a slightly larger upper horn. Rock maple necks were glued in and featured Hamer’s droopy six-in-line headstock. Fingerboard scale was 243/4″. Both featured the soon-to-be-ubiquitous humbucker/single/single pickup layout, with one volume and one midrange tone contour control. Pickup selection was controlled via three three-way mini-toggles which served as a coil tap on the ‘bucker and reversed phase on the single-coils. The jack was top-mounted, as on a Strat.

The Chaparral Custom featured an ebony fingerboard with pearl boomerang inlays. A double-locking Floyd Rose was standard, but a Kahler was an option. The bridge humbucker was a Slammer, but the two single-coils were twin-blades made in West Germany by OBL. The Custom could also be had with an optional flamed maple top. By January ’87 Hamer was also offering a Chaparral Custom Carved-Top. Only a few were made to showcase Hamer’s “custom shop” capabilities. Basically, the Chaparral Custom Carved-Top was a Custom with the top carved into an extra arch. The tops were either quilted or tiger maple. Cost was $1,699.90; the Carved-Top was $2,299.90.

The plain Chapparal sported a rosewood board, pearl dot inlays, and a Kahler Traditional vibrato system (Strat-style but with a locking nut). Pickups were Slammers. A few were ordered with three single-coils but they were not production models and are very rare. These first Chaparrals lasted until ’87.

In ’87 Hamer revamped the Chaparral, splitting the model into the Chaparral Bolt-On and Chaparral Custom. Both now sported longer 251/2″ scales, five-way switches, and side-mounted jacks. Locking Floyd Rose systems were standard, though Kahlers could still be custom-ordered. These were now recessed, by the way, for greater upswing. The Chaparral Bolt-On featured a bolt-on neck and continued to have a rosewood fingerboard and dots. Pickups were still Slammers. The Chaparral Custom remained otherwise essentially the same as before, including a flametop option. The bridge pickup had become OBL by this time. Available on a special order basis was a 12-string, essentially a glued-neck Custom, sans vibrato.

Around ’88, the Chaparrals were reconfigured again. The Bolt-On was renamed the Chaparral Standard, otherwise unchanged. New was the Chaparral Elite, which had an ebony board and boomerang inlays. Pickups were either OBL or Seymour Duncan. In ’89-’90, the Standard and Elite could be had with OBL Sustainiac circuitry. Sustainiac was essentially changing a neck humbucker into a high-powered magnetic E-bow, allowing unlimited feedback sustain. These later-version Chaparrals were offered until ’94.

While Hamer was (temporarily) abandoning some Gibson influences, in ’85 it picked up some others. New was the FB series, with two guitars and a bass styled after the Gibson reverse Firebird. Curiously, this design, with an extended lower horn and tapered lower bout, is the one closest to the Explorer, Hamer’s favorite shape!

The guitars included the FBII and FBI. Both had glued-in rock maple necks. The center portion of the mahogany body was raised, as on a Gibson. The head of the FBII was droopy six-in-line and angled back, whereas that on the FBI was reverse, and not angled. The FBII came with a two-octave, 243/4″ ebony fingerboard with pearl boomerang inlays. Electronics were two Slammer (sometimes OBL) humbuckers with a three-way select, volume, and midrange tone contour controls. The jack was top-mounted. It came with a Floyd Rose vibrato (Kahler optional). The FBI had a rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays and a single bridge humbucker, and was available with a vibrato, but is often seen as a hardtail with a Sustain Block-style bridge/tailpiece assembly. A few non-reverse-body FBs were also built.

The FBIV Bass had the same reverse body shape with a four-in-line headstock. These had a 34″ scale and 21 frets on a dot-inlaid rosewood fingerboard. Pickups were P and J-Bass type Slammer humbuckers, each with volume control (no tone) allowing the player to “blend” the pickups according to taste. In the ’85 catalog, Nikki Sixx is seen playing one of these.

The FB series was available from ’85 to ’87. Note that the FB guitars were not listed in the January ’87 price list, but cases for them were, so presumably they were winding down. The FBIV was still on the list.

Replacing the Standard in ’85 was another contemporary take on the Explorer theme, the Scepter. Next to the Scarab, the Scepter was one of Hamer’s most strikingly original designs. Imagine an Explorer made more pointy and angular; not really more extended, just more avuncular. Exaggerating the effect was a smaller outline on the top, set at a slight angle to the edges of the guitar. The difference between these was then bevelled. The top and the bevels were painted different colors (often black center with red bevels) to accentuate the design. Otherwise, this was similar to the Blitz, with a glued-in neck, droopy six-in-line head, 24-fret ebony fingerboard (early examples had 22 frets), boomerang inlays, black hardware, Floyd Rose vibrato system, twin Slammer humbuckers, three-way select, and one volume and one midrange tone contour control.

A second version of the Scepter was also introduced in ’85, the Scepter V, a bevelled take on a Flying V, again more angular than the original or Hamer’s other versions of it. The appointments were identical to the Scepter.

The Scepter V lasted only until ’86, while the Scepter “Explorer” made it until ’90.

Miller Time
In ’85 Hamer got involved in a promotional project that was for some years an embarrassment to Dantzig, though he’s subsequently reevaluated his feelings about the effort. This was an alliance with Miller Beer, the last of the brewing giants that once were the hallmark of Milwaukee. Miller, at the time, had an active promotional campaign called “Miller Music,” in which the company sponsored promising new bands, sending them to festivals and other events. According to Dantzig, Hamer was interested in the program because it provided access to young artists who might promote Hamer guitars. The idea was to fabricate guitars and basses to reflect the Miller logo and then be played by the bands they supported.

The first Miller guitars were called “Miller Music” and were shaped like the Miller logo. This shape proved a bit awkward, so after a few were produced with the logo shape, Dantzig redesigned the shape to be slightly asymmetrical. Despite such a rather “kitsch” concept, these are actually high-quality guitars. The necks were typical 22-fret, with rosewood fingerboards and dot inlays. Early models had a three-and-three headstock, but this soon changed to six-in-line. The jack was front-mounted, bodies were mahogany with a flamed maple top finished in gold, the top in a transparent cherry finish with the Miller Music logo overlaid. What looks like white top binding is actually white paint. The electronics were typical, with two Slammers, three-way, volume, and tone. The bridge/tailpiece was a Sustain Block.

Joining the Miller Music guitar was a bass named for one of Miller’s flagship brands, the Miller High Life. Other than having only a single middle DiMarzio P-style pickup and the obvious bass appointments, these were pretty much the same as the guitars. Some have the band’s name engraved on the truss rod cover. Also, although these instruments were commissioned by Miller, the artists themselves were in contact with Hamer, so special features can occur, although most of the artists only played the guitars because it was required. Special features are pretty rare.

According to Untermeyer, only about 100 of the first Miller guitars were built in ’85 and ’86.

The red “butterfly” Miller guitars were replaced by a new design in ’87, with a sort of rectangular parallelogram shape in emulation of the logo of another Miller brand, Miller Genuine Draft. These had small mahogany bodies finished in opaque black with the copper and white logo screened on the front. What looks like silver painted trim around the perimeter of the top is actually inlaid metal. Guitars had six-in-line heads, rosewood with dots, a bridge humbucker and neck single-coil, with either a Sustain Block Bridge or a Floyd Rose. Basses were similar except for having one P-style pickup and, of course, no vibrato option. Apparently, the small body size does make the basses a little neck-heavy. At least one Miller Genuine Draft was made as a left-handed 12-String, with a single slanted OBL single-coil blade pickup at the bridge, fine-tune bridge, and stop tailpiece.

No official tally of Miller Genuine Drafts exists, but estimates are that around a dozen basses and somewhere between 25 and 30 guitars (including the one-offs) were made in ’87.

It’s curious to note Dean guitars also got involved in brewing company promotions, making a few guitars for Budweiser and Coors Light.

Long Scale Acoustic 12-String Bass
One other Hamer had its origins at about this time, perhaps a little earlier: the Long Scale Acoustic 12-String Bass. This was a large bass with a single-cutaway Telecaster shape and a big, round soundhole that looked like an acoustic bass but was actually a solidbody. The body was mahogany, the top flamed maple. The neck had an open-book headstock, not the typical Hamer V-head, with a 34″ scale to the rosewood fingerboard. These came with an EMG HB humbucker near the Sustain Block bridge, plus a P-style EMG P pickup mounted in the soundhole. A three-way, two volumes, and two tones completed the outfit. The first was ordered by Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick, possibly in the early ’80s, according to Dantzig’s recollection. Several others may have been ordered in the early ’80s, including the checkerboard-finished example featured in the Cheap Trick video for “Don’t Be Cruel.” This bass was available on a custom-order-only basis through the rest of the ’80s and did not appear as a catalog model until around ’91. By ’96 Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament was also associated with this bass. Finishes at that time were ’59 burst, black, and white. It is still available.

More ’80s Hamer artists
In 1985, Hamer artists included: Steve Stevens (Billy Idol), Jeff Golub (Billy Squire), Bobby Barth and Ricky Medlock (Blackfoot), Tony Iomi (Black Sabbath), Tommy Thayer and Patrick Young (Black and Blue), Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi), Ben Orr (The Cars), John McCurry (Cindy Lauper), Cody Lee (Cody Lee and the Walk), Steve Vai (David Lee Roth), Tom Lloyd and Dan Zanes (Del Fuegos), Warren Zanes (Dez Dickerson), Gary Moore (Gary Moore Group), G.E. Smith, Harvey Mandell, Gordon Bonnar (Heavy Pettin), Derry Grehan (Honeymoon Suite), Chris Hayes (Huey Lewis & the News), John Waite, Ian Hill and Glenn Tipton (Judas Priest), Fernando Von Arb (Krokus), Paul Dean (Loverboy), Chris “Godzilla” Doliber and Maxine Petrucci (Madame X), Mick Mars and Nicki Sixx (Motley Crue), Jack Blades and Jeff Watson (Night Ranger), Eddie Martinez (Robert Palmer), Robbie McIntosh (Pretenders), Robbin Crosby and Juan Croucier (Ratt), Darren Hill (Red Rockers), Mike Skill (Romantics), Micki Free (Shalamar), Van McLain (Shooting Star), Steve Miller, Sammy Hagar (Van Halen), and Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill (ZZ Top). This list does not include those already mentioned.

More Fender style
In late ’85/early ’86, Hamer furthered its move toward Fender-style guitars with the introduction of two models inspired by the Fender Telecaster – the TLE and TLE Custom.

The TLE had a single-cutaway Tele-style body of mahogany with a flat maple top, which could be figured. The maple neck was glued in, with a six-in-line head, two-octave rosewood fingerboard (243/4″ scale) and dot inlays. Electronics included three Slammer single-coils in a Strat-style configuration with a five-way select, and volume and tone control. The TLE had a fixed Sustain Block bridge.

The TLE Custom had the same shape but featured a bound figured maple top over mahogany, glued-in maple neck and a backward-angled six-in-line headstock. The Custom also had a two-octave fingerboard, but now of ebony with boomerang inlays. Pickups on the Custom were either Slammer or OBL in a superstrat layout with bridge humbucker and two single-coils. The Custom was catalogued with a double-locking Floyd Rose vibrato system, though some are found with Sustain Block bridges. At least one TLE Custom has been seen with a slightly thicker maple top that was unbound and contoured. According to Dantzig, this was probably a custom-order, never a production model. Both lasted until ’92.

We’ll continue the saga next month, moving into the late ’80s, and some big changes. Special thanks need to go to Andrew Large, Steve Mathes, and Peter Fung. Also, thanks to Dantzig for helping paint the “big picture” and fill in a lot of details.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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