If you think the headless, downsized Kramer Duke series was conceived and designed as a copy of the groundbreaking Steinberger bass, think again, because that’s not half of the story.
Kramer began producing its eye-catching aluminum-neck instruments in the mid 1970s, touting their resistance to neck warpage and other problems. The aluminum necks had a slightly T-shaped profile, with wood inserts on the underside in an attempt to evoke a more natural feel. Fretboards were made of Ebonol, a substance similar to the material used in bowling balls.
While inspired by the even more unique Steinberger bass, the Duke series happened somewhat accidentally. According to a former Kramer employee, another model, the TL-8 eight-string bass (which had four tuning pegs on the headstock and the extra four anchored to the end of the body), was experiencing production problems, and when he happened to chop off the wood “wings” of one, he noticed the Steinberger-like silhouette with the remaining body portion and strings attached to it behind the bridge. Hacking off the headstock conjured up even more of a Steinberger-ish profile, so the first 100 or so Dukes were made from bodies intended for TL-8 basses. All Duke necks have wood inserts, but they were painted over to match the body.
Duke models differed from Steinbergers in more than one facet. Kramer’s effort at the downsized style had a short-scale of 301/2″, while the original had a full 34″ scale. Unlike Steinbergers, which were intended for use with double-ball/quick-change strings, Dukes used regular bass strings, with the ball end anchored at the headless portion of the neck. Regular strings could be used on Steinbergers if a special clamp was installed. Moreover, the tuners on Steinbergers were knurled and cylinder-shaped, whereas Dukes used conventional Schallers in a deeply routed area on the end of the body.
Both brands eventually offered headless guitars, and on Kramer Dukes, a set of string posts was installed behind the bridge to guide each string to its tuner.
The Duke bass was available in two models – the Standard and the Deluxe. Pickups were usually DiMarzios on Standards and a Schaller “Double J” on the Deluxe, which also offered a three-way mini-toggle for series, parallel, or phase pickup coil selection. The Deluxe also came with an upgrade Schaller bridge/tailpiece.
There are other differences on Dukes; the bottom edge of the white Deluxe seen here sports a ridged “pad” to allow the instrument to rest in a more stable manner on a seated player’s leg. And while the jack on the Deluxe is on the same bottom edge, the Standard’s jack is on the top, where the mini-toggle is on the Deluxe. Some variants may be encountered, however; a Standard might be found with a bottom-edge jack, for example. Both instruments sport aftermarket graphics.
As for sound, well, Duke basses are “sonically challenged,” for a couple reasons – the smaller body and the short scale both detract from realizing decent resonance compared to most full-scale basses with normal-sized bodies. However, they’re extremely lightweight and easy to play, and their pickups provide decent sound.
Kramer Dukes were the last of the aluminum-neck Kramers. Usually found in black or white (though other colors exist), these small, easy-to-handle instruments represent a brief and interesting glimpse at not only the Kramer company, but the saga of American guitar building.
Early-’80s Duke Deluxe, serial #B6038 (white) and an early-’80s Duke Standard, serial #B3736 (black). Instruments courtesy of Charles Farley and John Kotlowski.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.