Let me begin by saying that I have absolutely no qualms about admitting my love for all things rock and metal, including the various bands that rose from the streets of Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in the 197s and 1980s. Along with that love, comes my admiration for some of the most beautiful and well-built instruments ever made in the United States: Hamer Guitars.
Whether it’s one of Rick Neilson’s incredible (and very heavy!) multi-neck guitars on stage at a Cheap Trick concert, Lita Ford’s legendary set of “Salt” and “Pepper” Explorers that she used breaking the gender barrier in rock with The Runaways, Glenn Tipton’s marvelous collection of axes that power metal giants Judas Priest, Mick Mars’ tiger-striped Explorer, or one of Steve Stevens’ menacing six-strings, the Hamer name has always been synonymous with quality and playability. The list of artists that played I will go to my grave knowing that one of the greatest days of my life was holding Lita Ford’s black Explorer – “Pepper” – and strumming a chord on it. The neck was absolutely heavenly, and the fretboard/fret combination felt just as wonderful. That it is an iconic guitar that graces an album cover helped too.
When vintage guitar shop owners Paul Hamer, John Montgomery, and Jol Danzig started Hamer Guitars in 1973 out of a vintage guitar shop in Wilmette, Illinois, their instruments quickly became sought after by professional musicians. Hamer was one of the first – if not the first – “custom” or “boutique” guitar manufacturers by the time it was incorporated in 1976.
I had the chance to speak with Steve Matthes, author of The Ultimate: An Illustrated History of Hamer Guitars, about Hamer’s long-standing place in the guitar history, and he was able to answer some questions about the iconic brand.
SD: When did the company start building guitars and did it initially begin as a custom shop or factory?
Steve Matthes: Hamer’s first guitar, the sunburst flametop Explorer, was completed Dec 7, 1974. Prior to that, Paul Hamer and John Montgomery and Jol Dantzig did repairs at Paul’s Northern Prairie Music, one of the first vintage guitar shops. One of the more notable repairs was redoing Jan Akkerman’s Les Paul Personal (forget the model offhand?) with low impedence pickups by retopping it, adding PAFs and a sunburst finish.
The first Explorer (#0000) is owned by Rick Nielsen and Rick has used it since 1975. That guitar was built in Montgomery’s (Monty) basement in Winnetka, IL. Most of the early customs were built there, so Hamer started more as one of the first ‘custom shops’.
SD: When did Hamer start using Seymour Duncan pickups in their guitars and in what models?
Steve Matthes: Hamer started using Seymour Duncan pickups as standard equipment in the late 1980s after they were acquired by Kaman in 1988. Most models of the more recent USA Hamers (if not all) were spec’d with Seymour Duncan pickups. Some limited models came with exclusive Duncan Custom Shop pickups and others like the Newport and Talledega had pickups designed by SD and Hamer specifically for those guitars.
SD: What would you say are the “seminal” or most sought after Hamer models for guitarists? If I’m scouring kijiji, eBay, or Reverb, what are some of the “holy grails” so to speak?
Steve Matthes: The most sought-after Hamers are the original “Four Digit” Standards. “Four digit” refers to the serial number scheme used on the custom builds made between 1974-1985. There were about 750 instruments in total. Most were built between 1980/81. Production numbers before 1979 are very low and get lower after 1983 because more was done in-house at Hamer’s Arlington Heights facility when it opened in 1980. That was the first full production facility.
It goes without say that Hamer guitars certainly have their niche market of “fans” and collectors that swear by their beauty and playability, but if you’ve never held or played a vintage Hamer – one of the “Four Digit” Standards Steve talks about – you owe it to yourself to do so. The necks have a fast, dreamy quality that any guitarist can appreciate. And who can’t find a way to channel their inner rock star when holding a vintage Hamer Explorer?
We want to know: Do you have a favorite Hamer model? How about a famous Hamer guitar you wouldn’t mind getting the chance to play? Comment below!