Making More Than Just Guitars

Building the second Hamer shop 1979. I’m leaning on the Richardson neck lathe we rescued from Gibson’s original Kalamazoo factory.

More than 45 years ago, I had a dream to build a vintage inspired guitar for myself. It all came to fruition in the back of our little vintage guitar shop in the Chicago area when we started Hamer Guitars in 1973. Some people say we started the “Boutique” electric guitar trend—but I never saw it like that. I was just doing what I loved—making cool stuff. 

A lot has happened since then. I’ve built instruments for lots of my musical heroes, and worked for many famous brands in the guitar world—Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, Guild and a whole lot more. I’ve helped build—and rebuild—small shops and big factories around the world. I’ve won awards, been on TV and interviewed by more magazines than I can remember. It’s been a crazy ride. But none of that matters as much as the pure joy of making stuff with my hands for people who share my passion for the guitar. 

Crafting a Milano model on my bench

Today, I’m still making sublime guitars for people who care about music. No advertising company, no fancy PR firm, no speaking tours, no fan club, no big box stores—just me in my little shop. Just like before.

With the help of a few of my compadres from the “old” shop, I’m able to offer a line of guitars that you’ll go to first, and cherish like works of hand-built art. We don’t make a ton of guitars, but that’s not the point is it?

 

The end of a good day in my little shop

I’m focused on character and individuality—guitars that look and feel broken in without resorting to scratches and dings. I use an old school finishing technique that makes them warm and friendly to your touch. These instruments remind me of old guitars I saw when I was a kid in the 1960s; when guitars were hand-hewn instruments not glossy appliances.


Are we “boutique?” I’m not the one to answer that—it’s just a return to my roots. Looking back, I realize we weren’t the first to craft “boutique” instruments, but it surely was the birth of “Modern Vintage.” To my friends and customers who have supported me, I give sincere thanks for opening this new chapter in my life. And, to those of you who have yet to join our tribe, I hope we will make a guitar with a vintage soul for you before it’s all over. There’s still a lot of cool stuff to do.

Stream of Consciousness

This is my original sketch for the Vernon Reid “Clock” guitar. Vernon and I collaborated on the ideas for what would be included in the painting. We sat in my car in front of The Lincoln hotel on Clark Street in Chicago, where Vernon was staying, for about an hour jotting down ideas in a notebook. You can see the page from that notebook in the photo.When I got back to my home studio I drew this layout. The body and drawing went to Jim O’Connor to airbrush, and he did a great job. It was all stream of consciousness stuff—we didn’t think it would be so iconic at the time, it was just something we thought would be cool and tell a story.

Following Guitar Instincts

A four decade tenure in the guitar-making world has given me a pretty good overview of things. As a guitar tech and musician I’ve recorded dozens of times in real studios and played live hundreds of times. As a designer, facilities and plant manager for a number of brands, I’ve overseen the production of tens of thousands of guitars. My lean/Kaizen consulting business has seen me working in the biggest guitar factories in the US and Mexico, and I’ve toured the guitar plants of Japan, Korea and China.

factory floor

But what I really enjoy the most is making guitars one by one with my own hands. And that’s why I’m really digging this Tulsa Artist’s Proof thing I’m doing right now. Each of these instruments starts off as a completely freewheeling, let-my-instincts-rule sort of jam session. They are ideas I’ve toyed with, or suggested to clients before—and never followed through with.

Two Pines

They aren’t “stock” models, and they’re all different. Some utilize combinations of woods, hardware and electronics that I don’t really offer on the stock models. Normally, I have a small team helping me build the Dantzig models: Tulsa, Milano, Tupelo and Rialto, but this is a different thing altogether. I’m a lot more hands on, and honestly, it’s the closest you could get to one of my signature guitars without the signature.

Marigold Guitar Morning Inspirations

Musicians are a bit like vampires. No, I don’t mean they’ll suck the life out of you—although that can be the case. It’s the hours they keep. I used to enjoy the upside-down, unconventional world of the working musician.  While others were brushing their teeth, getting ready for their meaningless day of drudgery at the office, my musician friends and I were stumbling out of a party or loading out from the night’s gig. The pale glow of the morning’s approach was always a special, quiet time before the bustle of the straight world took over.

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I’d been in the company of artists—like-minded souls, with great conversations and interesting points of view. Then it was home, for a solid six hours of sleep before rising at noon.

Today, it’s the reverse. The quiet time is still precious to me, but it’s at the start of my day now. I sip my coffee and listen to the birds—first a robin, then the Cardinal’s chip chip chip chip. As the sun crests the ridge, I’m walking down the wooded road to my shop. In the distance a chainsaw fires up and a dog barks faintly. This is the best time—so full of promise.

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My wife, Carla, had planted Marigolds at the entrance to my shop, and every day they make me smile as I approach the door. They are bright and welcoming—exploding with red, gold and yellow in the morning light. So, it wasn’t a surprise when I mixed up a new batch of glowing lacquer shaders and dyes to use on a few new instruments.

I’d been staying mainly with browns, deep cherry, naturals and muted ambers, which are still some of my favorite guitar finishes, but the flowers had made me think of more bright reds and yellows. So I made a few sample blocks.

Samples

I still think about the old times, and staying up all night. Bill Murray holding an enormous bunch of colored balloons in a deserted warehouse district street at 4 AM, or David Copperfield sharing cocktails and a childhood story on a balcony overlooking the lights of Chicago. Too many good memories to dismiss as wasted youth. But I like the morning for different reasons now, and my head doesn’t hurt.

 

Back in the Saddle

It has been a busy few months—lots of research, writing and following up on things, and not as much building guitars as I would like. That’s not to say that my shop has been idle. Space is always at a premium, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned—no matter how much you have, you’ll fill it up. So, in order to make things a little easier on myself (and my clients) I’ve been streamlining the shop. If you follow my posts on Facebook you’ll know that I’ve gotten the Hell’s Half Acre build back on the bench, and it feels good.

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The tobacco sunburst is appropriately named for this cowpoke guitar, and it turned out really nice. I’m back in my paint room, which has been upgraded, and am now putting on clear coats of nitro.

Lately, I’ve been infatuated with three things: French polish, old violins, and the patina of age on vintage guitars. I’ve been working on a way to stylistically blend these influences into a thin nitrocellulose guitar finish.

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Here is a test panel compared to an original 1964 Precision Bass. I’m not trying to match the color here, just the sheen. It is a combination of additives in the lacquer, and a hand polishing technique using a wool pad and lots of elbow grease. It’s not as easy as buffing a high gloss, or spraying a satin paint, but I think the results are great. This process gives the guitar more of a real musical instrument vibe, and less of a “production/factory” look. After all, I don’t make toasters or automobiles—I don’t think of guitars as appliances.