Then and Now, Short Form

Here is a template that I made in the early 1980s. It has been used to start the process on thousands of instruments. It hangs in my shop to remind me of my journey and all of the wonderful people I have met along the way. At the lower right hand corner is a current color sample block for a client’s guitar order.

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I’ve never done this for the money, but I like to be paid for my time and expertise. I didn’t start building guitars because I wanted to be rich, or even to be a businessman. I just wanted to make cool shit. I figured that if I satisfied myself, maybe there would be a few people like me who might want one of my guitars. So far, it has worked out way better than I’d ever hoped.

Patterns of Behavior

Space, the final frontier. It’s always a battle to find enough space in the workshop. If I’ve learned anything over the years it is that if you have the space, you will fill it, and there will never be enough room. Consequently, I’ve become very good at squeezing more things into less space. The downside is that sometimes you forget where things are, or that they exist at all. This runs in direct opposition to my Kaizen training—where visual systems rule the roost. I find it neccessary to routinely jockey tables, benches and machinery around in order to accomodate projects as needed.

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Good things in small packages: the original 6L headstock pattern.

As I was rearranging things yesterday I came upon a small box marked “Jol’s work patterns.” Inside was a time-capsule of paper cutouts shaped like guitars folded up neatly. In an instant I knew what I’d found. Before the advent of CAD, I did all my design work in full scale on a drafting table. When specifying a custom order for construction in the shop I would draw it and then cut the pattern out to be used as a template in the woodshop. These paper patterns contained all the location and configuration information we needed—it was the blueprint that we used to create a customer’s guitar.

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A customer’s order with Floyd Rose and custom control location

I have many large boxes full of my original Hamer drawings, blueprints and templates, but this small cache was part of a stash that somehow got separated from the rest. It was a bit like time travel to look through it and I intend to share more of it as time goes on.

For the Want of a Tool

I love tools—I’ve got boxes of them in my shop and in my home. My wife chuckles and shakes her head, I’m sure, because there’s a tool kit in almost every room of our house. Every new job I take on is an opportunity to acquire a new wrench, cutter or crimper. Punches, files, clamps and drills fill my heart with joy. Pantographs, saws and shapers fill my workspace with lovely dust.

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As much as I adore specialized tools—the ones that do one thing and one thing only—measuring tools, that I use every day, or even every hour of every day are my bread and butter. Rulers, scales, micrometers, depth and diameter gauges. These are the implements needed to navigate the complexities of building something to close tolerances—like a guitar. But by far the most versatile of this class of tools is the dial caliper.

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I’ve had my Brown & Sharpe dial calipers since the late 1970s. The corners and edges of the mahogany case have been rounded off from three decades of constant use, and the mahogany itself is darkened from oxidation and the oils from handling. If you look closely, you can see the impression from the serial number stamp in the wooden case. Steve Ward and I used those calipers to build the original five-neck guitar and the twin necked “Uncle Dick” for Rick Nielsen. I used them to plot the original design for the sustain block bridge and world’s first 12-string bass. They were there to measure neck dimensions on KK Downing’s Flying V and Glenn Tipton’s SG when designing their signature models in 1984. Gary Moore and I used them to measure the neck width and depth of Peter Green’s Les Paul ’Burst.

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Almost every person of note who worked at Hamer handled this tool at one time or another. It’s is still insanely accurate and one of my most treasured possessions, and as much as I enjoy the new digital calipers that can add, subtract and convert to metric at the touch of a button, there is something satisfying about using the analog version. It’s a connection to something deeper than just the job at hand.

Axes to Grind

In my latest column for Premier Guitar I describe the arc of some American manufacturing businesses including guitar factories.

Yesterday I paid a visit to Grover Jackson’s website to see what he’d been up to. The last time we spoke, about a year ago, Jackson had recently started a small guitar-building shop with ex-Fender salesman John Gold and they were building new instruments under the GJ2 name. He’d gotten himself a Fadal CNC and was about to release a new design called the Concorde. I was happy to see Jackson back in the saddle, he’d been an inspiration to me and I loved his original designs. I wished him luck and waited to see what amazing stuff he’d come up with next.

However, when I recently looked at his site, I was a bit surprised to see some pretty straight ahead Strat and Tele clones for sale. Well, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. It’s a tough marketplace out there if your headstock doesn’t say Gibson, Fender or Martin. The realities of the marketplace are in force even if your name is Grover Jackson. I know from personal experience that copycatting can be a double edged sword. It can make you, but it can cubbyhole you into a second-tier existence.

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On a related note, here is my latest column for Premier Guitar.

It’s about how the guitar industry is following a familiar arc. How many Packards, Tuckers, Humpmobiles, or even Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles do you see on the road today? There have been Shelbys, Deloreans, Studebakers, Dusenbergs, Hudsons, and Bricklins out there, trying to do battle against a stacked deck. For those of you who don’t know those names I’ll fill you in—they once were big shots in the car industry.

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So to all the small builders out there hanging on by your fingernails, you have my respect and I wish you the best. It’s not easy to survive in the shrinking guitar market—even if you have a famous name.

Big Apple Birthday Bash

Buried near the bottom of  page six in the faded green ledger that Hamer Guitars used to record instrument serial numbers, is an innocuous entry for the third week of December, 1980. It reads: Andy Summers, black, new model, 3-coil, S/N 02391. Three-coil was code for an as yet unnamed model, and it is significant not because this guitar was the first of its kind—It wasn’t—but because Summers and his band, The Police, were about to play a momentous gig with it. The guitar almost didn’t make the show.

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The Hamer Guitar serial number ledger book

I awoke early on January 9th, 1981 to a typical Chicago winter morning not unlike today. It was cold, still dark and my first impulse was to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep. I’d barely gotten any rest after having spent the night partying with friends. Dimly lit, bare trees swayed in the chilly wind outside my window and my head throbbed dully as I put together my thoughts.  Then I remembered—it was my 29th birthday and I was celebrating with a trip to see The Police. I had less than an hour to get out of the house.

At 8:40 AM I boarded a non-stop American Airlines flight to New York, and immediately fell asleep in my seat. Fastidiously packed in a custom-made brown cardboard shipping box and checked as baggage in the hold below was the black serial number 02391 guitar, which I planned to deliver to Summers in time for the band’s first ever show at Madison Square Garden the next day. After working with Andy Summers for almost two years, The Police had arrived in the Big Time, and there was no way I was going to miss it.

The flight was uneventful, relatively short and after a shuttle bus ride into Manhattan I checked into my hotel on 57th street. I was feeling better and there was no need to hurry, I’d done this dozens of times. After ordering some room service, I unboxed the guitar and opened the case. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Despite my packaging, which bordered on fanatical, the fucking airline gorillas had broken the guitar’s neck loose. My blood pressure started to rise and I felt nauseous—this definitely wasn’t in the plan. No amount of profanity was going to fix anything and I resisted the urge to toss the TV out the window. Just barely holding back panic I picked up the phone but instead of throwing it, I called a friend at a guitar shop on 48th street and asked him to open up a repair bench for me. I grabbed the guitar and practically ran all the way there—thoughts spinning in my head. How bad was it? Could it be fixed in time? A dozen blocks of dodging and weaving my way through crowds of people had me sweating and out of breath as I pushed the shop’s door open at last. I was desperate to get the guitar on the bench where I could force the crack in the neck heel open and see how bad things really were.

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The view from the workbench on 48th St. The Steak & Brew is now Rudy’s Music.

Luckily it was a pretty clean break, and getting glue in there and clamping would be fairly starightforward. I’m not always a big fan of epoxy for repairs, but in this case it was a good suggestion by the shop’s tech—so we proceeded. We got the clamps on and I removed any excess adhesive off without harming the finish. Could I be this lucky? I took a cab back to the hotel with the guitar still in clamps and was feeling somewhat confident it would hold.

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Summers backstage at MSG clowning for my camera after receiving s/n 02391

The next afternoon I delivered the guitar backstage at The Garden, and Summers marched right out on stage with it which was still a real leap of faith. I held my breath, but the neck stayed put. I worked my way from the side of the stage to the orchestra pit in front of the stage and fired off a few photos—one you see here.

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The guitar debuts on the big stage

A lot has been said about Summers, Sting and Copeland and how calculating they could be, but I like to remind people about how fearless they were. They were musicians first and last. I witnessed so many occasions where they would try something new without hesitation and that night in New York was no exception. Luckily the guitar didn’t let them down. The feeling of relief that the guitar worked was so overwhelming I barely remember the details of the show.

So, what did Summers think of the guitar? He liked it enough that he asked for another to be built, and we went out to dinner to celebrate—him for having played MSG, and me for having successfully saved the guitar. It was a better birthday present than I had expected.

The guitar model was introduced shortly after, known as “The Prototype”—a decidedly poor choice of product name despite its impressive public debut. I still have a soft spot in my heart for that guitar.