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.

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.