An Ass For Every Saddle

The Ventures were my first rock band crush. I wanted to be like them, look like them and sound like them. I had begged my parents for an electric guitar after a young counselor brought one to day camp and played it for us. My school buddy Larry turned me on to The Ventures, and that, as they say, was that.

The original Ventures lineup with Nokie Edwards on bass

Before that, I didn’t play guitar. I had briefly taken violin and piano lessons, but I couldn’t stick to it, because it was the electric guitar that had captured my imagination. Compared to the cutting twang of the guitar, those old orchestra instruments seemed quaint and boring. I dreamed about owning a Jazzmaster because That’s what The Ventures had on their album covers. I was absolutely convinced that the JM was the secret to their sound. I hounded my parents mercilessly until the caved in and took me to a little music shop in Chicago to look at guitars.

When we returned home I hadn’t gotten an electric. Instead, my folks rented an old Gibson LG-1 acoustic from the music store, and signed me up for some lessons. I think they imagined I would tire of this phase just like the previous instruments, and they would just return the guitar. Imagine their surprise when I kept at it.

Actually, the LG was good practice. It was a “student” model with a short scale and small neck, but it was crudely made and not set up very well. The impossibly hard to play action and huge strings built up my calluses and toned my tiny hand muscles. It was like training with weights on. I knew it was torture, because Larry had a ES-330 with nice low action, and I was certain that’s why he sounded better than me. He’d let me play it for a few seconds, then grab it back and I had to return to the LG.

Then, a shocking thing occurred. The Ventures changed guitars. Suddenly, without any warning they appeared on new albums with these crazy looking, brightly colored instruments. I was sure that they were made of fiberglass, just like the surfboards the Beach Boys sang about.

Brightly colored headstocks, and horizontal logos. Obviously this made a lasting impression.

I stared at this album cover and daydreamed about Mosrite guitars like the ones The Ventures used. Well, maybe that’s not all I daydreamed about.

After a while it became clear that I wasn’t giving up on guitar. I sometimes wonder what my mom and dad would have thought if they knew that the next step would alter my life forever.

My parents took me to Main Music in Skokie, Illinois to purchase an electric guitar. They were a Mosrite dealer so I headed right for that display. To my horror, I realized that they were just made of wood, not the brightly colored fiberglass I had imagined. Only moderately let down, I indicated to my father that the Mosrite was what I wanted. Alarmed by the price of the Ventures axe, my dad gestured to a nearby Teisco, bristling with gold foil pickups. “This one has four microphones on it,” he said.  “And, it’s more affordable.” Instinctively I knew it was junk. The salesman was pushing a gently used white Fender DuoSonic because it “had better resale value with the Fender name.” Still not convinced that the electric guitar was anything more than a fad, my Father split the difference price wise, and bet on the Fender brand name. He was clearly thinking resale.

The Gremlins electrified at last.

At long last I finally had an electric guitar, even if it wasn’t a Mosrite, it was mine. The 2nd hand Duo Sonic wasn’t my first choice, but it was what my parents could afford. It was pretty much a piece of crap compared to professional instruments like Larry’s Gibson with the big P90s, but it was small enough for a young boy’s hands, and it was white, so I could pretend it was fiberglass.

As disappointing as the DuoSonic was, it was the gateway drug to a lifelong addiction. When I look back at my path I can clearly see the influence of my earliest impressions. It’s no coincidence that my current guitars sport the German carve like my beloved Mosrite design, and the Dantzig (and Hamer) logos appear horizontally in the center of the headstock. Many of the names of guitars I have designed over the years like the DuoTone, and SuperPro are a tip of the hat to my first electric. So in retrospect, that little white Fender did me a solid service. I’ve only learned recently that my DuoSonic with brown pick guard was only made in that configuration for four months! Ironically, today for some reason these budget student guitars are now coveted by a new crop of young guitarists. Eventually they’ll move on too—I couldn’t wait to trade up. I guess there is an ass for every saddle. I still want that Mosrite.

Making More Than Just Guitars

 

Jol Dantzig Hamer Guitar founder
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. 

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?

Jol Dantzig Guitars
The end of a good day in the 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.

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.

IMG_2018process

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.

 

Strong Indications

If you ever wondered what a typical day in the shop is like, I can say with confidence that you rarely know what you’ll get. As much as I’d like to say that it’s all cutting and carving wood and making lovely instruments, it often is far from that.

Explorer Bench

This morning I wanted to drill a few holes in a fixture I was building, but the drill bit was vibrating a bit as I set about to drop the quill. A quick inspection with my favorite Brown & Sharpe indicator showed about .005″ run-out at the chuck. This would translate to a more severe wobble at the end of the bit, so it had to be fixed. Sometimes a chuck will have debris inside, or the bit may have a burr; either of which can create a bit of run-out. I examined the bit, and it seemed fine—a roll test on the surface plate showed it was true. I was confident that a quick blast of compressed air would clean the chuck interior and I would be on my way. Or perhaps it was the arbor coming loose. My conscience demanded that I set things truly straight by disassembling the whole thing to put my mind at ease. I’d been wanting to reduce the return spring tension as well, so no better time than the present. The best way to determine a problem is to systematically go through each step until you find the source of the problem.

Out came the wrenches, wedge set and the arbor drift. Before I knew it, two hours had passed. Measured, solvent cleaned, then lubricated properly—the whole thing went back together beautifully. The culprit? A little bit here, a little bit there all added up to too much play in the end.

dial indicator

When I put the indicator on the arbor it was only showing about .001″— which is pretty much dead nuts for this type of machine. With the chuck cleaned out and fitted snugly, it was ready to rock. By then it was lunchtime.  At least I knew that the rest of the day could move ahead without incident.