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August Issue
more... Gear HistoryFebruary 2009CharvelKramer

The Return of the Hot Rod Guitar

The Return of the Hot Rod Guitar

Terry Boling’s Kramer Compulsion

“The single thing that made Kramer guitars more desirable to me over the competition was that Eddie Van Halen was playing their products,” says Terry Boling of Easley, South Carolina. He is one of the premier Kramer collectors in the US, having owned hundreds of Kramer guitars over the past twenty years. Boling has often been referred to as “The Godfather of Kramer,” having written the most definitive story of the Kramer guitar company. Also a motorcycle enthusiast, Boling began collecting Kramer guitars in 1984. He believes the popularity of the Kramers was due to two factors: “With the endorsement of Eddie Van Halen and being the sole distributors of the Floyd Rose tremolos, Kramer was difficult for anyone to overthrow.”

Of the Kramer guitars Boling currently owns, his white Baretta model is his favorite. “It’s an original 1985 Baretta,” he says, “with the R5 Floyd Rose nut width, and it’s loaded with an aftermarket EMG 81 pickup. The radius of the fretboard is really flat, and the neck thickness is fairly thin and feels absolutely terrific to me. I’ve played it somewhere in the neighborhood of six to seven thousand hours in the twenty-one years I’ve owned it.” Kramer closed up shop in June of 1990, but Boling continued his crusade to honor the company by launching kramerkrazy.com. He also contributed a lengthy, six-part research report on the company for Vintage Guitar Magazine in 1998, which was well-received by guitar fans. It contained many unknown facts about the company, including the involvement of ESP Guitars and other companies in Kramer’s product manufacturing.

“ESP helped fulfill the needs of Kramer for guitar bodies and necks,” says Boling, “along with other wood suppliers like LaSiDo (a Canadian guitar company) and Sports (a wood supplier from Connecticut). By 1986, ESP was the sole supplier of bodies and necks.”

In 1995, Gibson bought the Kramer name and began importing guitars from Korea under the Kramer brand name, using the same model names from previous years. Boling was displeased, saying, “They were importing guitars under the names ‘Pacer’ and ‘Baretta’ that had no similarities to the original guitars of the eighties. I felt this was a hard slap in the face of the original company, its founders, and the fans of their products.”

But with the pressure of the Kramer fans in online forums, the newly formed Kramer company restructured their production and is finally recreating the original models in the US. In some cases, they’re even better than the original versions. Boling recently bought a new 1985 reissue Kramer Baretta. “The fit, finish and overall quality meets or exceeds many of the original ’84 – ’85 Barettas I have owned over the years,” he says.

For more information about the original, legendary Kramer guitars and Terry Boling’s history of the Kramer company, visit: vintagekramer.com.
A New Name in the Game

So it’s 1985, and George Lynch is showing me a new guitar. He had done an even trade for a Charvel at a music store while on tour with Dokken. It was a red Kramer Baretta, and it was heavy. The body was made of maple and painted red, with a matching red headstock. He said it was every bit as good as what Charvel was doing with custom-ordered guitars, but this Kramer was a stock production model. It had a single humbucker (like the Charvel I had seen a couple of years before), a wide 1-3/4” wide nut, a flat radius, big frets and Floyd Rose tremolo. At that time, no production model guitar had a Floyd included as stock hardware. I had seen a magazine ad with Eddie Van Halen, but I was still attached to my Les Paul. However, after plinking around with George’s Kramer Baretta, I just had to have one. The next day, I went down to the local guitar shop and ordered one.

Kramer was a whole world away from San Dimas, being based in New Jersey. It started out in the mid-seventies as an offshoot of the Travis Bean Guitar company, which built guitars around an aluminum neck. That guitar was super neck-heavy, and the neck itself was cold to the touch. Gary Kramer, then business partner of Travis Bean, redesigned the neck, and with the folding of Bean’s company, he pursued this redesign. The new guitar featured wooden inserts in the neck for weight relief, and to give it the feel of a normal guitar neck. He marketed it under his own name, and with the partnership of music store owner Dennis Berardi, Kramer Guitars went on to perfect the production that Travis Bean guitars had lacked.

The new series of guitars had the new neck and a pronounced double-cutaway body very similar to the Travis Bean guitars in appearance. Most of the accessories on these guitars were completely Kramer designed, like the active pickups and the bridges. One of the more innovative designs Kramer offered at this time was the Duke bass, which was a headless bass guitar with the tuners attached to the body. This preceded the Steinberger by several years, and showed the company’s intention to move into more original designs.

By the time more contemporary guitars were designed, Gary Kramer had left the company (see sidebar story) but Kramer guitars continued to redesign their products with Berardi and luthier Phil Petillo. Beginning in 1983, Kramer guitars took on a more Stratshaped appearance and all-wooden necks. Calling these “Pacer” models, Kramer began to feature a double-locking tremolo made by Rockinger, a German company. Eddie Van Halen appeared in ads with a Pacer series guitar and the tremolo was listed as the “Eddie Van Halen Tremolo.” It was during this time that a new contraption by a guitar tech named Floyd Rose entered the scene. It was a double-locking tremolo, much like the Rockinger, but it had a two-point floating pivot rather than the six-screw anchoring of the Rockinger. As Kramer continued to evolve, they discontinued the use of the Rockinger and began using the Floyd Rose tremolo, which was exclusive to all Kramer guitars by 1984. By then, Kramer had started adding other body shapes with exotic graphic paint jobs.

At that time, in order to get a Floyd on your Charvel/Jackson guitar (or any other custom manufactured guitar), you had to buy one and send it to them to put it on your order. Kramer owned the rights and distribution to the Floyd Rose until the late eighties. As an alternative to the Floyd Rose, companies offered the Kahler tremolo bridge, which was more like a moving tailpiece that passed the strings over roller saddles. One key point of difference was that it stayed in tune with the use of a lockpiece on the headstock behind an existing nut. It proved less desirable because this design didn’t eliminate friction at the nut, and the tailpiece didn’t have enough of a break angle to increase sustain. The Floyd Rose was preferable because of its tuning stability and sustain.

Kramers had all the custom hot-rod options already done to them: high-output pickups, a Floyd Rose tremolo, flat-radius necks and flashy paintjobs. It seemed they had taken what Charvel had started and mass marketed it. Soon, players everywhere needed to have guitars that were “souped-up” with the appointments introduced into the mainstream by these east and west coast branches of the guitar industry. They were highly influential and became the standards to follow. Guitar playing had gone into a whole new realm, and shredding was becoming a competitive sport. Even more traditional rock players like Peter Frampton and Neal Schon were using customized hot-rodded guitars that suited their playing styles.

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