The Tao of Jol
September 10, 2008
At this particular point in history, it seems that everyone in the guitar industry takes the word “boutique,” and its accompanying market filled with obsessive consumers, for granted. People just arriving to the party often mistakenly think that it was always like this – that we always custom ordered our guitars and fretted about true bypass circuitry, but Jol Dantzig knows better. Like an elder tree, he has quietly observed from the center as the passing years have added density and mass around the edges of the boutique movement, expanding in rings outward and turning it from a sapling into a flourishing, complex organism in less than a generation. He’s been in the middle of it, but he’s strangely stayed apart from it as well, viewing the developments of the boutique world with a wary eye and a long perspective.
“It’s interesting – there’s a lot of really great stuff out there right now. But everyday I hear about a new boutique guitar builder, and I’m sure that it’s just like anything else. Fads come and go, businesses come and go,” Dantzig says stoically, observing without any hint of ill will. I ask him how he defines boutique. “I don’t really,” he says, and that is that.
Listening to our interview after the fact, three things become immediately apparent. First is the fact that Jol Dantzig, Hamer Guitar’s Technical Director and de facto visionary, doesn’t readily take to categorizations – he places them on himself, but only reluctantly and with some prodding. I ask Jol if he considers Hamer to be a boutique company, and after a few moments of silence, he replies, “People say that we invented it, but I think of things as bespoke – made for a person. You have a basic idea of what you want to build, and then you fit it to the individual, and that’s the way we really started out. We developed into a custom shop, a small manufacturer, and today we’re now like a specialty builder, very much like some of the small racecar shops of the sixties and seventies that built highperformance automobiles.” He bobs and weaves around enclosing statements like an out-fighter, carefully sizing up his words and framing everything he does in a larger picture. For Dantzig, categories only function to box in ideas, to make things easier for people to grasp, and he has absolutely no use for that.
The second is that Dantzig has a deeprooted penchant for pushing the limits of whatever he is involved with, whether it is pushing vintage FIA Group 6 sports racers around a track – his latest motorsport obsession – or blowing guitarists’ minds with creations like the five-necked monster built for Rick Nielsen. When asked why his earliest builds – a Flying V bass and the Explorer-based design that would later become known simply as the Standard – were so involved when there were plenty of vintage bolt-on designs ripe for cloning, Dantzig says, “I was always attracted to [set necks] because they were like the Mt. Everest, in terms of building. All of the components – the fine woods, the figured maple, the binding, the set neck, the angled peghead – made it a more difficult guitar to construct. It seemed to me that that was the highest performance, the most elaborate version of guitar to construct.” He wants things to be deeper, more involved and just plain better – during our interview, he gently asks, “Are you going to write this in an article format?” When I inform him that, yes, this will be a feature article, he seems genuinely impressed. “Good; I would prefer that over the usual Q&A thing,” he said. “I’m hoping I can give you something that hasn’t been talked about, a different spin on things.”
The third is that everything, including the above two points, boils down to matters of quality for Dantzig. He realizes that you can’t categorize quality things – they stand apart, inhabiting their own space among expansive mediocrity. Louis Vuitton is not just luggage; a Porsche is not just a car. Likewise, it would be technically appropriate but culturally incorrect to call a Hamer just another guitar. Each of these items – and every other “quality” thing in existence, for that matter – has continually pushed the limits of fashion; of engineering; of design. While quality things may be timeless, they rarely stand still.
This knowledge was imparted to Dantzig from an early age. “I grew up in a household where my parents made it clear that rather than have a house full of junk furniture, it’s better to have two pieces of really nice furniture, because nothing lasts like quality,” he says. “Something so well made and engineered that, every time you see it, year after year, it will always continue to reveal something more wonderful to you. That was drummed into my head at a very young age, so I’ve always gravitated towards things that were well made and had a statement of purpose.”
It’s this confluence of personality traits and preferences that have enabled Dantzig to build Hamer Guitars into what it is today. The company, now based in a spacious, airy New Hartford, Connecticut shop offers 11 base models, including classics like the Standard and the Monaco, with the cheapest starting at $3600; in addition, the company supports a full-blown Custom Shop, an area reserved for the thickest of wallets. Forums like The Gear Page are regularly abuzz with positive, fawning words about the company; any naysayers are quickly and efficiently picked apart by the Hamer faithful, who descend like a pack of ravenous wolves. Dantzig’s blog, The Designer’s Workshop, has become required reading for both industry types and anyone interested in the design of guitars. Hamer has become a substantial force in the high-end sector of the guitar industry, and yet they seem to remain blissfully under the radar of mainstream taste.
Now only a handful of guitars leave the shop each day – a substantial drop from Hamer’s largest production runs in the mid-eighties – and a feeling of peaceful equilibrium emanates from both Dantzig and the people he surrounds himself with. It seems that the company has come full circle to its Chicago beginnings.
“In the very beginning, it came very easy, because we’d sell two or three guitars and we were doing pretty good,” Dantzig recounts, reminiscing about the early days of the endeavor. With help from his business partner, Paul Hamer, he had already created the company’s very first models: a Flying V bass that “was a little different,” as well as the first Standard, now owned by Rick Nielsen. The company was growing organically, sustained by a cadre of professional guitarists who knew the difference. “I remember taking the very first Hamer Standard – the sunburst one with the maple top and serial number #0000 – to show the guys in Wishbone Ash, who we knew from selling vintage guitars. The bass player took one look at it and said, ‘Can you make me a bass like that?’ And I said sure; we mapped out right then and there what he wanted, and we went back and made it.
“Everything was a natural progression; we started gathering orders almost immediately for those guitars. It wasn’t like a landslide, but we got orders coming. Before we knew it, we had about eight to ten orders, all from really well known musicians,” Dantzig says.
Of course, it would be a mistake to characterize the company’s travels as completely smooth; inadvertently starting a new market niche comes with its share of problems. The small crew of Hamer Guitars – initially comprised of Dantzig, Hamer, John Montgomery and Jim Walker, and operating out of the basement of Northern Prairie Music – had to hustle to make the endeavor work in its earliest days. First there was the difficulty in locating the proper raw materials. “It wasn’t easy; it wasn’t like it is today where you can get on the internet and find 25 or 30 different companies that will sell you knobs and glue and binding. Back then, all of that stuff was very difficult to find. A lot of the stuff we actually got from Gibson,” Dantzig recounts.
The second problem Hamer encountered were the mindsets of consumers themselves. The company was unofficially organized in the back of Dantzig’s Volkswagen van in 1973 – the same year a massive oil shock put Western economies into a tailspin and consumers on their heels. Money was tight and most guitarists continued to see value in the offerings of the major manufacturers. While a new Gibson could be had for $650, Hamers were often double that, although still below the asking price of vintage Les Pauls. “We were up against a lot. Once we got beyond just selling to our normal clients – the Bad Companys, the Jethro Tulls, the Rick Derringers – it became an uphill battle. It was difficult because we were used to dealing with people who knew what vintage guitars were, and that was a very small group of high-end, professional players,” Dantzig says. “Once you get outside of that circle, to the average guitar player a brand new guitar for $650 was the penultimate instrument.”
I ask if there was any hesitation about starting the new venture, if there was anybody who questioned the viability of creating custom, high-end guitars for a valueconscious market. He replies with a singular, unwavering vision found in the most successful entrepreneurs, “Well, I think our friends thought we were all crazy, but we had a feeling that we had something cool and that there was a market for it – we had seen the market starting to grow. But in comparison to what the average person wanted to pay for a guitar, we didn’t see vintage guitars as a viable thing to take onstage. When a 1950s Les Paul reached $3000, that was a lot of money. They started to become museum pieces, what you’d use for recording. You wouldn’t want to take it out and throw it in the back of a truck every night – they were too valuable. So we thought what we were doing was a logical alternative to vintage guitars, because the big companies weren’t interested in making the kind of guitar we wanted.”
It was rough going at times – Dantzig was forced to sell his sizable guitar collection to stay afloat at one point – but the fact that you’re reading this right now proves that Dantzig’s vision was deadon; as mass produced guitars from the major players continued to see declines in quality, brands like Hamer stepped in to pick up the slack. The vision was also a profitable one. Throughout the eighties, Hamer dominated the guitar industry, propelled by a number of high-profile users (The Pretenders, George Harrison, Def Leppard, three of the Rolling Stones) and a market beginning to realize the true value of a well-built instrument.
But even though the company had culturally come of age, business concerns remained underneath the surface. “We were concerned about our long-term viability – we recognized that we needed a lot more distribution, we needed to be in a lot more stores. We had a parting of the ways with Paul Hamer, our sales manager, and that left us with a lot of options, in terms of how we would distribute and sell our product. We could have gone a lot of different ways, and we got involved with Kaman Music Corporation [KMC] and Bill Kaman, who was very into what we were doing,” Dantzig recounts. Hamer was eventually purchased by Kaman in 1988.
“They really left us to our own devices in a lot of ways, but Bill Kaman was very interested in growing the business,” Dantzig continues, reflecting on the nature of the new management. “It was like a new toy; they wanted to turn it into the biggest and the best – a powerful name in the music industry. Consequently, we made some good choices and we made some bad choices that perhaps weren’t best in terms of our long-term goals.”
One of those choices, for better or worse, was the diversification of the product line; the early nineties saw Hamer entering lower and lower price points in an effort to broaden their customer base. It may have been good for the bottom line, but Hamer’s original mojo was slowly diluted in a sea of mid-line guitars, simultaneously opening the door for new players like Paul Reed Smith to take the lead in the highend, boutique sector Hamer had created. Dantzig himself was worn out, exhausted after years of rapidly growing a business and being suddenly immersed in a foreign corporate culture; in 1993, he made the move to Northern California to start his own design firm, the Dantzig Design Group. While he remained on with Kaman in a consulting capacity, for all intents and purposes the original lineup – Paul Hamer and Jol Dantzig – had disbanded. For diehard fans, the collectors, the loyalists, the party was over.
Fortunately for fans of well-made guitars – and, arguably, for the boutique industry as a whole – the distance between Jol Dantzig and the company he started was a short one. During Dantzig’s absence, his long-time partner at Hamer, Frank Untermyer, had been put in charge of Ovation Guitars, a company also operating under the wide umbrella of KMC. That left a gaping hole in Hamer’s management, and in 1997, Bill Kaman approached Dantzig about returning to Chicago to, as Dantzig recalls, “put things in order.” It would be a chance for Dantzig to reassert his position as a leader among the newest crop of high-end builders. “We created the niche,” Dantzig says. “It was time to reclaim the territory we created.”
Shortly after Jol’s return to the Arlington Heights plant, it was decided that the operations should be moved closer to Kaman’s main operations in Bloomfield, Connecticut. And while the move can be viewed as necessary from a variety of business standpoints, it was also necessary to save the soul of the company – it was an opportunity for a new beginning and a return to roots. The operations were moved to New Hartford, Connecticut; the new plant was established on the banks of the bucolic Farmington River. Ten of Hamer’s best craftsmen from Chicago made the move. Production numbers were slashed, things were simplified and Dantzig worked to rediscover the true essence of the company. “I think we came to realize what we had started in the very beginning was something very special, and that was really our calling,” he says.
I ask Dantzig how he views the New Hamer and how his building philosophy has evolved over the years. As you might expect, he circles around the question and attacks it from a different angle. “What we do now is,” he says before trailing off to contemplate his next steps. “We’re not trying to be all things to all people. The appearance is a little more traditional and reserved now, but our guitars do some extraordinary things, physically and electrically. When you look at our guitars, they may say, ‘This is what I’m all about,’ but when you plug it in, you realize that it’s much more than what it looks like. It goes places that you didn’t expect to go. It continues to reveal more and more, to bring you new things.”
One of the best examples of this philosophy in action comes in the form of the company’s new Talladega Pro model – described by Dantzig as, “the thing that I’m most proud of right now.” According to Dantzig, the main concept behind the Talladega was to fuse a chambered mahogany body with a maple neck so that players could get both an airy snap and a rich fundamental all in one guitar. Based on the first iteration of the Talladega, which was released at the 2007 Winter NAMM show to near-universal acclaim, the Talladega Pro tries to bring the final product closer to Dantzig’s original vision. Incorporating two custom Seymour Duncan humbuckers and a 25 1/2” scale mahogany neck with a pronounced “V” profile, the Talladega Pro strives to give Fender devotees easier access to Les Paul sounds. “It’s really an expression of our aesthetic,” Jol says proudly. “It has the potential to find a much larger audience than anything we’ve done up to this point.”
It’s that kind of innovative, creative thought – centered around thoughts of what a guitar should be, instead of what it has to be – that enables Jol Dantzig and his team of skilled builders to create guitars that are more than a sum of their parts. And that kind of vision can only be attained through a lifetime of experience, of growing three decades at the center and yet beyond it. “I think too many people get hung up on the way things look, and not at how they perform… our guitar might not stand out as the flashiest or the first one that catches your eye in a guitar store with 50 guitars, but guaranteed, it will be the one that, over the long haul, will reveal all of the substance that has been built into it.
“If you build something that you truly believe in and that you are truly passionate about, your audience will find it and appreciate it,” Jol Dantzig says finally.
And that is that.