The Ultimate

The Hamer Sunburst - Part One
Hamer Begins Production

by Andrew Large

revised December 2014

The Origin of the Sunburst Guitar

The first model produced by Hamer in any numbers was the explorer-shaped Standard (originally called just the Hamer Guitar). This was an expensive hand-made instrument with a mahogany neck and body with a bound flame maple top. It was made in only very limited numbers from 1974 when Hamer Guitars began. By 1977 Hamer had built a relatively few instruments, mostly Standards (guitars and a few basses) and wished to incorporate many of the features of the Standard in a more affordable guitar that was within the reach of the ordinary musician and not just for professionals. The double cut-away Sunburst was conceived. Jol Dantzig estimates that until the introduction of the Sunburst Hamer had only made about seventy-five guitars in total.

The Sunburst was constructed in the same way as the Standard with a single-piece mahogany neck and a rosewood fingerboard. The single-piece mahogany body had a bound curly maple overlay although the top was a single piece of maple and not book-matched in the same way as Standard. The maple cap is barely more than a veneer and was included mostly for appearance. The binding is usually grained ivoroid (celluliod) but throughout the Sunburst's production examples with plain cream binding are seen. The stop-tail piece and tune-o-matic bridge were dispensed with in favour of an almost Fender style fixed bridge raised up on a wooden shim that allowed through body stringing. Originally the guitar was to be available only in cherry sunburst finish with the choice of a bound neck with crown inlays or unbound with dot inlays. Slightly overwound (to Hamer specs.) DiMarzio PAF pickups were fitted - a creme bridge and a zebra neck - exactly the same as the Standard. A three-way pickup selector switch, two separate volumes and a master tone completed the electronics.
1977 Sunburst

One of the Sunburst Prototypes, currently owned by Rick Nielsen.

Hamer had been operating out of the basement of Northern Prairee Music in Wilmette, Illinois and did not have the facilities to undertake increased production even though they were in the process of relocating from Northern Prairie Music to a larger workshop in Palatine, Illinois. The amount of woodworking involved was too great for the fledgling company and a deal was struck with Tom Holmes, a fellow independent Guitar builder in Nashville, to fabricate bodies and necks for the new guitar. These would be finished and assembled by Hamer.

John Montgomery, the man behind the construction of Hamer's instruments up to that date, built a single prototype of the Sunburst that could be copied by Holmes. The first four prototype Sunbursts were built by Holmes and finished by Hamer in time to be shown at the June 1977 NAMM Show; these prototypes carried no serial number. One of them can be seen in Rick Nielson's book "Guitars of the Stars", and is also shown above.

Soon after the Sunburst entered production, raw guitars being sent by Holmes to Hamer for finishing and assembly. Sunbursts carried a new numbering system that was separate from Standards and custom-order instruments and was inked, rather than stamped, onto the wood on the rear of the headstock under the finish. The first digit represents the year of manufacture and the second four digits are the total number of guitars produced. The first "production" Sunburst was duly numbered 7 0001.

The Sunburst retailed at $699.95 (dot inlay) and $749.95 (crown inlays and bound neck) some $450-500 less than the top of the line Standard, but was still a relatively expensive instrument for the time.

One of the earliest Sunburst adverts. from 1977. Hamer is still based in Greenbay Road, Wilmette at this stage.

7 0001

At the factory

Jol Dantzig pictured during a Factory Tour in 2002. 7 0001 can be seen in the centre of the guitar rack. At the time it was owned by Hamer Guitars, having been re-acquired by the company.

At the Smithsonian

The first "production" Sunburst (7 0001) was displayed during the Electrified, Amplified and Deified, the Electric Guitar, Its Makers and Its Players exhibition at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in November of 1996. It can be seen top right in the picture, along with a group of other Hamers. .

The Evolution of the Sunburst

The Sunburst guitar was continually refined following its introduction and a number of details changed. The Hamer company was on a steep learning curve and this is reflected in improvements made to the original design.

The earliest Sunbursts from 1977 and early 1978 have a Strat type bridge sourced from Mighty Mite, an early replacement hardware company, that is raised on a rosewood, ebony or occaisionally plastic shim to allow for the neck angle. The spacing of the strings is 57mm with this style of bridge.

The early bridges were from Mighty Mite.

Shim Bridge

An early bridge and rosewood shim.

Many of the Sunbursts from the first year of production (1977) have a slightly unusual logo : the S of Sunburst is a block letter rather than script seen on later guitars (see below). A few have a long-tailed R on Hamer and the USA is sometimes omitted with this logo style. The first few production Sunbursts in 1977 have another odd detail: triangular truss-rod covers unlike both the prototypes and all later guitars, which have the traditional bell-shaped cover.

The earliest bound-neck guitars often omit the fingerboard end binding and several early 1977 Sunbursts with crown markers have a first-fret marker. The dot-markers on unbound necks varied over the first 300 Sunbursts, with both 7mm and 5mm pearl dots being used. From about 8 0300 5mm dots became standard.

Most of the first hundred instruments including the four prototypes have bodies that are roughly 37mm (1.5inches) thick and a few (designated as T.B.) have a thicker body at 50mm (nearly 2 inches). Eventually a thickness of about 45mm (1.75 inches) was settled upon and virtually all subsequent Sunbursts are typically this thickness.

The neck was carved from a single piece of mahogany with a long and elegant angled-back headstock (13 degrees typically) with a pronounced "lip" or "open-book" shape at the top. Grover "kidney-button" tuners were usually fitted: on the earliest 1977 guitars these have smooth backs; from late 1977 they usually have bulls-eye backs. A couple of the first one hundred guitars were fitted with Schaller machineheads. These would only become standard much later on.


Smooth-backed (left) and bulls-eye (right) Grover machines.

Three very early Sunbursts in the workshop, all with triangular truss-rod covers. Note the one on the left has a first fret crown marker.

Early headstocks

Early headstocks showing the differing logo styles. The headstock on the left is believed to belong to one of the prototypes

Fingerboard ends

Early 1977 production guitars often lack binding on the fingerboard end (top), later guitars are bound on the end of the fingerboard (bottom).

The model underwent numerous changes as production continued on into 1978. By the end of 1977 the S of the Sunburst logo changed to a curly script (see right). In mid-1978 the long style of headstock was modified to have a shorter distance between the nut and the first tuner giving a more squat appearance (from about 8 0380). The photo (right) shows the difference between an early 1978 headstock and that found on a later instrument. The headstock on the left (1978) is longer and has a more pronounced "lip" shape at the top compared to the 1982 example on the right. The change to Schaller machineheads on the right-hand headstock denotes a post-1979 guitar (see next page).

By the end of 1978 the control cavity backplates were changed from a phenolic material to anondised aluminium, giving more effective shielding for the components. Although called the Sunburst others colours started to appear in addition to the original Cherry Sunburst, which itself varied from very light through to darkburst. Early alternatives included solid black, white and transparent yellow.

Sunburst Headstocks

An early 1978 Sunburst with the longer headstock and dot inlays.

Early Sunbursts hanging up to dry during finishing.

A later Hamer Ultimate advertisment from 1978; Hamer has now moved to Wood Street, Palatine.

The wooden shim under bridge drew negative comments from several musicians as it might adversely effect the tone of the guitar. Hamer therefore developed a purpose built bridge milled out of solid brass and tall enough to need no shim; it was chrome plated and the same pattern saddles continued to be used. The string-spacing was reduced to a humbucker friendly 52.5mm, which removed the gaps between the saddles seen on the earlier Mighty Mite bridge. The first Sustain-block bridge, as it was to be called, was used on an instrument for Martin Barre of Jethro Tull (8 0299) but would not become a standard feature until later the same year (from number 8 0451).

Sustain Block vs. Shim

The older style of bridge is raised on a shim and has flat-head adjustment screws. The purpose built "Sustain-block" style is much taller and usually has cross-head screws.

The pickups were originally wired in-phase electrically as Dimarzios used a single conductor with the metal shielding acting as the ground. When, in 1979, Dimarzio starting using two conductors in addition to the metal shielding Hamer wired the humbuckers out-of-phase giving a distinctive nasal tone when the selector switch was in the middle position. Dimarzios PAFs from the seventies can be identified by the metal braided shielding of the cable (whether one or two conductor) and the "square ears" of the pickups' baseplates.

The style of knob used also underwent a change. The earliest Sunbursts almost always had black "Speed" (cylindrical) knobs (top). From 1979 the "Top-hat" style were the norm (bottom); these were often black but could also be gold or amber.

Speed vs. Top Hat

Hamer produced a flyer for the Sunburst and published several more adverts as they steadily built up a network of dealers both in the USA and further afield in Europe, particularly in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.

The 1978 flyer for the Sunburst and Standard.
Click to enlarge (opens on a new window).

An early European advert for the Sunburst, from December 1977.
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By 1979 Hamer had built up a network of dealers in the USA.
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During 1979 a few more changes were seen. Somewhere around 9 0900 the Grover machine heads used were changed back to the smooth-backed variety again. More significantly, starting at 9 1016, the single-piece neck was replaced by a three piece mahogany neck with the centre section reversed to provide much more stability than a single piece neck, although on guitars with an opaque finish no change would be noticable. Production numbers steadily increased from 100 in 1977, to about 500 on 1978, with close to 900 built during 1979. The name of Sunburst had become increasingly illogical as the model was now being finished regularly in a variety of transparent and opaque finishes including cherry, green and natural transparent as well as opaque black.

1979 Sunburst
A 1979 Sunburst in sunburst finish - Dot Inlays.
1979 black Sunburst
A 1979 Sunburst in opaque black - Crown Inlays / Bound neck.
1979 Natural Sunburst
A 1979 Sunburst in Natural Transparent - Dot Inlays.
1980 green Sunburst
A 1980 Sunburst in unusual transparent green finish - Dot Inlays.

Go to The Sunburst Page 2