The Ultimate

The Hamer Sunburst - Part Two
Into the Eighties and Beyond

by Andrew Large

Revised December 2014

By the beginning of 1980 some 1500 Sunbursts had been built. The deal with Tom Holmes to build Sunburst bodies and necks came to an end with the close of the decade and Hamer would now need to undertake the basic woodworking and construction themselves. This meant the move to a new location at Arlington Heights where thay would stay until 1997.

Hamer were up to the task of taking on construction. The only difficulty was being unable to fit the binding to a large number of guitars. As a result they needed a way to keep the guitars flowing and a new model called the Special was introduced at the beginning of 1980. This was basically a "dot" neck Sunburst without the body binding and could be produced until someone was trained up to bind the guitar bodies. These guitars were numbered by the same system as the Sunbursts. A fewer number of Sunbursts were finished at the beginning of 1980 and these were most likely made from the last few Holmes-built bodies.

It is hard to estimate numbers but fewer Sunbursts were built in 1980 compared to 1979 as the Special was being produced in greater numbers. This year saw a change to Schaller machinehaeds and the headstock "lip" top became even less pronounced. The two octave markers on "dot" necks were also moved closer together at the beginning of this year, a sign that these necks were constructed at Arlington Heights. Most guitars from 1980 and early 1981 also have a quirk not seen on guitars from any other period in that the fingerboard side dots are extremely close together (see below for examples of fingerboard dots).

Octave Dots

Top, the side octave dots from (left to right) 1979, 1980 and 1982 Sunbursts/Specials.

Below, fretboard dots from 1979 (left) and 1982 Sunbursts (right).

Hamer had settled into Arlington Heights by 1981 and their production increased to well over 2000 guitars a year. The Sunburst, however, would not account for this increase even though Hamer were now fully able to add binding to any number of instruments. In addition to the Special, the Prototype and vee-shaped Vector guitars were put into production - the Hamer range was beginning a rapid expansion. Two small modifications were made to the Sunburst (and Special) - firstly the lower cutaway was enlarged by just a few millimeters to improve top-fret access and a new style of saddle was introduced which gave a narrower string spacing; a few guitars from the beginning of 1981 have these smaller saddles on a bridge designed for the wider style . Below shows the 1980 and 1981 style of bridge. Also the 500K potentiometers were now being stamped Hamer rather than DiMarzio.

sustain block bridges

Shown left, the narrower string spacing bridge (50mm / 0.375" spacing) found on guitars 1981 onwards and, right, the earlier style (52.5mm / 0.400" spacing).
Guitars made late in 1980 or early 1981 may have bridge bases with the wider spacing but fitted with the narrower saddles in order to use up surplus parts.


The hangtag given out with the Hamer Sunburst and Special from 1982. (Click to enlarge).

A hangtag (see left) was given out with the Special and the Sunburst by 1982 that describes some of the tones available from the guitar. These settings exploit the out-of-phase wiring of the the two humbuckers.

1982 again saw more new Hamer models - the Blitz guitar and bass, the CruiseBass and the Phantom, which featured the new Hamer Sustain-block trem. These models were numbered along with the Sunbursts whilst the Standard, Eight- and Twelve-string basses and other custom instruments kept a separate system using four-digits stamped into the wood. Numbers are hard to estimate but as the range of Hamer models increased, the number of Sunbursts made must have dropped. Fashion was changing and the Sunburst with its traditional design was no longer in favour, even though some were now being made with the Sustain-block Trem. 1983 and 1984 saw Hamer aim successfully for the rising Heavy Rock market with wild finishes, locking trems. and angular body shapes - although a few must still have been built through the rest of the eighties it looked like the Sunburst story was over.


This flyer is from the beginning of 1981 when there was only the Sunburst, Special and Standard guitars.
(Click to enlarge, opens in a new window).

The 1982 catalogue: by the end of 1982 the range had increased massively and relatively fewer Sunbursts were being built. The Sunburst now retailed at $899.90 (dot inlays) or $989.90 (crown inlays).
(Click to enlarge, opens in a new window).

Description from the 1981 and 1982 catalogues

The handbuilt Sunburst series guitar is available in two styles, "dot" and "crown". The body is Honduras mahogany, accented by one-piece curly maple overlay trimmed with ivoroid binding*. The neck is carved from the choice mahogany and stressed in three directions for maximum stability. The carbon- steel truss rod is fully adjustable allowing corrections for both warp and bow. The fingerboard is constructed of highly figured furniture quality rosewood and both "dot" and "crown" are cut from genuine mother of pearl. Twenty-two wide oval frets are used on a 24.75 inch scale. The unique solid brass bridge/sustain block combination offers individual string height and intonation adjustment . Electronics are exactly the same as the Hamer Standard. The control cavity is sandwiched by two shielding plates to filter out interference. Tuners are by Schaller. Output is via a studio quality jack anchored directly to the guitar body. The Sunburst series is finished in natural lacquers. Colors available are cherry sunburst, transparent cherry, blue, yellow and green. Black is also available.

* Some Sunbursts have plain cream binding without any grain but the majority have grained ivoroid.


A 1982 Sunburst - Crown Inlays.

Later Sustain block

A later Sustain-block bridge with guide channels for the saddles.

The end of the eighties saw guitar tastes change again and a return to more traditional instruments - Paul Reed Smith guitars and the Gibson Les Paul had become fashionable. Hamer , by now part of Kaman Music, had heavily invested in the most modern designs and superstrats with locking trems. They needed to respond to the changing market and started by reissuing the flat-top Sunburst in 1989.

A new prototype was built to convince Bill Kaman (the owner of Hamer) that the project was both commercially and aesthetically viable. Ths prototype had the same single piece maple-veneered top as the original, but when the model went into production the tops were bookmatched, a change to the orginal design. There were other changes: Seymour Duncans were the chosen pickups rather than DiMarzios; the script "Sunburst" logo was replaced with simpler block lettering; and the newer Sustain-block bridge was given a slight tweak by having small guide channels for the saddles machined in the top (see left). The ressued Sunburst was also offered with an optional Floyd-Rose; these guitars had a maple, rather than mahogany, neck with a slighly different angle to allow recessing of the trem in the body.

This reissue was short-lived and the old flat-top Sunburst was soon superceeded by the new Sunburst Archtop guitars, an idea Hamer had flirted with since the early eighties - but that's another story!

The old flat-top Sunburst had another outing in 1999 - a short run of flat-top Sunbursts was built especially for Hamer Fan Club Members and the Hamer Open Day at the new factory in Connecticutt, where Hamer had moved to in 1997. And a few custom order original Sunbursts were still being made into the 21st century (click for image).

The Sunburst is a classic guitar - traditional construction using top grade materials, excellent craftsmanship, a simple yet versatile design and they have a great tone as well. The original Sunbursts are now becoming highly collectible guitars.

1989 Sunburst
1989 Sunburst

A 1989 Sunburst in Natural with Floyd-Rose and crown markers. The old script Sunburst logo under "HAMER USA" was replaced by one in simple block type. Bullet-shaped truss-rod covers were the norm on all Hamers at his time.

Description from the 1990 catalogue

1990 Sunbursts

Designed as a "modern vintage" instrument a decade ago, increasing demand has spawned the reissue of this working musician's axe. The classic look, feel and sweet sustain of the Sunburst model is avilable, correct in every important construction detail. In addition to the original Sustain Block Bridge, the Sunburst is now available with Hamer's modern locking tremolo. When the tremolo version is ordered, the mahogany neck is replaced by maple for added strength. The one-piece mahogany body is visually enhanced with a figured maple overlay and bound with grained ivoroid. Two specially calibrated Seymour Duncan humbuckers are fitted each with its own volume control. Additional controls include a three way toggle switch for pickup selection and a master tone contour. The non-tremolo version employs Hamer's famous Lubritrak nut, formed of a material whose lubricity exceeds that of graphite. The Sunburst is also available in either Standard or Custom configuration. The Custom features a bound rosewood fingerboard with large pearl crowns. All versions have twenty two jumbo Dunlop frets on a 24.75" scale. In every detail, the Sunburst stands above the imitators that have appeared since its introduction in 1978*. Truly a "vintage" instrument that can be used every day, the Sunburst may be your second chance to own a collectors item new.

* Surprisingly this catalogue is wrong, the Sunburst was introduced mid-1977.

Famous Owners and Custom Sunbursts

Many star guitarists used the Sunburst and they were often featured in advertising. These included Martin Barre, Andy Summers , Johnny Ramone and James Honeyman-Scott. Some of the instruments built for the famous were customised by Hamer such as the green with yellow lining Sunburst built for Ian Anderson (Click for more details on this guitar).

Custom Sunburst

Rick Nielsen had many custom Hamers built including some unusual Sunbursts. A "flag" Sunburst was built which had interchangable plastic flags to attach to the front. For the Cheap Trick Japanese tour of 1980 a set of Japanese flag Sunbursts was built and most of these were thrown into the audiences during the tour. Shown left is a custom Sunburst with a cartoon of Neilsen on the reverse. The Flag guitar and the remaining Japanese flag Sunburst can be seen in Rick Nielsen's book.

A very few Sunbursts were fitted with P90 pickups and a few had a tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece rather than Sustain block. Some experimental designs also appeared such as the pair shown below with Dan Armstrong style headstocks. Other one-off instruments included a Sunburst built in the mid-eighties with a forked headstock like the multistring basses, as well as variety of archtop versions.

Custom Sunburst
Custom Sunburst

Two unusual Sunbursts from 1978 and 1979. These two instruments have Dan Armstrong style headstocks and were built for Dave Edmunds (1978, top) and Billy Bremner (1979, bottom), the guitarists in the British band ROCKPILE. Nick Lowe, the bassist, was also a Hamer endorsee and frequently played an early Eight-string Hamer bass. There is also a third Sunburst from 1978 with this style of headstock and a few archtop Dan Armstrong-headed Sunbursts from the mid-eighties.


The Ultimate Hamer Guitars: An Illustrated History - Steve Matthes and Joe Moffat. Schiffer Books 2013.

Hamer Tone - vol. 1, no.3.

Vintage Guitar Magazine - Hamer Guitars - A Conversation with Jol Dantzig by Dean Farley parts 1 and 2 (Sept. 1996 (vol.9 no.12) and Oct. 1996 (vol.10 no.1))

Hamer catalogues from 1975 to 1990.

Guitars of the Stars Vol.1 - Rick Nielsen by Bill Rich and Rick Nielsen (1993)

Recent Relics - Early Hamer Guitars, parts I (Standard) and II (Sunburst) by Baker Rorick (1997).

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