Review: Hamer Sunburst Flat Top and Monaco Special K

The Sunburst Flat Top and Monaco Special K represent two welcome additions to Hamer’s rejuvenated offshore lineup.
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The Hamer Sunburst Flat Top (top)
 and Monaco Special K (bottom)

The Hamer Sunburst Flat Top (top) and Monaco Special K (bottom)

For 39 years, Hamer Guitars were a favorite of artists and weekend warriors alike, who wielded the company’s instruments as better-made alternatives to similar offerings from major manufacturers. Despite its stellar reputation, the U.S. guitar maker dissolved in the shifting guitar market of 2012.

But you can’t keep a good brand down, and last year the Hamer name reappeared on a small lineup of import-only guitars. The roster has been expanded for 2018 with another two models that are fresh to these shores. There’s no renewed American production — not yet, anyway — but fans of the style and attitude that Joel Dantzig and Paul Hamer founded back in 1973 are likely to receive these affordable creations with a welcoming smile. I tested both through a Carr Mercury V combo and a Friedman Small Box with 2x12 cab.

SUNBURST FLAT TOP

The Sunburst model name has a long history at Hamer, having originally graced the guitar that the company saw as its cleverly reconfigured, double-cutaway update of the Gibson Les Paul. Similarly, if confusingly, the model name Standard was given to Hamer’s early Explorer-like design due to its flamed top, sunburst finish and body binding. The ingredients in the Sunburst Flat Top will be familiar to most Hamer-philes. It includes a double-cutaway design, a flat (non-arched) flame-maple top in cherry sunburst on a solid mahogany back, a glued-in mahogany neck with an unbound ebony fretboard, a 24.75-inch scale length, through-body stringing via a six-saddle bridge and a pair of humbuckers.

The pickups are Hamer’s own Zebra Hard Rock models (throw up those horns, people!). They’re wired through the control section with individual volume and master tone controls and a three-way switch that further recalls the company’s Explorer and V-fueled beginnings (as does the signature “trimmed-down “open-book” headstock”). Internal wiring is tidy, and while the Sunburst Flat Top uses the smaller generic potentiometers found on many offshore guitars, it has the bonus of featuring a durable enclosed barrel jack. The woods are all nice-looking cuts, and the neck is constructed with a scarf joint extending toward the headstock from behind the 2nd and 3rd frets. Carved to a rounded C profile, the neck has a decent amount of heft to it.

Straight out of the box, the guitar needed to have its bridge saddles lowered and truss rod tightened slightly — normal setup stuff your dealer or distributor should take care of — after which it played smoothly and evenly, with no hitch from the nicely dressed frets. Plugged in, the Sunburst Flat Top easily dished out the muscular tones for which it was intended. Playing the guitar through the Friedman, I coaxed everything from meaty power-chord crunch to sizzling bridge-pickup leads, and teased more nuanced blues-rock inflected rambles with it plugged into the Carr combo. These are hot pickups (14.52kΩ bridge and 9.12kΩ neck), so they’re not inclined to clean up much. Yet the neck pickup sounded respectfully warm, reedy and musical through the Carr when set just shy of breakup. While the bridge easily pushed the same amp settings over into raw, rootsy snarl. Plugged into the Friedman’s lead channel, though, these pickups issued impressive sustain and incendiary grind that took the Sunburst Flat Top back to the arena stage, where it is clearly most at home, confirming it a very able performer at this price.

MONACO SPECIAL K

The Monaco is a slightly later, but also long-running style from Hamer, that mutated into several variations over the years. The Monaco Special K takes the last part of its name from its Les Paul Special–like shape, appointments and 24.75-inch scale, and the fact that it’s made from korina (rather than, say, breakfast cereal) – thus echoing the moniker applied to a Hamer Custom Shop model circa 2005.

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Rarely seen in guitars costing less than $1,000, korina is often described as being like a lighter-colored mahogany. But, it has a sweeter and more textured midrange (I sometimes hear it as “chewy,” or “swirly”), with a silkier zing in the highs. It is often significantly lighter, too, a perk for a lot of guitarists. This model’s body is made from two pieces of the honey-hued Central American timber. Its neck is from a single piece that has been carved into the same rounded but full “C” profile as the Sunburst, and it carries an unbound ebony fretboard. The bridge is a Wilkinson wraparound with an adjustable B- and G-string saddle section. A pair of Hamer P-90s populate the engine room, routed through individual volume controls, a master tone and a three-way switch. Like the Sunburst Flat Top, my Monaco Special K test model wanted its bridge lowered to achieve a civilized playing action, but proved an easy, enjoyable ride once it got there.

There’s something magical about the combination of slightly gritty, edgy P-90 pickups and the granular, textured swirl of a korina guitar, and the two come together again beautifully in the Monaco Special K (which is quite a revelation at this price!). Hamer has wisely kept these pickups to a medium wind (8.28kΩ bridge and 7.96kΩ neck), so there’s good clarity and articulation amid the grind and a delectable, multidimensional chewiness, when you dig in for leads with some gain applied. In short, this is a rock and roll machine through and through. The bridge pickup can be mean and snarky, or sweet and nuanced with the volume eased back, while the neck pickup is throaty and rich. Between those extremes, the Monaco Special K is roundly snappy, with the bonus of hum cancelling. This guitar is a big performer for the money and all the more fun for its functional simplicity.

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In conclusion, the Sunburst Flat Top and Monaco Special K represent two welcome additions to Hamer’s rejuvenated offshore lineup, and each offers timeless styling and solid performance at a very reasonable price. Although the Sunburst has the fancier looks, I was particularly taken with the sonic personality that gushed from the Monaco Special K’s marriage of P-90 pickups and korina tone-wood. Tasty stuff!

SPECIFICATIONS

CONTACT Hamerguitars.com

Sunburst Flat Top

PRICE $699 street
NUT WIDTH 1 11/16” graphite
NECK Mahogany
FRETBOARD Ebony, 24.75” scale
FRETS 22 medium
TUNERS Die-cast OEM
BODY Flame-maple top with mahogany back
BRIDGE Through-body hardtail bridge with individually adjustable saddles
PICKUPS Two Hamer Hard Rock humbuckers
CONTROLS Independent volume and master tone controls, three-way switch
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario .010–.046
WEIGHT 7.9 lbs
BUILT Indonesia
KUDOS A powerful and appealing rock machine at a reasonable price, capable of some sizzling crunch and lead tones
CONCERNS Setup may need to be adjusted for optimal playability

SPECIFICATIONS

CONTACT Hamerguitars.com

Monaco Special K

PRICE $699 street
NUT WIDTH 1 11/16” graphite
NECK Korina
FRETBOARD Ebony, 24.75” scale
FRETS 22 medium
TUNERS Die-cast OEM
BODY Korina
BRIDGE Wilkinson wraparound with individually adjustable saddles
PICKUPS Hamer P-90 single-coils
CONTROLS Independent volume and tone controls with push-pull coil splitting and three-way switch
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario .010–.046
WEIGHT 7.3 lbs
BUILT Indonesia
KUDOS Impressively rich and textured P-90-meets-korina tones that are rarely accessible at this price
CONCERNS Setup may need to be adjusted for optimal playability

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