Jol Dantzig is the founder of Jol Dantzig Guitar Design, but he first made his name as the genius builder and designer of Hamer Guitars, which he founded in 1973.
It was at Hamer that Dantzig began making guitars for Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, including some of the most iconic instruments of his career, such as Nielsen’s checkerboard Hamer Standard, his “Uncle Dick” double-neck, and, of course, his legendary 1981 five-neck.
Guitar Player’s Matt Blackett asked Dantzig about working with Nielsen and got the story behind the making of the five-neck guitar.
In addition, Nielsen himself tells his own recollections of the five-neck, plus his 1974 Hamer Standard prototype and 1978 checkerboard Hamer Standard.
How many guitars have you built for Rick?
DANTZIG I have no idea, but it’s a huge amount. I’m always seeing photographs, reading interviews, or seeing video clips and I see one that I forgot about. More than 25 but less than 100.
How instrumental was Rick in publicizing the Hamer brand back in the day?
DANTZIG We were already pretty well established. We had a dealer network both in the United States and in Europe and England, and we had some great artists like Wishbone Ash, which was a huge band at the time, Martin Barre with Jethro Tull, and Mick Ralphs of Bad Company. Cheap Trick was a really great band, they were really good friends of ours, and we were big fans and supporters of Rick. We were also fellow guitar collectors so we had a bond with him. We ran an ad for our English dealers in Melody Maker magazine, and we put Rick in it. So in the very early part of his career I think that we helped him, and then of course when they broke big a few albums later with Budokan, Rick was able to return the favor many times over. That’s something I’ll always be grateful for.
The most famous guitar you built for Rick has to be the original five-neck guitar, which has been displayed at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. How do you view that guitar historically after all this time?
DANTZIG For a long time, I felt the caricature part of our contribution to Cheap Trick detracted from the whole modern/vintage aesthetic that essentially we invented. We were serious guitar builders—very serious about super high-quality traditional-style guitars, and that kind of got trampled by the Cheap Trick thing, so for a little while I got kind of bitter about it.
But I’ve come to that point where I realized that it was a gift, like having a hit single in a way. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have been able to design and build a guitar like that. The original idea was to have three necks, which had to do with Rick’s sense of humor. Rush, at the time, had two guys playing doublenecks and Rick wanted to parody that with three necks. And then I suggested four necks and then of course he said, “Well, why not five?” I’m sure it would have gone to six or seven but we ran out of physical space where you could actually play it. So it was a conversation like that and then he left it totally in my hands. We talked a little bit about having the different necks do different things but it was mainly a great sight gag.
We had no idea at the time that it would ever become as iconic as it has. Sometimes you get lucky. My parents were artists and musicians and I think when I went into making rock and roll guitars, they kind of looked at it like, “Wow, we didn’t really expect you to do that. When are you going to make something of yourself?” When I saw that five-neck guitar next to a Picasso in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, both my parents had passed away by then, but I looked up at the sky and thought, “Well, here I am with the greatest artists in the world. My work is hanging right next to theirs.” You’ve got to be happy when the universe gives you stuff like that.
RICK NIELSEN also spoke about the Hamer five-neck for our sister publication Guitar Aficionado a few years back:
“I have a total of three Hamer five-neck guitars, but this is the original orange one that was built for me in 1981. This guitar has been displayed in several museums and now lives on the wall at Piece, my restaurant in Chicago.
“Structurally, building this monster was a bit of a chore, because I wanted a 12-string and a fretless, and one that sounded like a Stratocaster and one that sounded like a Junior. But Hamer, never to be daunted, managed to put all the ideas together and made it work. And now, because he was working at Hamer when they built it, I’ll turn the floor over to Frank Untermeyer [who joined Hamer as a partner in 1978]:
“ ‘Rick’s out of his mind, but in a wonderful way. By 1981, we had already done some pretty wacky stuff for him and Cheap Trick, like the checkerboard Standard, an electric mandocello, and a 12-string bass, so we were used to the fact that they set all standards for going to the limit. For this guitar, we cut apart five double-cutaway Hamer Special bodies and laminated them together, and then sanded in between the necks to get that sort of swoopy look. As I recall, routing the wires through this thing was also a huge pain in the ass.’ ”
CONTINUE TO THE NEXT PAGE TO READ MORE OF RICK’S COMMENTS
ABOUT HIS 1974 HAMER STANDARD PROTOTYPE
AND 1978 CHECKERBOARD HAMER STANDARD.
1974 Hamer Standard Protoype
NIELSEN In 1973, I was living in Philadelphia and playing in a band called Sick Man of Europe with Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos, both of whom would soon end up in Cheap Trick, and Robert “Stewkey” Antoni from Todd Rundgren’s late-Sixties group Nazz on vocals. We were going nowhere, we had no money, and my wife was pregnant with my first son.
I had already built up a reputation as a guy who had good guitars, which is probably why I got a call from Paul Hamer, who at the time was a mailman in Illinois. Paul wanted to buy one of my 1959 sunburst Les Pauls. I hated to sell the thing, but he wanted to pay me $2,500 for the guitar, for which I had paid about $500. So I sold it to him.
Paul took the guitar back to Illinois, sold it for even more money, and used the cash to start Northern Prairie Music, which was primarily a repair shop, in Evanston, Illinois. I moved back to Illinois as well and started Cheap Trick soon afterward. Paul and I reconnected after I brought my white 1952 Telecaster into his shop for some work.
Paul knew that, in addition to guitars, I had a lot of parts. One day, the guys at Northern Prairie said they wanted to try their hand at building a guitar and asked me what I would like. I chose the Gibson Explorer shape.
They made the guitar, which became the first Hamer. If you notice, the knobs on it are parallel to the neck, instead of at an angle like on the later ones. The bridge, tailpiece, and knobs are all real Gibson Les Paul Standard stuff, and the pickups are PAFs. The truss rod cover with the initials “JSK” was a custom job I found at some store. When people asked me about it, I’d tell them that the guitar had once belonged to John F. Kennedy’s younger cousin.
1978 Checkerboard Hamer Standard
NIELSEN This is my checkerboard Hamer Standard, which you can see on the cover of Cheap Trick’s 1979 Dream Police album. I’ve used it to perform the record’s title track at every gig we’ve had since the record came out.
My fascination with the checkerboard pattern, which is pretty much my signature, began when I was a kid and the TV stations would go off the air at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night. I would sit there sometimes and just stare at the bug races or the Indian test patterns. I knew if you stared at them long enough, something good or bad was going to happen. I guess
Hamer has always been cool enough to not build a checkerboard guitar without asking me first, so as far as I know there are only three of these Standards in existence. The first is the original real deal, which you see here. The second, which I recently found and purchased at a guitar show in California, was made for Paul Simon as a gift for his then very young son Harper, soon after Dream Police was released.
The third checkerboard Standard was built as the prize for a contest sponsored by Epic Records and the British rock magazine Melody Maker. Contestants had to write in and say why they deserved the guitar. The guy who won surfaced recently; he lives in Manchester and has kept the thing for more than 30 years. I told him, “I’d like to buy the guitar from you. And if I can’t buy it from you, I’m going to steal it from you.” He said, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t. My wife and I had a special mount made for it, and it’s on the wall right above our toilet.”