Tested By Art Thompson
The archtop has long been the ultimate expression of guitar craftsmanship, and the standards set by premier makers such as D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, and Benedetto have inspired many a guitar company to try their hand at producing small-bodied electrics that offer jazzbo appeal. Hamer, for example, is widely respected for its chambered guitars that feature carved tops. However, the Improv model—which debuted at the 2004 Winter NAMM show—is Hamer’s first truly acoustic-electric in the sense that it features a braced spruce top, a carved, two-piece arched back, mahogany sides, and a suspended pickup, pickguard, and tailpiece. Granted, with a depth of 2" at the sides and a width of only 13 7/8", the Improv is a sub-compact of the archtop world, but Hamer design guru Jol Dantzig has created an instrument that offers the warm,
woody tones associated with classic archtops in a package that will suit players who aren’t necessarily wedded to jazz.
The Look of Love
The Improv immediately captures the eye with its clean lines, striking blonde top, and insane detail work. The 5-ply grained-celluloid bindings are executed with such precision that it’s impossible to find a flaw in the curves that outline the body, f-holes, and headstock, or in the crisp miters of the fretboard trim. Likewise, the pearl “victory” inlays and peghead logo are inset without a trace of filler around their edges.
Subtler details include the ivoroid backing on the ebony pickguard, the inset pickup mounts, and the superb fit of the pickguard around the Duncan pickup’s gold-plated cover. As with other Hamer models, the Improv’s top is beautifully contoured, and the carved back (a first for Hamer) echoes this complex shape to create a nearly symmetrical profile when viewed from the side. All of the ebony pieces—including the knobs and fretboard—are handmade.
The solid mahogany neck joins the body at the 21st fret in an absolutely seamless dovetail joint, and the rather short heel is capped with highly polished ebony that has been painstakingly carved to fit the temple-like shape. The polished frets are beautifully crowned, and their ends feel smooth to the touch—thanks to the binding that encases each tip. Here, too, the Improv’s tall, fossilized ivory nut fits so well that it’s almost impossible to feel its edges as you run your fingers across its ends. All of these seemingly small details require lots of effort and attention, and when Dantzig says it takes two months to build the Improv, it’s easy to see why.
The compensated, height-adjustable ebony bridge is perched on a handsome mount with footings that are carved to match the top’s arc.
From here the stock flatwound strings terminate in the tulip-shaped floating ebony tailpiece, which is designed to extend the length of the bass strings in order to slightly increase their tension for a tighter response. In classic archtop fashion, the tailpiece is secured by a cello hengel that wraps around the ebony endpin. A metal strap button is installed just above this point.
Owing to its girthy, “D”-shaped neck, the Improv feels more like a late-’50s Les Paul than a vintage jazz guitar. Some players will likely be a little put off by the neck’s thick profile, but a stick this big has to contribute to the tone, and if you’re concerned about it hampering your ability to wail, rest assured that the guitar’s low action and narrow-ish fretboard make for effortless chording and melodic excursions. I found the light-gauge flatwounds easy to bend, and despite its name, the Improv is as well suited for old-school blues as it is for jazz. At slightly over 5 lbs, the Improv is also ideal for those who can’t tolerate shouldering a log for extended periods. The only drag is that most of the mass is concentrated in the neck so the headstock tends to migrate south whenever you let go of the neck.
Though the Improv produces an impressive amount of acoustic volume and presence, the guitar truly comes alive in the amplified domain. Played through a Fender Twin Reverb, a Dr. Z Mazerati, and a Mesa/Boogie Blue Angel, the Improv sounded exceptionally warm, balanced, and detailed. It offers the snappy response you associate with a small-bodied design, but with the harmonic complexity and richness of a deeper-bodied instrument. This might sound like sonic smoke and mirrors, but Hamer has pulled off a feat that is quite astonishing. The Improv’s unique construction and premium woods provide for a highly resonant response, along with a sense of depth and vibe that eludes most conventional thinline acoustic-electrics. The Improv doesn’t pack the rear-pickup punch of a dual-humbucker hollowbody, but its sonic palette is impressive thanks, in part, to the wide-ranging and well-voiced Tone control, which offers musical sounds at every degree of its rotation. This passive circuit gives the Improv the ability to produce everything from dark, woody jazz textures to meaty R& sounds to singing, fusion-like, lead tones. Solo lines can be sustained forever with some feedback coaxing, and, when pushed by high volumes, the Improv responds orgasmically—kicking out corpulent, sawtooth tones that sound big, raw, and almost “effected.” If you want to add some rad color to a rock track, crank the Improv through a high-gain amp and have at it!
The Improv is an heirloom-grade guitar that a fortunate few are likely to own, due primarily to the fact that Hamer can only build a limited number per year. This guitar represents the pinnacle of design and craftsmanship for Dantzig and his team, who have created a flexible instrument that is not only well suited for jazz, but also for blues, rockabilly, R&, country swing, and any other style that demands sweet, punchy, and full-bodied tones. Scoring as highly for its sound as for its incredible build quality and exotic nature, the Improv gets a well-deserved Editors’ Pick Award.