Hand Me That Hamer!
The Hamer Chaparral
A stick of dynamite fitted with six strings and a Floyd Rose trem, or something more? Gary Cooper lit the blue touch paper...
Based in Arlington, Illinois, Hamer are very much at the forefront of the new generation of American guitar makers. Although they might seem to have sprung to prominence almost overnight (especially to some of ITs younger readers), they've actually been a major force in American-made Rock guitars since back in the 1970s, when Paul Hamer's surname was first being applied to some particularly handsome Explorer-based guitars.
As I've said before, there are really only two fundamental traditions in making solid guitars. Either you follow the Fender path and offer bolt-on necks fitted to functional, machine-made guitars, or you take your lead from the pattern established by Gibson and offer glued necks, more luxurious woods and finishes, and so on. Hamer began by following this latter path, soon building up a considerable reputation for often outrageous finishes applied to superb guitars.
It's a good few years since Hamer last had a British distributor, and that's a situation which has frequently puzzled me. After all, far lesser guitars have come (and gone) — so why were we being denied these instruments, which were growing increasingly popular among US players and those Brits (notably Gary Moore) who were picking them up while on tour? Late last year, amid mingled sighs of relief and cries of 'I told you so!', Hamer finally landed themselves UK distribution once again — courtesy of Allbang and Strummit, probably the best Rock guitar shop in London's West End. Via a link-up with the inimitable Mike Cooper (no, he's not my grandfather!) Hamers are now available again across the UK. Time for me to renew my acquaintance with a line that has become one of the hottest properties in in its home country, and which is, at long last, again available over here.
I wasn't sure which of the Hamer range I was going to be collecting from Allbang's John Gold when I called in recently, the choice being pretty extensive. A Steve Stevens model with a Floyd Rose? (a snip at around £823!) A Scarab II with Kahler? (a trifling matter of £785). A Gary Moore Special with Floyd Rose? (£935, or a mortgage with the Abbey Nat.). Whichever model I ran off with would be worth more than the car I was driving! Imagine the twinge in my bank manager's ulcers when John handed me a brand new Chaparral. 'To you, sir' (some people will crawl like a snake to get a good review. SIR?! I won't tell you what they usually call me!) 'only a small incision in the wallet will be required — just £899's worth. Are you with BUPA or is it the National Health, by the way?' Slamming the case shut, pausing just long enough to knock over a row of priceless guitars, I fled, clutching the borrowed Hamer like it was my own flesh and blood.
Back at the ranch, I had my first proper chance to examine this latest Hamer wonder-machine. Finished in a eyepopping icy pink pearl, the vaguely Strat-ish shaped guitar certainly looked worth the money — as sweet an instrument as you could hope to hold, finished to perfection and begging to be plugged in and played. Read on for the details.
Faced with a completely coloured guitar, you're always at the mercy of the catalogue when you start trying to work out what it's made of. Unfortunately, the Chaparral was too new to feature in any of the Hamer brochures I had, so my next move was to 'phone Paul Hamer's partner, Jol Dantzig, in the States. Well, it was either that or taking my Swiss Army knife to the lacquer in an attempt to uncover the materials used! Jol tells me that the Chaparral has a Maple body with a 3-segment Maple neck. This latter is 'stressed' insofar as it has a sort of opposing bookmatched pair of outside pieces, which (he and Paul feel) gives the neck a counter-balance effect, limiting any possibility that the neck may twist.
Moving on, the unbound neck is faced with a fine quality of Ebony and is inlaid with the most beautifully elegant mother of pearl position markers, which hopefully you can see in our photo. If you can, then they need little further comment from me! The neck is fitted with fat 24 frets which, on my sample at any rate, looked like they had been carefully hand-lapped to give even height.
Still adhering to their original design principles, the Hamer team have used a glued joint for fastening the Chaparral's neck, which provides a body join around the 21st fret. The join isn't the most contoured I've encountered by quite a way, but seemed to present no discernible problems when aiming for the very top frets, even when playing at full speed. The body too is extremely comfortable. Surprisingly light in weight, it's contoured on both the back and front, making for a superbly comfortable fit which complements the guitar's excellent overall balance.
No guitar aiming to appeal to today's Rock players can afford to be without an advanced trem; and Hamer have chosen the Floyd Rose for the Chaparral. I'm glad — in my opinion the Floyd Rose is the absolute best of all such devices, the only one that has a sensitive enough feel to enable you to play it creatively, and, as far as I can see, robbing neither treble response nor sustain from the guitar. Because I've described the way the F.R. works so often before, I won't waste your time by repeating the details now. All I will say is that, from the accuracy of its right hand tuning system (operating vertically on spring tension levers beneath the saddles) through the minute precision with which you can adjust and then lock every aspect of the bridge's setting up, to the nut-lock (no, I promise I won't go on again about how much I hate fiddling with these whenever I break a string!) and — most importantly — the way in which the strings come straight back to pitch after even the most vile abuse, this is the only 'hot trem' for me. Want to hear how well it can be used? Try listening to Jeff Beck's Flash album!
Leaving my love affair with the Floyd Rose, I'll move on to cover the rest of the Hamer's metal and electrical bits. Complementing the trem system are neat black machines of unguessable origin. They work well enough, but of course aren't as important as they would be on a non-nut locked guitar, so can be safely assumed to be good enough, whoever made them.
The pickups, on the other hand, are vital — and so they are (vital, that is!). At the bridge you have a humbucker, with two single coil types in the middle and neck positions. Or are they single coil pickups? In fact, Jol Dantzig tells me, they're of Hamer's own devising and are in their 'Slammer' series, in actuality 'stacked' types, wired to give a single coil sounds but with hum-cancelling properties. Finishing off the details, two rotaries give you master volume and tone, and there are also three 3-way micro switches which provide a large range of coil/phase and on/off options.
But details can never get anywhere near describing a guitar's soul — and this Hamer Chaparral has a distinct personality of its own, which you can feel from the moment you pick it up. Beautiful in its glowing pearly finish (I don't know whether it has, but it certainly looks like a traditional cellulose lacquer has been used, thus taking it a universe away from the ultra-glossy Japanese image), the Hamer is a professional's guitar, a no-compromise instrument for the skilled player who can hear and feel and understand the difference between a mass produced £400 instrument and a guitar with its own character.
Yes, the Chaparral plays as it looks — like a fireball! The neck is a standard width, measuring a Strat-like 1 11/16" at the nut and 2 3/32" at the 12th fret, with its Ebony fretboard bearing the very slightest of cambers. It's shallow too, and very, very fast.
Despite the Chaparral's hard Rock image, it's by no standards an unsubtle-sounding guitar. Talking further with Jol Dantzig I learned that he and Paul work very much on the principle that a guitar should sound right from the wood — in other words it has to be acoustically correct, otherwise it will sound wrong when amplified, regardless of the pickups it's fitted with. This, of course, isn't a rare philosophy, as it's a point of view shared by many British specialist guitar makers. Personally speaking I'm sure they're right.
As a result of this, the Hamer's pickups aren't overbearingly powerful. They're not the sort of transducers that send your amp into instant meltdown; rather, they're an effective balance between two extremes. Much hotter in their single coil modes than basic Fender types, they deliver a 'real wood' sound whilst still being more than hot enough to drive distortion from our test Laney and Marshall valve amps. The bridge humbucker, too, has a a similar quality. Yes, it's 'hot', but it has genuine tone as well. This balance between power and tone couples with stinging treble (blisteringly hot through a distorting valve amp) and great sustain, which matches the guitar's sound perfectly to the Floyd Rose's playability. You can scream a high note, bend it like a maniac, have enough sustain to be able to play around with the trem, and yet still not have so much power that chords become blurred and unwantedly fuzzy.
What all this adds up to is a rare phenomenon — a guitar which will deliver enough biting driving attack at the top end to send your roadies scurrying for cover, yet has sufficient sweetness when you want it to make even the hardest hearted in your audiences feel their eyes pricking with tears.
It's horses for courses. Last month I found myself falling for Chris Larkin's deliciously subtle Reacter; before that, the 'balls to the walls' ferocity of the JayDee Hooligan had me glued as far away from my amp as I could get because it was so fabulously wild and untamed. This month, the Hamer Chaparral has me once again reaching into my bag of superlatives. Each of these three guitars is perfect in its own way. The JayDee Hooligan is for the player who wants to physically assault his audience; the Larkin Reacter for the subtler stylist, maybe the Blues-based player who wants sweetness and depth. The Hamer, on the other hand, is something else again. It has the top and drive you need for shrieking HM, yet keeps the subtlety and natural tonality which can let you slip into a Blues solo when the mood takes you. Is this why Gary Moore loves his Hamer so much? I suspect so.
But does the fact that I've written glowing reviews on all these three guitars in succession mean that there's nothing to chose between them? Of course not! They're three individualistic instruments — as different from one another as a Porsche is from a Rolls Royce and a Ferrari — and that's the key. They're all superb cars; but one driver will like one, another will prefer one of the others — it's the same with guitars.
Lovingly made, beautiful to look at and play, with a unique sound and superb hardware, the Hamer Chaparral is worth every penny of its (admittedly high) price — but only the player who is good enough will suss-out why. Try one, but be warned. It might well capture your bank balance!
(RRP £899 inc. VAT).
More info from Allbang & Strummit, (Contact Details). Also Scott-Cooper Marketing Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Gary Cooper
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