The Godfather of the 12-String Bass
An Interview with Mark Rowe and Philip Snyder
There is a lot to be said about a person who can take an idea and turn it into a reality. The vision and skill that is required for such endeavors is often reserved for a select few. Jol Dantzig of Hamer Guitars fits this description.
In 1978 Jol crafted the very first 12-string bass after a conversation with Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson where the idea was born. Tom envisioned an orchestral instrument that would fatten Cheap Trick's live sound and Jol delivered. The rest, as they say, is history.
Under Jol's direction Hamer has continued to produce these incredible instruments for 25 years. Jol recently took time out from his hectic schedule to talk with us about all things 12-string. It is an honor to have this opportunity and we would like to thank Jol for his interest in and nice comments about our site.
Over the years the
12-string bass has reached almost iconic status. It's difficult to even think
about 12s without thinking of Hamer. You must be very proud.
Yes, it’s very gratifying. Hamer has been responsible for bringing all kinds of great guitar designs to musicians over the years, and it’s nice to look back on that.
Much has been written about how the first 12-string bass came into being. What was the feeling at the time about the new instrument? Did anyone have any idea that it would ever develop into what it eventually did?
In a word, no. We were really just doing what was in our hearts and heads at the time. In fact, that’s still true today. I didn’t set out to become “Jol Dantzig, Guitar Guru” or even a “guitar designer.” We only wanted to make some cool guitars. You do your best every day, and time tells the tale.
Who made the design decisions about the first 12? The now-famous split-V headstock had been used on the prototype 10-string bass that preceded the first 12. Who came up with that design?
I think we had already used the “split V” headstock on a 12 string guitar by then, we just carried it over to the bass. It was a nod to the Gibson Futura prototypes that preceded the Explorer model. I just trimmed it down a bit to make it a little more sleek. As far as the design decisions are concerned, much of it was collaboration and some of it was dictated by what was available or possible with the materials that we had at the time.
Your name is forever linked with the creation of the 12-string bass. Is building a 12 similar to making a 4-string or are they completely different animals? Were there any important lessons you learned from that experience about how NOT to do things?
It was really uncharted territory in many ways. We were so new to making instruments in general that everything was a challenge. That also worked to our advantage in that there were no rules to follow. Now, if you start a bass or guitar company there are so many preconceived notions that you automatically have to conform. We were just trying to make a bass that could actually be played with all those strings on it.
As far as doing things differently, or learning from experience? Well certainly there are small details, but I think we got it pretty much right to begin with. The success of the instrument over time did show me that you’ve got to believe in yourself and not mind that people say it can’t be done. Tom Peterson showed me that!
Can you detail the Quadraphonic electronics panel and pickup? Who made the Quad pickup and what did they think of the idea?
The Quad had a straight-ahead one pickup, one volume and tone control layout for most playing situations. We used a Bill Lawrence blade pickup because then we didn’t have to sweat the string to polepiece alignment, which is a problem on twelves. That was what most players wound up using, as the quad setup was pretty complex to use every gig.
Rex Bogue (1951-1996)
The quad part of the bass used a special four-coil pickup that I had made by
Seymour Duncan. He’s always been great about collaborating on special
projects - I’ve known him just about forever it seems. The first few quads had
electronics that were made for us by a guy named Rex Bogue. Rex was a real
character, and a lot of fun to hang out with. He had the whole “Dean” guitars
thing before Dean did… with the NAMM show girls and everything! He made the
famous double-neck guitar that John McLaughlin played, you know, the one Ibanez
copied. Anyway, he had this preamp he called “Balz Deluxe” and we just had him
make those for bass with four channels. We specified bass and treble frequencies
and it had a switch that selected the peaks. Each one of those channels had a
separate output. A little bit extreme, but it was fun.
When the original Quad bass was built it was strung in the same manner as the Hagstrom 8-string bass (standard arrangement). There were certainly other possibilities, such as the root on top method employed by Rickenbacker. What was the reason for this?
That arrangement worked best for Tom because he plays with a pick, and mostly downstrokes. If the root is on top, the pick just skips over the octave and you don’t hear it as much. Conversely, we set up the 8-string we built for (Attractions bassist) Bruce Thomas the other way around because he played with his fingers.
How long did it take to build the original Quad bass? Did it go through a series of trials before it was delivered to Tom Petersson? If so, what type of testing was done?
I have to say that I cannot remember how long it took, but it was probably a long time, months that is. We weren’t set up for anything with tooling, it was all chisels and drills. Besides, we were making it up as we went along.
Were any changes made for later versions of the Quad bass? I know they lost four pots in the control panel.
Yeah, that’s because Rex got lazy or something equally silly. I think we also got tired of trying to squeeze all that stuff in there!
How many 12-knob Quads were made? How many 8-knob versions?
As I mentioned earlier, we weren’t writing this stuff down for posterity at the time, it was all in the moment and “Guitar History” wasn’t really our concern. And for that reason, and poor memory… I can’t say for sure. My guess is that there aren’t more than six or so of the first type. I can’t imagine us having the patience for more! Frank Untermyer may remember better than I.
How did the B12A come into being? What were the main objectives for that bass? When was the first one completed?
There was a competition in Japan to design instruments for Cheap Trick, and some of the drawings were actually pretty cool. Rick and Tom showed us the drawings and made suggestions. I think that the drawing was actually of an electric guitar that looked like an acoustic. It was a sight-gag that naturally appealed to all of us. Sort of like my flying V bass… which was made to look like a guitar. We loved to confuse people… doesn’t it show? Who else would name a guitar model “Prototype?”
Have you been asked to build a Quad since they were discontinued? Would you ever consider building one again?
I’m sorry, there’s a hurricane blowing down here, I can’t hear you… what was that you said?
Let's talk a little about the B12L. How long was the idea of a long-scale 12 floating around before it was actually built?
It was our wish from the beginning to make a long scale twelve, we just didn’t think Tom could lift it.
Was the Chaparral body-style the first choice for the production B12L? Were any other body styles considered? If so, what were they?
I’ve always loved the name Chaparral, so I naturally wanted to use that configuration. It was named after Jim Hall’s shockingly revolutionary Can Am racers from the sixties. You know, the first cars to use big wings and ground effects for handling downforce. He was a visionary and I loved his work. Also, it was the era of metal, and it just looked wicked especially in black.
Of all the 12-string basses Hamer has built over the years, is there one of which you are particularly fond?
The first one is the most amazing, because it actually worked. I loved the one for Entwistle, because I figured he’d be the guy to take it to the maximum. I loved The Who, and he was to basses what Jim Hall was to race cars. The other one I’m fond of is Jeff Ament’s because when I hear that riff from Jeremy I smile. Jeff’s a really wonderful person, and I really connected with his music. Doug Pinnick was a joy to be associated with… I could go on and on.
Doug Pinnick and Jol Dantzig
Which Hamer instruments are your personal favorites, and why? Are there any more
weird guitars in the works for Rick Nielsen?
Inspiration is a funny thing, sometimes it sneaks up on you and you don’t even know it until it unfolds in front of you. For that reason, I’m fond of saying that the next instrument design is my favorite. Nothing beats the feeling of seeing something for the first time, and knowing that it’s right.
As far as Rick is concerned, we try to avoid his calls. (This is a joke of course.) Well, actually, Frank Untermyer takes the brunt of Rick’s abuse.
What do you see in the future for Hamer 12s? Have any new ideas circulated lately?
We are talking about making them WiFi so you can steal mp3s off the internet while gigging, and pretend that they are your own riffs.
What are the most unusual 12-string basses you have made? What made them so different? Have you made any special 12s recently?
They’re all pretty unusual. Maybe I’m desensitized to that.
Recently there have been several new 12's on the market in all price ranges. With the competition building have you considered any changes to the current B12L and B12A models?
We usually only make a change if we feel there is a need for it. If there is a valid musician’s need being satisfied it’s fair game. I’m glad that other people are making them, it makes it more available to players that way.
Do you own any 12-string basses?
I have a B12L, nothing special. I use it in the studio from time to time.
I understand that Hamer has re-introduced the medium-scale "Blades" bass. Will a 12-string model be offered as a production model?
The Blades Bass never really went away, so it can’t be reintroduced. It was never a “production” piece either, so it couldn’t be discontinued. Like so much of what we do, it was based upon our guitar designs and custom made to begin with. We just made them for Jack. Before him, we had a 4-string short scale version. We made those for guys like Pete Farndon of the Pretenders.
At Hamer, we do consider many requests for variations on our guitars and we build a lot of custom-optioned instruments every week. So, to our paying customers… thank you, it’s a pleasure to do business.
With the success of the Korean-made Hamer CH-12 have you thought about adding a different 12 to that line? A Korean B12S might be nice!
Never say never.
The imported models have greatly increased the exposure of players to affordable 12's. Some "purists" think that if it's imported it can't be a Hamer. Any thoughts about that?
This is an economic reality of our times. In any industry there are price points, and introductory models to get the customer on board with your brand. We’d prefer to make the high-end pro stuff, but Hamer sees a bigger picture than just that, being part of Kaman Music.
Hamer has always been a custom guitar manufacturer. The entry of Kaman into the picture seems to have shifted your focus more towards "assembly line" models. Could you comment on this? Will the custom guitars still be a priority?
There is nothing assembly line about what we do now in New Hartford. In Arlington Heights, pre-Kaman, we were making many times more guitars each day than we do now. I have a photo of thirty B12Ls on a rack. They were great back then, and they are even better now. We made the decision to become a focused shop that makes a limited number of exquisite instruments by hand.
How does Hamer incorporate state of the art technology along with hand craftsmanship into the manufacture of its instruments? Are some of the production steps that used to be done by hand now done by machine, for better accuracy perhaps?
The only thing that we have changed is that we use a machining station to do routing, and that was actually added back in Arlington Heights. It really isn’t any faster, but it’s a hell of a lot safer for the operator, and more accurate. Everything else is done pretty much the same way as when we first started. We’re just better at it.
Are there any new technologies or materials that will be incorporated into future instruments?
It gets harder and harder to get really great wood, but that’s what we are all about so I don’t see that changing.
There has been some discussion about arranging the strings on a 12-string bass so that the fundamental is centered between the two high octave strings. It would certainly require a whole new bridge design to accomplish. What are your thoughts on this?
That’s something that we’ve looked at in the past, and the feeling was that it was better the way it is set up currently because you have the option of changing the sound with your pick stroke.
Where is Hamer heading from here? What do you see in the future of the company?
We are doing exactly what we want to do, make great guitars for musicians who can tell the difference. Frank and I want to make sure that whatever we do it will remain faithful to our roots, while still allowing us to mature as a company. Specific to basses, we want to make sure there is a purpose for what we build.
What do think is your best work?
Over the years there have been a few individuals in our organization who through coaching and mentoring have risen to a level that surprised even them. Those people are my best work.
For what would you like to be remembered?
As a company, I’d hope that we would be seen as the creators of the “boutique” market and that we represent true quality, something that is unusual in the world today.
In the end, only kindness matters. I’d like people to say that I cared.
Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview Jol! It has been a pleasure and an honor talking with you. Thank you so much for creating the instrument we all love so much!