By Rick Nielsen | Photo by Mike Graham
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, including humbuckers, truss rod covers, bridges, Kluson tuners, trapeze tailpieces, and sideways vibratos, all of which I had found in music stores or salvaged from wrecked instruments. At the time you couldn’t just go out and buy this stuff. 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. Somehow, Paul got his hands on one to spec it out—remember, Gibson made only about 19 of these things, so they weren’t exactly everywhere.
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 just a custom job that I found lying around at some store. When people would ask me about it, I’d tell them that the guitar had once belonged to John F. Kennedy’s younger cousin.