The Unofficial Story of Kramer

NOTE: The following is a story of Kramer that I have put together from my research through out the year of 1997. The information contained here is in no way 100% accurate, but is as close as possible with what I had to work with. It may also be of interest to note that this is in no way as comprehensive as the story to be run in Vintage Guitar Magazine by Michael Wright, nor will all of the information be the exact same as that in the published version. If you got here by some other means that the "Kramer Krazy" website, I have a link to my homepage below. Happy reading.

An ingenious young man by the name of Dennis Berardi, a musical instrument retailer and drummer, was operating his own music store and was intrigued by the idea of aluminum as a manufacturing material for guitars due to his experience with selling Travis Bean guitars. Gary Kramer was working with Travis Bean guitars as a sales rep in Dennis’ region, and through various discussions, was able to sell Gary on many ideas and improvements to the Travis Bean ideas. Dennis convinced Gary to leave Travis Bean because he was determined that they could make fine quality instruments on their own. These guitars were to use many of the Travis Bean features, especially the aluminum neck, but the idea was to produce a more affordable guitar utilizing the aluminum neck idea, yet still have the “feel” of a traditional guitar. Gary left Travis Bean Guitars in October of 1975, and teamed up with Dennis Berardi for this venture. In early 1976, Peter Laplaca joined Kramer and Berardi. Laplaca was the former Vice President of Norlin, the parent company for the guitar manufacturer Gibson. With the financial backing of these two investors and large contractor businessman, Henry Vacarro Sr., Kramer Guitars became a guitar manufacturing company. Their parent company was BKL International Distributing, Ltd located in New Jersey (Henry Vacarro wanted to stay somewhat separated from the business). The first designs were the creations of Kramer, Berardi, and luthier Phil Petillo. The company was established in June of 1976, and the first guitars rolled out of the doors and into the public’s hands in November of 1976. Despite the initial expectations of this union of experiences, Gary Kramer left the company, within a year after its conception. Rumors say that he left because of differences in how the company should be managed, and Dennis Berardi and Peter Laplaca continued on with the Kramer name.

The woods of choice for these first guitars were fancy woods along the lines of burled walnut, maple, and koa with optional tropical woods of shedua, bubinga, afrormosia, and swetenia. The original guitars and basses were much like the Travis Beans, but had many differences with the main one being the construction of the neck and body. The aluminum necks were bolt-ons, had a different headstock design shaped like a tuning fork, and had wood inserts in the back of the necks, whereas the bodies were solid chunks of wood and lacked the Bean’s receiver of aluminum tying the pickups and bridge together with the neck in one piece. The necks also sported a “zero” fret to help eliminate intonation problems in the open position. The wood inserts in the rear of the neck were to lower the overall weight of the guitar, give it better balance, and give it the “feel” of a traditional, wood neck guitar. The fretboard had an interesting item to note, and this is that the fretboard was not wood. It was made of “Ebonol”, a patented bowling ball material that was guaranteed not to chip, crack, warp, or have any of the other problems associated with standard wood necks. The first guitars and basses had near symmetrical bodies finished in clear-coated natural wood finishes and some of the later aluminum necks were painted solid colors. The very first models were the 350 G&B (G=guitar, B=bass) and the 450 G&B. The 350’s had twin single coil pickups and the 450’s had humbuckers. These Kramer pickups had chrome covers with the word “Kramer” etched into them and were adjustable from the rear of the guitar. They retailed in the neighborhood of $425-$595 with the cases extra. These cases were either a light or dark brown color and the logo was actually a plate that was glued onto the case.

The guitars offered by Kramer in 1977 were basically unchanged from the 1976 models, but by 1978, several new models were added to the pre-existing 350 and 450’s. The newest models were the 250G&B, the 650G&B, and a whole new line of guitars called the “DMZ Series”. The 350 was basically unchanged in this year, but the 450 became a multi-laminated body of alternating walnut and maple instead of the solid, single-type woods. The new 250 was a lower priced model and had a solid maple body and front loaded electronics that consisted of two “Kramer” single coils a “stratish” black pickguard. The new "Artist" 650's came with a laminated body of curly birds-eye maple and burled walnut, in most cases, which was a much fancier grade of wood than the 450’s and a “scallop” on the outer edge of the rounded portion of the body. The 650 also featured mother-of-pearl fingerboard position markers in the shape of a “crown”. All of these models came with Kramer humbucker or single coil pickups with the chrome covers on them with “Kramer” etched onto them. These guitars were referred to as the “New Generation Guitars”. Kramer’s introduction of the DMZ series guitars was a welcome change for the changing music scene toward “heavier” sounds, such as “Heavy Metal”. These new guitars came from the factory with “hot”, high-output, twin Dimarzio humbucking pickups or three single coils and a pickguard and had a more offset double cut-away body. The guitars were the DMZ-1000, 2000, and 3000, with the basses signified by DMZ-4000, 4001, and 5000 monikers.

By the middle of 1979, the 250 and 350 guitars were dropped, and the new DMZ-6000G & 6000B were offered. These “6000’s” looked similar to the 650’s in body laminations and had active electronics in them to “meet the demands made by today’s artist”, but the bodies had a double cut in the outer perimeter below the bridge and were also missing the perimeter “scallop” on the lower portion of the 650’s body. In this year, the “tension roller nut” came on all of the DMZ guitars. This was a nut designed as ten roller “barrels” that the strings were strung between. This was to decrease string hangups and tuning problems when a string bend was released. The early hard-shell guitar cases were of a traditional tan or brown textured covering and had the aluminum neck (tuning-fork) logo in silver or no logo at all (1978-1982 cases).

In 1980, Kramer’s DMZ Series was the same, including the 6000’s, and the “New Generation” 450 and 650 were dropped entirely. New for 1980, they came out with two series of guitars and a signature model. The first new series was the quite wildly shaped guitars called the “XL” Series which would have made Bernie Rico (BC Rich guitars) proud. They had exaggerated horns on the top portion of the guitar, and the bottom (where the bridge is located) had the left side bowed upward and the right was shaped more like a shark fin more than anything else. These were offered as guitars and basses, and the basses were also available in an 8-string version. What was done for the 8-strings, was that a hole was drilled in the headstock to run the strings through “backwards”, and there was another set of tuning keys in a scalloped section behind the bridge in the outer perimeter of the body. There were two Limited Production XL’s that had a more “traditional” shape for a Kramer, but with an interesting lamination in which the center part was more like a triangle or a wedge shape. The other new series was the “XK” Series. The XKG-10 (XKB-10) was a wedge shaped guitar (bass) which was like a triangle, but with a little “step” behind the bridge in the perimeter of the body. The other two models of the “XK” Series was the XKG-20 (XKB-20). These were more symmetrically shaped, similar to a Hamer or many other guitars. The signature model that was offered in 1980 was the Gene Simmons “Axe”. To describe it correctly, the name speaks for itself. The guitar/bass looked just like an axe where the body made up the blade/head portion of the axe and the neck would symbolize the handle. This was the only year that this signature guitar/bass was available.

1981 was a year to prove many changes for Kramer. Most of the series guitars, such as the “XL” and “XK” series had a quick appearance and were now gone, but in their place was the new Duke Series and the soon to be released wood neck guitars. The Duke is a small box of a guitar, similar to the Steinberger model, with an aluminum, headless neck. The tuning keys on the Duke were also in a scalloped section behind the bridge, just like the 8-string “XL” basses. The guitars came with two humbucking pickups, and the basses came with a single “Precision” pickup. Some of these models came with a small strip of rubber on the underside of the guitar to keep it from slipping when resting on a person’s thigh (mostly later on the ‘83-’84 Dukes). The aluminum neck guitars were now renamed the new “Stagemaster Series”, and all of them had the body shapes of the DMZ-6000 guitars with the double scallop in the perimeter of the body. Another new series offered with the aluminum necks was the “Vanguard Series”. These were “traditional” shaped “V” (i.e.- Gibson) guitars and basses. To finish up here with the aluminum necks, the wood necks and their lower manufacturing costs combined with the growing heavy-metal/hard-rock boom helped to end the aluminum neck’s usage. In 1982, Kramer offered a few more models that were only one year guitars with aluminum necks, such as the headless Voyager bass (star-shaped) and an inverted Voyager body guitar with a Rockinger tremolo system (more later on this) called the Challenger. With continued dropping sales of the aluminum neck guitars, Kramer withdrew production in late 1984 to concentrate on their better selling wood neck guitars.

The very first few wood neck guitars showed their heads around 1981 sometime, and they had “heads” like a Fender Stratocaster ( Strat-copy Headstock ). The headstock was a copy of the famous Fender Stratocaster design of 20-some years earlier. The number of these models seems quite low. The first few models offered with a wood neck were the Pacer and Voyager Series. The Pacer Series was a “strat” shaped guitar body, but the pickups were rear-loaded, not requiring the use of a pickguard. It was only offered with a single or double humbucker, and either a brass standard-type tremolo or a “flicker”-type tremolo. There were also two basses available with the wood necks in the “Pioneer Series”. One other model available with a wood neck was the “Voyager Series”, which is a star-shaped guitar as mentioned earlier, and this was available with either a single or double humbuckers. More changes were made shortly hereafter from a threatening situation.

It has been said that Kramer originally changed their headstock style from a Strat-copy headstock to the "Classic" because of a threat of a lawsuit for copyright infringement from Fender Guitars in the early/middle of 1982. Actually, the 1982 catalog, which was printed in June of 1982, had examples of both the new “classic” headstock and the strat-copy headstocks, so the conversion to the “classic” may have been in early 1982. The modified “classic” headstocks were the typical Fender Stratocaster styling with a similar headstock, but minus the large “ball” at the end of the it, kind of like a Fernandes headstock of today ( Classic Headstock ). They came available with either a maple fretboard, with a “skunk-stripe”, or rosewood fretboard without the “skunk-stripe” (it is believed that the early wood necks were available in maple only). The only rosewood fretboard guitar in the catalog was the Carrera, a solid black with black hardware Pacer with dual humbuckers that were rear mounted, but at least one of the other models with a rosewood board has been seen. The maple fretboards were actually the face of the neck instead of a laminated board like the ones to follow starting in about 1985. The 1982 Pacer series was a stratocaster-shaped body with pickup configurations from a rear-loaded single humbucker or twin humbuckers to the front loaded triple single-coil arrangement. The Voyager Series was unchanged, and the Vanguard was now offered with a wood neck (some of the very earliest ones had the Strat-copy headstocks). All of the wood neck guitars came with either a standard Fender-type, “flicker” tremolo made by ESP, or an optional Rockinger Tremolo model with fine tuners and a locking nut which became available in early 1982 (maybe very late 1981).

It is said that Eddie Van Halen first teamed up with Kramer in either late 1981 or very early 1982, about the time of the Rockinger tremolos. Eddie was featured in a few posters and publicity photos posing with some of the first wood neck Kramers sporting a Rockinger tremolo. Kramer actually stated in the June 1982 catalog that the Rockinger was the “Edward Van Halen Tremolo”. These tremolos were some of the first to have a locking nut and fine tuners. The locking nut was separate from the brass nut and had a separate set-screw for each individual string, except that the later versions that had the high “E” and “B” strings share a common block within the locking nut assembly and tightened with one bolt. I assume this was to prevent the set-screws from cutting the string in half as it was torqued down. The Rockinger required that the ball remain on the string, which it is prone to pop off, and the fine tuners were parallel with the body. The whole tremolo unit itself was made of brass with a thin clear coat on it that wore off fairly easily. The Rockinger tremolo also rested against the body of the guitar.

Kramer had been in a working relationship with Floyd Rose, a young guitarist/machinist, in the designing of his tremolo unit since 1981 or so. Floyd had actually been working on the design for many years before this, but it wasn’t until about this time that he had gained the attention of Kramer. Kramer saw a great potential in this new double-locking device, and with the endorsement of Eddie Van Halen playing a guitar with the Floyd, they dropped the optional Rockinger in favor of the new Floyd Rose unit between June of 1982 and January 1983. The Floyd Rose Tremolo is a full “floating” tremolo, pivoting on two large screws in the face of the guitar body, that allow upward movement as well as downward. It was best well known for its ability to stay in tune even after the most demanding of abuse. The Floyd Rose tremolo requires the cutting of the “ball” at the end of the string, and it is held into place by six, vice-like clamping assemblies, one within each of the saddles. Its fine tuners also have much better access since they are on the top of the unit, just past where the hand would rest on the tremolo for the muted effect. A popular ad of Kramer’s in late 1982 has Eddie wearing a striped shirt with one of his famous red/white/black striped guitars. A poster version of this ad has three Pacers below him. A purple Pacer has a standard trem, the middle Carrera has a black Rockinger trem, and the right Pacer had a standard trem on it. Interestingly, Eddie’s striped guitar had a prototype Floyd on it and a prototype, Gibson Explorer-shaped, non-tilt headstock (soon to be seen in another version on the 1984 Baretta). It has been rumored that the switch to the Floyd Rose unit was influenced by a sales meeting of which Eddie Van Halen was present. Eddie made some suggestions to the Rockinger engineers on how to improve their product, and they were very rude to Ed and his suggestions. Eddie pulled Dennis Berardi aside telling him of his displeasure with Rockinger’s engineers, and that he didn’t want to deal with such narrow-minded people. And, it is said, Dennis considered this greatly.

1983 saw a couple of changes for Kramer. A new “super-strat” was offered in the form of the Pacer Deluxe. This is a front loaded strat-shape guitar with a pickguard, but instead of a single coil pickup in the bridge position, Kramer put in a humbucker (later versions after mid 1984 have a coil tap switch on this pickup). Another addition to the line was the new Floyd Rose Signature guitar. This was a fairly symmetrical body shape with sharp-pointed “hooks” on the upper horns and a large concave cut into the bottom of the body behind the bridge which creates something like two shark fins pointed toward each other. Most of these guitars came with the Floyd Rose trem (only bridge available on the Carrera and the Floyd Rose sig models), but an ESP supplied “flicker” was still available.

By April of 1984, Eddie Van Halen’s Baretta model was offered. This was a guitar based off of Eddie’s "5150", the famous red, white, and black striped guitar with a single-slanted humbucker and a single volume control, which was a modified Pacer Special. The Baretta started a craze that put Kramer on top of the music industry, and they stayed there for many years to come. The Baretta was also the beginning of the end of the “classic” headstock and introduced the famous “hockey-stick” or “banana” headstock, similar to those seen on all of Eddie Van Halen’s Kramer guitars in the mid to late eighties. Many contacts have been made among the ex-employees of Kramer, and the largest majority point their fingers at one of Kramer’s luthier’s, Billy Connolly, of this time to have been the one to make all but about two of Eddie’s guitars. It is interesting to note that Eddie’s first Baretta ad has him holding a Baretta with a non-tilt headstock with the older logo on it, but very few of the production, “hockey-stick” headstocks had this non-tilt headstock. It is said that one of Eddie’s ex-guitar techs has this guitar from the ad. I have been told that these “hockey-stick” headstocks with a maple fretboard are very rare because Eddie didn’t want it to be easy to copy his guitar. Eddie had a “thing” in his earlier years about people copying his guitars, so there just might be some truth to this story about the maple fretboards. Anyway, everyone wanted one of these new Kramer guitars, even professional guitarists started to trade in their guitars for a Kramer.

Read more of this story here: Story Continued.

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