Story Continued

Toward the middle of 1984, we saw a change in some of the designs and models for Kramer, and the addition of a new line of more affordable guitars. The Vanguard became a Randy Rhoad’s style “V”, the Voyager got sharp points instead of the rounded ones, all guitars came standard with Floyd Rose tremolos and the Condor (a Gibson Explorer-type body) and Ripley stereo guitars were introduced by late 1984. All of the late 1984 model guitars had the rounded, Explorer-type, head-stock which was first seen in early 1984 with the Baretta, but with a tilt-back design. The very first Barettas came with the model name on the head-stock itself, and in late 1984, when all of the Kramer line was using this headstock, the model names were put on the truss rod covers. The largest difference was that the Baretta remained a little different in that the headstock was painted to match the color of the body. The Ripley was a guitar designed by Steve Ripley for Eddie Van Halen and is a stereo capable guitar where each individual string could be panned to the right or left. Eddie is seen holding the new guitar in the 1985 catalog and many ads of the time in magazines, and the Ripley’s effects can be heard at the beginning of “Top Jimmy” on Van Halen’s 1984 album. The new line of guitars was the Focus series. They were made in Japan and were a cost alternative to the American series guitars. The shapes and pickup combinations were directly taken from the American guitars. All of these Focus guitars came with model names such as the Focus 1000 (Baretta) and the Focus 5000 (Voyager). Interestingly, the Condor never had a Focus equivalent model.

The year 1985 saw a few modest changes for the Kramer lineup. The Duke was dropped from the 1985 line-up for this year as were the aluminum-neck Stagemasters. The early 1985 necks were a tilt-back design and most had a luthier joint making up the headstock tilt (two-piece neck) with the model name showing up on the truss rod cover. It has been rumored that a Canadian company, Lusido, made these necks for Kramer, and an ex-employee of Kramer told me an interesting story behind these necks. Apparently, there was a bad batch of glue used on some of the luthier joints, and they would come apart, so there was a recall on several of them, maybe hundreds. I saw one of these in 1991, and the neck had to be replaced. The fretboard was still in place, but the neck joint came apart. This created a bulge in the fretboard at about the third fret. I have also repaired one of these necks that had not come apart as badly. I just reglued and clamped it over night. Also in 1985, an ingenious invention called the “Finger-tite Locking Nut” was designed by a Bill Edwards and was to be offered by Kramer guitars. It was a locking nut design to work with the Floyd Rose unit and allowed “gross” tuning without having to use an Allen wrench to loosen the nut, like when you run out of fine tuning on the Floyd trem. Due to problems keeping the unit to designed specs, very few, if any, made it into the public’s hands. Also, two very futuristic guitars, the Triax and Enterprise, were introduced and dropped this year. These guitars were the brainstorm of Floyd Rose and his attempt at designing a guitar. These were so wild looking, that there is really now way to describe them. They were very futuristic in design, almost like a Star Trek star-ship, and it is believed that they never went into production for the general public, but instead they were NAMM show specialties. 1985 was also the year in which Kramer offered the Korean-made Striker series to appeal to the beginning guitar player and the ones who couldn’t shell out the money for the American-made guitar, or even the less expensive Focus series guitars. They were relatively decent guitars for a beginner and they had bodies made of plywood.

There is one interesting story that has been told about a very limited run of guitars for Kramer in the middle of 1985. The story goes that Bill Isacsson was running Kramer’s shop at the time and ran across about 20 board/feet of curly-birdseye maple from a wood supplier, “Sports”, in Connecticut. Bill couldn’t pass the wood up and “hid” it in the warehouse somewhere. While Bill was on vacation, someone found this wood and they made guitar bodies out of them and then painted them like all of the other bodies. These guitars were much heavier than the other bodies due to the dense wood that maple is. Most of the bodies are not as rounded either, because of the difficulty in cutting and sanding this wood. If the light is reflecting off of these bodies just right, little dimples in the paint can be seen from the grain texture of the wood. This is just a story that I have been told and it hasn’t been confirmed, of my ‘85 Barettas just might be one of them. It sure meets the description.

The largest notable change for early 1986 was that the luthier-jointed necks were replaced with three-piece, sometimes two-piece, laminated necks in which the wood pieces run parallel down the length of the neck. This neck design change happened in the very early 1986 (actually, I guess you could call these late 1985 guitars) guitar productions, somewhere around August of 1985, it has been observed. Some of these necks are date stamped on the bottom of the neck heals where they join the body. One of the largest new items was the addition of the Ferrington acoustic guitars. These guitars were based off of the acoustic guitars that Danny Ferrington was custom building for many in the music business. They had thin bodies, usually in the shape of an electric guitar, like the Stratocaster, and they had a bolt on neck. These necks were essentially the same as those on the electric guitars. The guitars were offered in acoustic only and in acoustic/electric models. Also introduced this year was the Korean-made Aerostar. These guitars were the cheapest Kramers to date and were a less expensive alternative to the Striker series.

Sometime around these years, an Eddie Van Halen signature model was once suggested, but, as an ex-sales staff member recalls, Eddie wanted it to be exactly like his, right down to the wear marks on the lower horn from the tape holding Eddie’s picks to the wear on the body from his right arm rubbing against it. Something was even mentioned of a bottle cap needing to be nailed to the guitar body. This idea was turned down, mainly because this new signature model would have retailed in the neighborhood of $2000, and the marketing staff did not want to sell a new guitar that would look used. They just didn’t believe that it was a product that they wanted to represent the company.

The “banana” headstock was lost somewhere between about June and December of 1986 when the “pointed” headstock was introduced, and the “official” logo changed from the rounded to the pointed logo. The re-introduction of the Stagemaster series was also seen this year. The Stagemaster series has arch-top bodies and neck-through body designs. Included in the Stagemaster series was the Liberty and the signature Paul Dean guitar built for the guitarist from the band “Loverboy”. There were only four different pick-up configurations in the Stagemaster series. The most popular one is the single humbucker (Standard I) in black which Dennis was holding in the ad of him and Eddie Van Halen in a boxing ring. A special limited edition guitar called the Liberty was introduced within the Stagemaster series with somewhat of a Paul Reed Smith shape to it. The Liberty also had a neck-through design and arch top. It came in solid colors but was also available in a sunburst. The Paul Dean guitar was a neck-through arch-top with the horns on the guitar redesigned with a more bulbous shape to them toward the ends. Early pointed headstock guitars had the word “KRAMER” on the headstock the same as the rounded headstocks had: All one-size, capital lettering in gold. The word “American” appeared in script lettering at the end of the headstock on US-made guitars. By early-mid 1987, Kramer changed this headstock logo to remain gold in color, but the “K” was very large and each letter got smaller as it was spelled. By this year, Kramer was number one in sales for the year, and many guitars were among the top in sales. Kramer was planning a 3/4 size guitar series, similar to the sharpened edged guitars like what Jackson/Charvel were putting out these days, and they were thinking of calling the Stile series after female guitarist, Gina Stiles. This small-bodied guitar was unveiled via a prototype by Stiles at the 1987 July NAMM show. It is believed that this guitar later became the Baretta II and the Pacer Customs I & II, which became available in 1988. The Baretta was still the flagship of the 1987 line-up.

The year 1988, Kramer saw some radical changes in their guitars. The 3/4-size, squared-off corner Pacer series became available with this type of Baretta model being known as the Baretta II. The Pacer Custom, a Jackson Soloist-type guitar made its debut, along with the Artist series, E.E. series, and the Spectors. The Artist series had three guitars endorsed by professional artists: Paul Dean (first introduced in 1987), Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, and Vivian Campbell's Nightswan . The E.E. series was a line of guitars designed by Elliot Easton, guitarist for the rock band “The Cars”. They came in paisley colors with pick guards, a Tele-caster type or Floyd Rose bridge, and had the “classic” style head-stock. They were somewhat of a fifties-type guitar. The Spector Guitars and Basses were designed by Stuart Spector and were imported and domestic guitars with very smooth, rounded bodies featuring neck-through body designs (some of the later and cheaper ones had the bolt-on necks), had 24 frets with a 25.5” scale, and many had a highly flamed maple body. Other notable changes for 1988 were those of the Floyd Rose tremolos were now recessed into the bodies of the guitars and some of the Pacer series models had scallops in the lower horn of the body for better access to the higher frets on the neck. Sometime around this year was when, I figure, Kramer started to notice some financial difficulties. I don’t know if they were not actually seen or were ignored, but the company just wasn’t the cash flowing river that it used to be.

Toward the end of 1988, Kramer was coming up with some ideas for even more models of guitars. The next big deal in styles and innovations was the Floyd Rose Sustainer. This guitar was a rear loaded, squared-corner, strat-style with twin humbuckers. The big deal about it, though, was the neck position humbucker which was designed by Floyd and two other innovators. This humbucker was no ordinary type of pickup. This was because at the flip of a switch, the guitar would sustain a note for as long as the battery stayed charged. It basically had a built-in Ebow in the guitar. There was a lot of promotioning for this guitar, and some ads had Floyd holding his hand over the pickup making the reader wonder what was so special about the guitar. It was just another guitar among a fleet of many for Kramer these days.

Other items of interest to appear during 1989 was that there would be no more plywood imported guitars in the Kramer line-up. This was to be provided by the “100” Series guitar. Also for 1989, all Kramer guitars, even the imports, would have the “Neptune, NJ” neck plates on them. Since Charvel and Jackson were doing this with their imports to give the illusion of a better quality product, Kramer decided to do this also. Samson wireless systems also teamed up with Kramer rolling in to 1989 with the addition of an optional built in wireless system into the guitar body itself. The first guitars available with this system were the Barettas, available about March or April. The ProAxe Series and the Showster Series made an introduction into the market in 1989, also.

The ProAxe Series was the guitar that was “Designed by professionals for professionals ...without the custom price tag”. The body was a 7/8 size, square-edges guitar with the 24 3/4” scale neck. It has 24 frets, and the body was designed for easier playing. The body was made of mahogany for its sustaining properties, a scalloped front and back, and the heal was cut down and angled for easy access to the higher frets. The real interesting kicker to the guitar, was the newly designed Floyd Rose “Pro”. The “Pro” is a recessed trem system with a few changes over the old design. The fine tuners were moved back some and placed at more of an angle to expand the playing area, and they provided more of a range than the old unit. The string locks were also changed so that they tightened right at the saddle. The steel is supposed to be heat-treated differently to make it stronger and to produce smoother sustain. This Floyd Rose “Pro” was only offered on the ProAxe guitars.

The Showster Series guitars were a guitar built with metal enhancements into the body of the guitar. These guitars were designed by Rick Excellente, the designer of the ‘57 Chevy “Tail-fin” guitar that was offered in 1986. He had found out that this metal attachment actually enhanced and contributed much more to the guitar’s sound by retaining the natural motion of the string. In other words, what the metal was to try to produce was a better sustaining guitar with a more natural sound through organizing the vibrations through the guitar body. The Metalist XML model had an external metal “wing” attached to the lower right section of the body, near the guitar’s controls. The Metalist had an external rim/internal plate to provide its metal loading. Then the last model was the Savant. The Savant had a metal bar internally loaded through the bottom of the guitar. Another interesting feature of these guitars was the addition of a rear mounted cord jack. This was to try to eliminate, or at least reduce the event of a cord “pull-out”. The bodies of these guitars were basically a strat shape, but they were “density contoured” for better resonating quality. Most guitars resonance is a random thing and Kramer was hoping to organize it to build a better sounding guitar. There were two Showsters available without the metal-loading for a cost alternative, yet still have the sleek new shaped body and the rear mounted cord jack. These were the model 260 and the model 360. It was also throughout this year, that Kramer continually fell deeper into financial problems, despite their efforts through new guitars and technologies. There is the possibility that they were just trying to get too technological in their guitars, and guitarists are not usually the ones to stray far from traditional values. Kramer tried to keep their heads above water and tried to regain the market share that they were beginning to lose from endorsers going to other manufacturers, but they were losing ground quickly.

There was a plan that Berardi had in mind, though. Dennis sent out a letter on June 16, 1989 to all of the Kramer dealers introducing a new venture for Kramer Music Products. This was the beginning of a sister company to Kramer; Berardi/Thomas Entertainment, Inc. Berardi/Thomas Entertainment was an expansion into the management business for Berardi. Dennis was to act as the manager and arranger of concerts, demos, and promotional programs, and Tres Thomas, Esquire, was to be the legal advisor for the company. Berardi saw this as an opportunity to have well-known and rising hot guitarists alike join the Kramer family and help boost the sales of the Kramer Music Products through their endorsements. Dennis first started having interactions with the Russian heavy metal band, Gorky Park, back in 1986, and by 1989, he had become their American Manager. On June 6, 1989, Jim Lewis, Vice President of A&R for PolyGram Records sent Dennis a letter stating his enthusiasm of working with him and Gorky Park. Gorky Park’s first US record was released on August 22nd on the Mercury/PolyGram label. By Dec of 1989, Kramer had declared bankruptcy. The declaration of bankruptcy for the company was a big shock to many. Few could have any understanding of how one of the greatest guitar manufacturers of the decade could go bankrupt at the snap of the fingers. The story with the most truth and fact to it, out of all of the rumors, is that Kramer simply had run their finances too thin. They had run their credit to the max and owed money to a lot of different people, such as endorsers, and to many different parts suppliers.

Kramer executives came up with a brainstorm to try to help the band and have a last ditch effort to bail them out of trouble by having a guitar give-away to promote Gorky Park. This GP guitar was a triangular-shaped guitar called the “Balalaika”. The “Balalaika” is actually a traditional Russian stringed instrument with three strings on an acoustic, triangular body. There was an actual “KGB” guitar give-a-way in early 1990 in which you were a “Kramer Secret Agent” and had to “penetrate a conspiring (Kramer) establishment” to enter. This was, without a doubt, another large marketing mistake made by Kramer’s management in their quest to really screw up a great company. This was obvious by the lack of warmth and acceptance of the band by the American metalheads. The United States still had many of the “old world” ideals that the United States is better than any other country, and this included our music.

Kramer continued to keep the doors open and to sell guitars after this declaration of bankruptcy, but it looks like they were only selling the imported guitars and had actually closed the manufacturing facility in Neptune, NJ. They were still running ads in Guitar Player magazine up to about March or April of 1990, that I have seen. A popular one was a Telecaster-shaped solid body (first introduced in 1987 as the SC-3, but only for the one year) that Mick Mars of Motley Crue fame had modeled with (the guitars had the old “banana” head-stock and both the early and late gold colored logo). In apparently a last ditch effort to pull through, Gorky Park never did anything of value in this country, the give-away was a bomb, last efforts to sell more guitars were a flop, and the company finally closed its doors in about June of 1990.

Kramer went from the “I have to have one!” guitar to the “What in the hell do I have this guitar for?” guitar. All of a sudden, no one wanted a Kramer. Over night, it was like flipping a switch. Some guitar stores today still have brand new Kramers that they can’t get rid of. Some of them even have the promo Gorky Park guitars, some of which the stores never had to pay for because the company just dried up. Today, the easiest place to find a Kramer is in a pawn shop, because most music stores won’t take them in as trades. They know they will sit there forever. Before you knew it, people were showing up in the “Guitar Scene”, and they don’t even know what a Kramer guitar is. Several years went by, and you never heard the name “Kramer” spoken much at all, but all of that was to change, at least a little.

In the spring of 1995, some of the original investors, like Henry Vaccaro, ex-CEO of Kramer Music Products, and Andy Papiccio, ex-Vice President of Manufacturing, revitalized the old company and set forth efforts to reconstruct it. This new company was called Kramer Music Industries, Inc, or KMI for short. They were shooting for a release of production during the 1996 year, but problems with tooling and setting up the equipment had delayed this. They were trying to manufacture guitars that were similar to the earlier Kramer guitars, but with more of a “retro” look to them. They had names like the previously-made Kramer Pacer, Stagemaster, Classic, Jazz King, and the NS-2 Spector bass. There were other models called the Route 66, Disciple, Ray-gun, and the Generator, to name a few. These guitars came with wood necks similar to the ‘82-’84 “Classic” headstock, and the aluminum neck equipped guitars had a modified version of the old Kramers. These new aluminum necks had the whole rear of them enclosed in wood for the “natural” feel of a traditional guitar, and they also came in the 25 ½” scale (the re-evaluation of this aluminum neck design was actually initiated back in 1991 with the help of Phil Petillo, the original luthier for Kramer). There is a mention of a previously not available “micro-adjustment” on these redesigned necks, but there was no mention of them in the KMI literature. There were approximately 14 different electrics proposed with prototypes and two prototype acoustics were designed and built. These guitars were never a reality for the general public. When some of the financial backers in the new company decided that it was not going to be as rewarding of an investment as they had hoped, they decided to back out of the company and demanded a pay-off. In the fall of 1996, to gain the funds to refund some of these investors, Kramer was acquired by Gibson Music Corp, the manufacturer of the infamous Les Paul guitar.

As I have last heard, Gibson is keeping the company as a separate entity. I have recently heard that they are gearing up a new manufacturing plant in Memphis, TN, but this has not been confirmed. At the Fall ’97 NAMM show in Anaheim, California, Gibson had no Kramer guitars on display (also none were at the Winter ’98 NAMM show). The guitars of this new company have yet to be seen, but I have heard that Gibson is proposing to release a new line of Kramers by the end of 1998. We have no idea if this will actually happen this soon, but there are many people who are waiting anxiously to see whether or not theses new Kramers can be compared to the great products of the original company. On the other side of things.....

A spin-off company, Vaccaro Guitars (founded by Henry Vaccaro, the main financial backer of Kramer throughout the 70’s and 80’s), is already making their guitars and is presently searching for dealers to carry them. Their guitars are even more of the “retro” look, and presently offer four guitar models and two basses. Names on these guitars are the X-Ray, Groove Jet, Generator X, and the Satellite. Henry Vaccaro Jr has told me that they made a great showing at the recent Winter ’98 NAMM show, picked up a few dealers, and even have a some people wanting to endorse for them. These Vaccaro guitars utilize the redesigned KMI necks (which have a torsion cable adjustment within them for the micro-adjustments), “retro” colors and sparkle paints, and either Seymour Duncan or Rio Grande pickups. I wish Henry Vaccaro, Henry Jr, Phil Petillo, and the rest of them at Vaccaro Guitars the best of luck in the coming years.

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