"Vintage Kramer" Editor Dave Nardelli Talks Early Days of Kramer Guitars

When you think of Kramer guitars, you typically think of Eddie Van Halen or another '80s titans shredding on a thin neck with a pointy headstock. But when Kramer first kicked off, its body styles and aluminum-based necks owed more to Travis Bean than Wayne Charvel.

We recently talked to Dave Nardelli, senior editor over at Vintage Kramer: one of the best guitar fan sites there is. Dave gave some us some insight into the early Kramer years, their aluminum-necked instruments, and the company's rise as the most popular guitar brand of the 1980s.

Courtesy of VintageKramer.com

Q: Tell me a little about the early Kramer company. How'd they get involved with the making aluminum neck instruments?

In the mid 70s, Gary Kramer was a salesman for Travis Bean who as many recall, was the real first solid aluminum neck guitar maker that had any decent amount of success. At the same time, Dennis Berardi was a Travis Bean dealer on the famed 48th St in NYC. Together they both took in the feedback from players on the Travis Beans. Most people complained the necks being cold and, by being metal, expanded and contracted with temperature change causing the instrument to go out of tune. Both men got together and figured they could make an aluminum 'skeleton' neck and also utilize wood for warmth to the hand and reduce the swelling the shrinking of the metal. By late 1976, with another partner, Pete LaPlaca and, later, Henry Vaccaro, Kramer was producing aluminum necked guitars.

Q: What were some of the supposed advantages or goals of using aluminum-based necks?

The idea by using the aluminum frame and Ebonol fretboard the necks were never to twist or warp. This worked to some degree as most of these guitars, 40 years later are still up and running. Another factor the aluminum was to help with was sustain, which was the order of the day back in the 70s. If you had a great sustaining guitar back then, you had a winner.

Kramer 350G from 1978

Q: Was there anything else unique or unusual Kramer brought to its designs early on?

In the beginning, along with the unique, aluminum skeletal neck, Ebonol fingerboards and 'wishbone' shaped headstocks, Kramer designed it's own body shapes. The shapes were not quite like anything else before it. Kind of a cross between a Les Paul and a Strat. Later Kramer streamlined it's bodies on the aluminum necks and brought in other radical designs inspired by such makers as BC Rich. Also, around 1978 Kramer became one of the first brands to use DiMarzio pickups. Top quality hardware such as Schaller and Badass was used for tuning machines and bridges as well.

Q: What prompted the company to transition from the aluminum neck design to more conventional wooden necks?

Around the end of the 70s, aluminum necked guitars fell out of favor. The fad had run it's course, so to speak and players that were playing aluminum necks were going back to the old wood necked guitars. The Kramer basses were still selling ok, not so much guitars though. Also, at this time, Guitar Center was a major investor in Kramer and they pursuaded Kramer into making wood necked guitars. Incidentally, this was a blessing to the company as the advent of Floyd Rose and the Eddie Van Halen endorsement made Kramer the biggest American guitar manufacturer throughout most of the 80s.

Back of an early '80s Kramer neck

Q: What should buyers keep in mind when shopping for kramers from the early days (wood or aluminum)?

I tell buyers, if you are looking for an aluminum neck Kramer, if it's at all possible, try it out first. While most Kramers will sound at least decent, some will not like the thicker necks and heavier bodies associated with the aluminum necks. Some I've played, especially basses, were also neck-heavy so buyer beware.

When it comes to wooden necks, I say this...Kramer was known to be the only distributor at the time, of the original Floyd Rose. They also used other bridges earlier on that left a lot to be desired from a whammy. I advise folks to find a USA plated or "American" model with OFR and try that. If you can't afford those, look at the Focus lines. They also sported OFRs. Avoid the Strikers or anything below them as they have plywood bodies and cheaper hardware, pickups. You'll usually end up buying better components for those guitars so why not buy a Focus or "American" model?

Lastly, Kramer made a lot of different models and inconsistency were both the curse and the blessing of the brand. A curse because there was no standard and a blessing because for players like us, there are many gems with cool attributes out there to be discovered. That's why I say, try 'em out first. With patience, I guarantee eventually you will find a lifelong player and a keeper for sure.

Q: What's your personal favorite Kramer guitar?

My favorite Kramer guitars are the Pacers. Basically a Strat copy body with different pickup configurations. But for me, it comes down to a very small specialized era in the Pacer line. My personal favorite is a certain Kramer Pacer Special (single hum) also known as a 'pre-Baretta' to some folks. Other Kramer fans have their favs as well and the tastes are all over the place.That's the thing about Kramers, you can go thru 100 of them and 1 or 2 will be something 'special' that can't be explained.... but there is something for everyone.

Q: What's typically considered the most important or iconic Kramer model of all?

Interestingly, the Baretta is the one that is most recognized and was the flagship of the brand for many years. This was no doubt due to Van Halen's posing with one in a Kramer ad from 1983. The funny thing is, this was a popular misconception because Van Halen never technically played one regularly. The Kramer guitars he had up to that point were Pacers and even the body and neck on his 5150 guitar started out as a Kramer Pacer Special, not a Baretta.

There were also artist signature guitars to be remembered such as the Richie Sambora model (RS) and the Vivian Campbell model (Nightswan) as well as Kramer's neck-thru line, the Stagemaster in addition to, more rare and interesting models like the Ripley, a true stereo guitar and the Sustainer model which contained a sustaining humbucking pickup.

Q: Any other sources you can recommend for people who want to learn more about Kramers?

Yes, several years ago, my friend, Mike Wolverton and I put together the Vintage Kramer site for this very reason. You can research almost everything about Kramer guitars on www.vintagekramer.com and also on the Kramer Forum at www.kramerforum.com. The Kramer forum is full of knowledgable folks and the forum itself as a whole is one of the friendliest around.

Kramer Pacer from 1989

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