No. 19

January 01, 2015

Kramer Guitars emerged in the 1970s as one of the first successful upstarts to challenge Gibson and Fender as a world-wide leader in manufacturing quality electric guitars and basses. Kramer’s association with guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen early in his career gave Kramer a global reputation for creating unique guitars with custom features including the sophisticated Floyd Rose™ tremolo system. Kramer was one of the most popular guitar brands of the 1980s and the best-selling brand of 1985 and 1986. A generation of hard rock and metal guitarists inspired by Van Halen and including Richie Sambora, Tom Morello, Vivian Campbell, and Mick Mars, helped to make Kramer a leader in providing everyday players the experience of a “custom” designed guitar with specialty pickups and hardware, starting an industry-wide trend that continues today.

Kramer Guitars was founded in 1976 by Dennis Berardi, Gary Kramer and Phillip J. Petillo Ph.D., Master Luthier-Engineer to manufacture aluminum-necked guitars. It set up its headquarters at the first of two factories in Neptune, New Jersey. Kramer’s early designs featured guitars and basses with aluminum necks with a distinctive “tuning fork head” headstock and Ebanol fretboards. Kramer further distinguished themselves with custom features such as high grade Schaller™ tuning keys and bridges and specially wound DiMarzio™ pickups at a time when neither Gibson nor Fender provided custom services or advertised parts made by outside manufacturers. Kramer guitar and bass necks featured aluminum inlays and a zero fret made from Petillo fretwire. Each neck had Walnut or Maple inserts set in epoxy. Bodies were made from high grade Walnut or Maple, though some early instruments also featured rare woods not typically used in guitar manufacturing such as Koa, Shedua, and Bubinga.

In the early 1980s, Kramer began manufacturing guitars with wooden necks featuring the company’s unique “beak” headstock and an early version of the Rockinger™ tremolo system, an industry breakthrough that allowed for extreme tremolo bends while still maintaining the guitar’s overall tuning. In 1981, founder Dennis Berardi’s chance encounter with Eddie Van Halen led to the company’s first major endorsement deal. At the time, Van Halen was already customizing his stage and studio guitars, using different necks, bodies, and bridges from various manufacturers in an effort to find a tremolo system that would stay in tune. Van Halen’s involvement with Kramer was a watershed moment for the guitar industry. Very quickly, Kramer guitars became synonymous with Eddie Van Halen, then the most popular rock guitarist in the world. In 1983, Kramer’s original Rockinger™ tremolo system was replaced by the Floyd Rose™ tremolo system, which would remain a Kramer exclusive throughout the decade.

By the mid 1980s, with the addition of famed custom pickup designer Seymour Duncan now outfitting all Kramer instruments, a new headstock design, and Schaller locking tuners throughout all American models, Kramer began expanding their line ofendorsers adding Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe and Vivian Campbell of Whitesnake.

By 1987, Kramer was using ESP Guitars exclusively for manufacturing its necks and bodies. The "American Series" of instruments were ESP parts, assembled in Neptune, New Jersey. The Aerostar series were made completely in Korea, while the Focus series was made and assembled by ESP Guitars. Some early Focus guitars were also made in Japan by the Matsumoku company.

By the early 1990s, production problems in New Jersey and overseas, the re-emergence of Fender and Gibson as strong competitors, and the explosion of alternative rock acts like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, put a strain on Kramer’s finances. The company had been spending huge amounts on advertising and endorsements, and then lost a lawsuit with Floyd D. Rose over royalties. A notorious firesale of surplus necks, bodies and hardware was held out of New Jersey. Kramer ceased production in 1991 and later in the decade was acquired by Gibson Music Instruments in Nashville.

Gibson's Epiphone division has produced guitars and basses under the Kramer brand since the late 1990s. Epiphone has been reissuing classic Kramer models, including the "1984 Model;" (a homage to Eddie Van Halen's famous "5150" guitar used from 1984-1991) the "Jersey Star;" (a homage to the Richie Sambora signature 1980s Kramer) and most recently, the "1985 Baretta Reissue (A standard slant-pickup Baretta)". These high-end instruments are assembled in the USA from American components.In 2007, a Kramer Striker controller was created for Guitar Hero III for the PS2, under a licensing agreement with Gibson Guitar Corporation. A Kramer Focus was also available as an in-game guitar, as was one of the earlier aluminum neck model Kramers. The Kramer Fatboy has been featured in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock and Guitar Hero Aerosmith.

The older Kramer's, made or assembled in America, are icconic collectible guitars sought after around the world. Those from the graphic series airbrushed by artist Dennis Kline tend to be very desireable. Kline painted guitars for Kramer in the 1980's and did a considerable body of work. You can find information on Kramer guitars and their history, as well as connect with other Kramer connoiseurs at

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