Ax Man

How one musician learned to make guitars for his heroes and found a second career in the process

On a suburban street in south Las Vegas, behind a closed garage door, Bernie Hamburger is sawing maple wood. There’s sawdust all over the floor, and the subtle smell of glue, or perhaps it’s paint. Hamburger, 59, is hand-making his 229th guitar—and the process is meticulous.

“I never mess up,” says Hamburger, who wears stylish glasses and skinny jeans with Vans and a Beatles T-shirt. “The wood is too expensive to mess up. I’m very anal about it.”

He goes inside and climbs the stairs to his home studio, which is full of brightly colored, handmade electric guitars. He picks one up and plays a few chords from The Beatles’ “Come Together,” and then laughs, and says no one ever asks him to play anymore—just to build.

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Hamburger grew up in the Bronx during the British invasion, and learned to play guitar when he was 12. He performed in bands and developed a real ear for it, so much so that he started tinkering with the design of the factory-made electric guitars to make them sound better. It was the beginning of a lifelong hobby that would ultimately turn into a second career.

But not right away. Although he was a talented guitarist and tinkerer, he nevertheless had to make a living doing something else. He moved to Detroit in 1968 and spent 30 years working the day shift in the Ford automotive plant. At night, he played in bands. The longer he played, the more musicians he met. And the more they heard his enhanced guitars, the more they liked the sound.

Finally, in 1982, Hamburger snuck backstage and showed Andy Summers, lead guitarist for The Police, a guitar. He was so impressed, he bought it on the spot and eventually ordered more.

“I just analyzed the heck out of other guitars,” Hamburger says. He meticulously measured and dissected a variety of guitars, and then bought the wood and tools and began making the instrument. Summers loved the result. Word began to spread about the new Hamburguitars: custom-fit to the hands of the musician, and featuring beautifully resonant sound.

Soon he made one for legendary rockabilly musician Carl Perkins, who invited the Bronx-Detroit guitarist to bring some guitars to London to meet George Harrison—Hamburger’s longtime idol. It was in June 1992, and to this day Hamburger gets excited when he talks about it.

“The next thing you know, I’m in a hotel room with Carl Perkins and George Harrison. It was surreal,” he says. “I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I couldn’t believe it—I was sitting there with George Harrison and Carl Perkins and they were jamming on my guitars.”

Hamburger kept making them, one by one, for various musicians while he kept his day job. The selling point of his guitars is their customized nature—he measures how each guitarist holds the neck, and then specifically cuts the wood to fit that grip. He uses premium wood—ordered from Portland, Ore. He takes time—averaging about three months—to build one guitar.

That kind of care, and word-of-mouth recommendations, led him to make his special brand of Hamburguitars for dozens of other bands while he kept up his automotive manufacturing job: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Heart, Iron Maiden.

Did working in assembly-line automotive manufacturing refine his guitar-making skill? “No,” Hamburger says. “I can’t really make anything else but guitars. If you asked me to build a picnic table or a doghouse, I couldn’t do it. I’m just fortunate to be able to make guitars. I’m very blessed in this area.”

After retiring from Ford, Hamburger and his wife decided in 2000 that Vegas—the Entertainment Capital of the World—was a good place to reside and market his guitars. They start at $2,500 and go up, depending on special designs, such as building it with 12 strings or using exotic wood. (He does not, however, charge extra for musicians who had the misfortune of being born left-handed).

While he still relies on word-of-mouth, Hamburger also does some of his own marketing. He’ll take a Hamburguitar to a concert, wrangle his way backstage, and ask musicians to take a look. It’s worked several times. In fact he’s had several clients in Vegas—recently he made a guitar for Gordie Brown, and for Jim Buck, the guitarist in the Terry Fator show.

Buck and Hamburger met at a bookstore where they were both looking at guitar magazines.

“I had a couple of repairs to do for my guitar so I brought it in to him,” Buck says. “I noticed he could make my guitar feel better than it ever felt. So we started talking about building a guitar for me.” He went to Hamburger’s studio several times during the crafting of the guitar so that every measurement could be completely custom-fit.

“As soon as I had Bernie make that guitar I relaxed so much and could trust my instrument much more because it was made for me. It allows you not to think of the technical aspects of playing and just enjoy it.”

When not hanging out in the guitar magazine section or slipping backstage, Hamburger markets through YouTube. He posts guitar-playing lessons—Beatles songs, what else?—in which mentions his guitars, hoping to get more clients.

“What I want is not to make the most guitars or anything like that. I want it to be your favorite guitar, the one you reach for first.”

Still, after much success, Hamburger is clear what the highlight of his guitar-making career is and will always be.

“George Harrison,” the Beatles fan easily declares. He stayed friends with Harrison, made him a couple of other guitars and even a mandolin.

Harrison died in 2001. In 2003, Hamburger got a call from Harrison’s old assistant, who told Hamburger, “All of his guitars were put away before he died, but he still played yours. It was still plugged into the amplifier in the living room.”

“That hit me in the heart,” Hamburger says. “That’s what it’s all about, and I just feel very blessed to have this talent.”

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