Lonnie Hamer wasn’t famous, but perhaps he should have been.
He didn’t excel on stage or in the studio, but the upright basses that passed through his workshop near Hanover, PA, did, and they will continue to do so for many years to come.
Hamer died Saturday, somewhere south of retirement age. He was cremated today and will be buried in a private family service.
Hamer, affectionately known as Bass Monkey in the bass playing community, was a meticulous craftsman and an inventive luthier, always looking for just the right tweak to coax the maximum sound from decades-old plywood instruments that give bluegrass its thump and drive.
His specialty was old Kays, but he had a soft spot for Epiphones, American Standards and Kings as well. At any given time, there were 20-some instruments in his clean-as-a-whistle workshop in the basement of his home. Each was rescued and lovingly brought back to life on his work table and they found homes among bass aficionados across the country.
(One of the basses in my music room, a 1957 Epiphone B4, came from Lonnie’s stable. I had actually taken another bass to him for some repairs. There was no hard sell. He and his wife, Wendy, a talented amateur bassist, just told me to play any of the basses I wanted while I waited, and after a few hours, a beautiful blonde followed me home. The other bass, a 1947 Kay S-9, didn’t come from Bass Monkey’s workshop, but it passed through there for some cosmetic work and some tweaking that left it looking and sounding better than ever.)
But Lonnie and Wendy just didn’t flip basses. They made them family. Every bass had a story and a name, and those details were freely shared with anyone passing through. They maintained a detail-oriented web site (www.bassmonkey.net) and knew the history of American-made plywood basses better than only one or two other folks. And when it came to Epiphones, Lonnie and Wendy were THE experts.
They also were regulars at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival and others, attended IBMA on occasion and were reliable participants at jams in the Gettysburg area, Wendy right in the thick of things with a bass from their stable and Lonnie on the edges, gamely playing the banjo.
My Epiphone still has one of Lonnie’s inventions – a bridge with hollowed out feet, making it lighter and, to Lonnie’s thinking, more conducive to transmitting the sound. I don’t understand the science. But I do know it’s one of the loudest basses I’ve heard or played, so that bridge isn’t coming off until it has to.
And now, there’s another reason for that bridge to stay in place. The words Bass Monkey are stamped on the top side, in plain view. Every time I play that grand old Epiphone, that logo will remind me of a kind, gentle soul who cared for grand old instruments as much as he did people and who left us far too soon.
Rest in peace, Lonnie Hamer.