The history of Hallmark guitars starts and revolves around Mosrite and Semie Moseley. Hallmark Guitars was a very small operation founded in 1966 by Joe Hall with two silent partners. The original Hallmark Guitars had a short but interesting history starting with Joe Hall, a struggling R&B guitarist ordering a guitar from Semie Moseley.
Semie Moseley was a master luthier that had apprenticed with Paul Bigsby and at Rickenbacker with Roger Rossmeisl, a German born jazz guitarist and talented luthier. Semie was actually fired from Rickenbacker when they realized he was building his own guitar designs with his brother Andy. At least that is the speculation. After a few years of struggling in Los Angeles trying to turn Mosrite into a mass producing guitar building operation, Semie moved his small operation to a tin shed in Oildale, just outside Bakersfield, California.
Semie Moseley did receive some notoriety from the fancy doubleneck guitars he built for country guitar master Joe Maphis and Larry Collins (of the Collins Kids) that played on the Town Hall Party television show. The guitars that Semie made were different, and original. They weren’t copies of Fenders or Gibsons – Mosrite guitars had many unique features including ultra-slim necks, zero frets, high output handmade pickups, custom built aluminum hardware, and double cut-a-way body shapes had the lower horn longer. Quite a different guitar. Ultra fast players like Joe Maphis and Larry Collins loved their playability for their style of “shredding” in the 50s and early 60s.
As Semie and Mosrite struggled to survive in Bakersfield, some kindred spirits made their way out to the tin shed in Oildale, including a young guitar maker named Bill Gruggett, and a R&B musician who wanted a custom guitar by the name of Joe Hall. Joe saw one of Semie’s custom creations and just couldn’t believe his eyes! He had to have one of Semie’s guitars. Joe sold his Gibson ES-147 and paid $400 in advance for a custom order with Semie Moseley. This was quite a lot of money in the early 1960s.
Semie Moseley was a great guitar builder and innovator, but struggled as a businessman. Joe Hall waited and waited for the new guitar to be made while losing money from all the gigs he was not able to do. Joe complained to Semie about the lack of delivery for the guitar he ordered and was confronted with an offer to work in Semie’s shop to speed up the production of his own guitar. Joe Hall ended up working for three or four years without compensation, except the knowledge of how to build a guitar from a master. Joe never held any hard feelings as he learned an awful lot about building guitars and witnessed Semie Moseley’s business practices. This starts the beginning of the Hallmark Guitar story.
Joe Hall saw plenty of deals go sour. Joe watched Semie make a deal with Bob Crooks to make guitars for Standel the amplifier maker, that claimed to have interest in a guitar line to go with their amps. This deal folded after ten units made for the NAMM show. These guitars are the early, very primitive models with a single cutaway that looked a bit like a Fender Telecaster.
Semie hit gold with a chance meeting with Nokie Edwards from the Ventures. Nokie, played Fender guitars, but loved the Mosrite models he tried. Soon the Ventures model Mosrite was born bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Semie Moseley as the Ventures was one of the most popular instrumental bands in the world. Mosrite and Surf music were forever associated after this.
Next Joe Hall watched Semie lose a chance to truly cash in. Sears and Roebuck, who had already owned the Harmony Company since 1916, wanted to purchase Mosrite for over a million dollars. Semie told Joe that because his name was on the guitars, he just couldn’t sell the brand name away.
Bakersfield soon became the home of several guitar makers with Joe Hall decided to try and pursue several different business deals himself. Joe set up a shop and collaborated with Bob Crooks at Standel, who was had still been unsuccessful trying to market a Standel guitar to sell with his Standel amps. They made a small run of Mosrite-inspired double cutaway guitars that featured an aluminum casting that housed the pickups, bridge and tailpiece. These Standel guitars were advertised in Downbeat magazine in 1965, but were never produced beyond this small run. The Standel deal ended when one of Joe Hall’s employees broke into his shop, stole the prototypes and all the tooling. Although Joe tried to get Bob Crooks on his side regarding this incident, Bob continued to work with the ex-employee, who unfortunately knew little about guitar making, resulting in another failed launch of the Standel guitar line. A few of these unfinished Standels wound up being branded as Hallmark later on.
Joe Hall began accepting custom orders, some under the name Sterling. Around this time, Joe Hall convinced skilled luthier Bill Gruggett to leave Mosrite and work with him. Bill had continued working for Semie Moseley, but after Mosrite acquired Dobro in 1966 Gruggett found himself working side by side with one of the ex-Dobro managers. Bill did not care for the man’s floor expertise and sometimes rude conduct with Mosrite employees, and so when Joe Hall offered him more money, he left to try his luck there.
Gruggett was already working on some guitar designs of his own, including the new Gruggett “Stradette,” and Joe hired him for the new Hallmark Company under the pretense that Gruggett could make his own guitars on his own time. It was while he was at Hallmark that he built the first Gruggett Stradette 6-string guitar, which is now on display at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield (along with several other historical instruments, such as Joe Maphis’ second Mosrite doubleneck).
Bob Bogle, early lead guitarist and bass player for the Ventures, was searching for a builder that could create guitars to compliment the Encore amplifier line that Bob had funded to put into production. Bob showed Joe Hall a crude sketch of what would became the “Swept-Wing” guitar design but more symmetrical. Joe expanded upon the design and Bob liked what he saw. Bob Bogle, due to deals with Mosrite, remained a silent partner with Joe Hall. The Encore Company immediately went bankrupt due to the plant manager running off with all the funds from pre orders for the Encore amplifiers. Bob gave Joe his blessing to go on and continue with the Swept-Wing design and said, just make sure you never put the Ventures name on it.
The Ventures proposed the idea for Mosrite to build amplifiers, however Semie wasn’t able to design and produce an amplifier on a large scale in a timely manner. Bogle, having already severed ties with Mosrite Distrubing Company, went in search of a builder and designer to produce his own brand amplifier and located a small electronics company in Conoga Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, CA. This business was operated by an individual known as George Faith. An agreement was made between Bogle and Faith and the name of the amp was to be called the Encore. After taking numerous orders and deposits from music stores all around the country, the Encor amp business disintegrated when Faith absconded with the funds and folded the business before production ever started.
Although Semie had was unable to mass produce an amp as required by the Ventures, he continued with the idea to manufacture a Mosrite amp and hired an electronics engineer, Howard Dumble, to come up with a design. This was to be solely a Mosrite amp with no connection to the Ventures.
In 1966, Semie’s Mosrite amplifier was designed and readied for production. At the same time Ed Sanner, who was also a Mosrite employee and an electronics engineer, designed a fuzz tone pedal for steel guitar player, Leo LeBlanc. Semie saw the advantages of this new device and they decided to manufacture it under the name Fuzzrite, as well as incorporate it into his production amps.
Although Mosrite amps by Semie were manufactured, unfortunately not a great number of them were produced before Mosrite going bankrupt, making them quite rare.
The other silent partner was actually Andy Moseley! Andy helped Joe Hall get the Swept-Wing guitar off of the ground and was working as VP for Mosrite at the time. Andy had distribution connections and was able to help in getting financing for startup capital as well. The Swept-Wing guitar was born. Some claim that the popularity of the “Batman” TV show at the time led to the Swept-Wing body shape, but it’s really anybody’s guess.
By 1967, Joe Hall Bill Gruggett and employee Don Stanley made the first batch of Swept-Wings, as well as a prototype Hallmark model called the Eldorado, which was a bit like a Gibson ES-335 in a very Bakersfield sort of way. Hallmark Guitars felt they had a decent chance at making it. They rented a legit factory space on Derby Street in Arvin (another town near Bakersfield), they got the merchants and folks in the city of Arvin to buy shares in the Hallmark company at $500.00 per share, they took out full page ads in the newly created GUITAR PLAYER magazine, and had a batch of nice looking guitars to take to the NAMM show in Chicago.
When Joe and Bill Gruggett got to Chicago, they had so little money between them that they slept on top of their display tables because they couldn’t afford a hotel room! The pair was convinced that their new unique designs would take the guitar world by storm, and their financial futures would be secure. Unfortunately, the NAMM show trip was a failure. This was the late 60’s and it was not such a good time for many guitar makers with the Vietnam conflict, resulting is a flooded used guitar market. Secondly, the market for unique guitars was overcrowded. A casual look at a 1967 GUITAR PLAYER magazine shows not only the Hallmark Swept-Wing guitar, but also many other bizarrely shaped guitars trying to capture people’s attention.
Although Joe Hall says that Hallmark built “less than a thousand units,” a more realistic figure comes from Bill Gruggett, who seems to think there were maybe 30 or 40 Hallmark Guitars produced before the whole empire crumbled less than a year after it started. These included hollow-body Swept-Wings, solid-body Swept-Wings, at least one solid-body Swept-Wing bass, and at least one solid-body Swept-Wing doubleneck.
During the brief period of Hallmark being in business, they gave guitars to the Doors, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas and the Papas, the Baja Marimba Band, the Jefferson Airplane and the Association, among others. Before closing they also contributed to the briefly made Epcor brand of guitars.
The Hallmark guitars shared more than former employees from Mosrite. Hallmark also sourced some of the parts from Mosrite as well. Being a Bakersfield guitar it shared some design influences as well. After all, Joe Hall apprenticed under Semie Moseley and Bill Gruggett worked at Mosrite for years.
Hallmark Guitars unfortuantely was a short-lived company and declared bankruptcy in 1968 as did Mosrite. Joe Hall left the guitar business, went overseas to learn the oil business, and returned to the States to work as a consultant for a Petroleum company, which he did until retirement. Bill Gruggett continued to build custom guitars in Bakersfield. He continued to make the Stradette model throughout the 1970’s, and even got back together with Semie Moseley for a brief reunion that resulted in the Mosrite Brass Rail model. Bill even made a Red, White, and Blue guitar that was commissioned by Buck Owens’ band and presented to Buck as a birthday present.
The Hallmark Swept-Wing guitar became something of a novelty around Bakersfield. Unsold Swept-Wings could be found in pawn shops on 18th Street, and were treated with little or no respect. Keep in mind that in 1968, even Fender and Gibson were going through some rough times with changes in management and the Asian market flooding cheaper imports into the U.S.
Well times change and so does fads and taste in guitars. The early original Swept Wing guitars did not seem to have had a chance. However, when a Berkeley vintage guitar dealer sold guitar collector and writer Teisco Del Rey a Hallmark Swept-Wing he featured the guitar on a pull-out “Collectors Choice” poster in Guitar World magazine. New interest was created for Swept-Wing. Now everybody knew what a Hallmark Swept-Wing was, but nobody had ever seen one in person as they were quite scarce! Joe Hall had vanished from the guitar business and the company was long gone. It was pretty hard hard to find a vintage Swept Wing.
Hallmark Gets Restarted
Hallmark Guitars was restarted by Bob Shade, a skilled luthier and collector, who acquired the rights to the name from Joe Hall in the late 1990s. On an individual basis, he builds custom Hallmarks out of his shop in Greenbelt, Maryland; including the iconic Hallmark Swept Wing guitars and Mosrite inspired designs. Bob, had managed to track down four original Swept-Wings, which is remarkable as there were so few made. He also collects rare Mosrite guitars. Bob has been doing Mosrite restorations for many years. Bob was and still is one of the only people that you can send your vintage Mosrite to for expert restoration or service.
Bob felt the Swept-Wing was truly a wonderful guitar that had never had a proper chance, and wanted to bring them back as a modern reissue. After tracking down Joe Hall, who had been out of the guitar business since the the late sixties, he secured the rights to use the Hallmark name, and Joe gave his blessing for the reissues.
Bob Shade was building the handmade Swept-Wings and then hired Bill Gruggett to build the Stradette models. Almost immediately Deke Dickerson, a well known rockabilly artist caught wind of the company building guitars again and had to have one. The first model Deke ordered was a Swept-Wing doubleneck in gold sparkle finish with a special built in light show that lights up his name in the fingerboard in 5 different patterns.
Soon orders from guitarists from Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks Band, Brad Paisley, Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, and more came rolling in. Hallmark soon expanded its models based on the Swept Wing and Mosrite guitars. Hallmark now has models named after Deke Dickerson, Johnny Ramone, and George Barris the car designer.
Bob Shade takes custom orders that are built in his Maryland shop. Bob wanted to authentic Hallmark designs that are of the highest quality with great playable tone monsters that are affordable to everyone. He never set out to make exact copies of the hardware and electronics and woods of the guitars that were offered previously.
Most Hallmark guitars are partially manufactured in South Korea and finished with US made parts in Maryland by Bob Shade. The pickups are made to Bob’s custom specs and employ only the best wire and magnets from here in the U.S. and mounted on a brass plate. The vintage models were mounted on a piece of foam which was cost effective but it lent itself to vibration which lent itself to unwanted feedback and squeal.
Hallmark guitars use alder as a tonal wood rather than basswood. Basswood was used at Mosrite because it was cheap and easy to carve. But it was really just a glorified balsa wood that unfortunately does not lend itself to sustain and a quality tone. Plug in a vintage Mosrite and a new Hallmark and you will hear, see, and feel the difference.
Bob also redesigned the bridge. The old bridge on Mosrite, and Hallmark guitars featured a folded piece of sheet metal with rollers that would get loose and rattle. That was also a tone and sustain issue. Our new Hallmark bridge is milled out of a solid heavy piece of block brass. The vintage saddles are hollow and have a roller that does not fit each string. The rollers on those were very deep and when you bent a string it would mute this string slightly, especially the high “E” because it had the deepest roller. The changed design on a solid saddle that locks with an allen wrench on the locking pin onto the solid brass bridge from the bottom which locks the two pieces together and enhances the sustain and tone. The rollers on the new bridge fit the strings so they perform better for bends and overall performance.
Joe Hall, died in 2011 after an extended battle with liver disease. He was 72. Bill Gruggett passed away in 2012 at 75 after a long fight with colon cancer.
Hallmark makes very high quality guitars today at affordable prices as they sell direct from their website.