A Brief History of Hallmark Guitars

Mar 24, 2021

The story of Hallmark guitars and its namesake Joe Hall is an interesting, if obscure, tale in the history of the electric guitar.

The story begins in Bakersfield, California, in the late 1950s. Semie Moseley of Mosrite guitars had just moved his operations to Bakersfield after years of struggling in Los Angeles, including stints with Rickenbacker and Bigsby as well as many years on his own building custom-order guitars. Los Angeles hadn’t worked out for him, and numerous attempts to turn Mosrite from a custom-order luthier to a full-scale mass-production factory had failed, although he did receive some notoriety from Joe Maphis and Larry Collins (of the Collins Kids) playing his flashy doubleneck guitars on the Town Hall Party television show.

The year 1959 found Semie Moseley and his brother Andy living and working in a tin shed in Oildale, just outside Bakersfield. 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 body shapes that were a combination of hillbilly flash and the Jetsons.

As Semie struggled to survive, word of this strange guitar maker from Los Angeles began to filter out to the countryside surrounding Bakersfield. Soon kindred spirits made their way out to the tin shed in Oildale, including a young guitar maker named Bill Gruggett and a gospel musician by the name of Joe Hall who wanted a custom guitar. Joe saw one of Semie’s custom creations and just about fell over! He had to have one of Semie’s guitars.

Joe Hall ordered a guitar from Semie. He traded in his Gibson ES147 and paid $400 in advance for the custom order, a LOT of money in those days. Soon Hall found out a thing or two about Semie Moseley’s business practices. Although Semie was nothing short of brilliant when it came to making guitars, when it came to the business end he was an absolute nightmare. Joe waited and waited for the new guitar to be made, and he was losing money from all the gospel gigs he had to pass up.

Joe finally confronted Semie about the lack of a guitar, and, in his persuasive way, soon Semie had Joe working in the Mosrite shop just to speed up the production of his guitar! This led to an association that lasted three or four years. Although Joe says that he didn’t receive anything in compensation except the knowledge of how to build a guitar, he has no hard feelings because he feels that he got to study at the side of a master.

In those wild and wooly days of the A-Go-Go 1960s, the guitar-making world was a dangerous field where fortunes could be won or lost on a handshake deal. Joe Hall saw this with his own eyes many times. Joe watched Semie make an agreement with Bob Crooks to make guitars for Standel, a deal that folded after ten units made for the NAMM show (these are the early, primitive models with a single cutaway and a vaguely Telecaster-like shape). Soon thereafter, a chance meeting with Nokie Edwards from the Ventures brought hundreds of thousands of dollars to Semie Moseley, as the Ventures-model Mosrite became a runaway hit. He also witnessed Semie pass at the chance to have had Sears and Roebuck purchase Mosrite for well over a million dollars. Semie told Joe that because his name was on the guitars, he just couldn’t sell the brand name away.

Much in the same way that Memphis became a home to aspiring rockers after Elvis’s great success, Bakersfield became the home of several guitar makers, all of them chasing after Semie’s newfound prosperity. Joe Hall was one of the hopeful, and he pursued several different business deals, which resulted in some interesting off-the-wall guitars.

One of the most notable of these resulted from Joe’s association with Bob Crooks and his Standel brand. Bob had been trying unsuccessfully to market a Standel guitar to sell with his Standel amps since Semie Moseley’s earlier, failed association. Joe and Bob Crooks collaborated and made a run of Mosrite-inspired double cutaway guitars featuring an aluminum casting that housed the pickups, bridge, and tailpiece. These guitars were advertised in Downbeat magazine in 1965 but were never produced beyond this small run. (At least one of them turned up last year on eBay.) A few of these unfinished Standels wound up being branded as Hallmarks later on, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The Standel deal ended when one of Joe’s employees broke into his shop and 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.

Joe continued to make custom-order guitars during this time, some under the name Sterling, but he was already envisioning the Hallmark brand name and was looking for new and different ideas to launch his Hallmark guitar company. Joe even managed to pull Bill Gruggett away from Mosrite to work for Hallmark. Bill had continued working for Semie Moseley through the glory years, 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 working on some new ideas of his own, including the new Gruggett Stradette, and Joe hired him to work for the new Hallmark company with the understanding 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 six-string guitar, which is now on display at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield (along with several other historical instruments, such as Joe Maphis’s second Mosrite doubleneck).

Bob Bogle, bassist for the Ventures, approached Joe with a new guitar design he had come up with after surveying guitar players in Los Angeles to find out what new body shape they wanted. He showed Joe a crude sketch of what would become the Swept-Wing design. The popularity at that time of the Batman TV show has been offered as a theory for the Swept-Wing body shape, but where it came from is really anybody’s guess. The Ventures were caught in a bad business deal at that point with their failed Mosrite amplifier line, and Bob Bogle was looking to invest in a new, upstart company. Bogle wanted to call the new company Ovation (!) and would retain fifty percent of the profits in return for his initial investment. Because of his involvement with Mosrite, Bogle was a silent partner, and not even Bill Gruggett knew that Bogle was involved with the company! After the deal with Mosrite turned sour, Bogle relinquished his share and told Joe he didn’t want compensation for the original investment. This was really the birth of the Hallmark brand guitar, as Joe took this and ran with it! Bogle had paid for the construction of the first ten Hallmark Swept-Wings, which were to be displayed at the 1967 NAMM show.

After being featured in Guitar World, everybody knew what a Hallmark Swept-Wing was, but nobody had ever seen one in person! The legend grew. Coffee-table books talked about the Hallmark Swept-Wing but often got the facts wrong, and the problem was, there just weren’t any guitars around! Not only that, but Joe Hall had vanished.

Joe took Bogle’s crude sketch, streamlined it, and the famous body shape of the Hallmark Swept-Wing was born. Hall, Gruggett, and Don Stanley made a batch of Swept-Wings, as well as a prototype Hallmark model called the Eldorado, which was like a Gibson ES-335 in a very Bakersfield sort of way.

Hallmark 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 per share, they took out full-page ads in the newly created Guitar Player magazine, and they had a batch of nice-looking guitars to take to NAMM 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.

There was only one problem: The NAMM trip was a total failure—a prelude of things to come. There were several reasons for this. First of all, many young men went to southeast Asia in the late 1960s for the Vietnam conflict, and as a result the used-guitar market was flooded with cheap guitars, making new ones harder and harder to sell. Secondly, the market for unique guitars was overcrowded. A casual look at a 1967 Guitar Player magazine shows not only the Hallmark Swept-Wing, but also many other bizarrely shaped brands and models 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 thirty or forty Hallmark guitars produced before the whole empire crumbled less than a year after it started. These included hollowbody Swept-Wings, solidbody Swept-Wings, at least one solidbody Swept-Wing bass, and at least one solidbody Swept-Wing doubleneck.

During Hallmark’s brief existence, they gave guitars to the Doors, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas and the Papas, the Baja Marimba Band, Jefferson Airplane, and the Association, among others. Before closing they also contributed to the short-lived Epcor brand of guitars.

Joe Hall left the guitar business, went overseas to learn the oil business, and returned to the U.S. to work as a consultant for a petroleum company, which he did until retirement.

Bill Gruggett continued to make guitars on a custom basis in Bakersfield. He made the Stradette model throughout the 1970s and even got back together with Semie Moseley for a brief reunion that resulted in the Mosrite Brass Rail model. He still makes a very limited number of custom guitars, including a beautiful new Pearl White Stradette and a Pearl Black Stradette that were recently sold through the new Hallmark company! Bill also made a Red, White, and Blue Gruggett that was commissioned by Buck Owens’s band and presented to Buck as a birthday present this year. It is now the only guitar Buck is seen playing.

The Hallmark Swept-Wing became something of a joke around Bakersfield. Just like their cross-town rival Mosrite, Hallmark declared bankruptcy in 1968 (keep in mind that in 1968, even Fender and Gibson were going through rough times). Unsold Swept-Wings littered the pawnshops on 18th Street and were treated with little or no respect.

Of course, what might be a joke in Bakersfield may be considered high art in Berkeley, and that’s exactly what happened. When a Berkeley vintage guitar dealer sold collector Teisco Del Rey a Hallmark Swept-Wing, and when Teisco then featured the guitar on a pullout “Collector’s Choice” poster in Guitar World magazine, the modern legend of the Swept-Wing was born.

After being featured in Guitar World, everybody knew what a Hallmark Swept-Wing was, but nobody had ever seen one in person! The legend grew. Coffee-table books talked about the Hallmark Swept-Wing but often got the facts wrong, and the problem was, there just weren’t any guitars around! Not only that, but Joe Hall had vanished.

One of the distorted facts involves the “double-branded” Standel/Hallmark guitar, which was prominently featured in Vintage Guitar Classics magazine. Joe Hall denies having anything to do with these guitars and theorizes that the same ex-employee who stole the prototypes may have finished these guitars with the Hallmark name on the headstock, even though they began life as Standel prototypes.

The story might have ended there except for the tireless efforts of Bob Shade from Greenbelt, Maryland. Nobody I can think of would be as well suited to restart Hallmark as Bob, a skilled luthier who had managed to track down four original Swept-Wings. He had studied the Mosrite story and collected rare Mosrites for years. Bob was and still is one of the only people besides Bill Gruggett who you can send your Mosrite to for expert restoration or service. As Bill is building regularly for Hallmark again, he is now referring people to Bob for Mosrite restoration. Bob felt the Swept-Wing was truly a wonderful guitar that had never had a chance, and he threatened to his friends that he was going to bring them back as a modern reissue.

Somehow, Bob tracked down Joe Hall and learned the true story of the Hallmark legend. Bob secured the rights to use the Hallmark name, and Joe gave his blessing for the reissues.

Since last year the new Hallmark company has emerged as a genuine threat to the modern guitar market. The old saying holds true that what goes around comes around, and the once-ridiculed Swept-Wing body shape is now hip again!

Bob Shade has made his business plan a dual one, with custom-order Hallmark guitars made in his Maryland shop and mass-produced Hallmark Swept-Wings (made overseas) available for an incredibly reasonable price. They are all great guitars and have received rave reviews from everybody who has tried one!

The Swept-Wings come in a vintage reissue style, very exact to the original specifications of the legendary Arvin guitars, with vintage Hallmark hardware and Hallmark Hi-Fi pickups to get that Ventures-meets-Maphis Bakersfield sound. There is also a new custom style, with exciting modern finishes and hardware.

A strange saga in the history of the electric guitar, to be sure, but a classic design can’t be denied, and the Hallmark Swept-Wing may have finally found its audience almost forty years after the fact!