HALLMARK: NEW BEGINNINGS BEYOND BAKERSFIELD
by Willie G. Moseley
To some, its lines may look somewhat like the “scoop”-shaped side panel of a vintage Corvette. To others, its silhouette conjures up a vague but definite allusion to the custom cars made for television series of the mid-‘60s.
Both visual references are appropriate for the Hallmark Swept-Wing electric guitar, a short-lived and intriguing instrument that was part of the legendary guitar-building industry in the Bakersfield, California area during the same decade that “Batman” emanated from TV screens.
The saga of the relatively-brief Bakersfield guitar manufacturing phenomenon is convoluted and somewhat-controversial, as more than one company from that area tried to make a noticeable impact on the American guitar market, which was flourishing at the time (due to an untold number of adolescent males buying guitars to impress girls, thanks to the Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”).
Founded by Joe Hall, the Hallmark company opened in the mid-‘60s in Arvin, a bit southeast of Bakersfield, and proffered the startling Swept-Wing as its first style.
Certain “modernistic”-looking solid body electric guitars had been presented by other manufacturers in the not-too-distant past, but those instruments’ profiles were somewhat angular (“wedge”-shaped or “zig-zag”). The Swept-Wing, on the other hand, lived up to its moniker with a smooth, almost-aerodynamic vibe to its silhouette.
Ultimately, some Swept-Wings were made with hollow bodies and a single, small f-hole, and a prototype of a model called the Eldorado, a double-cutaway hollow body with two f-holes, was also built.
And in another intriguing development, Hall allowed another noted Bakersfield-area builder named Bill Gruggett to build guitars in the same facility. Gruggett’s instruments included the Stradette, a unique hollow body guitar that was totally unique in the marketplace, as it referenced both an electric guitar and violin in one shape.
Hall and Gruggett even shared a space to exhibit their wares at a 1967 NAMM show.
“We put Gruggett guitars on one side, and Hallmark on the other, Gruggett recalled in 2004. “We didn’t have enough money to rent a room, so at night we put our display tables together, got a mattress and blanket, and put them on the table. That’s where Joe and I slept!”
The small Arvin company had even attracted the attention of a Beverly Hills resident, Ed Pregor, who was a manufacturer’s representative for musical instrument lines. Pregor wanted his own brand of guitars to peddle, and struck a deal with Hallmark to make “Epcor”-branded instruments, which differed from standard Hallmark configurations, in that they were thin line, double-cutaway hollow body guitars that had Bigsby aluminum bridges. Some examples had Bigsby vibratos as well, instead of Hallmark vibratos. Curiously, the tone control and volume control are in a reverse position from the standard layout on most electric guitars; i.e., the tone control is closer to the bridge.
The association between Hallmark and Pregor were short-lived, and it has been estimated that no more than a handful of Epcor guitars were made by Hallmark. Gruggett used some leftover examples to create several Gruggett-branded guitars.
And as it turned out, the inexorable encroachment of foreign-made instruments during the ‘60s “guitar boom” meant that numerous American companies went out of business, and such casualties included all of the Bakersfield-area facilities. Hallmark Swept-Wing guitars and other related instruments were ultimately consigned to the “mysterious and cool” section of short-lived brands and models in the pantheon of American guitar lore.
“Fast forward” about three and a half decades, and “land” on the other side of the country in the Washington D.C. suburb on Greenbelt, Maryland.
Old Line State luthier Bob Shade had studied with acoustic guitar builder Bill Loveless, and developed an interest in collecting Hallmark Swept-Wings and other Bakersfield brands and models. He acquired three original Swept-Wings, and considered what the prospects would be for such a brand and look in today’s guitar market.
“I think they just never had a chance to be properly introduced,” says Shade. “I thought with all of the modern designs coming back, maybe this would be a good time to reintroduce them.”
Shade had befriended Bill Gruggett in the mid-‘90s, then got to know Joe Hall. The Maryland builder ultimately acquired the rights to the Hallmark name and logo, and brought in Gruggett as an associate to provide a link to the legacy of the original Hallmark company.
Hall noted that he is involved as a “friend and sometime advisor” to the new effort.
“We’ve developed a friendship,” the founder of the ‘60s Hallmark company detailed. “Bob sends me pictures of his work, and I communicate with Bill the same way. Bill thinks a lot of Bob’s guitar-building talent. If Bill Gruggett says you’re a master luthier, that’s good enough for me.”
Shade’s new Hallmark line did indeed crank up with the Swept-Wing model, available in two production series, Vintage (large pickguard, bolt-on neck) and Custom (figured maple top, set-in neck).
Both production series have worthwhile features such as neck binding and a zero fret. The controls on the Swept-Wing are simple and sensible, with a master volume and tone control, plus a three-way pickup toggle switch on the treble cutaway.
The bridge and vibrato, however, need to be detailed herein, as the assembly is a considerable improvement over the Bakersfield model that it (visually) resembles.
“With the Shade vibrato, you can control string tension and arm placement by moving it back and forth to the desired position,” Bob enthused. “The bridge stays in place, independent from the tailpiece. I also redesigned the old-fashioned bridge, which had its problems—it was simply a folded piece of sheet metal, which did not lend much to sustain, and over time, the saddles can buzz. I use a solid piece of brass stock, and mill it out, which means more sustain and harmonics.”
“I redesigned the bridge saddles as well,” Shade continued. “so the string radius is created with each individual saddle being a different height; the rollers on the old saddles were different depths. This new improvement also adds better sustain, and when you bend the individual strings, they won’t mute out, like the vintage saddles did on the side of the rollers, particularly on the high E string. I’ve also developed a locking stud beneath each saddle, so when the string intonation is perfect, the saddle cannot move; it’s locked to the bridge, adding even more sustain and harmonics.”
Interestingly, these improvements are invisible, so the vibrato still maintains its vintage look and feel, and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Shade vibrato is patented.
The initial reception to the first models marketed by the new Hallmark venture was encouraging—the Swept-Wing models were high-quality instruments offered at a decent price, and sported a look that was as cool in modern times as it was in the mid-Sixties (except nowadays, the term “retro” might be employed, and such use is entirely appropriate).
When the new Swept-Wings debuted at a National Association of Music Merchandisers (NAMM) show, there was a noticeable buzz among dealers and musicians, and among the players who stopped by the Hallmark exhibit to check out the new line were Jeff Cook of Alabama, Lee Rocker from the Stray Cats, and John Hatton of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, just to name a few.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Shade quickly expanded the Hallmark line to include numerous other instruments with a distinct “Bakersfield vibe.”
Bill Gruggett’s unique Stradette model was soon offered, this time with a Hallmark logo on its headstock. It too, comes in Vintage and Custom production variants, in numerous unique colors (most of which were never seen on Gruggett’s original Sixties Stradettes). Moreover, Gruggett himself still handcrafts Hallmark Custom Shop versions of the Stradette.
The Deke Dickerson Signature Model is based on an earlier Bakersfield design that was seen in the Fifties, and the noted guitarist was thoroughly involved in its design.
“I approached Deke about a signature model,” Shade recounted, “and he told me he would like a single-neck version of the twin neck guitar he had been playing for years, with all of the correct high-end features and pickups, with our hardware. This guitar had never really existed, although a few crudely-built examples had been made, but they never had the right pickups or high-end look.”
Shade’s challenge was to design an instrument that had a look that was both high-end and retro, but that was still affordable for average musicians.
“A lot of hard work and careful planning went into this design,” said the luthier. “We re-created the tone chamber and the carved maple top, as well as the exact pickups and high-end cosmetic features, such as the deluxe pickguard appointments and replicas of the original-style knobs. We sent one prototype to Deke, and the only real change he requested was to lighten it up a bit, and he wanted two knobs instead of three. So we did more chambering, and the guitar now has one master volume knob and one master tone knob.”
The Hallmark Deke Dickerson Signature Model also comes with a step-up option of gold hardware.
“This guitar has no equal,” Shade asserts. “There is nothing on the market like it. Everyone who has purchased one has given us stellar reviews, and some players still keep in touch to tell us about the reaction they get when they use it.”
The Custom ‘60 is based on a classic Bakersfield silhouette that many budding teenage males lusted after in the mid-‘60s when they first aspired to become guitar players.
“I was actually working on this around the same time (as the Dickerson model),” Shade disclosed, adding that Joe Hall was a co-designer of the original. The Custom 60 features updated appointments, including the Shade vibrato and bridge, of course, as well as pickups that have been redesigned to insure vintage tone without squeal or feedback (which, according to Shade, had plagued the original version).
“We’ve also widened the neck at the nut a bit,” he continued, “so it is more playable. We use vintage-style fret wire that is crowned, which lends nicely to bending and super-fast, low action. The old fret wire had been ground flat—low action, yes, but it was very difficult to doing bending and certain styles of playing. We’re offering a guitar that has the same look and sound of the original, but it has more versatility, for a wider range of playing styles.”
As of this writing, Hallmark has two more standard production models in the works:
The ’59 Custom differs from the Custom ’60 in more ways than one digit and a flipped moniker. Hall was involved in creating the original version of this model, as well.
“It incorporates all of the early designs into a hybrid production model,” Shade enthused. “We will employ a real sand-cast, hand-sanded polished aluminum lever mute/vibrato tailpiece; this was the very first vibrato design that was used on the very first Bakersfield guitars. It will also have the early headstock design and paint scheme, a piece of fret wire for the string guide, a larger pickguard with three screws, a side jack, and three-ply binding on the body, just the way they were built fifty years ago. Only about nine of the originals exist, and they’re extremely valuable. Now, anyone will be able to have one!”
Bill Gruggett also creates Hallmark Custom shop versions of the Custom ’60 and the ’59 Custom.
The Hallmark II goes somewhat in the opposite direction, as it’s a fewer-frills model that will emulate the guitar popularized by the late Johnny Ramone of the Ramones.
Shade emphasized that the Hallmark II will be exactly like the instrument Ramone played on his band’s first four albums. The original had been introduced as a student model with electronics mounted on the pickguard, a slab body with no contouring or beveling, no top carve, a smaller headstock, no neck binding and single coil pickups with no polepieces.
One source told Shade that only 25 to 30 examples of the early models were sold.
“We have made the exact pickups of the early originals,” the builder enthused, “and they roar!”
While the logical progression and evolution of the new Hallmark lineup is impressive, Shade’s most recent venture is an off-shoot into the testosterone-fueled fantasy land that combines the love of guitars with the love of classic hot rods and custom automobiles, as he is now involved in a collaboration with legendary custom car builder George Barris—Hallmark is building a series of instruments based on classic Barris models that appeared in ‘60s television series and movies.
“I have always been a huge fan of George Barris’s work,” said Shade. “I had hand-built some very unique and crazy ‘one-of-a-kind’ guitars for artists, celebrities, and myself. I have always loved wild cars; they appear ‘larger than life’ to me. If you think about custom car builders and custom guitar builders, they are not all that much different from each other, so, my thought was simply ‘Why not combine the two?’”
The company is presently marketing the “Wing-Bat” (it even has a jet on the rear that lights up) as well as the Barris Krest model, which is the symbol/logo of the legendary car builder’s creations.
Detailing the creation of the Barris Krest, Shade recounted: “When I went to visit Mr. Barris the second time, I thought to myself ‘What can I take him as a gift?’ Then a light went off in my head, and I built him a guitar made with the legendary Barris Krest as the body. He really loved the guitar, and thought we should offer it as well for the car enthusiasts.”
In line for the not-too-distant future are the Fireball 500 model (a nod to a 1966 Plymouth Barracuda that appeared in a movie starring Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, and Fabian), and the “Dragula” guitar, which complements the Grandpa Munster Casket Car from the legendary 1964 television show. It even has a casket-style decorations.
Even veterans from the classic TV shows that Barris Kustom have built cars for have checked out some of the new Hallmark creations. In 2008, Adam West, Julie Newmar, and Butch Patrick appeared at Barris events, where the prototype guitars were displayed beside Barris automobile creations. One special Hallmark/Barris instrument, autographed by the West and Newmar, as well as performers such as Little Anthony & the Imperials and Martha & the Vandellas, raised $7000 to benefit the Jesse’s Journey charity foundation. (Hallmark’s charitable contributions via guitar auctions totaled over $10,000 for 2008).
And the cool instruments and ideas just keep on coming—notable musicians have signed on to a recording effort that will feature Hallmark instruments. Participants include not only Deke Dickerson, but also Larry Collins and the Collins Kids (Hallmark is building a twin-neck Fireball 500 model for Larry, and a custom Stradette for Lorrie), Eddie Angel (Neanderthals—check out their custom Hallmark “Rock and Bone” guitars), and the Ghastly Ones, among others.
Bob Shade has resurrected a long-dormant American guitar brand and incorporated Twenty-First Century innovations and technology to create not only a viable, modern-day version of the legendary Swept-Wing, but an entire lineup of well-crafted instruments that reek of retro-panache, both sonically and visually.
It seems appropriate that the success of the Swept-Wing has led to other impressive models, and the sky does indeed seem to be the limit for the Hallmark company. It doesn’t get any better than that.