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5 Hallmark Guitars You Gotta See!

February 9, 2014
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Bakersfield, California, embraces Big Oil, farmers, NASCAR, Buck Owens, and all things country music. But it’s also home to some of the most unique guitar designs of the 20th Century. Guitar builders and conceptual iconoclasts Semie Moseley (Mosrite), Joe Hall (Hallmark), and Bill Gruggett (Gruggett, Mosrite, Hallmark) all settled in the town in the 1960s, and birthed models that appeared equal parts rock and roll fantasy, surrealistic reverie, roadster dream machine, and futuristic hallucination. Sadly, just like a country music tearjerker, the original companies these men founded were ultimately beaten down by bad business deals and tragic luck before the dawn of the ’70s. (A comprehensive history of the glories and calamities can be found at hallmarkguitars.com.)

While Moseley continued producing guitars until his death in 1992—his daughter Dana currently builds Mosrites (still in Bakersfield)—Hall’s designs pretty much drifted off into history until Greenbelt, Maryland, luthier and collector Bob Shade revived the Hallmark brand in 2002 with Hall’s blessing. While Shade is on the other side of the country from Bakersfield, his craftsmanship proves he lives and breathes the Bakersfield guitar vibe.

The “reborn” Hallmarks obviously retain the brand’s quirky design esthetic, and while we don’t have any of the original models to compare, Shade has definitely ensured that the newbies are extremely well made. We didn’t notice any glitches in workmanship or finish. All the test models displayed very good fret work (all include a zero fret except the Wing-Bat), sturdy hardware, and cozy ergonomics—although the Swept-Wing and Wing-Bat are obviously tough ones to play while sitting down. Even the Shade Vibratos, which look wonky in a ’60s Italian budget-guitar kind of way, are very stable. We wrung the hell out of those bars, and the vibrato-equipped Hallmarks stayed in tune about as well as our Bigsby-loaded guitars. Moderate bar manipulations maintained good tuning for at least a couple of tunes, and wild cowabunga jerkitude required some tuning adjustments as soon as the song ended, but did not go super sour during the song itself.

While we reviewed the mass-produced, hybrid Korea/USA assemblies here, Shade also offers custom, individual orders that are completely made in his Maryland shop. But whether you dig the Hallmark look and feel, or find the designs too radical for your taste, we’re sure you’ll agree it’s great to have one of Guitar Player’s original 1967 advertisers back producing fun, wacky, well-crafted, unique, and good-sounding guitars. —MM

 

60 CUSTOM
Bob Shade's rockin' roadster vibe takes a sophisticated turn with this exquisitely finished homage to a model designed by Semie Moseley and Joe Hall in 1960. The mirror-shined purple hue glows like something magical, and evokes the multi-coated and waxed paint jobs on Bentleys and custom hot rods. There are a couple of imperfections—a midge of overrun on the cream binding, and a couple of tiny dark spots across the top—but nothing that an audience or casual viewer would ever see. Everything else about the construction is outstanding, from the well-dressed frets to the solid hardware. Even the Hallmark tuners feel tight and secure.

The factory setup is low—which is nice—but some minor fret buzzes and dead spots were noted. I played a few gigs without incident, but I’d definitely make slight adjustments for long-term use. Playability is, well, astounding. It’s rather shocking—in a good way—how easy it is to work all the controls. For example, I initially worried about the vibrato, as it appeared to be more of an art piece than a tool. But this is one of the sexiest vibratos I’ve ever used. Its hair-trigger response transforms even subtle manipulations into sensual warbles. The bar can handle violent treatment, as well, but the ability to caress it towards almost carnal auditory spasms is what makes this vibrato system so compelling. But that’s not all. Every control is positioned to “collaborate” with the vibrato bar to craft truly ear-catching parts. The Volume knob is not only within easy reach for doing volume swells with your pinky, you can also easily perform simultaneous swells and vibrato moves. A bit harder but doable, is combining Tone knob tweaks with vibrato-arm tugs for vibra-wah effects. I was even able to pair up pickup-selector switching with vibrato action for undulations that shifted from bright and sting-y to lush and warm.

Ergonomic controls, and their contribution to tone crafting, would mean little if the 60 Custom sounded timid, bland, or just plain crappy. But this is a sonically flexible machine that offers a wide tonal range between its two single-coil pickups. The neck position delivers meaty and resonant lows along with a midrange snap that keeps note definition clear and bell-like. Switch to the bridge pickup, and the sound is tight, bright, and aggressive without being shrill. Interestingly, the combined position isn’t precisely a blend of the two pickup sounds—it’s almost its own unique timbre. You get stout but not booming bass, hollow mids with a touch of clang, and a smooth treble. I viewed the three distinct tones as Duane Eddy (neck), Be Bop Deluxe-era Bill Nelson (combined), and San Francisco psychedelia (bridge)—a pretty brilliant mix of foundational sounds that can handle almost any style of music, or grace just about any performance technique. It’s remarkable how much Moseley and Hall got right at the dawn of the ’60s electric guitar boom. Shade’s tweaks take that inspiration and modernize it, without sacrificing one molecule of the original model’s eccentric vibe. Quite an achievement. —MM

60 CUSTOM

PRICE $999 direct (includes hardshell case)
 

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 15/8"
NECK Maple, set
FRETBOARD Rosewood
FRETS 22 medium jumbo (plus zero fret)
TUNERS Hallmark SIT
BODY Alder
BRIDGE Hallmark Roller Locking with “Shade” vibrato
PICKUPS Hallmark 60 Custom High Fidelity
CONTROLS
Volume, Tone, 3-way pickup selector
FACTORY STRINGS GHS Boomers, .010 set
WEIGHT
8.7 lbs
BUILT
Korea/U.S.A.
KUDOS Stunning finish. Excellent construction. Vibey tones.
CONCERNS
None.

 

JOHNNY RAMONE SIGNATURE
I play in an all-girl Ramones tribute band called the Hormones, so it was exciting to open the impressive, hardshell alligator case with a Johnny Ramone Eagle logo for the first time. There’s no argument that, while not an exact copy, the Hallmark tribute looks enough like Johnny’s original, mid-’60s Mosrite Ventures II model to impress our audiences. And, unlike some other JR replicas that came with expensive un-punk price points, this one is something the working guitarist can afford. I was pretty anxious to hit the stage with it.

With it’s light body, thin frets, flat fretboard, and low action, the JR Signature immediately invites downstrokes, speed, aggression, and snarl—all “hallmarks” of the Johnny style. It was easy and comfortable to hammer out fast-moving power chords, and open chords rang true and in tune. This guitar is an excellent rhythm machine that can handle aggressive attacks and all manner of mayhem. I found the playability less successful for soloing—bends tend to feel a bit slippery, and it was easy to pull the high-E and low-E strings off the neck—but if you love and respect Johnny Ramone enough to buy this model, you’re probably not channeling Yngwie Malmsteen or Eric Johnson.

The out-of-the-box setup was good—although intonation was ever-so-slightly off beyond the 7th fret—and the low action produced no discernible fret buzz. My only immediate issue was the very small fret-position markers on the top edge of the neck. While it was no problem seeing them in a well-lighted room, on a dark stage they kind of disappeared—which made me a bit nervous until I got used to the neck. The Volume and Tone knobs are easily accessible below the bridge, but, for me, the 3-way pickup selector was a bit inconveniently positioned beneath the neck pickup. While evoking the Johnny Ramone style for my band, one of my favorite features became the guitar’s brass roller bridge. Why? The saddles are rounded and smooth, which allowed me to palm mute comfortably during super-fast downstrokes. Sometimes, it’s those little things that really make a guitar a joy to play.

Of course, the big question is whether the JR Signature can actually deliver Johnny’s signature tone. It can. Even though I don’t replicate Johnny’s rig—I play through a Peavey XXL amp and Marshall 1960 cabinet with no pedals in the signal chain—the sound of the bridge pickup is very aggressive and it easily delivers that recognizable in-your-face Ramones-style assault. The neck pickup tone is great, as well, adding depth and warmth to the equation while still sounding hot and punky. I actually would have preferred to use the neck pickup more because I like a fuller tone, but the requirements of the band sound kept me chained to the bridge pickup.

The Johnny Ramone Signature obviously exists pretty much solely for fans of early Mosrites and/or followers of the Ramones, and it doesn’t disappoint on either front. If you dig the glorious buzz-saw blitzkrieg of the late Johnny Ramone, this is the one for you. —LM

JOHNNY RAMONE SIGNATURE
CONTACT
hallmarkguitars.com
PRICE  $899 direct (includes hardshell alligator case with Johnny Ramone Eagle logo)

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 15/8"
NECK Maple, bolt-on
FRETBOARD
Rosewood
FRETS
22 medium-small (plus zero fret)
TUNERS Hallmark SIT White Bean
BODY
Alder
BRIDGE Hallmark Roller Locking
PICKUPS
Hallmark II High-Fidelity
CONTROLS
Volume, Tone, 3-way pickup selector
FACTORY
STRINGS GHS Boomers, .010 set
WEIGHT
7.76 lbs
BUILT
Korea/U.S.A.
KUDOS
Very cool replica of Johnny’s Mosrite. Built for abuse. Seriously great punk guitar.
CONCERNS
None.

 

STRADETTE
The Stradette was originally designed by Bill Gruggett while he was working at Hallmark Guitars in 1966, and it’s still a stunning and funky design—something akin to a souped-up violin played by Satan, or a deconstructed Hofner “Beatle bass.” It tends to strike people as either just plain ugly, or quirky and vibey in a retro Eastern Bloc European kind of way. But once I took the Stradette for a test drive, I could only see its beauty. Despite its shape, the Stradette is extremely playable and balanced. I found the slim neck to be comfortable and fast, although its slender width may make fingering first-position chords a tad challenging for those with stubby digits. I was pleasantly surprised how smooth and easy it was to work the vibrato. Admittedly, part of the reason for the surprise is that I’ve never been a fan of these systems due to tuning issues, but I didn’t have a problem at all with the Stradette’s “Shade” vibrato. In fact, I enjoyed adding a bit of “wobble” to chords, and tuning remained steady and consistent unless I really yanked the bar.

The guitar is extremely well constructed. The only head-scratcher was the bizarre, fin-like pickguard affixed with three screws along its top edge. The plastic tortoise-shell simulation looks rather cheap against the magnificent sunburst. Shade was obviously copying the original design, so no foul there, but I would have applauded an amendment here.

Acoustically, this semi-hollow guitar is only slightly louder than a solidbody, but there is a hint of added air and resonance. While layering guitars in the studio, I miked-up the unplugged Stradette with a large-diaphragm condenser and captured some steely tones that added chime-y textures under a barrage of distorted electrics. Onstage, the guitar’s solid center block definitely helps rein in feedback when playing at high volumes, and if you actually want feedback, the results are typically very musical. Plugged into my Peavey XXL head and Marshall cabinet, the Stradette delivered warm, beefy tones with the neck pickup engaged, and a thin, shimmer-y sound that’s bright without being harsh when I went to the bridge pickup. Sonically, this is a versatile guitar, and the tones hold up whether you’re rocking clean or going for saturated overdrive. String-to-string articulation is excellent, with only a bit of muddiness evident when using distorted sounds along with the neck-pickup tone.

I found that I was continually drawn to this guitar, and I ended up using it a lot. It looks cool—to me, at least—plays great, and delivers a nice selection of different sounds. It’s definitely a winner for anyone playing classic rock, blues, rockabilly or psychobilly, pop rock, or perhaps even country. —LM

STRADETTE

 
PRICE $1,199 direct (includes hardshell case)

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 15/8"
NECK
Maple, set
FRETBOARD
Rosewood
FRETS
22 medium-small (plus zero fret)
TUNERS
Hallmark SIT
BODY Maple arched top and back with solid center block
BRIDGE
Hallmark Roller Locking with “Shade” vibrato
PICKUPS
Hallmark 67 High-Fidelity
CONTROLS
Volume, Tone, 3-way pickup selector
FACTORY STRINGS GHS Boomers, .010 set
WEIGHT
7.18 lbs
BUILT
Korea/U.S.A.
KUDOS Stunning finish. Unique design. Excellent construction. Warm, beefy tone.
CONCERNS
None.

 

VINTAGE SERIES SWEPT-WING
It's hard to know whether designer Joe Hall and Bob Bogle of the Ventures—the men responsible for the late-’60s Swept-Wing model—were thinking of jets, the Jetsons, or rafting oars when they conceived this electrified wood paddle. Bogle claimed he had taken a survey of Los Angeles guitarists to determine the types of new body shapes they wanted. Given the result, one could assume some form of mind-altering substances snuck into Bogle’s focus group! The Swept- Wing is certainly one of the oddest body shapes you’ll come across—though it probably looked right at home next to a Vox Phantom or an Eko 700 on early-’60s rock and roll stages. As with the other vintage marvels in the Hallmark line, Bob Shade has updated and refined the Swept-Wing far beyond the glorious, but sometimes too-quirky-to-be-truly-playable stature of a nostalgia piece.

Although it may look wonky, the Swept-Wing matches the first-rate construction quality of its Hallmark stable mates. I found no flaws in the silver-sparkle finish, or with the hardware, frets, and pickguard. The Volume and Tone knobs are positioned a bit further back from the bridge than the 60 Custom, making pinky manipulations more challenging on this model. The other ergonomic hitch is that the Swept-Wing’s shape isn’t really designed for playing while sitting down. It’s not an impossible—nor a particularly uncomfortable—chore, but slippage will occur unless you’re wearing rubber pants with a suregrip surface. While standing up and strapped in, the Swept-Wing is a joy to play. Access to high frets is completely unhindered, and the slim neck is tailor-made for meaty riffs, slick chords, and swift solos.

Like the 60 Custom, the Swept-Wing serves up a good helping of distinct tones. But whether it’s the body shape, or the different single-coils (High-Fidelity 67s on the ’Wing, as opposed to 60 Customs on the 60), or most likely a combination of the two, the Swept-Wing sounds more surf-y overall than the rock-oriented 60 Custom. It’s a feel thing, for sure, but when compared to the 60 Custom, the bass on the Swept-Wing is slightly rounder, the midrange has more twang than snap, and the highs impart an airy shimmer, rather than a dry, clear brightness. The articulate tones seem to adore being washed in reverb, and you rain down a storm of wet wildness without losing impact, attack, or note definition. And that marvelous Shade vibrato will definitely tempt you to vibrate and undulate and sex-ify your melodies.

Bob Bogle (1934-2009) obviously knew a thing or two about instrumental rock, and the design of the Swept-Wing that he and Joe Hall devised in the ’60s is a near-perfect foundation for “singing with your guitar.” It looks like an instrument that should be slung loud and proud in a surf band, and its tones can propel single-note lines out of the most raucous band mix. Small wonder that the Swept-Wing was the model that first inspired Shade to revitalize the Hallmark brand. It’s one unique and spectacular guitar. —MM

VINTAGE SERIES SWEPT-WING

CONTACT  hallmarkguitars.com
PRICE $895 direct (includes hardshell case)
 

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 15/8"
NECK Maple, bolt-on
FRETBOARD Rosewood
FRETS 23 medium (plus zero fret)
TUNERS Hallmark SIT
BODY Mahogany
BRIDGE Hallmark Roller Locking with “Shade” vibrato
PICKUPS Hallmark 67 High-Fidelity
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, 3-way pickup selector
FACTORY STRINGS GHS Boomers, .010 set
WEIGHT 7.62 lbs
BUILT Korea/U.S.A.
KUDOS Vintage finish. Unique design. Excellent construction.
CONCERNS
None.

 

WING-BAT
This striking Bob Shade-designed superhero might just be one of the ultimate Mac Daddys of guitar art. It triggers wide-eyed, “wow-inducing” moments from practically everyone who sees it—even if the viewer with mouth agape in wonder is too young to have experienced the POW!, BONK!, and WHAM! of the mid-’60s Batman series, has never seen the Batmobile, and has zero knowledge of Batmobile designer George Barris. As a stand-alone, goth-like icon of darkness, the Wing-Bat is simply one tremendously awesome-looking guitar.

However, for those with some ’60s pop-culture perspective—and if you ran around your yard as a kid wearing a blanket as a cape and your dad’s army belt stuffed with pretend bat weapons, then you know who you are—the Wing-Bat is Shade’s homage to the Batmobile and the work of George Barris, and he was fortunate enough to have Barris himself endorse the guitar. From the scalloped wings (inspiired by the original Hallmark Swept-Wing) to the pinstriping and turbine switch (more on this later), Shade was taking no chances that Bat-fanatics would be disappointed with the Wing-Bat. This is definitely a “sweat the details” custom job, as well as an obvious labor of love.

It’s also a playable work of art. Like television’s dynamic duo of Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, the Wing-Bat is built for action—it’s not meant for a safe retirement hanging on the wall of the Bat Cave. The neck, frets, and hardware are superbly rendered. You do need to take care with the somewhat fragile bottom wings. To reduce cartage bulk (and to conserve the classy alligator hardshell case), I carried the Wing-Bat to shows in a well-padded gig bag. It didn’t prevent the wing tips from getting roughed up a bit. Carefully placing the instrument in an onstage guitar stand only caused further injury when the Wing-Bat was removed and replaced throughout a set. If you want your Wing-Bat to remain as pristine as possible, I recommend keeping it in its hardshell case at all times (even when you’re on stage—just take the time to walk over and open the lid).

Tonally, the Wing-Bat is pretty much a one-trick flying mammal, but its singular sonic assault is a thing of aggro splendor (KAPOW! BIFF! KRUNCH!). The midrange attack is steely with an articulate punch (kind of like an EQ tweak of +6dB at 4kHz), but there’s enough subtle bass content to keep the tone from being excessively shrill, as well as enough chime to ensure the sound isn’t starkly clangorous. Make no mistake, this guitar can fight its way out of the densest mix. During a recent gig, my co-guitarist and I were both playing through Vox AC30s, and the Wing-Bat just trounced his ass. It was like my sound was zooming into the audience on the Batcycle, while his tone was chugging off in an overloaded diesel van. He gets a great sound—it’s simply that the Wing-Bat is a dynamo. I also had the advantage of the Wing-Bat’s Turbine switch that turns on an array of bright-red LEDs mounted in the “exhaust.” That trick brought the house down. Don’t mess with Batman! —MM

WING-BAT
CONTACT
hallmarkguitars.com
PRICE $999 direct (includes hardshell case)

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 111/16"
NECK
Maple, set
FRETBOARD
Rosewood
FRETS
22 medium-jumbo
TUNERS Hallmark SIT
BODY
Alder
BRIDGE
Hallmark Roller Locking with “Shade” vibrato
PICKUPS
Hallmark 60 Custom
CONTROLS
Volume, “Turbine” switch
FACTORY
STRINGS GHS Boomers, .010 set
WEIGHT
8.2 lbs.
BUILT
Korea/U.S.A.
KUDOS Bat-tastic design. Pinstriping. Excellent construction. Absolutely raging tones.
CONCERNS
None.

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