The S.L. Mossman Story

Once upon a time, if you were a bluegrass or country player, and needed a professional-grade steel-string flat-top, your choices were pretty much limited to the offerings of America’s big three: Gibson, Martin, and Guild. Stuart Mossman challenged this status quo by producing hand-built guitars that, while priced slightly lower than the competition, offered exemplary craftsmanship, top-notch materials, beautiful inlay work, a proprietary bracing design, and a method of attaching the neck that used a combination of a bolt and a glued-in mortise-and-tenon joint.
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Mossman made a huge impact on the acoustic-guitar scene as his instruments—often, gorgeously inlaid Golden Era models—were seen around the world in the hands of such high-profile players as John Denver, Emmy Lou Harris, Dan Crary, Merle Travis, Hank Snow, Albert Lee, Rodney Crowell, Dudley Murphy, and Jim Croce. Mossman proved that a small, quality-minded newcomer could indeed go head-to-head with the established big boys, and, in doing so, he paved the way for many of the boutique acoustic companies that would follow

Mossman began making nylon-string guitars in 1961 in his garage in Winfield, Kansas, after learning the basics of the craft while working for a major guitar manufacturer. According to an article published in the September 22, 1974 issue of the Kansas City Star, Mossman took his first steel-string flat-top to Doc Watson in 1966, and asked for his “brutal” opinion. Watson gave it to him, and Mossman returned to Winfield to improve his design. He took another guitar to Watson at the 1969 Philadelphia Folk Festival, where, this time, the guitarist used it on stage, and reportedly told Mossman it was the “second best guitar he’d ever played.”

Convinced he was ready for the big time, Mossman established S.L. Mossman Guitars in 1970, which was headquartered at Strother’s Field just outside of Winfield. Solid-wood construction was a major deal for Mossman, who stumped vehemently against the use of plywood for guitars. Here’s what he stated in an early catalog: “This vile abomination is currently being perpetrated on the unsuspecting guitar-playing public on a grand scale. There are so many of these plywood things on the market at this writing that there is a possibility you may not have even heard a real guitar. We at Mossman considered plywood briefly one day, and unanimously decided that plywood makes the best cement forms available. We do not now, nor will we ever, stoop to the level of plywood construction, and we apologize for our contemporaries who have lowered the station of out craft by using laminated backs and sides.”

Whew—I wonder what he thought of laminated tops!

Mossman delivered on his promise of providing the serious guitarist with a superior guitar at a reasonable price, and to make his instruments even more attractive to pro players, he offered custom inlay and engraving, different neck widths, and—at no extra charge—the following three voicing options: Overbalanced Bass, Overbalanced Treble, and Balanced Bass and Treble. No matter that this involved hand-shaving the braces on the bass or treble side to alter the overall response, Mossman’s commitment to customer satisfaction was job one.

By 1974, the company had hit its stride, and was producing the eight to ten guitars a day that Mossman felt was the maximum he could personally inspect. This was destined to be the high point for Mossman, however, as a fire in the finishing area in early 1975 destroyed the company’s entire supply of rare Brazilian rosewood. Making matters even worse, a distribution deal Mossman entered into with the C.G. Conn Company the same year would lead to some 1,200 guitars being severely damaged after being stored in a Nevada warehouse that lacked sufficient temperature and humidity control. Mossman would never fully recover from these events. A September 1977 story in the Kansas City Star revealed that Stuart Mossman was seeking a buyer for his company after being forced to lay off 52 workers. Mossman struggled on, as many of its employees even offered two months of work for no pay if it would help to keep the company alive.

The writing was on the wall, however, and Mossman delivered the bad news to GP’s sister publication, Frets, in a letter dated December 30, 1983: “It is with a great deal of sadness that I must write this letter, for it closes a chapter of nearly 20 years in my guitar making life. Unfortunately, due to carelessness in the early years regarding safety precautions in the finish room (for the first five years, I didn’t even wear a mask), I have developed sensitivity to glues and lacquers, and my doctor has recommended that I pursue other interests. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support—not only for my efforts, but on behalf of many other small companies—and to express my sincere appreciation to your readers for electing me ‘Best Luthier’ once and ‘Runner Up’ several times. Working for awards is not why one strives for higher achievement, but they are a delightful acknowledgment. I would also like to make special thanks to both Dan Crary and John Denver for their use of our instruments and the personal interest in us—a kindness that cannot be replaced. And last and most important, I would like to thank the owners of Mossman guitars everywhere. Without them, I could never have turned a dream into reality. It is my hope that the collectors’ items they own give them years of joy.”

Stuart Mossman passed away in 1999 at age 56.