The agrarian area of California that includes such cities as Bakersfield and Tulare has a special significance to country music lovers and guitar lovers alike. The musical mystique, of course, involves legendary players such as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, among others, while most of the guitar brands made in the Golden State’s agricultural belt have been on the periphery of interest in classic American-made instruments, possibly because many of them were flashes-in-the-pan. Most guitar aficionados are aware of the Mosrite connection to Bakersfield, but other now-defunct brands, such as Hallmark, Standel, and others, seem relegated to an almost “ghost-like also-ran” status, and those brands were also built in Bakersfield or the surrounding area.
Not only did Bill Gruggett work for Mosrite on more than one occasion, he also built Hallmark instruments during that brand’s brief existence, and he’s even built his own brand of instruments on more than one occasion (and such is the case today). Gruggett’s past self-named guitars included the unique “Stradette” from the late ’60s, and when he sat down with VG at a recent guitar show, he discussed his decades of work in an area (geographical and historical) that is still of interest to fretted instrument fanatics.
Bill Gruggett was born in Tulare, California. His childhood had a great deal of itineration, Gruggett says. His father was a minister who specialized in starting new churches and helping those in need. Ultimately, his family returned to Tulare, where Gruggett graduated from high school. A few years later he moved to Bakersfield, and began working as an auto mechanic. Around the same time, he began picking up used guitars, mandolins, and violins at local yard sales and garage sales, to restore and sell.
“The first instrument I fixed up was a little mandolin-banjo”, says Gruggett. “I painted it Candy Apple Red.”
The auto mechanic soon began building his own guitars. Initial customers included fellow employees at his auto shop.
“I began to accumulate tools, and built guitars in my garage at night, after work hours,” he said. “After two years at the auto shop, I quit, and concentrated on building guitars fulltime. My first guitars were sold to local musicians playing in clubs throughout the valley. I also put my instruments on consignment in music stores as far away as Fresno.”
The time spent by Gruggett in developing his own guitars was considerable, and was a contributing factor to the dissolution of his first marriage. Gruggett’s aspirations went into a tailspin, but then he hooked up with another Bakersfield builder.
“I knew Semie Moseley was working in a tin barn out in the country, on Panama Lane. He was working by himself, like I was, so I started working for him in 1962,” said Gruggett. “The first Ventures guitars were made there. The orders started coming in to the point that Semie called his brother, Andy, in Tennessee to help with the company; Andy was to be Vice-President. We hired help, and Semie also hired several men from prison who needed a job to gain parole. Eventually, the tin barn became too small, and we moved to a larger facility on P Street, in downtown Bakersfield.”
Gruggett’s primary duty during the first year at the P Street factory was to paint all of the instruments, which involved long hours until he was able to train two associates. He states that he was ultimately in charge of the paint, wet sanding, neck dressing, and buffing sections, as well as assembly and checkout.
“Later, we initiated a custom department that I was also in charge of,” he noted. “I worked for four years without a vacation.”
Once Gruggett did take a well-earned 3-week paid vacation, however, trouble was in the cards when he returned.
“Semie had bought out the Dobro company, and they had to hire Mr. Dopyera and a sidekick of his for one year,” Gruggett says. “So they made Mr. Dopyera the maintenance manager, and they gave his sidekick one of my departments, but he would come into the departments that I had left and try to boss my supervisors around. This wasn’t working out, so I began looking for another job.”
According to Gruggett, another employee, Don Stanley (foreman of Mosrite’s woodworking department), had gone to work for a new company called Hallmark, in Arvin, California, in 1955. Joe Hall’s fledgling organization then approached Gruggett two months later, and he went to work for Hallmark as the company’s production manager. “We didn’t make a lot of guitars; I would estimate that we’d built approximately 40 before the money ran out,” he said. The short-lived Hallmark debacle motivated Bill Gruggett to begin making his own instruments once again.
“The All New Stradette Model Guitar” was introduced by the Gruggett Manufacturing Company in 1967 (one circular from those days included the phrase “For the Mod Generation”). Gruggett Stradettes probably have a particular place in the pantheon of vintage guitars due to their unique style. The builder advises he was trying to come up with an instrument that incorporated a classical, violin-like shape with a modern, double-cutaway electric guitar shape. The hybrid aesthetics of Stradettes are probably their more endearing features, and while Mr. Gruggett said he originally set out to make only basses, the lineup ultimately included 6-string guitars, 12-string guitars, and doubleneck models.
One doubleneck model was particularly unusual. The D-126′s 12-string neck had a shorter scale than the instrument’s 6-string neck. “I cut off the first two frets,” said Gruggett. “It sounded brighter.”
Sharp-eyed guitar lovers may also note that some of the hardware on Stradette models may look familiar. According to Gruggett, a local metalworking company, Metaltec, had been supplying the Mosrite company with parts, such as bridges. And when Semie Moseley opted to change suppliers, Gruggett bought some of the remaining parts from the Bakersfield company (which is still in business, by the way). Moreover, the vibratos on some Stradettes were originally Standel parts. When that particular builder went out of business, Gruggett bought some of their parts at a bankruptcy auction. He replaced the snake-like Standel logo on the vibrato’s tailpieces with his own logo.
Gruggett avers that he built his first 40 instruments in his garage, then moved to downtown Bakersfield and hired four employees. He says that approximately 300 guitars were partially built, but only around 120 instruments were completed in 1968. He also built some Epcore-brand guitars during this time, such instruments were styled like Gibson ES-335s.
In 1969, Gruggett’s father became ill, and turned responsibility for his pipe and cable business over to his son. Bill Gruggett’s guitar business was put on hold, and he closed his shop. He ran his father’s business until the elder Gruggett passed away in 1974, after which he began doing repair work for Bakersfield-area music stores and musicians.
In 1976, Semie Moseley returned to Bakersfield, and hired Gruggett to manage his shop.
“We were building Ventures models for Hollywood Music of Hollywood, California,” said Gruggett. “And we also built the Brass Rail models.” Those particular Mosrites featured an exposed brass rail down the middle of the fretboard. This second association with Moseley only lasted six months.
So Bill Gruggett returned to making his self-monikered instruments, including his own brass rail models. He also did repairs and restorations for area customers and stores.
And Mr. Gruggett’s still at it. He’s built guitars with brass rails running through the entire neck and body, and he likes using highly-figured woods in his lutherie. Since he makes instruments one at a time, it’s fair to say that his work is almost always made-to-order, although some retailers such as Fuller’s Vintage Guitars, Houston, are displaying his wares. Gruggett states his instruments all have hand-carved tops and set necks; he’s also been using the same headstock style for quite some time.
Another intriguing aesthetic amenity on Gruggett instruments are wood-covered pickups. Veneers are hand-sanded to the thickness of a sheet of paper, so plenty of signal gets through. One guitar with this feature had pickup covers and pickup rings made from gorgeous birdseye maple.
So Bill Gruggett is still active, producing high-quality instruments on a custom-made basis. Some years ago, he remarried, and his wife Carolyne is an accountant. He describes her as “…a person who understands the ups and downs of a business, and who is supportive of my craft.”
Obviously, Bill Gruggett has been through some ups and downs himself, but he’s been associated with some historically-important American guitar brands, and it’s probably appropriate to opine Bill Gruggett should be considered historically important in his own right.
Bill Gruggett with one of his current insturments.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’97 issue.