Local News

Wednesday, Oct 10 2012 06:28 PM

Bakersfield's master guitar maker dies at 75

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    In this 2009 photo, master luthier Bill Gruggett poses with a Gruggett Custom, a two pick up electric guitar that sells for $2,300. It took Gruggett about three months to build each custom guitar.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    For master luthier Bill Gruggett, his garage was his shop. This is where Gruggett made his guitars like the Gruggett Custom he is holding in this file photo, a two pick up electric guitar, which sells for $2,300. It took Gruggett about three months to build each guitar.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

He is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as pioneer electric guitar makers Leo Fender and Adolph Rickenbacker, not because he shared in their financial success, but for the instinctual talent he possessed as a master of the guitar maker's art.

Bill Gruggett, master luthier and maker of those fabulous sunburst finishes who started his own Gruggett guitar company in the 1960s, died Saturday at his home in Oildale after a long battle with colon cancer. He was 75.

"He came home the night before he died," said Brandon Coston, Gruggett's 16-year-old grandson. "He was ready to go."

For untold numbers of guitarists, guitar makers and vintage guitar collectors, Gruggett was known as a man who could build or rebuild anything with strings. But they also have noted that, until recent years, Gruggett didn't always receive the recognition he deserved.

Although he was treated as something of an elder statesman of guitar making in his later years, Gruggett got his start working for the Bakersfield-based Mosrite and Arvin-based Hallmark guitar companies in the 1960s. In 1967, he established his own violin-shaped guitar, which he named the Stradette. In recent years, he worked as a builder for a re-established Hallmark brand, which makes limited reissues of the Stradette as well as other custom-built guitars.

Gruggett was a wizard with wood and "the best luthier in the area," said Artie Niesen, longtime local musician and proprietor of Front Porch Music in Bakersfield.

"He was outstanding in his field," Niesen said. "He could work magic with wood -- and guitar finishes, too."

Niesen, who owns two vintage Gruggetts, said there are many local artists who are playing custom Gruggett guitars or more famous name guitars equipped with a replacement neck made by the master.

Bakersfield concert promoter and longtime guitarist Marc Lipco loves his Fender Telecaster copy, a custom made guitar built by Gruggett.

"It's better than ever," Lipco said of the guitar with its sparkle finish. "It's always been a labor of love for Bill. He was a master luthier, and he got better as he got older."

But besides his prowess in the guitar maker's art, his friends say Gruggett was just a nice guy.

"He was a nice person," Lipco said. "Bill was just a mild-mannered, courteous gentleman."

Born in Tulare on Sept. 14, 1937, Gruggett moved to Bakersfield in the late 1950s where he started working on used guitars, mandolins and violins in his spare time.

He also started playing bass guitar at local honky-tonks, where a raw form of country music was evolving that later came to be known as the Bakersfield Sound.

In 1962, Gruggett went to work for Semie Moseley, the founder of Bakersfield's own Mosrite guitar company. Gruggett worked at Mosrite's factories in Bakersfield and Pumpkin Center, and quickly honed his craft. The guitars were used by surf band The Ventures and several other recording artists of the time. The local factories would produce perhaps 50,000 guitars.

But it was demanding work.

After four years without a vacation, Gruggett left Mosrite in 1966 to work with another Mosrite-trained luthier, Joe Hall, the founder of Hallmark guitars. Niesen recalls the factory was located on Derby Street in Arvin.

Then in 1967, Gruggett struck out on his own. He designed and built the "all-new" Stradette model. An ad from those days touted the Stradette as a guitar "for The Mod Generation." The unusual body was shaped like a violin, with a double-cutaway where the body meets the neck to allow easy fingering on the high frets.

Gruggett built the first 40 Stradettes in his garage, and then moved to a factory on Chester Avenue.

Between 1967 and 1968, Gruggett's fledgling company started about 300 guitars but finished just 120.

Gruggett later returned to Mosrite, where he helped build the Brass Rail model guitar, which featured a brass rod running the length of the neck.

His second association with Semie Moseley lasted just six months.

That's when Gruggett embarked on a period of craftsmanship that many guitar enthusiasts treasure, a time when dozens of one-of-a-kind musical instruments were lovingly formed using the highest standards and the finest woods obtainable.

"I put my heart and soul into every guitar, " Gruggett told The Californian in 2009. And those who know his work wholeheartedly agree.

Bob Shade, an avid guitar collector and the president of Hallmark Guitars in Greenbelt, Md., said Gruggett built some of the company's custom-designed guitars.

"It's really amazing what he did," Shade said of Gruggett's legacy. "But it is a dying art. Nobody else would take the time to do what Bill did by hand. You can't make any money doing what Bill did."

In 2009, Gruggett was honored for his artistry and craftsmanship at the third annual Bakersfield Country Music Awards in Bakersfield. And at another event, the golden age of guitar making in Kern County was highlighted at Trout's, where locally built Gruggetts, Mosrites, Hallmarks and Standels were on display -- on stage and off.

Gruggett never made it big. He never became rich. Or famous.

But he understood that a well-made guitar in the right hands at the right moment can make us laugh with joy or cry as if our hearts have been broken yet again.

A graveside memorial is planned for 1:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at Tulare Cemetery.

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