The Legend of Mossman Guitars

Today you could point to several midsized "boutique" guitar makers: the Collings, Bourgeois, the Santa Cruz of the world. They're not necessarily considered rivals to Martin, Gibson or Taylor, but considered a higher end, smaller scale, more thoughtful manufacturer of guitars. This is a relatively new phenomenon within the 170 year history of steel string acoustic guitar manufacturers.

If we dial back the clock to the early 1970s, there were three main North American steel string acoustic guitar brands available to you: Martin, Gibson or Guild. These were the brands that you saw on the walls when you went to the only place that you could shop for acoustic guitars: the venerable local guitar store.

Between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s, a young Stuart Mossman became enamored with folk music and with building guitars that would enable modern folk players to have an instrument that met his own high standards for how an acoustic guitar could and should be built. At the same time, manufacturers like Martin and Gibson had met the bourgeoning folk music scene's demand for guitars by letting the quality standards of their guitars slip in favor of higher manufacturing numbers. They made a lot of bad instruments, but did succeed in selling massive amounts of them.

This created the perfect opportunity for an upstart guitar builder, focused on innovation and high quality to step in. Stuart Mossman stepped forward and for a brief period of time seemed poised to become the next big guitar manufacturer that would command a space on the wall next to Martin and Gibson. But, through a strange twist of bad luck, a storage mishap, an ill fated distribution deal and ultimately health problems, his guitar company is largely forgotten to all but a few historically knowledgable guitar players and collectors.


Our story begins in 1960s Kansas. Although starting with building classical style guitars, Stuart Mossman ultimately shifted towards prototyping and building between 40-50 steel string acoustic guitars from his garage at 318 E. 7th Street in Winfield, Kansas. As legend has it, he offered one of his early prototypes to singer/songwriter Doc Watson and asked for his opinion on the instrument. The feedback was not stellar, but this did not dissuade Mossman, as he took the criticisms and was determined to make his guitars better. Ultimately he presented Watson with a second prototyped guitar which was further refined based on his initial feedback. Watson used the guitar on stage that night and declared it the second best guitar he'd ever played.

Keystone of Quality

Emboldened by Watson's newfound exuberance over his instrument, Mossman set up shop near an airstrip in Winfield, Kansas. He hired a motley group of young locals to join him. He introduced innovations in acoustic guitar bracing based on his extensive prototyping, including the bold choice of relying on a bolt-on neck joint (in addition to a glued joint) as well as the removal of the transverse brace in favor of a neck block that would compensate for the loss in rigidity but allow the guitar top to vibrate more and provide more energy. No one else was experimenting with these types of alterations to classic steel string guitar x-bracing designs at the time.

10 guitars per day

While his reputation began to build within an industry that was exceedingly difficult to enter into, Mossman innovated in distribution as well. Jim Baggett, owner and luthier at Mass Street Music, also known for his many appearances on the PBS program Antiques Roadshow, reportedly started his "shop" by selling Mossman guitars out of his vehicle to folk musicians around Lawrence, Kansas. Relying on a patchwork of small distributors, the Mossman reputation began to grow. By 1974 Mossman was producing up to 3-4 guitars per day from the shop on the Winfield airstrip. At the time Mossman was quoted as saying he wouldn't want to produce more than 10 per day as he personally inspected each guitar before it left the factory and he was wary of losing the attention to detail that had set Mossman apart from the big guitar manufacturers.

The Fire and Design Modifications

By 1975, Mossman had grown to producing 100 instruments per month, still well below Stuart Mossman's stated goal of 10 instruments per day. These guitars may have looked the same on the outside but Mossman was constantly evaluating his designs and altering them. It had become apparent that the removal of the transverse brace in favor of a modified neck block had been a poor choice. As the guitars aged, the neck blocks were unable to provide the stability and support Mossman had envisioned and they began to become quite problematic. Mossman reverted to a standard transverse brace at this point and the neck block brace, which had used what some people thought appeared to be "feet" became known within the factory as "The Agony of Da Feet."

In early 1975, a fire originating from the finishing area of the factory destroyed much of the machinery, tools and materials that were used to manufacture Mossman guitars. This included a cache of Brazilian rosewood that Mossman had originally purchased from C.F. Martin guitars and had been used to construct the back and sides of many pre-1975 Mossman guitars. Brazilian rosewood guitars are highly sought after due to their quality and scarcity and the Mossmans that are made with it can be identified by looking at the backstrip on the guitar. If it is a Martin style zigzag backstrip, the back and sides are likely Brazilian rosewood.

Fortunately, Mossman had already secured a $400,000 loan for expansion of the facility at the airstrip. This money was used to completely rebuild the factory and they didn't just rebuild, they improved upon it. Soon, they were back up and running and producing 150 guitars per month.

Taking a Shot at the Big Time

With a new factory and the ability to produce more guitars than at any time in their history, Mossman entered into an agreement with the C.G. Conn company to distribute Mossman guitars. Though Mossman had a dedicated sales team and relationships with many regional guitar dealers, the newly minted deal with the C.G. Conn company would allow Mossman's reach to expand greatly as the C.G. Conn company had a network of national and international dealers that they would supply with Mossman guitars which would make their way into the hands of guitar players across the U.S. and all over the world.

By 1977, the Conn company had amassed a supply of 1200 Mossman guitars after production gradually increased over the past two years. The Conn company stored these guitars in a warehouse in Nevada that lacked adequate temperature and humidity controls. This had worked previously, as they had been storing inexpensive guitars with laminated materials that resisted the natural expansion and contraction of wood when exposed to rapid changes in moisture and temperature. But the Nevada desert nights would be freezing cold and the days would be hot. This cycle resulted in a high percentage of the already supplied 1200 guitars experiencing "finish checking" or cracks in the thin lacquer finish applied to the guitars. Essentially all of the guitars had to be sanded and refinished and sold at a tremendous discount to recoup part of the costs. Obviously, the Conn company and Mossman did not see eye to eye on who was responsible for the significant number of lost resources and costs resulting from the poor choice of the warehouse storage facility.

A lawsuit arose and it was a bitter fight that exhausted much of Mossman's financial resources, resulting in the company having to lay off much of their highly skilled staff. By 1979 Mossman was down to just a few employees producing a handful of guitars per month. They were also still trying to sell off the guitars damaged in the Nevada warehouse.

Winding down

By the early 1980s Stuart Mossman was still producing guitars but the rise of electronic music had cannibalized the high flying acoustic guitar market of the 1970s. Health problems that were likely due to the constant inhalation of sawdust and finishing fumes in the airstrip guitar factory forced Mossman to make the difficult decision to walk away from making guitars. But before he did, he announced he would make 25 "final guitars". These guitars were built using the best of his personal wood stock and are likely the finest Mossman's ever built. The culmination of two decades of experience and innovation in guitar building.

Later Years

Mossman guitars the company was initially sold to Scott Baxendale — an early employee of Mossman's. Baxendale moved the company to Dallas and continued the tradition of high quality Mossman guitars, albeit under different leadership. Baxendale only owned the company for a few years before selling it to John Kinsey and Bob Casey, Texas-based guitar builders who were already focused on high end guitars. They continue to manufacture Mossman's today and proudly continued Mossman's tradition of innovation in the bracing and structural design of classic steel string guitar models.

In Retrospect

Stuart Mossman was a great innovator in guitar making and had it not been for a tragic location choice by the C.G. Conn company, Mossman guitars would likely be a contemporary of Taylor Guitars and a worthy competitor to Martin and Gibson today. You can still find Mossmans for sale from time to time and I happened upon one a couple of years ago at The Acoustic Shoppe in Springfield, Missouri. I purchased the guitar a few days later. The model I own is a 1976 Great Plains. It is a big, powerful sounding dreadnaught and I am fortunate to be able to play it every day.

On the inside of the guitar there is a label initialed by everyone who worked on the instrument when it was built. Every now and then I think back to Stuart Mossman and all the people that built and signed their name to the guitar I hold in my hands today, down in a factory on an airstrip in Winfield, Kansas. Although Mossman's vision for the company never likely succeeded to the level he aspired to, the fact that I still pick up and play one of his instruments 50 years later and derive so much joy from it is a tremendous and noteworthy accomplishment in its own right. Sometimes you don't need to hit it big to make a big impact on other people's lives. The guitar I own as well as Stuart Mossman's story inspires me to think bigger, not be afraid to take big risks and know that sometimes they won't work out. But you may still have made a positive impact, just a little differently than how you set out to. That's good enough for me and I hope it was good enough for Stuart Mossman — a legendary figure in my world.