No one ever mistook Johnny Ramone for Django Reinhardt. But while Johnny wasn’t the most technically adroit guitarist ever, it would be hard to overstate his impact on popular music. Along with three fellow misfits from Forest Hills, New York, who became the Ramones in 1974, he shaped a mutant rock sound—part dirt bike, part machine gun, part bubblegum pop—that turned the music world on its ear. The Ramones weren’t the first band to do damage with a distorted power chord, but no one did it quite as raw or fast. That unholy union of speed and power made them the godfathers of punk and the seed that spawned everyone from the Sex Pistols and the Clash to Black Flag and Nirvana.
Johnny’s guitar approach was dead simple—fast sixteenth-note downstrokes pumped through a cranked Marshall stack. But the element of Johnny’s style that most fans recognize (apart from his trademark spread-eagle stance) is his mid-’60s Mosrite Ventures IIs. Johnny later claimed he bought his signature instrument (apparently at Manny’s Music in New York City for about $50) because it was the only guitar he’d ever heard of that he could afford. But with its thin and lightning-fast neck, the Mosrite was the perfect vehicle for Johnny’s Gatling-gun, modulating powerchord approach.
Unfortunately for players aspiring to Johnny Ramone-style tones, the Mosrite Ventures II is an impossibly rare guitar (purportedly only 25–30 originals were made). Though future incarnations of the Mosrite brand made versions of Johnny’s guitar, they were far from punk-rock priced. Hardcore Johnny fans need not despair any longer, however, thanks to the revived Hallmark Guitars company. In cooperation with the Johnny Ramone estate, Hallmark has created a loud and beautiful-playing take on Johnny’s signature axe at a price that real punks can afford.
While our gloss-blue test guitar has the unmistakable elongated-lower-horn silhouette of a Mosrite Ventures model, it’s significantly different than the most famous version of that guitar in many respects. Johnny’s two original guitars were designed by original Hallmark Guitars founder Joe Hall while working at Mosrite in the mid ’60s. Hall’s intent was to create a more affordable version of the more ornate and upscale Ventures model. As such, the Hallmark lacks the carved body, and instead features a tapering contour on the sizable bass bout and a one-ply pickguard that looks like a cross between the one's you'll find on a Mosrite and a Telecaster.
Other features will be familiar to any Mosrite fan, and they’re executed faithfully and lovingly. The beautiful, one-piece rock maple neck is carved with an integrated headstock that, while virtually parallel with the fretboard, is about an inch lower—creating both a better string-break angle and a cool volute that strengthens the headstockneck junction. The headstock has a delicate hourglass taper and a unique “M” carved along its top edge. Other Mosrite-esque details include narrow vintage frets, a zero fret, and a plated-brass string guide. The solid milled-brass, chrome-plated roller bridge is a thing of beauty, too: Though it’s inspired by the original Mosrite units, it features improvements like fixed saddles that result in better intonation and facilitate easier string bending.
Beat on the Brat
Once you strap on the Johnny Ramone, it’s easy to see why Johnny dug such a setup. It’s an exceptionally well-balanced guitar that feels very sturdy. Hit a big, firstposition E chord and lean on the neck for a little modulation, and it stays right in tune. So if you’re inclined to use it as a fast-chugging, punk-rock battering ram, it’s likely to withstand a heavy hand without flinching.
Holding a power chord and attacking the guitar with fast downstrokes felt as natural as you could imagine. It’s fantastically easy to shift power chords and more complex shapes up and down the neck at a CBGB-approved pace, thanks to the comfortable, low-ish action and smaller frets.
All that said, the Johnny Ramone doesn’t invite just punk-style attack. The same smooth action that makes hardcore riffing a snap invites languid blues bends and Eastern-flavored legato work. And the narrow, C-shaped neck feels enough like a combination of an early-’60s Telecaster and Jaguar to make twang and surf licks second nature. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Hallmark’s tone is akin to those Fenders’ treble sting: With the volume rolled off a notch or two on the alnico-magnet bridge single-coil, the Johnny Ramone has a darker personality. It should come as no surprise, however, that the guitar comes alive when paired with a Marshall head and a 4x12. With a 100-watt Super Lead at the other end of the cable, the Hallmark delivered the grinding, muscular tones we all associate with the Ramones—but without the clanging, spiky 2 kHz peaks you often get from single-coils and a raging Marshall.
Lead lines sounded great, too, occasionally taking on a snorkel-y, Peter Green-like quality—particularly in the middle position. It was hard to generate really biting solo tones without the help of an overdrive or fuzz, but, man, did this thing sound good when I employed one—they felt like natural partners!
A spin with the Hallmark Guitars Johnny Ramone offers a cool peek into the happy accidents that can help a player craft a signature sound. Even if the Hallmark doesn’t nail every detail you’d find in a vintage Ventures model, this guitar feels unmistakably like a Mosrite in terms of balance and playability. And given how fast, light, and comfortable it is, you can imagine why Johnny and his own Mosrites were rarely apart. This is a great guitar for chugging punk, garage rock, and fuzzy indie rock. It might lack the nuances or classic voice of certain blues and heavy rock guitar staples, but chances are you wouldn’t be reading this if that were your musical fixation. If you’re on the prowl for a distinctly different flavor that really rocks, the Hallmark Johnny Ramone is all revved up and ready to go.
a comfortable, light, fast, growling guitar with vintage-Mosrite style and feel is your ticket to musical bliss.
you lament the day punk killed prog.
Street $899 - Hallmark Guitars - hallmarkguitars.com