C.F. Martin’s Roots

In 1833 Christian Frederick Martin (yup, the C.F. Martin) set up shop in New York City. Previously he’d had a very successful apprenticeship in Vienna under master guitar maker Johann Stauffer. Stauffer’s Vienna workshop taught Martin all he needed to know about building a fine quality instrument, as well as the difficulties a European guitar builder faced.

Young Chris Martin’s family’s roots were generations deep in the cabinet maker’s guild in Europe. His decision to immigrate to America was a bold one. When he arrived in America, he built guitars in the old world style of Stauffer. He achieved enough initial success to close up his shop in the cultural center of America – New York City, and move to a place that reminded him of his European home. The new workshop was to be near Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

Picture Note: Six generations later, Nazareth is still home to the Martin factory. C.F. Martin IV (the great grandson of the founder) and the Martin family still own and run Martin, day in and day out. Make no mistake – Martin is an American institution, and their product, an American treasure.

Nazareth is where the transplanted Martin roots flourished. Ground broke in 1837 for the new Martin shop. Around this time, America and Americans began to embrace the guitar. It was light, portable, and easy to learn (but difficult to master). America loved their cowboys — and cowboys loved their guitars. “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” and his kin were seldom seen without their trademark horse, Stetson hat, Colt Peacemaker, “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster, a pouch of smoke (no, not that kind, the Marlboro Man kind) and of course the beloved 6-string guitar — for singing tales of conquest and woe, of course.

C.F. Martin’s “D” size would become the accepted template for most acoustic steel string guitars from that point on. The dreadnought guitar brought as much wide sweeping change as the “Torres modern gut string models” of the late 1900s, and the “Stradivarius” concept of the modern violin – and the dreadnought continued to evolve.

Traditionally the neck met the body right at the magical double dot 12th fret aka, the octave. The Martin Co. dreadnought and smaller orchestral models, or “OM” sized instruments, were restructured to have 14 frets clear the body. This extended the easily-accessible range of the guitar just a bit more. Dreadnoughts were also braced and reinforced for louder steel strings and their larger body afforded an extended range.

These advancements were the final crucial step on the journey to what the acoustic guitar is today. Amongst other innovations, they contributed to paving the way for Martin to come out with some of their greatest, most classic guitar designs, which will be with us for a long while. And two of the most important and longstanding, are the D-18 and D-28.

 

D-18

Never has the D-18 had a lack of admirers, or champions for that matter. The guitar in its OM and dreadnought size is touted by many as the sweetest sounding of all Martin models. The mahogany body is said to have a mellow, well balanced, and strong – but not overbearing, voice. It is well suited for fingerstyle playing, soft, or aggressive strumming, and blends well with a singer. The balanced sound is said to record quite well. The 18 is very often the choice for the singer/songwriter.

One man with the credentials to back up this type of praise for the D-18 is Sir George Martin – legendary producer of all types and styles of music, from mainstream artists like Elton John, to new wave giants like Ultravox, and American folk acts like America– you know, “been through the desert on a horse with no name.” Those guys. And let’s not leave out fusion monsters Mahavisnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck’s legendary Blow by Blow, or heavy metal acts like UFO and Satan’s pal – King Diamond. George Martin was called on by Kenny Rogers, Celine Dion, and just about anyone who could get him on board.

Did I forget anyone? Oh yeah. Some guys called “The Beatles.” George Martin was nearly a part of the band after touring ended for the Fab 4. The Beatles and George Martin turned the studio itself into a musical instrument. If a sound was desired, George could get it.

When it came time for The Martins – that is Sir George Martin and C.F. Martin – to unite for a special edition guitar, George based his model on the humble Model 18. Called the M3M, it had a few extra bells and whistles, like an ebony bridge and fingerboard, three-piece back, some bling, and the Mini Jumbo 0000 or M size body. The body was larger than a 000, but narrower than a dreadnought. It’s not an “off the rack” Model 18, but deep in its heart, it’s still a Model 18.

How many, aside from maybe Lassie or the bionic man, have better ears than George Martin? Very few, I’d wager. Well George felt the secret to recording an acoustic guitar is in the mahogany. And he felt strongly about how beautiful and equally balanced all frequencies spoke through the Martin instrument.

But of course, it’s not just George and all the greats listed before. There’s tons more. A better way to make a list of players that used a Model 18 would be to say, “Everyone at one time or another.” The list goes from legendary monster Lester Flat to Elvis (who had everything, including a colt .45 to turn off the TV), to Jim Croce, Paul Simon, and sometimes Bob Dylan.

For a couple of years, the D-18 was given an electric pickup, with a volume and tone knob on top. It was braced extra thick to help control feedback, and as a result, sounded pretty darn bad acoustically and electrically. It lasted for only two years in the Martin catalog. The most famous (and maybe only) champion of the D-18E (electric) was Nirvana’s legendary grunge pioneer Kurt Cobain. Cobain was a south paw, but famous and wealthy enough to have most any guitar he wanted. Kurt seemed to like the oddball guitars, which nobody else was commonly using. Cobain played instruments most guitar players of the ’80s and ’90s would have shunned. Fender Jaguars, Jazzmasters, Mustangs, the Univox Highflyer (a Moserite “Ventures model” copy made in Japan’s early guitar export years), were some of his favorites. Maybe Courtney went shopping for him. Nobody knows for sure. But he made it all work.

Of course the D-18 (and 000-18) went through some changes over the years. Up until about 1917 or so, it was made of rosewood, not mahogany, and braced for gut strings. Inlays changed, bracing moved forward and back, and forward again. Inlays went from “snowflake” to dots, and bracing was at times scalloped, and at other times, left thicker.

Enough on the tech stuff. You surely know it never had a 5 speed gear box or power windows. The D-18 is Martin’s mortise and tenon neck joint, solid mahogany wood guitar – period.

The Model 18 is the most inexpensive of the mortise and tenon neck joint, old school models, which have basically been the same since 1934. Of all the “eternal” Martin guitars, the 18 is definitely the work horse, and to some, the guitar to record with. You could almost think of it as Martin’s version of a “Telecaster.” Though not the first Martin guitar, it may be the most “sensible,” or at least commonly played. Above all else, it is a universally loved model.

D-28

Like the Model 18, the Model 28 reached its modern and most desired design by 1934. 14 frets clear the body. Auditorium and smaller sizes were available, but the formidable, indelible, venerable, loveable…. (damn, I tried not to say it) “icon” of them all is the D-28.

The Model 28 is not made of mysterious substances. In fact, a 1934 D-18 and D-28 differ only in the woods used and herringbone trim. The 28 first had a body made of (Brazilian) rosewood, with an ebony fingerboard and bridge, as well as scalloped bracing. Rosewood and mahogany differ in sound – sometimes significantly.

Rosewood is said to excite all frequencies in the guitar’s range, more so than the gentler sounding mahogany. Booming bass, pronounced midrange and highs that chime and sparkle (as well as added volume) are said to come along with rosewood made flat top boxes.

Historically, rosewood, especially from Brazil, was widely used on musical instruments of all types, not just guitars. Woodwinds, reeds, and even marimbas used rosewood for cosmetic and tonal reasons.

It is true that the classic, valuable, Holy Grail guitars of yesteryear nearly always used Brazilian rosewood, when indeed rosewood was called for. But this is a chicken before the egg type argument. Is it the guitar itself, or is Brazilian rosewood a critical element? Torres and his Paper Mache back and side’s guitar taught us that the soundboard has more to do with a guitar’s tone than the back and sides.

While the type of wood used for back and sides (maple, mahogany, rosewood, ebony etc.) have an effect on a guitar’s tone, can we really say that Brazilian rosewood sounds very different than Indian, or rosewood from Madagascar, or rosewood grown in, eh…Sheboygan? I’m going with no, not very much. The only test that will tell is to take an Indian rosewood guitar apart and rebuild it with Brazilian rosewood of the same weight, thickness, amount of glue, and a billion other factors that make all guitars slightly unique. That is about as easy as fixing a popped balloon.

But anyway…

Brazilian rosewood was plentiful, quarried right on the northern coasts, which made export easy. Old growth, mature and tall Brazilian rosewood is, without a doubt, breathtaking. It has a true exotic beauty. It can have a milk chocolate color, with random dark striations. It can have a milky white hue, sometimes even painted with reddish-purples. Grain is sometimes wildly curvy and cross figured. It can also be very dark or look like nothing more than a brown paper bag.

Brazilian rosewood was used on all Martin guitars that called for rosewood until 1970. East Indian rosewood replaced the endangered Brazilian species going forward. Today, Rosewood of all types is endangered and strictly regulated.

No matter where it’s from, Rosewood is what makes up the body of the immortal Model 28. The dreadnought size is undoubtedly the most celebrated version. Guitars by Martin in the truly acoustic era (pre-1970s in Martin’s case) grew in value, popularity, and user satisfaction. Aside from an ornate, super high-end model, the 28 is the last stop, and the dreadnought is king. Perhaps the world’s most popular guitar ever built.

The Model 28, especially the D-28 14-fret model is not just legendary, it creates legends too. But what is so special about the 28? What kinds of players use it?

An explosion of sound could be coaxed from the D-28. If so inclined, a highly defined whisper is within the scope of tone the D-28 can provide – and it’s loud enough to stand up to any stringed instrument or to be played with a piano, theatrical singer, or just about any combination of instruments.

The D-28 was not the highly adorned Model 45, but what it lacked in chrome, it had in horsepower. Without a D-28, any self-respecting F-style, mandolin playing, bluegrass ensemble would slam the outhouse door in your face. The D-28 quickly rose to stardom, even among the stars that played it. Complex in tone and ripe with overtones, the bass strings were near as broad as a piano.

Strummed chords had definition and projection. The upper register could nearly rival the mandolin. Fingerstyle players and flat pickers alike had a tool that made them heard and not just felt. Never before did an acoustic guitar have such a voice. Since 1934, the 14-fret, forward-shifted, “X” braced D-28 has been the gold standard all others are compared to.

Just about any musical star who could afford a D-28 in the depression-era 1930s bought one. At the time Martin, sitting at the pinnacle of design, had to shift gears and slow production. WWII and America’s war effort halted production of many things. But Martin survived its 2nd world war and The Great Depression. Production of guitars ramped up again with not only country, western swing, and bluegrass players, but with the up-and-coming Folk music movement. The guitar had caught hold of America and Martin made America’s guitar.

Soon the D-28 would be in the hands of anyone who wanted “in.” Martin was backed up for two or three years on the model D-28. It was not the exact same guitar it had been in the days before WWII. Some materials were no longer available. Ivory pegs and German-made herringbone were left out, and some corners were cut to catch up with orders. Snowflake inlays were replaced with dots.

But nonetheless, post-war Martin flourished. The D-28 sounded massive and beautiful. Like Hank Snow, the D-28 went everywhere, man. It reached out to the back of the honky-tonks, fish frys, and town halls of the Bible belt. It walked the floor (over you) with honky-tonk Father Ernest Tubb – and it walked the line with Johnny Cash. It sounded great to the folks who were neck deep in mud, free love, and various other substances at Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York in 1969 (I’m talking about Woodstock kids).

Up until the last 40 years or so, the Model 28, was the Model 28. You got what was made that year. If you wanted a D-28 with 1941 appointments or 000-28, you’d have to find an original, vintage example. Today, the model can be had in many variations, re-issued model years, and signature models. There’s too many to count, but Martin please…keep going. We love them all. Perfection comes in many shapes and sizes.

Legends of the Acoustic Realm

Showing no signs of age, the D-18 and D-28s remain two of the world’s most highly sought, played, admired, and copied guitars on Earth. As stated above, these guitars are beyond icons. They are immortal and eternal.

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Mike Rock
A fixture in the Rock and Roll guitar community since 1978, Mike Rock is the “Go-To” source for Sam Ash's most intricate questions involving Guitars and related gear. A collector whose true passion is playing, Mike has performed over 2,500 gigs around the world. Mike began his musical journey studying the trumpet. While buying sheet music for a recital, Mike first heard an electric guitar through a fuzz box. Forty years later, he still maintains that the fuzz WAS germanium based (he is a bit crazy). This encounter drove Mike to his first guitar and a tube amp. Soon his guitar was heavily modified and the amp was on its 3rd replacement speaker. Mike was hunting for tone and blowing guitar speakers before there was a “boutique” or “vintage” market. It wasn’t long before Mike was buying, and validating vintage guitars and gear for some of the biggest companies in the world, finally finding a home assisting mentor and friend Sammy Ash, at the place where he heard that first Fuzz Guitar, so many years ago. Mike still performs regularly and recognizes the history and beauty of vintage and modern gear. Mike is aware not everyone is a collector and most players need a set up that works for the sound they chase, regardless of its pedigree, or vintage or status.