Late in the summer of 1833, a young cabinet maker from Germany arrived along the New York waterfront, on the run from restrictive trade laws in his home country. The immigrant—slight, bespectacled, thin of hair—brought with him little besides a pair of capable hands and a headful of ideas. Nevertheless, his name would go on to adorn some of the greatest acoustic instruments ever made.
We have no way of knowing whether Christian Frederick Martin ever imagined that the company he founded, C.F. Martin & Co., would survive for 100 years, let alone the 200 years it will soon celebrate. But it’s clear that he was determined to make his mark on the world of instrument building. In fact, most of the innovations that carried the guitar forward into the modern era were either pioneered by Christian Martin or adapted by him, and nearly all of them pointed to one thing: tone. The sound palette produced by the best Martins—open, articulate, balanced—has rightly led many performers to declare them the world’s finest production guitars.
“People gravitate toward Martin instruments because of the tone,” says Brenden Hackett, sales event manager at C.F. Martin & Co. “So the question is, “Where does that tone come from?” And the easy answer is, 184 years of tradition and craftsmanship.”
To fully grasp Christian Frederick Martin’s importance in the development of the acoustic guitar, it helps to know what the instrument was like at the time he left Europe. Guitars in the early 19th century were little changed from the earliest guitarras that emerged in late Middle Ages Spain. They were frail, long-waisted specimens that were strung with twisted sheep guts and hard to keep in tune; more at home in a castle tower than on the performance stage.
First in a modest, two-room shop on New York’s Lower West Side and then in a small factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, C.F. Martin set out to transform the instrument. Take, for instance, his approach to bracing, the thin bars of wood glued beneath the guitar’s soundboard to stiffen it and counter the warping action of the strings. Most early guitars were built with a simple “ladder bracing” pattern where bars were placed perpendicular to the top at regular intervals. Spanish-style guitars, on the other hand, used something called “fan bracing,” where bars were arrayed in a fan pattern between the bridge and the bottom of the lower bout.
Martin tried both styles before rejecting them in favor of a hybrid pattern called “X bracing,” where the guitar’s two longest braces intersected just below the sound hole to form the shape of an X. Not only did X bracing enable guitars to stand up to the extreme force of steel strings—a necessity to produce the volume and projection modern performance demands—it allowed the top to resonate in a uniquely deep and characterful way.
Martin’s tinkering didn’t stop with the guitar’s soundboard, either. From the world of cabinet making, he borrowed the precise, hand-cut “dovetail” joint as a means of connecting a guitar’s neck to its body. “Using the dovetail on the guitar was something new at the time,” says Hackett. “And it becomes a major contributing factor in the propagation of tone from the neck into the body.”
In the early days, Martin numbered its guitars according to size, with 5 being the smallest and 0 (“concert” size) the largest. As production years came and went, the trend was toward ever-larger instruments. In the 1870s, the company introduced its 00 or “grand concert” model; an even bigger 000 or “auditorium” model soon followed, and in the 1920s Martin unveiled its OM “orchestra model,” a 14-fret guitar created to satisfy the needs of jazz musicians. Around the time of the First World War, under the private label of Oliver Ditson & Co., Martin introduced what would become its most famous body type: a jumbo guitar with the imposing designation of “D” for “dreadnought,” a type of early British battleship.
Through the decades, the Martin sound has attracted many of the most famous hands ever to caress a fretboard, including Woody Guthrie, Gene Autry, Carter Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, Neil Young, David Crosby, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Tony Rice, Rory Block, Tommy Emmanuel and Trey Anastasio.
Today, the Martin line runs from Martin Travel Guitars, such as the budget-minded Backpacker guitar at $229, all the way to the spare-no-expense $149,000 D-200, a special-edition model created to celebrate the rollout of the company’s two-millionth production guitar in 2016. Between them lies a bewildering range of sizes, shapes and trim options, all of which bear the accumulation of years of knowledge, technique and care.
“One of the great things about a company that’s been around for so long is that you’re getting every bit of quality in a $1,000 instrument as you would in a $10,000 instrument,” says Hackett. “The same hands are on them. The same processes are used.”
The rugged Martin Performing Artist Series features models with generously proportioned cutaway bodies and onboard electronics, designed to serve the needs of gigging musicians. Guitars from the Martin 15 Series are crafted from solid mahogany for a rich appearance and warm tone. The Martin Retro Series uses the Fishman Aura tonal modeling system to capture the sound of well-aged Martin guitars. Connoisseurs are drawn to the Martin Authentic Series: painstaking reproductions of “Golden Era” Martins from the 1920s and 1930s, right down to the vintage hardware. Purists, on the other hand, favor the Martin Standard Series, a roundup of the company’s iconic models, including the D-18, D-28 and 000-18.
Then there are the Martin Custom Signature Editions, instruments inspired by, and often built to, artist preferences. A recent model is the mahogany 00-DB assembled with the blessing of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. The Eric Clapton 000-28EC Acoustic Guitar is now a perennial favorite, having sold thousands since its introduction more than 20 years ago.
Not content to rest on its laurels, Martin continues to experiment with new materials and processes—from metal bindings and sustainably sourced woods to its Vintage Tone System, where a guitar’s top and braces are “torrefied” (toasted, essentially) at temperatures of up to 500 degrees F, darkening the wood, driving moisture from it, and coaxing open its pores to approximate the effects of years of devoted playing. If a musician can’t find exactly what they’re looking for from the company’s stock models, the Martin Custom Shop is happy to indulge them. “We’re not good at saying “no.”” Hackett says with a laugh.
In his nearly 20 years at C.F. Martin & Co., Hackett has worked in roles as far-ranging as quality assurance, research and development, and sales. For him, the central appeal of the Martin brand boils down to history. “I enjoy the prestige of the company,” he says. “I enjoy the chance to be a part of the legacy.” Currently, Christian (“Chris”) Frederick Martin IV, the sixth generation of guitar-building Martins, guides the company as CEO. “We’re the 31st-oldest family-owned company in the U.S., and we remain very much a family company,” says Hackett. “When I started here, it felt like I was walking into somebody else’s home. I think it’s unique in that way.”
The little factory that Christian Martin Sr. founded in Nazareth, Pennsylvania in 1839 has grown into a 200,000-square foot facility that turns out an average of 200 guitars a day. Each year, thousands of musical pilgrims are drawn here to smell the wood shavings and marvel at sight of expert hands piecing together what amount to modern classics. Summer, especially, brings a tide of seasoned musicians to pay tribute at this near-sacred destination for music lovers of all stripes.
“There are days when you roll in to work and a few tour buses are idling in the parking lot,” Hackett says. “You’re just waiting for a John Mayer or one of those guys to pop in. They’re here to humble themselves. It doesn’t matter how big a celebrity you are, when you come here, the equation changes. For a few hours, at least, the people working in the Martin factory are the rock stars.”
About the Author - Kent Priestley
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