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The Enduring Mystique of Martin Guitars

Posted on March 19, 2019 by Rob Lee There have been 0 comments

The guitar world is filled with many manufacturers making great instruments. Today we are fortunate to live in a world were a certain degree of automations has brought prices down while simultaneously bringing the standards of quality up. On one end you have a mass production of various models of impeccable quality being produced by companies such as that of Taylor, and to the other end where small luthiers such a Brook Guitars are making individual, one-off instruments like no other, each tailored to the particular needs of their client. These are only two examples of the extreme ends of the scale, there are hundreds of makers out there each doing their own unique thing to meet the needs of musicians the world over.

Every company has it’s own selling points and fans, but none more so than that of Martin Guitars, and for very good reason: Heritage.

Starting in 1833 the company is steeped in history, they are often credited with creating the western guitar as we know it, and have put more guitars in the hands of ground breaking musicians than any other company, all the while still retaining the charm of a family run business. They are still building from the same town of Nazareth, PA as it did back in the 19th century.

How did this company go from one man in Germany struggling to convince local instrument makers the future was in guitars, to a company that has innovated beyond anything imaginable and creating the sounds that defined the 20th century?

It all started on January 31, 1796, in Markneukirchen, Germany, with the birth of Christian Frederick Martin, Sr.

Young C.F. was born into a family of cabinet makers and took up the family business at young age, although he would not content to be building furniture for the well heeled of the day, this discontent would go on to define an age. Markneukirchen at the time was famed for it’s finely crafted instruments, most notably the Violin.

Christian Frederick Martin, Christian Frederick Martin, Sr.

 

It housed many luthiers practicing the art of building the perfect Violin. Antonio Stradivari had caused a noticeable stir with his creations during the early 18th century. He perfected innovations such as using F-holes in place of the C-hole that went before and subsequently produced arguably some of the finest instruments the world has ever seen. There is a lot of lore surrounding his building techniques, such as the way he varnished the woods used on his instruments, and even going as far as to credit the little-ice-age of the 17th century which produced slower growing, denser woods in which he was working with, but this is definitely a story for another day.

C.F. Sr wanted to make guitars and approached the master craftsman of the town seeking an apprenticeship in how to build a guitar. No-one was interested in making guitars as they were seen as the instrument of the common folk, there was no future in them, he was advised to forget this silly idea and go back to the family business of making furniture. Not to be discouraged he sought advice from his father who put him in touch with Johann Georg Stauffer, a Viennese luthier whom would go on to take C.F. under his wing and teach him the techniques required to produce a guitar of quality.

During the years in Vienna he helped built and innovated along with Stauffer, honing his skills as a master craftsman. He also married a co-workers daughter and when the time was right he decided the time had come to head back home to Germany with his new wife, skills, and the ambition to set up his own workshop producing guitars. When he got home the violin makers were now making guitars! Popularity of the instrument was most definitely on the rise and they saw to capitalise on this sudden surge. Such is the law in Germany (which still stands to this day) you must apprentice within a certain guild for years before you can even consider spreading your wings and making your own mark upon the world. The Violin Guild claimed exclusive rights over the Cabinet Making Guild (which Martin was part of) to produce instruments. He would have to apprentice all over again or find another solution. This ‘other solution’ would be a turning point in the future of guitars.

Stauffer Guitar circa 1820s Stauffer Guitar circa 1820s - note the elaborate tuning mechanism

 

Rightly so, Martin was not content with having to apprentice with the people that turned him away years ago and decided the best way forward would be to set his sights west and head to the new world, the United States of America.

Landing in New York in 1833 he didn’t sit on his laurels and set up shop at 196 Hudson Street near Manhattan. In that shop he repaired instruments, sold musical items that he imported from Germany, and both built and sold his own guitars. His shop was perfectly situated for passing immigrants. Immigrants that were not settling in New York but travelling further west to find jobs and a new life. Guitars are many things and being able to travel well is certainly one of the reasons it is as universally loved as it today. You can pop it in a case, throw it on a train heading west and take your music (and your culture) with you wherever you end up. Martin was to capitalise on this growing trend and was quickly earning a reputation as a master guitar builder.

The 1830s was quite a tumultuous time in New York, what with the Great Fire of 1835 destroying seventeen city blocks, then in 1837, a financial panic had hit, throwing the city and the nation into a years-long recession. Needless to say the Martins, whom had both grown up in much more rural confines, were starting to find their time New York more of a trial than a new beginning, and as a result they were starting to grow tired of the city life.

Pennsylvania has long had a history of being a state built upon by German immigrants (Rob’s fun fact: what is often referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch is actually Pennsylvania Deutsch but is often mispronounced resulting in the common mistake), and the town of Nazareth was home to friends of C.F. and his wife, they visited and fell in love with the small town that so reminded them of their roots in Germany/Austria. They packed up their lives and setup home and shop in Nazareth. This seemed to have suited them as they never left and company still makes guitars there to this day.

C.F. Martin old factory, Nazareth, PA

 

During his time in Nazareth, C.F. innovated. He was starting to find his own style. A style that is much more recognisable to the modern instruments that we see today. First of all he moved away from the Stauffer style single sided headstock (a design that wouldn’t be widely used again until a certain Mr Fender introduced his Broadcaster in 1946), instead he started using the 3-aside squared off headstock, albeit slotted. This innovation allowed him to produce cheaper tuning machine heads without the need to import the larger Stauffer style machine head plate from Europe. This design was big, cumbersome and expensive; it is reported to have made up about 50% of the cost of the instrument.

Around the same time he started to abandon the traditional fan bracing patterns used by European guitar makers and instead opting to fit his guitars with the now ubiquitous of his innovations: the X-bracing pattern. Although he may not have invented it, he did patent it in the 1850s. Using the tone bars under the top he was able to begin to define what would be the ‘Martin sound’. It is said that he switched over because when fitting the bridge he would often drill through the fan bracing struts when fitting the bridge resulting in having to remake the top of the guitar. Guitars at this time were strung up using gut string which also meant that X-bracing wouldn’t really come into it’s own until some 70-80 years later and was a major factor in distinguish the western guitar from it’s European cousins.

The Martin Dove Tail neck joint provides a string bond between body and neck.

 

Drawing upon his upbringing as a cabinet maker he used a dovetail neck joint that is said to have been vastly superior to anything else being produced at the time. This solid bond between neck and body allowed greater vibration transference. If this wasn’t enough early Martin guitars featured an adjustable neck. A screw mounted in the back of the heel of the neck was extended into the neck block. At the top of the dovetail (where the neck joins the body) there was a wooden fulcrum about which the neck could pivot up and down. With the strings attached, the neck could be adjusted via a clock key inserted into the heel. While the adjustable neck allowed the player to adjust the playing actions of the guitar, the device was complicated and prone to slipping under full string tension. So gradually, Martin phased out this unique neck adjustment.

The 1850s saw the expansion of the companies premises in Nazareth, in an advertisement from the time it reads: "C. F. Martin, Guitar Maker, respectfully informs the musical public generally that the great favour bestowed upon him has induced him to enlarge his factory, in order to supply the increasing demand for his instruments."

At the time of C.F. Martin Senior’s death on February 16, 1873, the company had gone from a one man operation to a factory that employed a dozen or so skilled craftsmen producing guitars that were being played all across America. Succeeding him at the helm of the young company was his son, 48-year-old Christian Frederick, Jr. He oversaw the company for only a few years due to his untimely death in 1888, but what an eventful few years they were! The mid 1800s were a somewhat turbulent time in America. Those of you that know your history will know that the American Civil War was taking place during the 1860s and surprisingly Martin kept selling guitars; probably due to the fact so many were getting destroyed during the conflict.

Upon his death he left the business in the hands of his 22-year-old son, Frank Henry Martin. Firstly, Frank Henry was left with the predicament of how to effectively distribute Martin guitars across America, and secondly he saw opportunity in a ‘new’ instrument brought over by Italian immigrants, the Mandolin. Jumping on the growth of this new market, Martin produced a few Mandolin to capitalise on it’s popularity, this would not be the first time the company tried their hand in other markets.

As far as distribution went, Frank Henry would often take it upon himself to do annual business trips across upper New York and New England to sell his wares personally to dealers. Growth of the business slowed during this period as he placed a great deal of importance in the education of his two sons; Christian Frederick III and Herbert Keller Martin, sending both to Princeton college to receive an elite education

The 20th century is where Martin guitars made their mark on the musical and cultural landscape and cemented themselves as the icon that we see today.

Frank Henry’s long term investment in his son’s education seem to pay off but not by design, in fact, Christian Frederick III didn’t really have any intention in joining the family company but to make his own way in business; Upon graduation from Princeton in 1916, Christian Frederick III entertained the idea of attending the graduate school of business administration at Harvard University. "I had ambitions at the time of getting away from the family business," he recalls. "But my brother was still in college and my father needed help managing things, so I came home and went to work making guitars on what I thought would be a part-time basis." What started out as a temporary situation for Christian Frederick evolved into a life-long vocation.

The Great Ukulele Craze of 1915 started because of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where over the course of ten months, a coast-to-coast cultural phenomenon was launched that firmly lodged the then–exotic ukulele into the American mainstream. The exposition celebrated many things Hawaiian and this craze would last right up until the great depression of the 1930s.

Martin Soprano Style 3 Ukulele circa 1920s

 

The humble Uke is not in fact a native Hawaiian instrument but is actually of Portuguese origin. Portuguese immigrants had inhabited the island during the 19th century and brought with them a a small guitar like instrument that was adapted to form what is now the Ukulele.

Needless to say as we have seen in the previous fad during the 19th century, Martin tried to capitalise on this instrument but this time with a lot more success than previous efforts albeit with a slight misstep to begin with.

Martin saw the Ukulele as a small guitar and as such made them like small guitars, Spruce tops, X-bracing and all! They were not a success… After appreciating that although this unassuming little instrument may appear basic in principle, there would need to be a great deal more care taken when releasing a revised version. Going back to the drawing board Martin redesigned the shortcoming of this original run by choosing hard woods such as Mahogany or Koa, being a lot more careful with the bracing pattern and as a result captured the lions share of the market.

Martin rode this wave of popularity for years but as history shows this was just a fad, the next move would be one that defines the sound of not only a generation but the sound of a continent.

Let’s go back to that X-bracing pattern that was introduced 70 years prior. The X-brace was strong but still allowed the top wood to resonate. Guitars up to the early 20th century were gut-strung instrument and as a result were not overly loud. A second contribution to their small sound was that they were literally small. Small parlour sized guitars that were designed to be played in, you guessed it, parlours. The guitar was going from a personal undertaking to a group activity and as such volume was required. Other instrument in the band such as Banjos featured steel strings and could be heard well over the top the guitar, so a simple solution was applied to the guitar, string it with steel strings. Now if you did this to a normal classically designed guitar with fan bracing, the top would more or less be pulled off because of the additional strain induced by the steel strings. Martins X-bracing on the other hand allowed this transition without incident resulting in more volume and a seismic shift in sound, further removing it from it’s European cousins.

Furthering this lust for additional volume, Martin would develop a guitar that would completely blow all the others out the water: the Dreadnought (see what I did there?). Originally developed for the Oliver Ditson Company the Dreadnought was a failure… for now.

1929 Martin/Ditson Model 111 Dreadnought

 

As the 1920s drew to a close so did the world economy thanks to the great stock market crash of Wall Street, a great depression ensued and hit every industrialised market the world over. Martin was not immune to it’s effects. Guitar sales plummeted as more and more people became unemployed but this did not deter Martin from trying his hand at invigorating his business as he reintroduced theDreadnought guitar in 1931 but this time under the Martin name. Being a bit of a history buff like myself I can really appreciate the the naming of this guitar two-fold. First of all theDreadnought was named after HMSDreadnought, a British all big gun battleship from 1906, and secondly the name literally means ‘fear nothing’, at a time when Theodore Roosevelt famously said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” this was a stroke of marketing genius. Initially there were two models the D-1 and the D-2; one made of mahogany and the other rosewood respectively, these would go on to be the D-18 and D-28.

Martin also wanted to capture the Banjo players that were taking up the guitar and as such repositioned the neck joint on some of their guitars such as the 0 and 000 body sizes. Moving the joint to the 14th fret as opposed to the 12th facilitates access to upper fretboard. This move also repositions the bridge plate, further adapting the tone away from the European guitar. They also narrowed the neck to appeal to these banjo players, and finally the neck was also lengthened from 24.9" scale to a 25.4” scale.

It seemed to work as Martin made it through the decade but not before bringing it’s two survival tactics together. In 1933 cowboy star and country singer Gene Autry came up with a special project. Autry wanted a guitar similar in appearance to his idol Jimmie Rodgers’ 000–45, but in the new large body style. What they created was what many believe is the true birth of the western guitar: The 1934 MartinDreadnought 14th Fret D-18 and D-28.

Now the Dreadnought is the single most popular guitar shape the world has ever known but as with most things, it wasn’t an overnight success but one that would bring the company huge cultural significance in the coming decades. What came next brought the world out of recession but instead into war. Even with these trials to test the company the time between 1920-1939 is often considered Martin’s ‘Golden Era’ of guitar production.

The coveted pre-war Martin D-28 circa 1935

 

World War II was a time where companies nationwide were not allowed to drain resources that could be used to further the war effort, and a few cost cutting measures had to be introduced. During this period bracing on the instruments went from being scalloped to non-scalloped which produced a different tone. They also had to introduce all mahogany guitars because Germany were the suppliers of European spruce that was usually used for the tops of their guitars.

Knowing these slight changes in production has seen pre-war Dreadnoughts value skyrocket, they are incredibly sought after and as such go for an extortionate amounts of money.

Frank Henry Martin died at the age of 81 in 1948, and C. F. Martin III assumed the presidency of the company, which continued to enjoy worldwide recognition for its guitars of uncompromising quality. The post war years of Martin saw the company go from strength to strength but mainly due to the artists that chose to use their instruments. Two particular artists come to mind that took a Martin guitar and launched not only their own careers but also helped Martin become as important as they are today, these are Elvis and Johnny Cash. Elvis paved the way for rock, while Johnny Cash spearheaded country/rockabilly all the while playing a Martin guitar. In face Johny Cash known as the ‘man in black’ wanted his guitar to of course suit his on stage colour theme (or lack of it) and ordered a black Dreadnought from Martin. C.F. III didn’t much like the idea of the beautiful wood used on his guitars to be covered over in black and refused. A few of the worker in the factory sneakily made an all blackDreadnought and the story goes the first time C.F. saw it, it was on TV. He seemingly forgave his employees for their covert build as the sales that were generated from it were phenomenal.

Many years had passed since his first all black Martin, But Johnny Cash was still rocking a black D-35 right up until his death in 2003.

 

During the 1960s the second wave of Folk Music swept across both sides of the Atlantic and Martin was there to supply the demand. Artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Biaz were seen as the voices of their generation, lighting the fires of change that was zeitgeist of the 60s.

The 70s was a wholly more electric affair but the old faithful Martin acoustics were still being used on stages the world over to inspire hundreds of thousands of people. Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, and pretty much any member of rock royalty owned and played a Martin. They were THE guitar to play for many and still are to this day.

Interests ebb and flow like many things over time but it was positively absent during the 1980s. Yamaha released had their now infamous DX7 digital synthesiser in 1983 which went on to completely dominate popular music at the time. The DX7 was unlike any other instrument because it could generally be any other instrument. It was the muse to musicians like Whitney HoustonChicago, PrincePhil CollinsLuther VandrossBilly Ocean, Brian Eno and Celine Dion. Much like what the Martin guitar was to the generation before, it really was the defining sound of the era.

The nearly-killer of giants - the Yamaha DX7

 

At this time Christian Frederick Martin IV was at the helm after his father had retired. He was dealt what seemed like an unfair hand in the family business, but it would appear that luck was be on his side he just didn’t know it yet. This luck came from a rather obscure place, this place was to be a cultural hit and would turn the company’s fortunes around.

In 1989, MTV has called C.F IV to explain their brand new idea for a show; famous musicians would come into the studio and play their hits ‘unplugged’ in front of a live audience, while also being broadcast around the globe; would Martin be kind enough to give them some guitars to equip these artists to save them bringing their own instruments? Of course he said yes and he says himself it is one the best business decisions he has made for the company. MTV Unplugged saw Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, AerosmithElton JohnSinéad O'ConnorPoisonJoe Satriani and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There was one act that just blew the world away with their mix of originals and a handful of covers: Nirvana. The popularity of this concept picked up the dying acoustic guitar business, and has carried on this momentum ever since.

Kurt Cobain on MTV Unplugged. A show responsible for re-launching the careers of Eric Clapton, Kiss, Rod Steward, and many more. All with a Martin in hand.

 

Being in the business of making a product from a finite resource, and also only choosing the finest of that resource. Martin has in recents years been making considerable effort to counteract this effect on the environment by using Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified woods within their guitars. The FSC label coupled with the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal means that the woods used comes from forests that have met rigorous standards for protecting forestlands, communities and wildlife. They have also been thinking outside the box to introduce different building materials that replace woods in some of their guitars. Artists such as Jeff Tweedy have embraced these efforts and introduced versions of their signature guitar using these certified woods and new technologies.

Today Martin are still at the top of the pile when it comes to most respected guitar companies. Their product instil a sense of wonder in most players. I distinctly remember seeing (on DVD unfortunately) Jimmy Page playing ‘Going to California’ and ‘That’s The Way’ on his Martin D-28. Equally important was it’s use on Wish You Were Here in the hands of David Gilmour. Such was the mystique of the Martin, when I first saw one in the flesh, I was blown away! Here was what my guitar heroes deemed worthy! Many years have past since but I still remember it as if it were yesterday. The sight of genuine Martin had more of an impact on me than that of any electric guitar ever has. There is something amazing that comes from learning to play an acoustic guitar properly. They can be honest, extremely personal, and absolutely beautiful.

Led Zeppelin Earls Court 1975

 

Although trends come and go, they will never go truly out of fashion, history has shown this and it will continue for the foreseeable future. A player can truly find their own voice when all the distractions that come with electric guitars are taken away, and Martin have been providing that voice for nearly 200 years. By offering multiple body shapes, neck profile and wood combinations there is definitely a guitar that will suit almost any player. Learn all it has to offer and it will be no wonder they are described as an orchestra in a box.

Chris Martin IV is a fantastic storey teller and if you would like to further your knowledge on all things Martin I would have to suggest checking these two videos:

Be sure to check out our extensive stock of Martin Guitars here in store. Be part of history and join the Martin family HERE.

Image credits and additional links:

#1 - Guitarist

#2 - Martin Guitars

#3- Southwell Guitars

#4 - Pennsylvania Centre For The Book

#5 - Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum

#6 - The Ukulele Site

#7 - Frets.com

#8 - Carter Vintage Guitars

#9 - The Flatpicking Guitarist 

#10 -  Vintage Synth Explorer

#11 - Rolling Stone

#12 - Guitarsenal


This post was posted in Blog entries, General News, Guitars, History of Music and was tagged with acoustic guitar, C.F. Martin, guitar, history, Martin

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