Buddy Guy and Keb’ Mo’ play Martin guitars. So did Lester Flatt, Brownie McGhee, and Kurt Cobain. Lindsey Buckingham, Shawn Colvin, and Beck play them. What guitar player hasn’t? The Martin Guitar Company has been making acoustic guitars for over 150 years. Some consider them the finest in the world.
Christian Frederick Martin is the man who brought Martin guitars to America in 1833. He came from a family of German cabinetmakers, and not long after establishing his own business in Markneukirchen, he got caught up in a dispute between the Cabinetmakers Guild and the Violin Makers Guild.
The Violin Guild didn’t want cabinetmakers making musical instruments. The Cabinetmakers said that violin makers had no vested right in making guitars, and that Martin’s guitars marked him as every bit the craftsman as any violin maker.
The Cabinetmakers prevailed in this legal dispute, but C. F. Martin had had enough. He left Germany for New York City. In 1838 he sold his retail store to another music dealer and bought 8 acres outside Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where he produced totally hand-crafted guitars made on a one-by-one basis. However:
There were a few features commonly incorporated in most of C. F. Martin’s instruments. Until the mid-1840s, Martin guitars were characterized by a headstock that had all the tuning keys on one side. Martin acquired this design from his teacher in Vienna, Johann Stauffer.
The headstock design with all the tuning keys on one side was discontinued by Martin and went unused until Leo Fender resurrected the design in 1948 with his Telecaster guitar.
During the 1850s, Martin made a major innovation to guitar design – the “X” bracing system for the guitar top. Guitar bracing, I learned, refers to the system of wooden struts that support and reinforce the soundboard and back of the guitar. According to Rich Simmons and Jeff Griffy:
Guitar bracing performs two wildly different functions: strengthen the top of the guitar while allowing it to sufficiently vibrate to produce a warm and resonant tone. In a standard scale guitar with medium gauge strings, the guitar’s top withstands approximately 185 lbs. of constant tension.
A thin top without bracing would buckle or warp in very little time. A top thick enough to withstand the pressure could not sufficiently vibrate and would result in a thin tone with little volume. Bracing a thin top then finds the best of both worlds.
The “X” pattern developed by Martin features the two main braces running in an “X” from the upper bouts – where the body widens out from the “waist” of the guitar – to the lower bouts. The “X” crosses between the soundhole and the bridge, with several auxiliary braces. This pattern creates the strength and well-balanced tones that most builders find ideal.
Martin innovations didn’t end with “X” bracing. During the Great Depression, Martin, like thousands of other businesses, suffered seriously depressed sales. The company explored all kinds of features with the hope of finding something that would bolster sales. They came up with the 14-fret neck.
Before this era, guitars were typically equipped with a 12-fret neck. The story Martin tells is that a renowned banjo player, Perry Bechtel, suggested to F. H. Martin – grandson of C. F. Martin – that he make a guitar with a 14-fret neck; the longer neck would increase the guitar’s range and make it more versatile.
Martin took Bechtel’s advice and introduced a guitar with the longer neck. It was so popular that Martin made it a feature on all its models. It became the standard design for the industry in America.
Another innovation was the Dreadnought guitar, which has become a Martin trademark. The original Dreadnought – named after a type of World War I British battleship – was designed by F. H. Martin and Harry Hunt. Hunt figured that a Dreadnought guitar, with its large body and booming bass, would be ideal for accompanying vocals. It was introduced in 1916 but wasn’t well-received because there weren’t that many singers using guitars; solo players considered the bass overbearing.
But as folk singing became more and more popular, so did the Dreadnought. In 1931 Martin incorporated the Dreadnought into its line. It dominates the Martin line today, and almost all acoustic guitar makers are said to have their own versions of it.
Of course, as with other manufacturers, you can have a Martin guitar made to order. Each size and shape produces a unique tone. The wood you choose has a distinct influence on sound, too. You determine the right “playability” as well. According to Martin:
You need to choose the most comfortable neck that is easy to play in terms of action (height of the string above the fret), string tension, and neck width. If you’re accustomed to playing electric, you’ll probably want low action on an acoustic. Acoustic rhythm players or slide players generally want higher action.
Flatpickers and rhythm players prefer narrow necks. Fingerpickers, with their need for greater string spacing, prefer wide necks.
It may seem obvious, but the fit of the neck of a guitar has to be close to perfect.
As anyone who has built a guitar can tell you, the fit of the neck can be one of the most crucial and challenging parts of a guitar build – particularly if the guitar sports a dovetail neck joint. It involves a long process of carefully carving off excess wood, fitting, refitting, and sheer strength to ensure that the fit is absolutely flawless. Otherwise, a guitar can end up with tuning issues, problems with the action.
Diane, who works as a neck fitter for Martin, says that her job not only requires physical strength but mental agility, “because each and every neck is different.” This means no two sets of problems to solve are alike – just as no two Martin guitars are alike.