Martin the Magnificent!
C.F. Martin Interview, Profile | Chris Martin
It's almost impossible to overestimate the role played in the history of the acoustic guitar by C.F. Martin. Since 1833 their name has been on the consistently finest acoustics; while their success has made Martin's Nazareth, Pennsylvania home a mecca for guitar lovers. But Martin's story isn't confined to history. Despite having suffered similar problems to all the U.S. greats, they remain a force to be reckoned with.
In the second of our occasional 'Guitar Greats' profiles (see our report on Fender in Issue 6) Gary Cooper outlines the contribution of this legendary builder and talks with Chris Martin — direct descendant of the original C.F. Martin, and destined to lead the company into the 21st century. KATY 88, meanwhile, reviews their latest model — the J40M.
It's hard for me to be coolly objective about C.F. Martin; possibly as hard as it would be for a motoring writer to be strictly logical about car makers like Bugatti, Rolls Royce and Alfa Romeo. As much as these latter names played incalculable roles in the history of the automobile, C.F. Martin have been central to the history of the acoustic guitar since Christian Friedrich Martin left his native Germany in the 1830s to begin a life in the New World.
The son of a carpenter, Christian Friedrich Martin trained as a violin and guitar maker in the Viennese workshop of Georg Stauffer during the early 1800s, before finally despairing of the 'closed shop' operated by the instrument making guilds in his native Saxony and emigrating to New York. In 1833 he opened his own guitar maker's shop at 196 Hudson St., effectively the birthplace of the Martin Guitar Company and, many would argue, the modern acoustic guitar.
For a man with a growing family and a childhood spent in the peace of rural Saxony, New York proved to be an inhospitable environment, so in 1839 Martin moved to join the numerous Moravian German immigrants then living in Nazareth, Pennsylvania — the town where Martin are still situated. So successful were Martin's guitars, despite the intervention of the American Civil War, that the factory established by Christian Friedrich (who died in 1873 at the age of 77) had doubled in size by 1887. From the late 1800s on, despite the ups and downs of economic fortune in the US, Martin both as a family and as a guitar innovator survived, sometimes prospering sometimes faltering but always there and always the acoustic guitar maker whose products were aspired to.
In 1873, C.F. Martin Junior became sole owner of the firm, which was then passed in turn to Frank Henry Martin (born 1866), who managed it until he died in 1948. The current Chairman, C.F. Martin III, took his place in the Martin company in 1921, and he, through his son Frank Herbert Martin, has passed the responsibility of shaping the evolving company to today's generation, represented by Chris Martin (C.F. Martin IV) whose role in the company I have been following for several years now.
But, personalities and a long history aside, there has to be something very special about the guitars themselves. Only the best survive, and Martins have always been reckoned as being, if not the best, then among the very best guitars made.
Back in the mid-1800s an acoustic guitar wasn't very much like we know it today. For a start, almost all the models produced before the early 1900s were gut strung, steel strings not making much of an appearance until the early 1920s. These early guitars were small-bodied instruments, too, with relatively quiet voices, designed mostly for genteel parlour entertainment. Nonetheless, steady advances in design and construction were being made, and the inheritance of the woodworking skills which had originated in the Old World were being developed in line with the demands of the New.
Probably where we begin to come up to date with generally recognisable acoustic guitars of a more modern form is with the Martin 'Style 18' and '21' models of the late 1800s. Small-bodied with sharply defined waists, these guitars were the forebears of the exquisite '0', '00' and '000' current model guitars, the mainstays of many British Folk players and recording artists. Listen to the work of a guitarist like Martin Carthy (renowned for his use of a battered, ancient '000' and you'll hear a uniquely clear, transparent guitar sound, quite different from the bass-prominent tone produced on most modern Jumbos.
But it was the launch of Martin's mighty Dreadnought in the early 1930s that really saw the birth of the modern acoustic guitar as we know it today. These large-bodied instruments (positively huge by the standards of what had gone before) were designed to give tremendous power and projection, ideally suited to the needs of the Country artist, the Blues guitarist and the dance band guitarist, all of whom needed more volume than could ever have been obtained from the earlier, smaller Martins. So important an innovation were the Dreadnoughts that the term (borrowed from the class of giant battleships then making their appearance in Europe) survives to this day, and many a Japanese acoustic maker's 1986 catalogue still plagiarises the term to describe its own versions of these loud, deep-bodied acoustics. Not only did the Dreadnought size guitar appeal to the Jazz and Blues player, but America's Bluegrass musicians adopted it as their own, to the extent that it is at least as common in that field today as the Strat is in Rock.
Throughout this century Martin have maintained their legendary place in the history of the acoustic guitar, whether one talks of the smaller-bodied 0s, 00s and 000s, or the Dreadnoughts. Dozens of Martin ideas have come and gone (including rather poorly received electrics, and basses) but — even in today's age of 'advanced' plastics and MIDI control — a Martin guitar remains the pinnacle which many of the world's acoustic players aim to achieve in the guitar they own. And that isn't just mindless flattery; ask any British acoustic guitar maker what he thinks of Martin's products.
This reputation for quality has ensured that vintage Martin acoustics are among the world's most valuable guitars. If you happen to find a 1930s 000 in your grandfather's loft, don't swap it for a new Westone, will you! Ageing will always make a fundamentally good acoustic sound better, and the sound produced by some of these vintage Martins has to be heard to be believed, but it's really a market dominated by dedicated collectors who have made the accumulation of old Martins a rich man's pastime.
Continuing with the story, Martin (along with those other US legends, Gibson and Fender) expanded rapidly during the 1960s, and acquired several other makers in the process, perhaps the most missed of whom is the Swedish maker Levin. But what went up had to come down, and as guitar sales slumped during the late 1970s and 80s (especially those of acoustics), recent years have seen Martin contracting, producing far less guitars but still making them in the same hand-crafted way, almost regardless of the price consequences of so doing. Martin guitars have never been cheap, and their use of the finest woods and painstaking hand-crafting techniques impose a price level which makes them luxury instruments.
But where do Martin go from here? Can they survive the onslaught of the Japanese makers, who have done so much damage to the other American stalwarts? Will they be forced to shrink their operation in the face of lower priced competition, becoming a 'specialists only' guitar maker? For the Martin company and its guitars to prosper, new models will have to be developed.
One innovation that could change things in Martin's favour has recently arrived, with the launch of the Shenandoah series of more affordable US-made Martins with laminated backs and sides but solid tops. Likewise, there are also the new J-Series Jumbos (see Katy 88's review later in this feature). But will Martin overcome the problems facing the American guitar greats? To try and find the answer, I met with Chris Martin and put him in the IN TUNE hot seat.
Chris Martin isn't what you'd expect of the traditional American businessman. Sitting with him and Martin guitar demonstrator David Becker in a Soho coffee bar, Chris could easily have been mistaken for any of the musicians who haunt the music shops which still throng Denmark St.
Chris's casual 'one of us' appearance isn't a sham, although it is deliberate policy on his part. He doesn't want to look or come across like someone who'd be equally as at home selling Ford cars or IBM technology, as he admits.
'Back at the time of the Guitar Weekend show at the Barbican, we did eight clinics across the UK and one comment that Philip York' (head of Martin's U.K. distributors Dreadnought Guitars) 'kept hearing was how people expected us to turn up in suits and ties and to be very proper, very blase, and full of 'The Martin Guitar Company, blah, blah, blah..." But people find us very approachable. Hearing David is an eye-opener for a lot of people, too, as he plays a type of music that they're not expecting to hear. It excites them, and that's the way it should be, because we need to put some excitement back into the acoustic guitar.'
In fact David Becker most definitely isn't the sort of demonstrator you expect to see working for these masters of the acoustic guitar. By no standards the archetypal Bluegrass player with a Dreadnought hanging round his neck, David uses one of the M-Series cutaway models (a Maple MC68, to be precise), amplified and with a range of effects.
His remarkable playing verges on freeform Jazz/Rock, and he demonstrates perfectly how much further you can go with a Martin than just the basic Country, Folk and Blues styles that some people still seem to believe is a Martin's natural role.
It's no secret that the acoustic guitar has been in the doldrums for several years now. How, I asked Chris, had Martin fared during the recession?
'In the States we've had to re-adjust our business to the post guitar boom days; but now we've found a level that's comfortable, and in fact we're really beginning to sell guitars again — we've even been sold out in recent months. People are particularly interested in both our new Jumbo and the Shenandoah. Even some of our Bluegrass customers are beginning to buy these new J-Series Jumbos, and that's incredible — whoever heard of a Bluegrass player with a Jumbo!?'
This new guitar design combines the established 'M' series 'Grand Auditorium' body profile with the Dreadnought's body depth, resulting (from what I've heard) in a blazingly successful marriage of the power and volume of a Dreadnought with a much greater balance of treble to bass. If you've previously found Dreadnoughts too boomy (especially for recording uses), I suspect that the J could be a revelation to you. I asked Chris how the new design originated.
'We've had the M-Series for several years now, and they came about because of the pronounced boomy bass of the Dreadnought that can make it very difficult to record. It can also drive the sound man mad during concerts! We introduced the M for people who maybe didn't want a Dreadnought possibly because they didn't want to be automatically branded a Bluegrass player just because they used one.
'About a year ago — just for the heck of it, really — I had the guys in the workshop take an M with the scalloped bracing, and put a Dreadnought depth on it. I showed the finished guitar round the office and everyone went for it. I showed it to some of our US dealers, and they went for it too. Then Rick Turner from Guitar Player called me up one day and said he was planning an article on pickups, so would I send him one of our thin-line pickups fitted to one of our guitars for review. My reaction was, oh well, let's kill two birds with one stone, and so I sent him a thinline fitted to the Jumbo. Rick was so impressed that he never even bothered to review the pickup — he reviewed the guitar instead, and that's the sort of favourable reaction we've had ever since we made the first one.'
How would Chris describe the new guitar's characteristics?
'Well, it's bassy but it's not got a pronounced bass, because it has a lot more mid-range. The treble is there too, and it's very pronounced in a chord. Maybe I'd say it was balanced. If you wanted a guitar for treble, possibly you should still buy an 'M', but if you really want a loud, balanced-sounding guitar, then you should buy the Jumbo.'
Is it a guitar suited to the Rock player who wants an acoustic, I asked?
'Well, that's one of its advantages; it defies categorisation. You get up on stage with a Dreadnought and your audience expects you to play Bluegrass. The J would certainly be fine for a Rock player, because it's meant to be worked and it responds to hard playing — it's not the sort of guitar that you'd curl up on a couch with and just plink around on. In fact, one guy came up to our stand at the Guitar Weekend and he had really powerful hands; when he started to play heads turned, it was really great.
'Internally, the guitar is a traditional Martin in that it's got scalloped X bracing. What it is, really, is a Dreadnought depth on an M body, although the neck is a little different.'
I took this point up with Chris, because more them a few Rock players have found Martin's traditional style necks fairly tough to handle when they're used to solid electrics. Does the new Jumbo suit a more Rock orientated player?
'We felt that "crossover" players would want something a little different, and so we've fitted it with what we call a low-profile neck. It's not like a D28, and an electric player will feel more at home with it'.
But if the guitar is destined to shock Martin buffs from a constructional viewpoint, then it's the fitment of a truss rod that could bowl them over. Unlikely though it may seem, previous Martins have never sported this feature, which is almost universal in other guitars. Why had Martin finally decided to join the truss rod movement?
'Well, we still don't believe that a truss rod is the universal cure-all, but Quality Control told us that they were having some problems with guitar players who were travelling all over the world and were finding the frequent stresses of climatic changes causing small neck movements. Fitting a truss rod doesn't mean that a guitar shouldn't be treated well, but it does mean that if you travel a lot, you can at least tweak the neck.'
I next asked Chris about the Martin Shenandoahs. These less costly (although still not cheap) models feature laminated backs and sides, something often done by guitar makers trying to keep costs down, but a definite move away from the solid timbers traditionally used in Martin guitars. Obviously it's better than the alternative practice I dislike so much — that of using a laminated top — but how did Chris feel that it fitted in with the Martin image?
'It really wasn't our decision,' Chris reasons. 'The public and the dealers demanded a less costly guitar from us, and the only way we could do that was to utilise different materials and use more machinery during manufacture. We're very honest with people about the Shenandoahs; we don't try to pretend that they're real solid wood, handmade-from-scratch Martins. What we say is that they're good value for money, and are designed to compare with other makers' guitars, rather than be out there on their own.'
On this general subject of holding quality, a few years ago many guitar makers were expressing worries about a possible shortage of fine tone woods. Did that still apply?
'Well, because of the end of the guitar boom, wood really isn't a problem. In fact, just to illustrate that point, we even get telexes in from some of the Japanese manufacturers asking us if we want to buy their wood! They went into the world timber market and bought a lot of stocks assuming that there would be a never-ending guitar boom, but it did end, and now they're sitting on a lot of stocks.
'In fact the only wood that's hard to get today is Brazilian Rosewood, quarter sawn and kiln dried. You can get Rosewood veneers, but we prefer to use solid wood on our handmade guitars. Other than that, there really is no shortage as such.'
Have Martin made any changes in the way they store or prepare their timbers?
'No: what we're trying to do now is educate people as to how they should really treat their guitars the way we treat the woods. All our wood is kiln dried, bringing it down to around 6-8% moisture. After that we bring it into our plant and let it sit there. The environment in the plant itself is 45% relative humidity, 70 degrees Fahrenheit 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.
The finished guitar leaves our plant having been through that conditioning, and the closer the player can get to that environment where they keep their Martin, the better it will react in the long term.
'Lack of humidity, for example, will crack the wood, and excessive humidity can cause a spongeiness in the tone. Really excessive humidity can cause mildew, of course. Extreme changes of temperature can be really damaging, too, causing the lacquer to "check" and even warping the neck'
This advice, of course, shouldn't be taken as an indication that Martins are in any way weak or delicate guitars. After all, many 1930s examples are still in regular use today. Rather this is advice that could be applied to almost any quality made acoustic guitar. Nevertheless I wanted to probe the point further, and asked Chris how much movement would be likely to take place during shipping to countries which didn't have that sort of idealised environment?
'Sometimes a guitar will move during shipment, and then what generally happens is that the action will be just a hair higher than when we sent it out. Now we send them out with a medium height anyway, so sometimes people get hold of them and say "That's what it is about those Martins, that action". What they don't seem to realise is that the action is adjustable. This is why we send them out the way we do. It's so much easier to lower an action than to raise it, you don't need a new nut, for example, if all you're doing is lowering it. All you have to do is just shave a little off the bridge. Our guitars don't really have high actions, it's just that the trend today is for low actions, and you can get that with a Martin if you want it.'
Did they ever get tempted to fit adjustable bridges to their guitars?
'No. The adjustable bridges I'm familiar with are the sorts of things that you see fitted to Korean acoustics, and until somebody comes up with something that's both tasteful and functional, we'll just stick to the traditional glued method.'
A major problem, it goes without saying, is the price that this fanatical attention to detail results in. Martins are expensive, even given the recent more favourable movements of the US $ against the £. How did the high price of Martins make Chris feel — especially when he looked at Japanese products?
'You know, the interesting thing about the Asian guitar makers is that they can't make the same type of guitar that we make any cheaper than we can. They can make solid body electrics cheaper than US manufacturers, but when it comes to handmaking and solid quality woods, they're just as expensive as we are.'
Which leads us, circuitously, back to the past. Just as some players will sell their granny's false teeth for a pre-CBS Strat or a '58 Les Paul, others will go to almost any lengths to get their hands on an old Martin. And yet many players insist (myself among them) that a brand new Martin (and this goes for some other craftsman made acoustics, too) will itself mature, sometimes improving vastly within a mere three or four years.
Given that the Martin wood quality and manufacturing tradition appears to have been maintained (in some senses, Chris believes it has actually improved), did he feel that this ageing factor still held?
'The day you buy a Martin guitar is the worst it will ever sound; it will only get better from then on. This is why people will pay astronomical sums for the used ones. I can't afford to collect old Martins personally, but I can afford to buy the occasional new one. Someday they'll be old ones too!'
From the many previous conversations I've had with Chris Martin, not to mention hours spent poring over and playing new Martins, I'm personally convinced that the traditional virtues of this most venerable of guitar makers persist even in today's mass produced plastic world. The people who work in the Nazareth factory are all trained 'in house' — many of them have spent their lifetimes building these instruments. Perhaps because of the company's history and the nature of the people who live and work there, a generation to generation tradition endures among some of the employees. Combined, these factors help keep the Martin legend alive. Even if you could never hope to afford one, even if you'd never dream of needing an acoustic guitar that much, you should, at least once, play a Martin guitar yourself — you'll never understand the reverence with which these instruments are held until you do.
Interview by Katy 88
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