With 181 years in the business, Martin sets the standard for guitars

By Mike Greenblatt

NAZARETH, Pa. — When one walks through the huge C.F. Martin & Co. guitar factory to take the popular tour, artisans can be seen constructing beautiful instruments. By now, they must be used to people watching them as they cut, sand, wax, polish and fit necks to bodies. Often, one of these guitar-makers will test his work and play the instrument.

I met Susan Noviello, one of the many skilled workers who help to craft Martin guitars, as she worked on neck-fitting in the repairs department. Noviello was practically born to her chosen trade. Her grandfather, Earl Hartzell, worked at Martin for 40 years making guitars.

To walk through the Martin factory and museum is to see the past, present and future of the American acoustic guitar — not to mention the guitars of the stars. Dick Boak is the only non-Martin in the company who holds the key to the treasures. When this reporter gawked at a $500,000 guitar behind glass — as did others taking the tour at the time — Boak took a little key out of his pocket, opened the gates of heaven, pulled the guitar from its stand and handed it to me.

“Go on,” he said. “Play it.”

That moment is etched in time. My host looked on bemusedly as I eagerly did as I was told. I was in heaven.

Martin Guitar North Street factory in Nazareth, Pa., 1912

Today’s workers at Martin & Co. pursue the same standards of quality, craftsmanship and excellence as these workers did in 1912 at the firm’s North Street location in Nazareth, Pa., and as luthier C.F. Martin did when he launched the company in 1833. Photos courtesy Martin & Co./Dick Boak

Boak has assiduously labored over Martin’s amazing archives for years, some 400,000 documents of this 181-year-old company that has survived seven generations of change and represents the prototype of the original American acoustic guitar ever since German-born independent luthier C.F. Martin [1796-1873] made the first Martin guitar. He then moved his fledgling five-year-old company to Nazareth, Pa., in 1838, where it remains to this day. Chris Martin is the current Martin in charge; his daughter, Claire Frances Martin, will take the company into the future.

But it’s Boak who is the wellspring of company knowledge and information. He has the greatest job in the world, dealing with musicians who love their Martins, like Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, David Bromberg, Jorma Kaukonen, Linda Ronstadt, Paul Simon and Mark Knopfler.

martin guitars john sebastian luthier

Singer and songwriter John Sebastian (with Martin & Co.’s Dick Boak) lets the back of this guitar express the gratitude he and legions of fellow musicians feel for Martin & Co.’s fine guitars.

Another aspect of his job is trying to dispel the notion that Martin Guitars are prohibitively expensive. The truth is that the high-end guitars — $3,500 and up — are only that pricey because of the ornamentation: the pearl inlay, the wood, the design. Martin’s BackPacker model is just a few hundred dollars. But it still boasts that Martin tone.

“Then we have the Little Martins, which are 3/4-sized,” explains Boak, “great for kids, for traveling, they’re $400, although you can get them for less from retailers who offer discounts.

“All of our guitars,” he continues, “have what we call ‘Martin tone.’ But when you get up into the solid-wood, full-gloss guitars — the ones I really love, the guitars that made us famous, in all their different sizes and shapes, be it mahogany or rosewood, all with their designs — there’s an obscene amount of inlay. Hey, the more lavish inlay is a beautiful art form. I love it. It’s gorgeous. But it doesn’t lend anything to the tone.

“C.F. Martin III, for instance, was a proponent of the lowest common denominator of great tone and simple ornamentation. He grew up in the Depression, and back then, we were making guitars with no ornamentation whatsoever. Yet those guitars were still magnificent. They have a dry, sweet sound that’s great for blues,” Boak explains. “He also loved the Style 21 guitars, which were our least expensive rosewood guitars. The D-21 has the identical tone as the top-of-the-line D-45, it just has no pearl.”

Buyers who seek out one of Martin’s famed Standard Series guitars can expect to pay anywhere between $2,899 for a D-18 up to $10,599 for a D-45, according to the Martin website (www.martinguitar.com).

The American guitar developed from a fairly primitive European design, a combination of the Viennese style blended with Spanish tradition. C.F. Martin then added X-bracing in 1843, a pin bridge and a slightly V-shaped neck, and that became the formula for the American acoustic guitar, a prototype invented by Martin.

“It went through a tremendous amount of trial and error with constant refinement,” explains Boak.

But just what is it that makes a Martin guitar so special, draws in legendary musicians and makes even the amateur players like me “ooh” and “aah”?

“Premium materials, design and craftsmanship, but more importantly, the tone!” Boak says. “Between the shape of the instrument and its tone quality, performers have so many variables to choose from.”

Martin’s guitars find a balance between strength and tone, he adds, which really amounts to a weight issue.

“When you pick up a mahogany guitar, it surprises you by how light it is. A rosewood guitar is going to be slightly heavier but still not over-built,” he says.

Probably the most famous Martin guitar in the world is Willie Nelson’s beloved Trigger. Nelson has allowed fellow artists to gouge their names into the wood. The guitar has been with him so long, that there’s a second hole in the body from over-use. Seems hard to believe, but could that possibly improve its sound?

Boak answers in the affirmative, but quickly adds a warning.

Martin guitars Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting an exhibit dedicated to Martin & Co. guitars. The exhibit runs through Dec. 7, 2014. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/Tbgarc

“I don’t condone anyone going home and smashing another hole through your guitar. Willie’s Martin is a fairly obscure, nylon-stringed N-20 that he got in the ’60s. He had had a cheaper guitar called a Conn. Well, it fell and broke. It had a pickup in it that was huge, and he loved its sound. So he took it into Taylor’s store in Nashville and asked if they could take the pickup out and put it in another guitar. He was shown the Martin N-20. It hasn’t left his side since. They belong together. That guitar was even locked in a manager’s closet so the IRS wouldn’t take it away during Willie’s tax problems. Everyone wants us to put in that second hole in our Trigger replications, but even we don’t know how Willie does it!”

The Martin Guitar factory and museum is open weekdays starting at 11 a.m. The best time to get there is 1:15 p.m., according to insiders.

You can also enjoy the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit “Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C.F. Martin,” which will be featured through Dec. 7, 2014. The exhibit at the New York City museum includes approximately 35 instruments from the Martin Museum in Nazareth, Pa., the Metropolitan Museum of Art and several private collections. GM

 

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