About Martin Guitars
By the 1850s his business was doing quite well. He began re-designing his guitars in his shop, starting with the “x”-braced soundboard, which is still used by virtually all steel-string acoustic guitar builders to this day. Back in Europe, acoustic guitar builders favored fan-bracing, which did seem to capture more of the delicacy of gut strings, but the x-brace design was sturdier, and ultimately proved more effective with the steel-strings that Martin adopted for his instrument in the early 20th century.
From one Martin to the Next
Pre-War Martin Guitars
A "pre-war” Martin refers specifically to an instrument produced before WWII. Some of the distinctive features of this era of instrument were Adirondack Red Spruce tops, forward-shifted, deeply scalloped X-bracing, and herringbone trim on the rosewood models (Brazilian Rosewood was the default rosewood used by Martin until 1969, when they started using East Indian Rosewood due to supply issues). Connoisseurs have come to associate all three of these things with the “Golden Era” of Martin guitars.
Why were these coveted features done away with? In the case of the species of spruce used for their soundboards, Martin was having trouble sourcing cosmetically clean pieces of Adirondack in their shop, so they switched to Sitka with little consideration for the tonal difference. It wasn’t until later that folks became aware of the higher stiffness to weight ratio of Red Spruce. That said, Sitka is more of the “everyman” wood, in that it's best suited for strumming. As for the X-bracing, Martin was responding to the developing player preference for heavier strings. Although scalloping the braces improved the responsiveness of the top on an acoustic guitar, straight braces were more structurally stable, and some players have even come to prefer the even-ness of the straight-braced tone. The retirement of herringbone trim had to do with the war itself. Herringbone purfling was a German export.
Modern Day Martin Guitars
Now that we’ve established the history and context of Martin, it will behoove us to take a look at some different examples of the Martin instrument in a historical timeline. If you see something you like, shoot us an email and we can see about getting something similar in the shop.
1830's Parlor Guitar
By this point, Martin had graduated in size due to performance demands. The instrument had left the parlor and had begun filling small halls. The “00” acoustic guitar size, though on the smaller size by today's standards, was originally billed as an extra-large guitar suitable for a Grand Concert (one of the other common designations for an acoustic this size). In addition to the size of the venue, the acoustic guitar also had to be louder to compete with the banjo and mandolin. At this point, incidentally around the same time as the birth of the blues, the acoustic guitar was well on its way to becoming the most popular instrument in the world. Structurally, a 1900 00-28 featured the signature Martin X-brace, an Adirondack Red Spruce Top, Brazilian Rosewood back and sides, a long scale length, a 1 7/8” nut, a pyramid bridge, 12-frets to the body, and a slotted headstock.
Jimmie Rodgers 1927 OO-18 and 000-45
Norman Blake’s 1933 D-28
As the years went by, the C.F Martin company discovered that the Dreadnought proved especially popular with a certain type of customer: the bluegrass musician. Bluegrass, a high-velocity manifestation of Appalachian-American roots music, rose to prominence in the 1940s. Groups such as Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys played loud, fast, acoustic music and the Dreadnought proved an essential ingredient in the mix for its strong bass current, as well as its ability to cut through the banjo and mandolin.
One of the greatest pickers to emerge from the bluegrass/acoustic roots music milieu is Norman Blake. Having toured and recorded with super-stars like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Blake went on to create a highly-refined sub-genre called “chamber folk” with his partner, Nancy Short, a classically trained cellist. Early in his career, Blake played a one-of-a-kind shade top 12-fret D-28 built in 1933. Between 1931 and 1935, when Dreadnoughts were being built, but not in general production, the Martin company only produced twenty-one 12-fret dreadnought guitars, and only one shade top. This guitar is currently listed for $2,000,000.