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The Martin Dreadnought Story

May 1988
by Richard Bamman

artin guitars and Rolls Royce automobiles. Martin guitars and Steinway pianos. Martin guitars and Baccarat crystal. High faultin' comparisons, to be sure; but few acoustic musicians can hear the name "C.F. Martin" without instantly linking it to some mental image that stands for enduring quality. Since 1833, the Martin Guitar Company has provided instruments of consistently high caliber to virtually a worldwide market. Among musicians there is a standing joke about being able to communicate in any language as long as you can say, "Martin guitar."

   What is it that has created the interest and demand for the musical products from this small, privately held company in Nazareth, Pennsylvania? Although some would point to various technical features or famed models, it's probably best expressed in terms of family tradition and longevity, and a reputation that borders on legend. No manufacturer ever has an unblemished record of creativity, value, and service; but Martin's has been so good for so long that one would almost think Christian Frederick Martin built his first guitar with wood from George Washington's cherry tree.

   The "handcrafting" image that is part of the aura goes along with Martin's limited production. The company's current output is around 7,500 instruments a year, not exactly qualifying for Fortune 500 status. [Ed. Note: Martin reached its peak production level in 1971, producing 22,627 instruments.]

   Among the great variety of instruments that Martin Company makes, it's safe to say that none has enjoyed more popularity than their line of dreadnoughts or D-size guitars. By current standards a "regular size" guitar, the dreadnought once was viewed in less favorable light, primarily because it was so large in comparison to other guitars of the day.

   The deep bass response of a D-28 was a very unusual feature to musicians used to clear treble and overall balance of smaller "standard size" instruments. However, when the dreadnought made its way into the hands of country music performers, it found an appreciative audience-it was just the item for backing up vocals, fiddles, and banjos in lieu of a bass instrument.

   A look through Martin historian Mike Longworth's book, Martin Guitars: A History, shows that the dreadnought's gain in popularity has been steady since its introduction. Today the dreadnought is ubiquitous, found in every style of acoustic music, and accounts for approximately 80 percent of Martin's yearly production. [Ed. Note: The third edition of Martin Guitars: A History is due out later this year, published by the Martin Guitar Company.]

From The Beginning

   The very first dreadnought guitars (named for a class of World War I-era British battleships, "Dreadnought") were manufactured by Martin for The Oliver Distribution Company, a publishing firm based in Boston. Curiously enough, the guitars weren't sold with the Martin name on them, but rather were marketed in Boston and New York under the Oliver Ditson brand name, beginning in 1916. These dreadnoughts did not even include a Martin serial number, but instead used Ditson's own serial numbering system. They continued to appear in the Ditson catalog until the company's demise in the late 1920's.

   The Ditson dreadnoughts were quite different in appearance from their modern offspring: The bodies were elongated to accommodate a wide, 12-fret neck (12 frets clear of the body) with a slotted peghead. The early Ditsons also had a different soundhole rosette and inlay pattern, and had no pickguard. All of the Ditsons had mahogany backs and sides and spruce tops, like a modern D-18.

   In 1931 the Martin Company began producing dreadnought guitars that carried the Martin name. Two models designated D-1 and D-2 made their debut. The D-1, like the earlier Ditsons, was a mahogany-body instrument, destined to become the D-18. With the D-2 (four were made in 1931) Martin introduced what may still be the most popular style of steel-string guitar, the rosewood-body dreadnought. All of Martin's early dreadnoughts had the 12-fret neck of the Ditson design. It wasn't until 1934 that D-28s and D-18s officially were offered with the 14-fret neck most consider standard today.

   How else did Martin's early dreadnoughts differ from today's version? The early D-18 was similar in appearance to its modern counterpart, with one exception: Ebony was the standard material for bridges and fretboards, rather than the rosewood used now. Like all style 28 guitars preceding it, the early D-28 had a strip of marquetry (with a distinctive "herringbone" pattern) running around the top. This decoration led to the current designation, "herringbone D-28" which one hears reverently discussed among Martin fanciers. (It is basically the same instrument as today's HD-28). In addition, bisecting the back was a "zipper" decoration strip of purfling, which is different in appearance than that found on modern D-28s.

   The herringbone purfling was discontinued on style 28 guitars in 1947, due to a matter of history and economics: The purfling was manufactured in pre-World War II Germany, and was not replaceable from American sources. When the stockpile ran out, D-28s (and all style 28 guitars) were subsequently treated to a new decoration scheme of alternating black and white celluloid originally used on the Martin arch-top C-2 model. Only one herringbone D-28 was made in 1947.

   What the company regarded as a minor change still has economic repercussions on the guitar market-a '46 D-28 (herringbone) is bound to sell for more than a '47 D-28 (non-herringbone), even though they are structurally and functionally identical guitars.

   Certainly the tremendous interest in prewar dreadnoughts isn't predicated on the existence of a decorative strip of wood alone, is it? Well, no-and yes. If we could peek inside a 1943 D-28 (for that matter, a '43 D-18 or any 1943 Martin steel-string guitar), we'd notice what amounts to the most significant difference between pre-1945 and 1945 production guitars: the overall shape of the cross braces and lower braces attached to the guitar's top.

   The pre-1945 braces have a scooped or "scalloped" profile, making them lighter in mass. Functionally this means a more flexible vibrating surface (the top), and provides stronger bass response. (It has long been assumed that the switch from the old style scalloped braces occurred at the beginning of 1945. According to Longworth, the change occurred in very late 1944, with 12 D-28's and 26 D-18s produced with the new heavier top braces that year. For convenience, the date 1945 will be used in this article.)

   And now for the "yes" part of the answer. The discrepancy between the change to heavier top braces and from herringbone produces an overlap of two-plus years. Simply stated, a '46 herringbone D-28 has more in common structurally with a non-herringbone '47 than it does with prewar and wartime vintage herringbone dreadnoughts. The '45 dreadnoughts used Adirondack spruce for the tops, and their braces were not scalloped. The '46s are non-scalloped with a Sitka top. Incidentally, there were just 1,451 D-28s and 3,753 D-18s manufactured before the change in braces, so finding one for sale may be a little difficult.

   Why did the Martin Company change from the "scalloped" braces to heavier braces? The answer is not in the guitar at all, but in the strings. Many guitarists of that time were using heavy gauge strings on their instruments. These heavy strings were tough on the lightly constructed Martin guitars, especially on the dreadnought with its long 25.4" scale. Quite simply, The Martin Company wasn't interested in making a much heavier guitar to withstand the extra string tension, so they compensated by adding some rigidity to the braces supporting the top.

   As the dreadnought developed in the early years there were a few other minor changes-which have kept Martin fans arguing for decades. One was the actual location of the cross braces on the top. In the early production years, the braces were positioned closer to the soundhole, with the result being a top that flexed in a slightly different manner. There are a number of guitarists who consider these "high X-brace" instruments to be Martin's greatest achievement; others find the difference minimal. The entire bracing pattern was moved away from the soundhole, according to Longworth, in the late 1930s to strengthen the top.

   Due to shortage of metal during World War II, the Martin Company discontinued the use of a steel reinforcing bar (T cross-section) in the neck. They replaced it with a similarly shaped piece of ebony. Their earliest ebony-bar design had been replaced by the steel T-bar in late 1934.

   The ebony-bar guitars are quite a bit lighter than their earlier and later counterparts, and more prone to neck-angle problems. After the war, the steel T-bar found its way back into production, only to be replaced in 1967 by a square steel tube. In 1985 (decades after some other manufacturers had initiated its use), the Martin Company introduced the first adjustable reinforcing (truss) rods in its history.

The First D-45

   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. The Martin Company complied, and the first and perhaps most famous D-45, #53177, was born, complete with Autry's name in pearl script on the fretboard.

   Like all early dreadnoughts, the first D-45 had the elongated body and 12-fret neck. As you can imagine, with all of the abalone pearl body decoration, the guitar proved to be expensive to make, costing a whopping $200.00 in the middle of the depression.

   Although the D-45 was not catalogued until 1938, five more were built between 1933 and its official introduction, including two other 12-fret versions. The guitar built for Autry had a "torch" inlay pattern on the peghead; subsequent D-45s had the familiar "C.F. Martin" block letter logo. In 1939, the fretboard inlay pattern was changed from the traditional style 45 "snowflakes" to new "modern" solid hexagons.

   The Martin Company had produced 91 D-45s by the time the guitar was [temporarily] discontinued in 1942. Except for the 1936 D-45 (which had a 5/8" wider body and three different 12-fret "S" designs), all of these guitars were structurally identical to the other pre-1945 dreadnoughts.

Mid-'40s To The Mid-'60s

   Following this rather active period of development (1931-1947), the D-18 and D-28 remained virtually unchanged for the next twenty years. There were other changes, however, which produced a pair of new dreadnoughts, and the re-issue of a third.

   In 1954, the Martin Company again started building dreadnoughts with the elongated body and 12-fret neck, on a very limited basis. Designated with an "S" after the model number, the first few D-28S guitars were strictly special products.

   The E.U. Wurlitzer Music Company of Boston ordered a few of these S-body guitars in 1962 to be sold only through their stores. The resulting D-28SW proved to be popular enough that, in 1968, Martin added it (and the D-18S and D-35S) to their regular line. All three models still are featured in the Martin catalog. According to Longworth, the factory has always given credit to Peter Yarrow (of the folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary) for popularizing the D-28S.

   In 1956, a new rosewood-bodied dreadnought, the D-21, made its first public appearance (six samples had been built in 1955). The D-21, like the D-18 and the D-28, was the dreadnought version of an existing model (style 21). The D-21 had the same rosewood body as a D-28, but in other features was more like a D-18: tortoiseshell-colored body binding and a rosewood fretboard and bridge.

   Until the mid-'60s, Martin had always purchased rosewood in log (or "timber") form in Brazil. The wood was then resawn in the U.S. to Martin's specifications. The Brazilian government placed an embargo on timber shipments, demanding instead that the logs be resawn in Brazil. This situation proved completely unsatisfactory for The Martin Company, and it began importing rosewood from India.

   The effects of Martin's decision to change to Indian rosewood occurred in stages. First, in 1965, was the introduction of a dreadnought which allowed Martin to utilize narrower sections of wood than normally used in a D-size guitar: the three-piece-back D-35. It was a brand new style, complete with fancier celluloid trim around the body, and binding on the sides of the fretboard. Unlike the D-21, the D-35 was a major success.

The Tumultuous Mid-'60s

   After the introduction of the D-35, Martin was faced with a dwindling supply of Brazilian rosewood and a quickly growing guitar market-folk music was booming. The newly imported Indian rosewood required aging before it could be used. Consequently, Martin began cutting their remaining Brazilian rosewood logs differently to obtain more usable wood out of each log.

   This "slab-sawn" wood yielded some of the wildest grain patterns in the company's history; very different from the straight-grained quarter-sawn wood Martin had used previously. By late 1969, the change to Indian rosewood was complete, with D-21 #254498 having the distinction of being the first official Indian rosewood guitar.

   The changes didn't stop there. Other familiar features disappeared as well. In 1967 the tortoiseshell-colored, nitrate-base plastic which was used as a body binding on D-18s, D-21s, and for pickguards on all dreadnoughts, was replaced with a black, acetate-base plastic that was a considerably more stable material to use and store. The familiar ivory-colored binding on D-28s and D-35s similarly was replaced with white plastic.

   Another change (albeit inadvertent) was the rounding of the top edges of the mid-'60s Martin pegheads. According to Longworth, who heard the story directly from C.F. Martin III, the original wood peghead template had become so worn from use that the square corners became rounded. Eventually, a new metal template was made and the peghead edges once again were square.

   A more serious change occurred on April 9, 1968. On that date the Martin Company began using rosewood instead of maple for the bridge plate, the small piece of reinforcing wood glued to the inside surface of the top, directly under the bridge. Martin also enlarged the bridge plate.

   As in the case of heavier braces two decades earlier, the problem of structural stability had been raised. To Martin, a larger, heavier bridge plate seemed to be the answer. If one had to point to a single, indisputable, qualifiable difference between Martin guitars made before and after this period, it would not be in the types of rosewood used in the bodies, the color of the plastics, the shape of the peghead, or any number of other visible components, but rather a seemingly innocuous piece of wood inside the guitar.

The Big Guitar Boom

   The late 1960s may have witnessed the end of one era for the Martin Company, but their last few products of that decade ushered in the ensuing "high production '70s" with a surprise. In 1968, after 26 years, the famous D-45 surfaced again. Martin historian Mike Longworth deserves more than a little credit for reintroducing this product.

   When Longworth went to work for the Martin Company, he brought with him the knowledge of how to do the pearl work necessary for the fanciest production Martin guitar. Working on his own, Longworth actually "converted" several D-28s by retrofitting them with all of the pearl bordering found on the old D-45s. This was no attempt to deceive, but flattery of the highest regard. 230 D-45s were made with Brazilian rosewood in the late '60s before the switch to Indian rosewood.

   A totally new model was introduced in 1969 to fill the gap between the D-35 and the new D-45: the D-41. This instrument featured pearl borders around the top only, as opposed to the all-encompassing borders on the more expensive D-45. Thirty-one D-41s, starting with number 252014, were made with Brazilian rosewood; all the rest are constructed of Indian rosewood.

   With the tremendous interest in acoustic guitars in the early 1970s (which coincided exactly with the new "soft rock" era of James Taylor, Loggins & Messina, and Seals & Crofts) the Martin Company increased production to an unprecedented rate. As a comparison, in 1961 the company made 507 D-28s; in 1971 the total was 5,466. The company offered five different dreadnoughts (as well as numerous smaller-sized guitars) to a market that seemed to grow every month.

   To meet the ever-increasing demand, Martin chose to build up its staff rather than change production procedures, which still primarily required handwork. Martin reached its peak production in 1971, but didn't hit its peak dreadnought production years until 1974 and 1975. Over 30,000 dreadnoughts were produced in this two-year period. (1974: 3,811 D-18s; 5,077 D-28s; 6,184 D-35s; 506 D-41s; 157 D-45s. 1975: 3,069 D-18s; 4,996 D-28s; 6,260 D-35s; 452 D-41s; and 192 D-45s [does not include S models].)

Other Models

   As a result of the phenomenal growth in acoustic guitar sales during this period, and the subsequent slowdown, the Martin Company began an aggressive research and development phase, which brought no fewer than nine new dreadnought models into production by 1980. It's difficult to single out one model for consideration, but the HD-28 represented an interesting glimpse back, while all of the rest were new ideas.

   Introduced in 1976, the HD-28 was a conscious effort to remake a guitar from the past-the prewar herringbone D-28. Like the early dreadnoughts, it featured scalloped top braces, a small maple bridge plate, and herringbone marquetry around the top. This bow to the past has proven to be a very popular model. After the success of the HD-28, the HD-35 (a D-35 with scalloped braces, maple bridge plate, and herringbone trim) was introduced in 1978.

   A singular effort was the Bicentennial commemorative D-76, featuring a three piece back, style 28 body trim, pearl stars in the fingerboard, a pearl eagle in the peghead, and two herringbone back stripes. It had a limited production of 1,976 guitars (plus an additional 98 employee instruments). The D-76, which began production in 1975, was not a hot seller; it didn't sell out until 1978.

   Yet another eye-catching series of guitars was produced, made out of Hawaiian koa wood. This was not the first time the Martin Company used this tropical hardwood, but these were the first dreadnoughts using koa. Two basic styles came in two optional models each. The D-25K had a spruce top, two-piece koa back and sides, rosewood fretboard and bridge, and black binding; the optional koa top changed the designation to D-25K2. The D-37K came with figured two-piece koa back and sides, spruce top, ebony fretboard and bridge, white binding, and fancier inlay; the koa top option was the D-37K2.

   Two other instruments were introduced to fit between the D-18 and the D-28. The D-19 was a D-18 with a stained top (brown to match the sides and back). It was followed by the D-19M, which was a D-18 with a mahogany top.

Anything Goes

   Now in the late 1980s, after nearly 60 years of constant production, the Martin dreadnought guitar is available in the standard production models, in the occasional "Limited Edition," or even as a customized creation.

   The Limited Edition dreadnoughts have taken a variety of forms. Martin has released historically accurate reproductions of mid-'30s D-28s-complete with "high X-braces," Brazilian rosewood, V-shaped neck, tortoiseshell-colored pickguard, "ivoroid" binding, and all the other features found on a normal HD-28. The company also has experimented with materials new to them, like maple, as in the limited edition D-62.

   Two other one-time offerings of the '80s have included a relatively inexperienced koa dreadnought, followed soon after by the fanciest Martin dreadnought ever, the 1987 D-45LE, designed by C.F. Martin IV, current chairman of the board of the company. It featured pearl borders nearly everywhere, specially selected Brazilian rosewood, fancy inlays, gold tuning machines, and a price tag of $7,500.00! One drawback of some Limited Edition instruments is that at times they are available on such a limited basis that potential customers aren't even aware of their existence until it's too late.

   At the same time, a customer has the ultimate freedom of designing his or her own "limited edition" guitar. Martin's customized dreadnoughts are not really a new option-in 1934, singer Tex Fletcher special-ordered the only D-42 ever made; a left-handed instrument. But this is the first time that Martin has solicited custom work on a regular basis.

   With all these options, and the quickly changing Martin offerings, this is an exciting and occasionally confusing time for Martin fans. But like quality automobiles and fine pianos, Martin dreadnoughts, new and old, continue to command considerable respect, and likely will for many years to come. End

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