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Acoustic Guitar -- 10 Years
That Vintage Sound -- Why Martin's Prewar dreadnoughts are the Holy Grail of flattop guitars

Jan 2000
by Richard Johnston

"It's got that vintage sound!"
Link to Acoustic Guitar Magazine

n the world of acoustic steel-string guitars, there is no higher praise for an instrument. The original guitars that defined "that vintage sound" are legendary and coveted, and even while today's guitar makers dash for the future with innovative techniques and designs, most would like nothing better than to have a knowledgeable guitarist play their latest creation for a few moment and proclaim these magic words.

    But just what is "that vintage sound"? If today's guitars are so great--and most everyone admits they are--why are so many guitarists still comparing today's instruments to guitars made more than half a century ago? If we've made so many advancements in the craft, why do the sounds delivered by those old derelicts keep ringing in our ears?

    There is little argument among most guitarists about which vintage instruments deliver the sound everyone loves to hear, at least when it comes to flattop guitars. Although Gibson, the Larson Brothers, and a few other makers made great instruments, the guitars made by the Martin Guitar Co. during that magical "Golden Era" between 1930 and 1945 are most widely and consistently venerated--particularly the dreadnought models. And although growing numbers of makers are diverging from the sound and style of Martin's prewar flattops, the influence of those classics remains undiminished.

    This influence is partly because the use of Martin's designs has become so widespread; the company has refrained from resorting to litigation to keep others from copying its unique styling details. Martin developed the model and set the standard in the 1930s and '40s, then barely three decades later allowed anyone to reproduce it down to the finest detail, as long as they left off the Martin logo. As a result, many of today's best-known individual guitar makers and small instrument companies owe much of their success to a golden opportunity.

    When Martin tentatively debuted the D-18 and D-28 models in the early 1930s, the company had no idea it was setting the standard for big steel-string guitars. In fact, Martin had resisted building anything larger than the 000 size for years: customers who asked for a larger Martin were routinely referred to the Ditson music stores, for whom Martin made the first dreadnoughts on special order, to be sold under the Ditson name. Martin's emphasis remained upon a sweetness of tone and a balanced sound, perhaps because it was so quiet in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where Martin's headquarters have been located since 1839, 6 years after its founding. Letters in Martin's archives suggest that the company didn't think much of oversized "bass" guitars. Its reluctance to spend any energy on new, larger guitar models in the 1920s was also the result of a huge back order of ukuleles, thanks to the Hawaiian music craze.

    By 1931, however, the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, the ukulele craze had virtually disappeared, and the Ditson Company had been sold. And after Andres Segovia's American tour in 1928, during which he wowed audiences with a Spanish-made instrument, Martin finally realized that its own gut-string guitars were never going to pay the bills. The bright spot on the horizon was that even if Martin didn't have a maestro like Segovia playing one of its guitars, it did have America's Blue Yodeler, Jimmie Rodgers, who sold a hell of a lot more records. Though he died before the dreadnought era had really begun, Rodger spawned a whole generation of popular singers like Gene Autry who were Martin's most effective advertising, and they willingly paid for their own guitars even when the competition offered them free instruments.

    The guitarists of Rodgers' day often found that even a steel-string 000 like the one Jimmie played wasn't loud enough. Performers on live radio broadcasts like the WLS National Barn Dance, and later the Grand Ole Opry, usually shared one microphone for a whole band, putting the guitarist at an extreme disadvantage. Singers often wore the guitar high on their chest so its sound would be picked up by a microphone that had barely any bass response, even in ideal conditions. In short, guitarists needed an acoustic instrument with lots of bass, and Martin, out of necessity, delivered dreadnoughts that did the job. Even the name, originally borrowed from the largest class of battleship, seemed to fit the instrument's purpose: "dread not being unheard."

    The dreadnoughts looked like regular Martins on steroids, as the company didn't add anything radical or even minutely different other than the deep, boxy shape. The D-18 had the mahogany sides and back with dark edge binding and plain appointments of other style 18 Martins. The rosewood D-28 was only slightly more deluxe, with the familiar ivory-like celluloid binding and subtle herringbone pattern trim around the top edge that had graced style 28 guitars since the time of the Civil War. Both were plain instruments, so for those who needed more flash there was the rosewood D-45, which had lots of abalone bordering, fancy neck inlays, and a price tag double that of the D-28.

    In retrospect, it is hard to fathom Martin's persistent reluctance to put new dreadnoughts in its catalog. The new 14-fret OM model, a redesigned version of Jimmie's 000, had been an instant success a few years earlier. Yet the big guitars were still largely a secret, with sales figures to match, three years after the first dreadnoughts with Martin's name on the peghead were introduced. Martin seemed willing to build guitars much larger than its ideal but was unwilling to let the public know about them. As a result, only 13 D-18s and 17 D-28s had been sold by the close of 1933.

The Golden Era

    Almost all of Martin's guitar designs underwent a serious change in 1934. The old 12-fret body shapes were shortened, bridges and top bracing were shifted toward the soundhole, and slimmer necks with 14 frets clear of the body all heralded Martin's acceptance of the new "plectrum" style of guitar playing. Despite a lack of promotion, dreadnought sales improved. Then, with a prominent spot in the 1934 catalog--and sales prose untypical for Martin that described it as already "famous"-dreadnought sales took flight. By 1937 the D-18, which cost a whopping $65, was second only to the low-cost 0-17 ($30) in annual sales. Martin had a winner in the midst of the nation's hardest times, and, as sales of its ill-fated not-quite-archtop models faltered, the dreadnought moved to the company's center stage and has been there ever since.

    Playing one of these 1930s dreadnought Martins can be a revelation, and most players find all the hype about them easier to understand after testing a well-preserved example. The necks often seem big and clunky, but for the most part the overall feel is remarkable modern (necks were made narrower in 1939). Most guitarists comment on how lively they are in one's lap; it often feels like the player's whole body begins to resonate, and the sound seems to jump out of the soundhole. These guitars are extremely lightweight and respond quickly even to a light touch. Despite the initial billing as bass-heavy guitars, the treble response is usually crisp and clear, and a "dryness" to the overall sound contributed to the clarity and definition of individual notes. Although their volume is the stuff of legend, ir is the open, airy quality of the tone that sticks in one's memory, and that is what seems to be hardest to capture in a new guitar.

    The question "How did they do that?" always comes up among those who've played a really good Golden Era Martin dreadnought. If you look inside the body, there isn't much to demystify the topic, as the scalloped top bracing is hardly exceptional. Even the Brazilian rosewood back and sides on D-28s-and the Adirondack spruce used for the soundboard on all models-are now common, if expensive, options. The lacquer finish may be thin, but it's still just lacquer. The answer clearly doesn't lie in any one component or secret formula, but rather in a host of small differences, one of which is the passage of time.

    Martin had been devoted to making gut-string guitars until the 1920s, and the company was slow to adapt to the demands of steel strings. Changes at the rural Pennsylvania company tend to be evolutionary, and Martin's earliest steel-string efforts were clearly not fully evolved enough to handle the extra tension of steel strings. The company streamlined the necks and changed the body shapes of its dreadnoughts to accommodate plectrum playing, but the big guitars were still woefully light. Even after Martin had stiffened their guitar necks with a steel T-bar in 1934 and moved the top bracing to make the soundboards more stable a few years later, much of the rest of the construction was barely altered from decades earlier. The thin woods and light bracing all contributed to that lively sound but also meant that the guitars were not as stable and trouble-free as a company needed when building instruments with a lifetime warranty.

Postwar Changes

    It was precisely this lack of stability under heave steel strings that brought an end to Martin's Golden Era, for in late 1944 the scalloping of the top braces was eliminated. A couple of years after this change the familiar herringbone top trim on style 28 models was dropped, and other modernizations took place as well. Although these later guitars weren't built during the Golden Era, they are still impressive musical instruments, and a number of flatpickers actually prefer the sound of the later, nonscalloped-braced D-28s and D-18s to the earlier versions. The wide-open bass response is more controlled and less booming in these heavier-braced dreadnoughts, and many highly accomplished players find them to be better suited for lead playing. They are certainly easier to record! Martin continued to make the dreadnought heavier and heavier, however, and there is almost as much difference between a late 1960s D-28 and one from 15 years earlier as there is between prewar and postwar models. Even before 1970, when Martin switched from Brazilian rosewood to Indian rosewood, there was a growing ruckus about older Martins, especially those made before 1945.

    In 1976 Martin brought back the earlier style of D-28, including the scalloped top braces and herringbone top trim. Before long, this new HD-28 (H for herringbone) was Martin's best-selling model. But as the market for vintage guitars began to heat up, all the differences between 1930s Martins and postwar models--once the stuff known only by experts--became common knowledge. The HD-28 continued to sell well, yet many buyers wanted more exact replicas. Herringbone top trim, scalloped top braces, and an old-style "zipper" back strip just weren't enough for the dyed-in-the-details Martin faithful.

    Martin was floundering in red ink in the late '70s and early '80s, due to bad investments made years earlier, and the company was slow to capitalize on the value of its own legacy. The changes at Nazareth were once again evolutionary, and Martin slowly began to turn a more studious eye on the Golden Era dreadnoughts as prices for the originals climbed to several thousand dollars for a prime, mid-1930s D-28. Fewer than 1,650 D-28s had been produced in the first 15 years after Martin started making dreadnoughts, for instance, but that many new ones were sold every four months in the mid 1970s. You don't have to be an economics professor to understand what those kind of supply-versus-demand statistics would do to the prices of healthy, vintage specimens. Soon prices for prewar D-28s were simply out of reach for most guitarists, and a new appreciation for D-18s from the same period drove their value up dramatically as well. As Martin lumbered to embrace its own past with greater accuracy, small companies leaped into the breach.

Modern Makers

    In 1978 the Santa Cruz Guitar Company was just two guys making mostly koa dreadnoughts and a couple of other body shapes when they made a valuable connection to an incredibly versatile bluegrass flatpicker named Tony Rice. Rice was looking for a modern equivalent to his highly-modified 1935 D-28. Santa Cruz' Gibson-ish peghead became a rectangle, herringbone was added, and the Santa Cruz Tony Rice model was born. It's still one of the company's most popular models, with over a thousand sold.

    Rice's old D-28 had formerly belonged to Clarence White, a legendary flatpicker whose tragic death in 1973 made him a lesser-known equivalent of Jimi Hendrix. In the late '80s, a Texan named John Holman acquired a license from the White family to use White's name on an instrument, and he teamed up with guitar maker Bill Collings under the name Baldy Brothers to create a Collings-made dreadnought seemingly endorsed from the grave by Clarence White. Collings' reputation was initially fueled primarily by that model, and his own D-2H was essentially the same guitar, minus the oversized soundhole that was a distinguishing feature of White's old D-28. Today, guitars with prewar Martin-like designs make up more than 75 percent of Collings' production.

    Bourgeois Guitars is another company that has forged a strong connection to vintage Martins, thanks to an endorsement deal with country and bluegrass superstar Ricky Skaggs. As with Santa Cruz years earlier, the original Bourgeois peghead was replaced with a Martin-like rectangle for the Ricky Skaggs model. Skaggs had had a long career playing various old D-28s before he began playing a Bourgeois, so the vintage reference is obvious, even without evoking Martin's name.

    Individual makers such as Marty Lanham of the Nashville Guitar Company and Lynn Dudenbostel of Knoxville, Tennessee, have also made their mark by producing Martin-like models, though in very limited numbers (Schoenberg Guitars is another example, but its focus is on OM and 000 models). The result is that a lot of high-quality guitars from shops in Elsewhere, USA, look like they grew up in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, when viewed from a distance. Use of the word vintage--be it used to name a model or just a feature--is usually a reference to 1930s Martin details.

Martin's Comeback

    By the 1990s, however, Martin was thoroughly back in the game and supplying instruments to fill the gap between the vintage dreadnought many guitarists want and what they can realistically afford. Fueled by steady increases in overall sales and encouraged by escalating prices of old dreadnoughts, the company began to make more accurate reproductions of its earlier models, though with the addition of modern conveniences like the adjustable truss rod. By the middle of the decade Martin began adding guitars to its catalog that were full-fledged reissues of Golden Era models. By 1997, a long list of Martins with a V (for vintage) after the model code meant that guitarists could choose from a wide variety of modern replicas of guitars made over a half-century earlier.

    If you want a good herringbone dreadnought today there are many choices, from Martin as well as other makers. Good examples with Indian rosewood back and sides and a Sitka-spruce top start at just over $2,000, but if you want Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce (the combination used before World War II), the price jumps to around $6,000 and up. This latter figure seems steep until you notice that original D-28s from the Golden Era (in excellent condition) start at about three times that amount, and one from the early 1930s in mint condition would bring far more.

   Today the vintage-style dreadnought is selling better than ever before, and features like herringbone and scalloped braces are so common that most new guitar buyers don't even know where they originated. Like the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul, the rosewood herringbone dreadnought and its plainer, mahogany sibling are icons of America's love of the guitar. Maybe Martin's early dreadnoughts are no longer in the price ranges most of us can afford--and there were never enough of them to go around anyway--but their influence lives on in numerous models by dozens of makers combining new technology and old-fashioned craftsmanship. The acoustic guitar keeps chugging into the future, but that vintage sound will continue to echo wherever steel-string guitars are played.End

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