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Martin Guitars:
An Illustrated Celebration of America's Premier Guitarmaker
Dreadnoughts: Bass Notes and The Bottom Line

by Jim Washburn and Richard Johnston

Link to 20th Century Guitar Magazine

artin guitars has never been faulted for their tone; but the company was so insistent on exalting tonal balance that it long ignored the poor guitarist whose gold-toned instrument was drowned out by banjos, mandolins, and nearly every other musical instrument.

    Well before the twentieth century, guitarists were asking Martin for more volume. An 1889 letter from professional touring guitarist Otto Schwemberger said, "I must have strong, well-seasoned, deep-toned bass, as our orchestra consists of three pieces, a violin, flute, and guitar. We have to work under tent canvas this summer." You didn't have to be outdoors to need more volume than a gut-strung Martin could deliver.

    Even after casting its high-toned principles aside and finally offering a steel-string guitar in the 1922 catalog, the Martin company offered only its smallest, cheapest model, the little 2-17. And while the 2-17 was selling like hotcakes (nearly 800 in 1923), Martin made musicians wait another year or two for bigger guitars like the 00-21 and 000-18 to be built to handle steel strings.

    But in 1931 Martin's ukulele sales were dropping almost as fast as the stock market and all those pleas for a bass guitar, from years past and present, were ringing in their ears. The OM, Martin's first model designed to be a steel-string guitar from the ground up, had been an immediate success just the year before. If the public wanted an even larger steel-string guitar, Martin was in a mood to give it to them.

    Martin previously had made Dreadnoughts for the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston. Then when Ditson was sold in 1931, Martin wasted little time in adopting the Ditson Dreadnought as its own. Only a few months after the last extra-large Ditsons left Nazareth, Martin began building four more Dreadnoughts, in two styles, this time to be sold under the company's own name.

    These were clearly going to be steel-string guitars, so the new "belly" bridge and long teardrop-shaped pick guard, features developed for the OM, were standard equipment, as was a heavier version of Martin's X-pattern top bracing. Otherwise, however, the slotted pegheads and wide 12-fret necks made the new Dreadnoughts look just like the old standard Martins--on steroids. Production started with a trial batch of four in 1931-the two mahogany examples were labeled D-1, while the rosewood models were called D-2. It's no coincidence that at least two of these first Martin Dreadnoughts were shipped to Chicago, home of the WLS National Barn Dance radio program.

    In March of 1932, one of the biggest WLS stars, "Arkie the Arkansas Woodchopper," ordered a D-2 with his name (just the "Arkie" part) in mother-of-pearl script on the fretboard. Harty Taylor, guitarist for the Cumberland Ridge Runners and another WLS star, was soon keeping the beat with a rosewood Martin Dreadnought.

    The D-1 and D-2 soon were renamed D-18 and D-28, respectively, and these two models would carry Martin to even greater glory in the years to come.

    Barely a year after Arkie ordered his Dreadnought, Gene Autry ordered what has become the most famous Dreadnought of them all. His pearl-bordered Dreadnought would be not only the first D-45 but also one of the fanciest Dreadnoughts made before all the pearl-bordered Martin models were discontinued in 1942.

    Despite the prominent performers who used them, Martin Dreadnoughts did not catch on as quickly as the smaller OM models had done a few years earlier. Part of the problem was the Depression, for the $100 it cost to buy a D-28 would feed a family for months. But the biggest problem was that Martin seemed reluctant to put Dreadnoughts in the catalog, and only 21 of the D-18 and D-28s combined were sold in 1933, the year Autry received his flashy masterpiece. By 1934, however, the popularity of the new 14-fret OM guitars prompted Martin to redesign all of the old models, including the Dreadnought.

    The result was the instrument that came to define the steel-string flat-top guitar. By squaring off the upper and lower bouts and shortening the body, Martin came up with a more boxy shape that allowed a neck with 14 frets clear of the guitar body.

   As with the earlier OM models, the neck was made narrower, with a solid peghead. At this point, all of the elements of the modern Dreadnought were in place. Perhaps assured that it was on to something, Martin gave the Dreadnought a prominent spot in its 1935 catalog, and sales began to climb. In 1937 Martin sold over 400 D-18s, outperformed only by its budget 0-17 model. After years of preaching about tonal balance, Martin had finally learned to give guitar players what they wanted and let the bass notes roll.End

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