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Great Vintages -- Dreadnought

Includes Sidebar Article
"Hank Risan's Eye For Quality"

May 1988
by Phil Hood

epresenting every aspect of the Martin dreadnought story in a three-page pictorial would be impossible: too many models, too many different years to cover. Instead we've chosen five guitars that display some of the most valued characteristics associated with Martin "D's" over the years.

   The five instruments span fifty years, from 1938 to 1987. Three of them date from the '30s and early '40s, the heyday of vintage dreadnoughts. Two more are nearly brand new, reflecting the continuing traditions of the company.

   The sunburst D-45 on our cover is sometimes referred to as the Teeter D-45, so-named because it was owned by repairman Don Teeter for several years. (Don Teeter is also the author of a well-known repair series, Acoustic Guitar, Vols. I and II [out of print]). This 1938 guitar is the only sunburst D-45 ever built. Its fretboard is patterned after Martin's mid-'30s F-9 arch-top, with pearl hexagonal inlays and white/black/white lines inlaid ¼" from either edge of the fretboard. This was the earliest D-45 to have hexagonal inlays. The guitar also sports a headstock faced with tortoise-shell and F-9 style gold engraved tuners.

   The other two prewar models are a 1940 D-45 and a 1938 sunburst D-28. The D-45 is a pristine, mint-condition prewar dreadnought. It features a tortoiseshell pickguard and headstock with traditional D-45 trim --ebony fretboard and bridge, ivoroid binding with abalone trim around the edge of the soundboard, an abalone rosette, and pearl hexagonal fretboard inlays. The 1938 D-28 features herringbone trim, slotted diamond fretboard inlays, and a tortoiseshell pickguard. The top is finished in a two-tone sunburst.

   The first of the modern models is a D-45LE. This limited edition dreadnought, issued in 1987, commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 14-fret D-45. It features hexagonal "outline" inlays on the fretboard and on each end of the bridge. Abalone and pearl borders are used on the top, sides, and back, and around the heel cap. The top is spruce, the back and sides are of Brazilian rosewood. The underside of the top is signed by C.F. Martin IV and the shop foremen who built the guitar.

   In addition, the top braces are scalloped and the crossing of the X-braces is positioned one inch from the sound-hole, as was common on mid-30s Martins. Additional features include an imitation tortoiseshell pickguard, gold-plated tuning machined with ebony buttons, and pearl inlaid bridgepins.

   Even more rare is the one-of-a-kind D-45 that was built at Martin's custom shop in 1987. This instrument was constructed with a German spruce top, and back and sides of exceptionally straight-grained aged Brazilian rosewood. Beautiful pink abalone adorns the fretboard in a traditional tree-of-life inlay. The peghead features an ornate "torch" pattern inlay typical of the style 45 guitars from the early '30s.End

Hank Risan's Eye For Quality

   "Dreadnoughts," says guitar dealer and collector Hank Risan, "are sometimes accused of being too bassy. But actually, when they are well-built, they are balanced and powerful".

   All of the powerful guitars in this pictorial were provided by Risan, courtesy of his business, Washington Street Music. Hank is an excellent source for guitars and information. As a dealer in very fine (and expensive) American instruments, his main interests are arch-tops from such makers as Stromberg, D'Angelico, and Gibson, as well as all styles of Martin guitars.

   Now 33, Risan got his start buying and selling instruments at the age of 16 in his native Los Angeles. He later went to work as an apprentice there at a company called Dulcimer Works, learning to build guitars and dulcimers. After an academic career that included stops at UCLA, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Cambridge College, in England, Hank went to work as a neurobiological researcher back in Santa Cruz. A bicycle accident that laid him up with a broken back left him with plenty of time to contemplate career moves. He decided that dealing in vintage instruments was what he really wanted to do.

   When grading guitars, Hank considers cultural and artistic factors as well as year, model condition, and tonal qualities. His personal picks for collectible flat-tops include Martins, the guitars of the Chicago-based Larson Brothers, and prewar Gibsons, as representative of the highest quality instruments.

   However, he adds, "My friend Marc Silber finds the early American makers to be collectible: Vega, Howe-Orme, Weymann, Schroeder, and less well-known builders. I agree with him. These are all part of the cultural heritage we have in the twentieth century. And, quite frankly, we don't have a whole lot to show culturally in the twentieth century. We have a few great films, a few great novels, we have a little bit of architecture -- Frank Lloyd Wright and a few others -- and we have our music and musical instruments.

   "The guitar is the quintessential art form. It's a classical instrument--Segovia proved that early on -- and it's also a blues, jazz, country, and folk instrument. In a way, guitars are really the embodiment of everything great about America -- the wild west, freedom, and all the various musical forms that sprang from the guitar""

   Though he normally deals in decades-old handcrafted instruments, Risan hardly thinks that all the best guitars were built long ago.

   "For example," he says, "Martin guitars from the '50s are relatively innocuous; but Martins from the '80s, I believe, will go for astronomical prices in the years ahead. Though I think the truly great Martins were built in the '30s and early '40s, today's instruments have much the same characteristics and tone as prewar guitars. They just haven't got the refinement of tone that comes in the aging process."

   When he's not spending time ferreting out rare pieces for collectors, Risan is likely to be playing one of his guitars. As a musician, he wants to make sure that vintage guitars stay in the hands of people who will play them.

   "I like to sell instruments to players," he says. "Sticking instruments in cases is detrimental to them because they fall apart. Really, the wood dries out, the glue joints separate -- Roy Acuff is having a terrible time maintaining the instruments at the Country Music Hall Of Fame Museum in Nashville because they fall apart. These instruments need a human environment. They need to be played."

   Assuming that an instrument is well taken care of, Hank believes, it will have an exceedingly long life, perhaps measured in centuries. He is almost scornful of the notion that guitars get "played out"

   "Guitars don't get played out as much as they get abused and misused," he says. "If they are properly set up and maintained, these things are going to last a long time. Look at the woods that are used. Spruce -- they use that in ships. It is tough and durable. So is Brazilian rosewood, so is Honduras mahogany. Ebony, if it doesn't dry out, will stay in beautiful condition. And they're built to stay under string tension all the time. These are incredibly well-designed tools."End

--Phil Hood

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