By Art Thompson
A casual glance at Martin’s vast product line reveals instruments designed to appeal to just about every taste and style. Representing the extreme ends of what Martin has to offer are these three very different guitars. The ALternative II is a cutting-edge design with an aluminum soundboard and a synthetic body, the 000-15S is a traditional-style instrument with a 12-fret neck, and the 000C-16GTE is right in the middle with its cutaway and Fishman Blender electronics. A feature common to all these guitars, however, is their “modified low-oval” neck shape—a comfy rounded design that offers just a hint of “V” contour.
Martin has been using synthetic materials in many of its models for some years now, but the ALternative ($1,199 retail/street N/A) offers a glimpse of what guitars might look like once humans have finished clear-cutting the planet. With a swirl-patterned aluminum top measuring .032" thick, a full-depth body made of high-pressure laminates, and a Stratabond neck (which consists of dozens of thin sections of wood bonded with black epoxy), the ALternative is a recycling musician’s dream. In fact, the only solid wood used here is for the neatly installed braces and kerfing strip.
The ALternative doesn’t feel or sound particularly synthetic. It weighs nearly the same as an all-wood guitar, it balances well, and it has a surprisingly warm voice. The polished frets are properly crowned and trimmed (with just some very minor height inconsistencies above the 12th fret), and the low action and generous string spacing provide excellent playing feel. The nut’s sharp corners are a drag, however, as they can nick your fingers if you get too gymnastic in the open position.
You might expect a guitar with an aluminum top to sound somewhat stiff, but the ALternative is surprisingly smooth and articulate. Notes punch out with astonishing clarity—particularly on the low strings—an attribute that makes this guitar well suited for styles that involve lots of percussive string slapping. The ALternative would be right at home in a loud rock or country band, especially with its Fishman Prefix Pro system, which dishes out clear-sounding amplified tones, doesn’t sound overly quacky (even when you hit the strings hard), and resists feedback quite well. The ALternative II will likely cause some to pose the question, “why aluminum?” But if you’re game to rock out with a very different kind of flat-top, this guitar could be the perfect, well, alternative.
But what if you really want classic Martin magic in a compact package that’s ideal for both stage and studio work? Consider the 000C-16GTE ($1,699 retail/street N/A), which features a gloss-finished top (with a tasteful herringbone rosette and simple binding) and a scuff-resistant, satin-finished body and neck. The 16GTE’s lightly polished frets are well rendered, if not super detailed, and the black Micarta fretboard (which looks like fine ebony but costs more) offers smooth, rounded edges while being nearly impervious to changes in humidity and temperature. Peeking inside the 16GTE reveals clean, tight bracing, with no sawdust, sanding marks, or excess glue.
The 16GTE is a fine-playing instrument by any measure. It tunes up easily (as did all of these Martins), it’s sweetly intonated, and its wide-ish neck and low action are inviting to your fingers. The 16GTE’s warm, woody voice is accented with crisp highs, complex mids, and a girthy low-end. It’s a sensitive and dynamic guitar with a blossoming tone that should please fingerstylists and singer-songwriters alike.
The 16GTE’s internal mic and under-saddle pickup team up to yield amplified tones that combine the clarity and definition of a piezo pickup with the airy dimensionality that only a mic can provide. The preamp’s controls are formidable. You get a Blend slider for adjusting the mic/piezo mix, Frequency and Contour sliders (which work like a quasi-parametic EQ to provide 12dB of boost/cut over a variable range of 250Hz to 10kHz), and standard bass and treble sliders. The phase switch and tuneable notch-filter help nuke feedback, though—like the other EQ controls—they have no direct effect on the mic, which can squeal mightily when its level is pushed too high.
The 000C-16GTE is an ideal choice for players who need an instrument that sounds ravishing acoustically, yet has sufficiently flexible electronics to deliver world-class tones in recording or live environments. This is a great guitar!
The 000-15S ($1,219 retail/street N/A) replicates the basic specs of a 1920s-era, Martin style-15 guitar, including its all-mahogany construction and 12th-fret neck joint—a detail that places the bridge closer to the the top’s center for a beefier midrange response.
The 000-15S is cleanly built, with little ornamentation (aside from a rosette decal) to distract from the nicely figured woods. The bracing is free of sanding residue and excess glue, the neck joint is razor sharp, and the 20 lightly polished frets are expertly crowned and trimmed. No high frets were visible when sighting down the fretboard, and, despite having sharp edges, the nut is well shaped and seated.
As with the other Martins we tested, the 000-15S tunes up easily (the silky feeling Schallers get credit here) and sounds in-tune in all positions. The low action and wide string spacing make for very easy fingering, and the modified low-oval neck shape (which is not a vintage detail) fills your hand while providing a sleek, fast feel.
The sweet-sounding 000-15S has a slightly honky voice that blends well with other guitars—particularly 14-fret models. Roots-oriented blues, country, and jazz/ragtime players should find much to like about its Depression-era sonic attitude, yet the 000-15S has enough treble magic and bottom-end definition to woo modern stylists. In short, Martin has done an excellent job of freshening-up this timeless classic without compromising its earthy soul.