“It's a weird tightrope walk when you’re trying to stay true to what the soul of Martin represents to guitar players while simultaneously trying to stay relevant regarding changes in music and manufacturing without abandoning those core players that loved the way you were before.”
VP of Product Fred Greene has been at C. F. Martin & Company since 2004, and decisions made in the past few years have led to the most significant changes in modern times. For its 185th anniversary in 2018, Martin completely “reimagined” its flagship Standard Series that includes such acoustic icons as the D-35 dreadnought and the 000-28. The Standard M-36 received an Editors’ Pick award in GP’s Frets column.
At the outset of 2019 Martin announced another monster move, replacing its Vintage Series with the all-new Modern Deluxe Series offered in four styles: D-18, D-28, 000-28, and OM-28. Each model is packed with forward-minded features including titanium truss rods and Liquidmetal bridge pins, as well as sophisticated appointments such as wood bindings and gold hardware. All Standard and Modern Deluxe models feature low-profile, high-performance necks that are unique to each line.
Martin is clearly aimed at reinventing itself while remaining true to its iconic roots, and the story behind its modern metamorphosis is as fascinating as anything in the company’s epic history.
What’s the most challenging thing about product development at a company with such a celebrated tradition?
Martin stuck with the same products for so long that some guitars had been in the line for 75 years or more. So the number one challenge is staying true to the nature of the organization, and then dealing with technological challenges within the factory as manufacturing processes evolve. For example, a laser cuts wood a bit differently than a band saw, and then the finishing material starts to change, and then there are new regulatory issues. Some factors are out of your control. Finding solutions to those problems without the consumers feeling the change has to be sort of transparent, so they don’t feel like all of a sudden it seems like the D-28 is made out of plastic.
What inspired the grand re-imagination of the Standard Series?
There had been a series of small evolutions over a large period of time. The whole Standard Series had sort of taken on a life of its own, and we wanted to freshen it up in a way that unified the line around the best of all those small changes. Some were done for reasons that people couldn’t even remember anymore. We had to revisit every single element. For example, neck shapes were all over the place. Some guitars had big, V-shaped necks, some guitars had modified-oval shapes, and some were entirely different for no apparent logic. It needed to be cleaned up and made more consistent across the line. We wanted to get to one message where we could say, “This is the neck we think is best for most people.”
How did you end up with a “high performance neck taper”?
Well, we had some guitars with necks measuring 1¾" at the nut, and others that were 1 11/16". We felt that 1¾" was a better fit for more for most players because it allows a little more space to work with for a variety of styles from flatpicking, to strumming to fingerpicking. The smaller measurement is great for players with smaller hands, but that’s a minority of the playing public. We also wanted the barrel of the neck to feel a bit thinner. We had our devotees who loved big, fat, baseball-bat, V-necks and I’m one of them, but modern players and younger players were not jiving with that at all. Sales numbers showed that it was very hard to attract younger consumers who didn't grow up playing a vintage Martin, and especially guitar players that started out on an electric guitar. When they moved over to a Martin, the big neck made the action feel even higher. So we went with a thinner neck that’s a bit wider at the nut and has a more consistent taper. When it doesn’t feel like a big move down through the 12th and 14th frets, the neck feels more natural to a modern player.
What’s another matter that needed standardization?
We felt that most players wanted scalloped bracing. Some of our Standard Series guitars had that, and some didn’t. We also wanted to keep the X-brace forward shifted because we want our guitars to sound big. That’s our sound profile. That’s who we are. Martin guitars sound big and loud. Forward-shifted bracing helps the top move and breathe a little. You push more air.
Tuning machines were all over the place in terms of brand and style on various models. We wanted a more standard, open-back, vintage-style tuning machine. We had what felt like ten different decal styles on the headstock working through the line, and it was the same story with pickguards. It seems simple, but then you get into the details and find that players in different countries prefer one thing, while in another country they favor something else.
Do you get nervous about making the right decisions?
Sure, I get a little nervous. I hope that we’re making the right decisions. When it all went down with the Standard Series I was like, “Oh shit, this could be bad.” But in the end, I feel that we made the right calls. Sales have far exceeded expectations. The Standard Series is our bell-weather product, and sales have remained consistently solid for a long time. We introduced the reimagined Standard Series with the changes I mentioned, and business immediately jumped fifty percent, which was almost unthinkable until it happened.
Was the next-most significant move at Martin in recent memory following up with the radical Modern Deluxe Series?
For sure. We were inspired because response to the reimagined Standard line was so positive. The line right above our Standard Series had also been sort of lying there untouched for a long time. It was called the “Vintage” line but that was a bit of misnomer. The nomenclature was there before we had the Authentic Series. The Vintage line dates back to the Eighties. It had some vintage elements, but it wasn’t as vintage as the Authentics, which are true representations of models from specific years, such as a 1937 D-28. That put the Vintage line in no man’s land, and then when we updated the Standards with some vintage aspects, it was even more so. The Standard Series gives the majority of players what they want at a good price point. Players that must have a truly old-style guitar can buy an Authentic. So what could we put in-between the two lines that makes sense? I figured we should go in the opposite direction, show off some stuff that we’ve been doing in the custom shop, and make something more modern.
How did you decide which stuff was cool enough to become stock elements on a Modern Deluxe?
I looked at what players were ordering from the custom shop, and I talked to the R&D staff about some of the cool elements we’d only nurtured on a few custom guitars. We decided to go with a titanium truss rod, Liquidmetal red dot bridge pins, frets infused with gold and copper, and carbon-fiber bridge plates. We wanted a modern guitar with a premium, upscale vibe and a boutique feel and look. Instead of a cream-colored binding, we decided to use wooden bindings, which Martin hadn’t done on production models since way back in the ’20s and ’30s.
How do the progressive elements in the Modern Deluxe models contribute to the sound and feel?
We wanted a guitar that had its own unique voice. The bridge plate has a piece of torrified wood in-between two pieces of carbon fiber. We knew that when we matched it up with Liquidmetal bridge pins, we’d get more volume. That combination changed the tone a bit as well. There’s a little more attack coming right off the guitar. We went with a titanium truss rod because it’s very lightweight, and we wanted the Modern Deluxe to feel light when you pick it up. Open-gear tuners are lightweight as well, and that makes more of a difference than one might think, because that weight is essentially at the end of a stick where any amount of weight feels a lot heavier. With less weight in the neck, the guitar feels different in your hands. There’s more vibration, so it’s more responsive. It feels alive. We used abalone pearl to inlay an old-style script logo on the headstock to cap it off. It all adds up to a guitar with a boutique look and feel that still sounds quintessentially like a Martin with a little more attack.
Can you explain how a Sitka spruce “Vintage Tone System” top and natural protein glue construction factor into the equation?
We wanted to incorporate VTS tops into something other than the Authentic Series, but using hide glue as we do with that line would drive up production costs too much. We wound up getting good results with fish protein glue, and it was a lot more production friendly, so we went with that on the braces and the top. A top with a Vintage Tone System, or “VTS” is torrified, meaning the wood is heated up as a way of collapsing the cells. It acts like aging in the sense that the wood is dried out. There is a standard practice that most companies use, but we developed our own way. You see, people are always sending us old guitars for repair, so we’ve been able to examine the cells from guitars of various ages. Our VTS system allowed us to dial in on cell aging to replicate a specific time frame. Since most players think of Martin’s premier sound being from the 1930s, we set our torrification process to simulate wood that was cut around 1937.
How interesting that the Modern Deluxe has a top designed to sound like it's from 1937?
Exactly, it was sort of a weird combination of things we were after, and the two words that fit were “modern” and “deluxe” because it’s modern guitar with deluxe features. You want the playability, look, feel, and the warranty that comes with a new guitar, but in the end when you pick up a Martin you want it to remind you of the sounds heard on recordings of old guitars. I don’t want to pick up a Modern Deluxe D-28 and have it sound like a boutique guitar from Europe or even California because that’s not the expectation, any more than you’d expect a Fender to sound like a Gibson. A Telecaster that sounds like a Les Paul is the worst Telecaster ever! I still want my Martin to sound like a Martin, no matter what.
And how about the feel of the Modern Deluxe neck, which is described as having an “ultra-low profile with a shape that’s slightly asymmetrical for maximum hand comfort up and down the fretboard”?
We were working on an Authentic recreation of a 1931 OM-45 Deluxe that’s in our museum, and everybody working on the project kept commenting on how much they loved that neck profile. We wanted the neck on the Modern Deluxe to be, well, deluxe, so we took another look at the neck from the guitar in the museum and realized that it had a funky design. Whoever the dude was that carved that neck in 1931 sanded a bit more off the treble side than the bass side, so it has its own weird vibe. We wound up using that whole neck profile for the Modern Deluxe Series, so it was a good way of tying together a guitar that’s very modern with one of the original deluxe Martins.
What’s been the early reaction?
Since we essentially replaced the Vintage Series with the Modern Deluxe, sales have gone through the roof. In fact, we’ve exceeded projections by so much that we’ve outrun our suppliers. Within four months, we blew through all the titanium rods, Liquidmetal pins, and carbon-fiber bridge plates that we’d projected for the entire year.
Do you have any more giant moves planned, or are you going to let players and dealers catch up a bit?
When it comes to the American-made products, we’re going to take a breath and let everybody absorb what we’ve come up with regarding the reimagined Standard Series and the Modern Deluxe Series. I also need to let our folks here internally catch up a little bit, but we are working on some crazy shit that will have you asking, “Really, you guys are going to do that?” I'll be sending you something before the end of the year.