When Martin revamped its Standard Series acoustics in 2018 for the first time since Moby Dick was a minnow, it was hard to decide which instrument to have sent for review. After all, so many classics, including the HD-28 and 000-28, were on the table. Then I remembered something: When Ben Harper spoke with GP for his October 2018 Frets feature, he said he chose Martin’s M-style body for his signature model (circa 2008). Harper, it should be pointed out, grew up playing every acoustic guitar imaginable in his family’s Folk Music Center, located in Claremont, California. Faced with selecting a Martin for review, I recalled his reason for selecting the M-style body: “I couldn’t have too much bottom coming out of my instrument, but I didn’t want to sacrifice all of it.” That was all it took for me to select the M-36, which, of all the instruments in the Standard Series revamp, stood out as unique. And wow, what a kickass acoustic it is!
The origins of the M Series go back to the F Series of carved-topped Martins that measured 16 inches at the lower bout. In the late ’70s, independent craftsmen started replacing the carved top with a new X-braced flat top. David Bromberg championed the new design, and it became the M Series, with the body shape dubbed Grand Auditorium, since it was larger than the 000 Auditorium. M-style guitars came and went from the Martin menu over the years, ultimately retuning to the catalog in 2007. The M-36 is unique for having a big body with a thinner depth of 4 1/8 inches. To my eyes it looks like a jumbo OM with classic Martin appointments, including aging toner for the top, antique white bindings and rosette, and mother-of-pearl dot inlays.
To my ears it sounds like a jumbo OM as well, one with significant punch and presence. It has the even EQ associated with an OM, but with a bit more booty in the bass — not as much as a dreadnought or a jumbo, but those can often be overkill. The M-36 has a supreme sonic balance that’s applicable to pretty much any style of music. It’s articulate, but not at all brittle, and it has tons of headroom. It’s also imbued with that Martin magic, where each note blossoms beautifully into fully formed, individual bubbles that peak without breaking up harshly in the high end, then dissipate, gradually, with great sustain.
This M-36 is the most readily playable Martin I’ve put my hands on straight out of the box. The string spacing is wide enough to accommodate intricate fingerstyle playing as well as two-hand percussive slap-and-tap stuff. And yet, this neck also makes it super easy to rip linear licks with a pick and form chords that require way more finger stretching than others. It’s not particularly narrow. In fact, the 1 3/4–inch nut width is standard fingerstyle fare, but the neck is certainly shallow, and I did feel some cramping in the middle of my fretting hand after extended playing time. Maybe that’s a ubiquitous concern, or perhaps I’m simply accustomed to thicker necks. Martin calls the neck shape “modified low oval” with a “high performance taper.” Whatever that involves precisely, it’s a joy to play and had me doing stuff I can’t normally do so effortlessly.
The M-36 may be Martin’s best-kept secret. It’s an American-made and extremely versatile acoustic that delivers supreme tone and playability for under three grand. You’ll need to install a pickup for stage use, as Martin mysteriously offers no electronics option for this otherwise seemingly perfect performance acoustic. Miked up in the studio, it sounded priceless. Every wave of sound came across naturally strong and clear, without scooping or boosting any aspect of the signal. I can’t stop playing it, and I’m compelled to give this great guitar an Editors’ Pick Award.
PRICE $2,859 street
NUT WIDTH 1.75", bone
NECK Select hardwood
FRETBOARD Ebony, 25.4" scale
TUNERS Chrome enclosed gear
BODY East Indian rosewood sides and three-piece back, Sitka spruce top
BRIDGE East Indian rosewood
FACTORY STRINGS Martin MA540T Lifespan 2.0 Phosphor Bronze Light Authentic Acoustic, .012–.054
WEIGHT 4.4 lbs
KUDOS Unique, yet classic. Superb playability. Strong, clear, even tone
CONCERNS Neck may be too slim for some hands