Classic Gear: The Pre-War Martin D-28

Close your eyes, think “acoustic guitar,” and odds are you’re picturing a Martin dreadnought.
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Close your eyes, think “acoustic guitar,” and odds are you’re picturing a Martin dreadnought.
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Close your eyes, think “acoustic guitar,” and odds are you’re picturing a Martin dreadnought. And this one is the epitome of the breed: the ultimate rhythm cannon. Loud, clear, and with enough projection to chunk it out behind a strident banjo and wailing fiddle, yet still sweet and rich enough to sing with single-note flatpicking runs or purr soulfully behind a swinging ballad. This is the pre-war Martin D-28 (circa 1938, in this case), universally acclaimed as the finest dreadnought ever built. It’s the guitar of Hank Williams, Clarence White, Norman Blake, and countless others—Elvis Presley among them—in its slightly later incarnation. The top of the line for “non-presentation models.” For serious pickers who didn’t want all the abalone and pearl flash of the D-42 and D-45, the D-28 was a guitar that said you had arrived, but that you didn’t mind just a little subtle elegance, either.

The dreadnought is the most popular shape in the world for flat-top acoustic guitars. When it arrived nearly a century ago, however, it was a major innovation in the development of the instrument, and another significant step toward putting guitarists on the map. The first dreadnoughts were made by Martin in 1916 for the Ditson music stores in Boston and New York City, after a store manager’s request for a bigger, louder guitar, and they carried that retailer’s name for several years. In 1931 Martin added the design to its own range (now with square shoulders rather than the rounded shoulders of the early Ditsons), and dubbed it the “dreadnought” after the famous WWI British battleship HMS Dreadnought, which it somewhat resembled in shape. The mahogany- and rosewood-backed models were initially dubbed the D-1 and D-2 respectively, but received their D-18 and D-28 monikers in 1932. They were added to the official catalog in 1935, after moving up from the original 12-fret format to the newfangled 14-fret neck—now the standard on dreadnoughts—the year before.

The D-28 of the late ’30s and early ’40s echoed several features of Martin’s other highend guitars of the era, but did it all in the bigger 15 1/8”-wide body with a thick waist and voluminous upper bout, all of which worked together to deliver a punchy, muscular voice. The solid Adirondack spruce used for the tops of the guitars at the time—a tonewood that’s highly prized today and hard to come by—presented a lively tone with loads of complexity, while the solid Brazilian rosewood back and sides added presence and shimmer, culminating in a guitar that offered the perfect blend of richness, depth, and cutting power, and looked lusciously exotic in the process.

Just as precious as the bones of the instrument, though, the aesthetic appointments on prewar D-28s are also much coveted by their owners. Perhaps lusted after most passionately is the herringbone purfling around the perimeter of the guitars’ tops; an elegant wood pattern inlaid just inside the plastic binding. The prized Brazilian rosewood fingerboards were inlaid with pearl position markers in a petite diamond-and-square pattern, and a strip of attractive wood marquetry decorated the center seam on the guitar’s back.

Having been made in Germany before the war, the herringbone inlay disappeared from D-28s when supplies ran out in 1947. Alternate rosewood was also used for the backs, sides, and fingerboards after 1964 when the Brazilian species became scarce and heavily regulated. C.F. Martin makes some excellent prewar-style reissues today, though, and a number of great D-28 variants still make an excellent partner for rock ’n’ roll rhythm, bluegrass flatpicking, or solo singer-songwriter performances.

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

• Solid Adirondack spruce top with scalloped spruce braces
• Solid Brazilian rosewood back and sides
• Brazilian rosewood fingerboard with mother-of-pearl “diamond-and-square” position markers
• “Herringbone” inlay within the top’s binding
• Inlaid wood marquetry back center stripe

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