By Chris Gill
Most guitar collectors and historians identify the late Twenties and the Thirties as the Golden Age of Martin guitars. But in the newly released book Inventing the American Guitar—The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C.F. Martin and His Contemporaries, editor Peter Szego sheds new light on the guitar maker’s history to reveal that this period is actually the second great age of Martin innovation.
According to Szego, Martin’s first great age took place from 1833 through 1867, a contention that he supports in fascinating detail via a collection of essays written by various experts, including David Gansz, Richard Johnston, David LaPlante, Arian Sheets, and James Westbrook. During this period, C.F. Martin Sr. developed the instrument that became the first truly American guitar, with an identity separate and independent from its European predecessors.
“C.F. Martin Sr. developed his iconic American flattop guitar over a relatively short period of time,” Szego says. “Martin went through three stylistic periods: an Austro-German style, a Spanish style, and his own American style, which he developed from 1850 to 1867. Before the Civil War, there were only six guitar makers in the U.S. The only two that were truly successful and had long careers were James Ashborn and C.F. Martin, and of those two, only Martin is still here.”
Inventing the American Guitar emerged from the first Early Martin Guitar Conference, held in Philadelphia and Nazareth in May 2008. Organized by Szego and vintage instrument dealer Fred Oster of Vintage Instruments in Philadelphia, the conference brought together collectors, dealers, and scholars to examine a collection of about 20 early Martin guitars. “We spent three days moving guitars around like chess pieces,” Szego says. “We were attempting to establish a chronology of how Martin guitars progressed. After discussing our observations, we all were in strong agreement about how the guitars developed.”
Those discussions led to the various experts taking on assignments to write essays that explained the conference findings in greater detail. The book’s essays not only examine C.F. Martin’s own work and instruments but also explain many of the other outside influences that affected Martin’s journey. The various guitars in the book are also photographed in a consistent fashion and accompanied by relative-size charts that make it easy to compare different models.
While the research in Inventing the American Guitar is exceptionally scholarly, the book is also an entertaining read that sheds much insight on the birth of the American guitar. Plus, the reference materials are exquisitely detailed, making the book an essential addition to any guitar collector’s library.