Guitar Aficionado

Golden Years: The Era When Martin Guitar Laid the Foundation for the Modern Steel-String Flattop Acoustic

Looking back at the late Twenties and Thirties from a present-day perspective, it might seem that C.F. Martin & Co. was woefully behind the times. During this period, guitar manufacturers were obsessed with building and inventing louder instruments, from the resonator guitars developed by National and Dobro and the refinements in archtop design by D’Angelico, Stromberg, Gibson, and Epiphone to the early electric models introduced by Rickenbacker, National, Dobro, Gibson, Epiphone, Vega, and many others.
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Looking back at the late Twenties and Thirties from a present-day perspective, it might seem that C.F. Martin & Co. was woefully behind the times. During this period, guitar manufacturers were obsessed with building and inventing louder instruments, from the resonator guitars developed by National and Dobro and the refinements in archtop design by D’Angelico, Stromberg, Gibson, and Epiphone to the early electric models introduced by Rickenbacker, National, Dobro, Gibson, Epiphone, Vega, and many others.
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This is an excerpt from the all-new November/December 2013 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on John Stamos, the Healdsburg Guitar Festival and a new photo book called 108 Rock Star Guitars, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

Golden Years: As C.F. Martin & Co. celebrates its 180th anniversary, Guitar Aficionado looks back at the era when the company laid the foundation for the modern steel-string flattop acoustic guitar.

By Chris Gill | Photo by John Sterling Ruth

Looking back at the late Twenties and Thirties from a present-day perspective, it might seem that C.F. Martin & Co. was woefully behind the times. During this period, guitar manufacturers were obsessed with building and inventing louder instruments, from the resonator guitars developed by National and Dobro and the refinements in archtop design by D’Angelico, Stromberg, Gibson, and Epiphone to the early electric models introduced by Rickenbacker, National, Dobro, Gibson, Epiphone, Vega, and many others.

Although Martin resisted the general quest for more volume until 1931, when the company introduced its line of dreadnought models, during those years it experienced its own exceptionally fertile period of innovation that summoned in the modern era of the flattop acoustic guitar. The models that Martin introduced or refined during this period remain the standard for acoustic guitar design more than eight decades later, and the instruments the company made in this brief time frame have become some of the most valuable, desirable, and collectible guitars ever produced.

Guitar collectors and historians generally refer to the pre–World War II period as Martin’s Golden Era. “For most people it’s that period from the late Twenties right up until World War II,” says Chris Martin IV, chairman and CEO of C.F. Martin & Co. “That’s when our larger steel-string flattops—the dreadnought and the 000—really came into their own. The construction of our guitars changed during World War II for various reasons, and after World War II, Martin’s business recovered slowly. We didn’t look back and recognize how much musicians and retailers valued our pre-war steel-string guitars until the Seventies.”

Vintage guitar dealer Larry Wexer of Lawrence Wexer Ltd. Fine Fretted Instruments defines Martin’s Golden Era similarly, but he further refines it into two separate eras—one for Martin’s small-body, 12-fret-neck models and another for its dreadnought guitars. “Martin was in a continual state of change throughout the Twenties, Thirties, and even the Forties,” Wexer says. “At the beginning of this period, Martin was still making gut-string guitars, which is what they had done since the company’s beginning. During this period, you’re looking at the transition from gut string to steel string as well as increasing production of guitars with bigger bodies.”

The list of innovations, improvements, and changes that Martin made from the late Twenties through the mid Forties is quite impressive. While the company’s first steel-string guitars, which made their debut in Martin’s 1922 catalog, were basic, simple models, by 1928 all of Martin’s models were designed for steel strings. In 1929, the guitar maker started using thicker woods, heavier braces, and a larger “belly” bridge (changing from the traditional, smaller, rectangular “pyramid” bridge) to accommodate the increased structural pressure caused by steel strings, and lacquer replaced shellac as the finish material.

Martin’s OM (Orchestra Model) guitar—its first with a neck that meets the body at the 14th fret instead of the 12th fret—also debuted in 1929. This model was conceived when plectrum banjo player Perry Bechtel custom ordered a 000-28 with a neck that gave him better access to the upper frets. To accommodate a 14-fret neck with a standard 25.4-inch scale, Martin redesigned the 000 body, making its length shorter but also increasing its width to maintain its output and balanced tone, while also moving the positions of the bridge and the bracing. Bechtel and Martin sales representatives raved over this new configuration, leading Martin to produce a handful of 000-28 Perry Bechtel Special guitars, nicknamed the Orchestra Model.

In 1930 when Martin made two style 18 guitars with the same body shape and 14-fret neck, it was designated the OM-18, and the new OM body name remained from that point until 1934, when Martin reverted back to the 000 designation. (Interestingly, in 1934 Martin also shortened the scale length of its 000 models to 24.9 inches.)

This is an excerpt from the all-new November/December 2013 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on John Stamos, the Healdsburg Guitar Festival and a new photo book called 108 Rock Star Guitars, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

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