Pre-1867 Martin

Acoustic aficionados know that pre-war Martins are very collectible instruments. But they’re talking about pre-WWII. How about pre-Civil War? Although it’s impossible to pinpoint its year of origin, the Martin pictured here most likely predates the War Between the States and was definitely made before 1867.

This guitar appears to pre-date official model designations (and specs could vary for early Martins), but it was probably built in the mid 1850s. It shares many features with a size 3 Martin, including a 23 7/8" scale length, 8¼" upper bout, 6 15/16" waist, and 11 1/8" lower bout. Cosmetically, it has much in common with a Style 24, including a spruce top, Brazilian rosewood back and sides, and ivory tuning buttons, nut, bridge pins, and saddle. The design on the top of the guitar is not stock.

It was purchased from Blue Note Music in Berkeley, California, by Northern California guitarist Valerie Bach of the band Girl Talk. James Casella, owner of Blue Note Music, details the guitar’s condition: “It’s definitely not all original,” he says, “but even the repairs could be as much as 100 years old. One repair in particular is interesting: The fingerboard is not original. Sometime in the past, someone pulled the frets and put a wedge-shaped overlay on top of the original fingerboard rather than do a neck reset. The overlay is thinner at the nut and gets gradually thicker. That gives you a slightly thicker neck and a different neck angle, which contributes to how playable this guitar is. Whoever did the overlay used fruitwood—either pear or apple—and that was common around the turn of the century.”

The stamps inside the soundhole and on the neck block read “C.F. Martin, New York.” In 1867 that was changed to “C.F. Martin & Co.” making Bach’s instrument at least 140 years old. It’s in remarkable shape, with surprisingly little wear. Martin expert Eric Schoenberg, of Eric Schoenberg Guitars in Tiburon, California, is not surprised by how great Bach’s guitar sounds. “People don’t think it’s worth the effort or the cost to make old guitars like this playable,” he says. “But if you go to the trouble of setting them up properly, leveling the frets, and maybe fixing a couple of loose braces, they can play and sound more beautiful than you can imagine.”

“I didn’t buy this guitar because it’s a collector’s item,” says Bach. “I bought it because I played one chord on it and fell in love with the sound. It’s amazingly loud, it intonates perfectly, and it just has one of the sweetest tones I’ve ever heard. It’s an incredibly inspiring instrument to play.”