The Martin Guitar Museum

The story of Martin guitars is one for the ages and deserves to be in the history books—or at least in the hall of a proper museum. C.F. Martin & Co. is now run by Chris Martin IV, great-great-great-grandson of the founder, Christian Frederick Martin. The company is an institution in the United States, not only for its status as the most enduring family-owned guitar company in our nation’s history, but also because it evokes the ideal of immigrant grit in pursuit of the American dream, and a tradition of building and maintaining excellence in craftsmanship. The years have only served to burnish this reputation with dignity and historical significance. It’s a story worthy of a museum, but there was no museum with enough physical space, collection of artifacts, or ambient gravitas to convey the story fully and properly.

Until now, that is, when Martin provided their own solution, right on the factory premises in Nazareth, PA. Opened in the fall of 2005, the newly built, 32,000-square-foot Martin Museum—almost 10 times the size of the previous facility—looks like a fashionable modern art museum, with a sleek, spacious design, state-of-the-art display technology, and a thoughtful strategy to the museum-going experience that will delight history buffs and Martin aficionados alike. “It has been my dream for many years to expand our little museum into something very special,” says Chris Martin, “one that can do justice in presenting our incredible story to the many thousands of people who visit the factory every year to take the tour. Finally, that dream has come to fruition.” Frets spoke with Dick Boak—Martin’s Artist Relations and Limited Editions Director—to learn about the museum’s concept, realization, and future.

What questions did you ask before deciding to build the museum?

The existing facility was inadequate, because when we originally built the building, we included a very nice museum area with rounded walls. But because the demands of our 1833 Shop grew, the museum swapped places with it. So the previous museum was confined to just two small rooms and did a poor job of welcoming people and telling our story.

Chris Martin had been wanting to build a proper visitors’ center and museum for years, so he brought together a group including the architect, myself, and other key people who needed to play a role.

We brainstormed a wish list and then when we had some rough floor plans, we made it into the shape of the guitar. People offered suggestions like, “Can we have supermarket-style doors that are guitarist friendly?” So we shared things like that. We asked, “How much space do we need for the museum?” and “Who are we going to contract to do this work?” and we put it up for bids. We decided on

Museum Design Associates of Cambridge, which is just a phenomenal group who specializes in just this type of thing.

What were the aesthetic considerations in making this a true guitar space?

When the architect was laying out the lobby with the curved walls around the 1833 Shop, I was looking at the floor plan from overhead, and it looked to me like a guitar body with the pathway coming from the front door being the neck. So the idea was to simply inlay this idea using different materials. As you approach the building, a Martin guitar headstock is inlaid in the cement. Then, when you enter the front door, you walk down the marble inlaid fingerboard. The receptionist’s desk is the soundhole. The lobby floor would be a dreadnought body, and this shape would be picked up in the ceiling as well. The design continues behind the receptionist’s area where there is a guitar bridge. Also in the lobby is the “Wall of Fame,” which is made up of hundreds and hundreds of albums and CDs that have been recorded using Martin guitars.

Is the exhibit area divided into the periods that correspond to Martin’s history?

Yes, everything in the museum is in a timeline. Shari West, who was contracted by Museum Design Associates, broke down the Martin story into eight time periods that would become display cases: Getting Started, Innovation, Growth, Golden Era, Good Times, Acquisition and Diversification, Unplugged, and Music/Martin History.

Concurrently, I looked at the vast collection of guitars and divided them into different eras. That disclosed holes in our collection, which we filled through acquisition. We had a lot of success buying pieces in the marketplace. We’re okay with having a guitar that’s a little rough, as long as it is a good representation of that particular model or time period.

Can you describe some of the exhibits?

We begin with the very early part of our collection called “Getting Started: 1796-1850,” and it tells the story of how C. F. Martin went to work in Vienna for the Stauffer factory, rising to foreman and becoming an expert instrument maker, and subsequently came to the United States in 1833 after having a dispute with a violin maker’s guild.

In the display named “The Gentler Arts,” which represents the period from 1839-1873, we have “The Antique Workbench” with the original workbench, patterns, and tool chest that belonged to C. F. Martin Sr., who brought them from Germany. We found so many incredible things—such as old pulleys from the North Street plant that drove the steam engine machinery—and we built a replica of the original work area. It even has three Edison light bulbs in it.

In “1874-1929: Timely Change,” we have the early mandolins from the turn of the century and all the bowl-back mandolins. The “ukulele boom” display features the famous Konter ukulele that went on the Admiral Byrd expedition to the North Pole. It’s signed by Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindberg, Admiral Byrd and all the members of the expedition, plus dozens of senators and congressmen. An original Ditson dreadnought is also on display. Martin made instruments for the Ditson Company, and that’s when the dreadnought appeared.

The next area is “The Golden Era,” which covers the 1930s through 1945, and features “cowboy guitars” from Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Tex Fletcher.

The “Guitar and Pop Culture” section has to do with the ’50s and ’60s. The display cases contain hand-tooled leather case covers belonging to Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson, plus a set of two guitars and a banjo for the Kingston Trio. There are a ton of different signature models, including guitars from Joan Baez, Paul Simon, Arlo Guthrie, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. One of the really neat guitars is the red Martin GT electric from the ’60s. We have the D-28E from Johnny Yuma, the character on the TV series The Rebel.

There is an area that covers the period from 1986-1999. We call this the “Unplugged” area, with exhibits of Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, and Marty Stuart. Four sustainable-wood guitars were done for Sting, plus there’s the original Clapton 000-42EC. Martin strings have always been an important part of what we do, and we have one section on their history dating back to the turn of the 20th century. There is a display showing instruments that are strung “oddly,” such as the McGuinn 7-string, a double-neck, a “mini-Martin” in Nashville tuning, and some unique Backpacker travel guitars.

“Current Time” covers music history as well as Martin history. It focuses mostly on signature editions we offer now, including the White Beauty and Black Beauty guitars from Eric Clapton, Tom Petty’s 12-string, Steve Miller’s koa-topped guitar, the Steven Stills 000-45S 12-fret, the CF-2 archtop, and the OMJM John Mayer signature edition.

How do you accommodate visitors who want to try out the guitars?

The real high-end stuff is in the Pickin’ Parlor, which is at the back end of the 1833 Shop. You have to ask permission to go into this area. In there are Golden Eras, limited editions, and archtops—$5,000-$25,000 guitars that anyone can play under our supervision, if they ask. It’s a nice quiet room where people go to jam a little.

Will the new space be used for performance as well?

We have had many performers play in the lobby for different events. And we plan to have Judy Collins and Tom Paxton playing here soon. They were instrumental—no pun intended—in the opening of the original plant in 1964. Frank Martin invited them to perform on the loading dock; they came and performed, and were given guitars that day as a thank you. We thought it would be great to have them back and complete the circle.

We do have a lot of events here, and the lobby can accommodate several hundred people. Many people hold their organization’s gathering here, such as the Martin Owners Club, and Laurence Juber played at the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum on August 6th. We never had the space for this before, but now we can host such events and turn people on to all the museum has to offer.

As the one who was responsible for populating the museum with artifacts, how did you go about choosing which pieces would be exhibited?

Actually, we didn’t have a lot of choices for the real old stuff. And conversely, as you get into the modern items, I would have 200 guitars and only room for 20. So the trick was figuring out how to display the guitars and still tell the story. Everything fell into place when the building was finished. Before we moved in, we used the new second floor to lay out and plan the exhibits. If I saw holes, I started looking for things. I had been sorting and gathering for months, but now I had it all together and got a feel for what was missing and what was needed. I would think about an empty space for days and try to figure out what I could put there. It was really a wonderful process for me.

There are about 180 instruments in the exhibit and all are captioned. The first guitar in outer space—one of our Backpackers—is on display. There is a 1930 pitch pipe that was among C.F. Martin’s personal belongings. It was a patent-pending design that the inventor must have sent to him, and you could turn a dial for the note you wanted. It’s very cool.

What we found in furnishing the museum exhibits is that we have so much more. We have a tremendous amount of material to archive, including letters and instruments. That will be our next challenge—archiving all of this wonderful, historic material.