Martin Guitars – A Living History

By Michael Watts

Originally published in our “Acoustic Issue”

It’s no exaggeration to state that without the Martin Guitar Company the flattop steel string guitar as we know it would simply not exist. This is a truly iconic brand. Martin Guitars were being made before the American Civil War. Before Smith and Wesson there were Martin Guitars.

180 years of history brings with it a great deal of responsibility. One of the men trusted with the stewardship of this heritage and the company’s continued success at the forefront of the acoustic guitar world is Chief Product Officer Fred Greene. I caught up with him to find out how the rich history of Martin Guitars continues to thrive, inspire and evolve.

The Martin Guitar Company’s storied history would imply that each instrument leaving the factory is the direct result of over180 years of cumulative experience. How do you keep the balance between maintaining the identity of a heritage brand of this nature and consistent innovation?

Martin Guitar has always embraced innovation. Many things today’s guitar players take for granted as premium guitar features were at one time unique innovations by Martin – X-bracing, body shapes, etc.. Martin has never been afraid to innovate and try new things, as long as those innovations were in the name of making our guitars better.

The same holds true for manufacturing innovations. Martin has always used the latest technology to build a better guitar, whether that is embracing electricity at the turn of the century or lasers and CNC machines today. The key to adopting new innovations is being absolutely clear on why you are moving in a new direction. Martin has always been clear that the guitar and the needs of the guitar player are our reasons for doing everything. I think some guitar brands are more interested in innovation as a means of showing how clever they are or to make more money regardless of the effect on the instrument and the way it sounds.

Guitar Connoisseur: How has The Martin Guitar Company’s ethos of “Non multa sed multum” (Not Many But Much) evolved over the years and how does it translate into the reality of building guitars on a truly global scale?

Fred Greene: The definition of “many” has certainly changed and is relative to the time period. We are a global brand with strong demand for our instruments worldwide. While we certainly build more guitars in a year than our founder could have ever imagined, we are still a very small part of the overall guitar market. However, the definition of “much” has not changed. Everyone at Martin still comes to work every day with the idea of building and delivering the best acoustic guitar in the world. Relative to the global marketplace “Non multa sed multum” still applies.

GC: Woodworking is arguably the most vital of the great American traditions. Tell us about the craftsmanship that goes into a Martin Guitar.

FG: We take great pride in how much hand work still goes into each Martin guitar. While we use modern machines to do some of the big work, it is the talent and dedication of our craftsmen and craftswomen that truly create a Martin guitar and all of the magic that you feel and hear when you play it. In many cases, we maintain the hands-on approach despite the fact that we could automate some of these jobs but it is at the core of who we are and it is a craft we believe in and want to protect.

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GC: Throughout its history, The Martin Guitar Company has responded to the demands of its players from Gene Autry and Perry Bechtel to Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills and many more. What are you learning from the new generation of Martin Guitar artists such as John Mayer, Ed Sheeran, and Beck?

FG: We are learning that there are still incredible artists out there who are inspired by and appreciate the quality and art that our guitars deliver. They teach us that there is a new and fresh aesthetic that can be applied to our instruments that complements and enhances our history. These are incredibly creative people who are a joy to collaborate with when working on a guitar. We have an enormous appreciation for the art these musicians create and their desire to help make the world a better place to live through the use of our instruments.

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D-35 Seth Avett Built in collaboration with Seth Avett of The Avett Brothers, a high-altitude Swiss spruce top is featured for the top of this 14-fret Dreadnought. Harvested in winter months to produce a lighter-weight wood with better stiffness, this wood features a tight and even grain. This guitar also sports three-piece back composed of East Indian rosewood with a flamed koa center wedge. Seth himself designed the copper snowflake inlay placed in this guitar’s ebony fretboard.

GC: The legal and environmental implications of using certain building materials have had a major impact on the guitar world in the past decade. What challenges does this raise for Martin and how do you face them?

FG: You are right – it is a changing world and we have an obligation to be a responsible steward. The administrative and legal requirements have forced us to be extremely careful when sourcing tropical hardwoods. The last thing we would ever want to do is unknowingly purchase illegally harvested wood. Certain traditional tonewoods are very difficult to acquire and limited in their availability. This sometimes affects our ability to offer certain guitars in larger volumes or at prices many people would consider more accessible. We are constantly at work to find new tonewoods that guitar players will find inspiring and beautiful.

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00-42SC John Mayer This “00” 12-fret guitar boasts solid cocobolo sides, back and headplate, gorgeous “42” style appointments, and is inspired by the 00-45SC built in collaboration with John Mayer in 2012. The “SC” stands for stagecoach, harkening back to an era when guitars were taken on trains, wagons, and horses for bringing people together in song.

GC: On a similar theme, what advice do you have for players wishing to tour internationally with vintage Martin instruments?

FG: Be prepared for a lot of questions!

GC: I hate to pin you down to just one here, but if you had to pick a desert island guitar from Martin’s entire range which would it be and why?

FG: That’s tough! I go through moods where I want to play my smaller body guitars like my 00-28VS then there are other moments when I need the volume only a Dreadnought can offer. I guess if I had to pick just one it would be a D-18 Authentic. It just sounds so responsive and gigantic!! I am a sucker for mahogany and every time I play one of these guitars a big smile emerges on my face. There are not many things in life you can say that about.

GC: It can be a challenge to describe a guitar’s tone in words, a fact often compounded by a lack of the shared experience, which would allow for a common vocabulary of terms. That said, how would you describe the characteristic Martin Guitar sound?

FG: You are right; it is tough to put in words. When working on a new design or with an artist we often use the obvious words: bassy, bright, woody, metallic, etc. In the end, none of these seem to really capture the essence of a Martin. I think the real characteristic of a Martin is “inspirational”. The purpose of a guitar is to make music and help you express yourself. If it fails to inspire you to do these two things then it doesn’t matter how “bassy”, “bright”, or “woody” the guitar sounds because no one is going to play it. The characteristic Martin sound is inspiring.

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00-DB Jeff Tweedy Designed in collaboration with Grammy Award-winning Wilco front man, Jeff Tweedy. The 00-DB Jeff Tweedy is Martin’s first Custom Artist model that is FSC® Certified, an important distinction for both Tweedy and Martin.

GC: The Authentic Series has been raising eyebrows all over the world with its commitment to historical and tonal accuracy and I’ve personally been very impressed with how close these instruments are to their vintage predecessors. How did this series come about?

FG: When I first joined the company in 2004, Chris Martin IV challenged us to develop a means to continue, train and pass on the traditional craft of using hide glue to construct guitars. During this same time period, we were starting to put together our Custom Shop team. I had previously worked at Gibson Guitars and they, along with Fender, had experienced great success recreating historic models of their electric guitars. We decided to apply this same strategy to some of our iconic models using our new Custom Shop team and the desire to use hide glue. We were very conscious of being as historically accurate as we could be. We started with a recreation of the 1937 D-18. We knew there were varying specs of this guitar so we used our extensive museum of instruments to pick one specific guitar and recreate it to avoid any of the “this one doesn’t look like mine” commentary. From day one the guitars were phenomenal. There is something about those old world techniques and the hands of a truly gifted craftsman that no machine could ever hope to emulate. These guitars just beg to be played. They are the ultimate representation of who we are and what we do.

GC: Finally could you throw any light on the common internet argument of whether the width of the abalone purfling on a 40’s series Martin contributes to the tone?!

FG: Ha!!! It is my opinion, and only my opinion, that it does not make a significant difference. When we build 40 series guitars they are spec’d with the highest grade material and I suspect that is what most people are hearing. The highest grade materials on a Martin guitar, there is no substitute.

GC: Thank you Fred!

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