Many of us spend more time complaining about things that aren’t so good rather than celebrating the things that are really good in this life. I know this to be true; I might not have a column otherwise. Putting aside all that for a moment, let’s reflect upon a couple of really good things: acoustic music and Martin guitars.
I’ve been a fan of good acoustic music for as long as I can remember (think 1960s). And I’ve been an eager practitioner of the same since I got my first guitar in our nation’s bicentennial year. Even back then, when I would see photos of the ultimate acoustic guitars in the guitar magazines, they were Martins. (And Guild for 12-strings.) And when I’d get to spend a little time in a music store, the Martins were always kept behind a glass display or in a separate room so that mere mortals like myself wouldn’t soil them with our grubby mitts.
The C.F. Martin & Co. was established in 1833 in New York City by Christian Frederick Martin. In 1839, he moved the company to where it still builds fine guitars, Nazareth, Pennsylvania. While Martin has also built mandolins, ukuleles, bass and electric guitars, and nylon string guitars (like Willie Nelson’s Trigger), its main claim to fame is the steel-string acoustic guitar.
The Martins I got to play in my formative years were very special. Their D-series of dreadnought guitars were — and are — the standards by which most others are judged. From bluegrass to rock, Martin D-series guitars are responsible for more hit records and more memorable music than perhaps all other makes. The mahogany D-18 and the rosewood D-28 and D-35 are all amazing instruments. And then there is the 40 series: the D-41, D-42, and D-45. While the same size as the other D-series instruments, the 40 series combines the best and most attractive tonewoods (spruce, rosewood, mahogany) with dazzling abalone and mother-of-pearl inlays and appointments. The higher the number, the more intricate and involved are the inlays. As far as guitars go, this is serious bling.
I remember way back in the early 1980s, when I was a young struggling musician on the road, playing a gig in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I wandered into this seemingly anachronistic acoustic guitar shop in the quaint downtown, Picker’s Supply. (It’s still there.) Inside, I saw and played the guitar of my dreams, a 1961 Martin D-18. It was born the same year I was. It was in great condition, and sounded and played like no other guitar I’d ever played to that point of my young life. Sadly, the young musician I was then didn’t have a spare $1,000 that would have made that sweet guitar mine. That was the last Martin I played that I dearly loved…
Until about four years ago. I played a lot of different Takamine guitars on stage and in the studio for many years. Around 2005, I discovered this small guitar company out of Tumalo, Oregon (now Bend) called Breedlove. They made really nice guitars with some amazing features. I played them exclusively on stage for about a decade, and I’m still quite fond of my Breedloves.
As fate would have it, a maple-bodied Martin jumbo with an onboard Aura preamp became available. I snagged it at a really nice price, and it rekindled my love of Martin guitars. Since then, I found a rosewood jumbo, and a couple of sweet Martin dreadnoughts that resemble 40-series guitars with their gorgeous blingy inlays. One of those even came from the legendary Martin Custom Shop, and there are only 12 other guitars like it on the planet.
Playing Martin guitars is really what my younger self would call a dream come true. If I could go back in time, would I tell my younger self to be patient and that the Martins will one day come? Hell, no! I’d somehow find a way to slip my younger self ten $100 bills so that my older self would still have that 1961 Martin D-18.