Martin Guitar Remains Acoustic King on 175th Anniversary

June 3, 2008 7:29:43 AM PDT
C.F. Martin IV sure knows how to build guitars. Just don't ask him to play one in public. "I'm an abysmal guitar player," confesses Martin - known simply as "Chris" - sixth-generation CEO of the eponymous guitar maker C.F. Martin & Co.

It might seem scandalous that the proprietor of the world's oldest and most famous producer of acoustic guitars can't play a lick. But it is Martin's business acumen and deep knowledge of the luthier's art, not his picking and strumming, that have helped the family-owned company solidify its hold on the acoustic guitar market.

Martin celebrates its 175th anniversary this year as the guitar of choice for many of the biggest names in music, from Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Dave Matthews, Jimmy Buffett and Willie Nelson - whose famous guitar "Trigger" is so worn there's a hole in the soundboard.

The company has tripled the size of its Pennsylvania factory in recent years to accommodate surging demand from nostalgic and well-heeled baby boomers (among others). Martin now sells 90,000 guitars per year, more than any other U.S. manufacturer.

The instruments have long been coveted by the famous and not-so-famous alike for their warm tones and durability. Jimmie Rodgers, one of the first country stars, played one in the 1920s. Gene Autry followed in the '30s. Then came Woody Guthrie in the '40s, Elvis Presley in the '50s, the Beatles and Crosby, Stills & Nash in the '60s.

Among the current crop of Martin devotees is Grammy-winning singer-songwriter John Mayer, who says his trusty Martin helped him craft a unique sound on hit singles like "Daughters" and "Your Body is a Wonderland."

"The sound of the Martin acoustic, that's my voice," says Mayer, who has lent his name to two Martin signature editions. "When you talk about fame, fame is basically the recognition of something. There's nothing more famous than the sound of a song starting off, and I've got so many that exist on a Martin acoustic guitar."

Craig Thatcher, a blues guitarist whose band performs around the world, has been playing Martins since he was a kid. He says the sound of a Martin guitar is unmistakable.

"There's just a specific brilliance, and a sweetness," he says. "Players that are used to hearing this sound can pick it out on a record or on the radio, can tell, 'Oh, that's a Martin.'

"In my estimation and many, many others', it's still THE acoustic guitar," he says. "Not because of any hype or any name. It's just a well-made guitar."

Each Martin comes to life in this quaint little town 60 miles north of Philadelphia. Hundreds of workers, many of them artisans with decades of experience, have a hand in a process with up to 300 individual steps: from bending the rosewood, koa or mahogany into the familiar hourglass shape to hand-fitting the neck, applying the 11 coats of lacquer, winding the strings and test-playing the finished guitar.

Such attention to detail doesn't come cheap. Martins typically cost a few thousand dollars but can run into the tens of thousands for high-end custom models made from rare woods.

Then again, Martin guitars have proven themselves to be good investments, known almost as much for their resale value as their sound.

Guiding a reporter through the factory recently, Dick Boak, Martin's longtime director of artist relations and an accomplished musician and luthier in his own right, points to a '40s-era Martin D-28 constructed of prized Brazilian rosewood. The guitar's in relatively poor shape - but still worth $25,000 to $30,000.

An even more eye-popping example is the $270,000 that Martin spent last year for an extremely rare D-45 made in 1942. That one is a crown jewel of Martin's two-year-old museum, a guitar enthusiast's delight that tracks the evolution of the company from its 1833 founding by Chris Martin's great-great-great-grandfather.

Born in Germany into a family of cabinet makers, Christian Frederick Martin Sr. apprenticed in the Viennese shop of famed luthier Johann Stauffer, then immigrated to New York City following a guild dispute. He relocated his family and business to Nazareth in 1839.

The founder's innovations included the X-shaped brace on the underside of the soundboard, which gives the guitar its strength while allowing the top to vibrate to produce tone. The brace remains the standard for steel-string guitars.

"He was attempting to make the perfect guitar, and he came closer to it, I think, than anybody, more consistently. And that's what we've maintained," says Chris Martin.

The company has gone through its share of tough times. Martin's late father, Frank Herbert Martin, presided over a disastrous acquisition drive that had the company verging on bankruptcy by 1982, when the board of directors demanded his resignation.

At the same time, shifting musical tastes - disco, '80s synthesizer music, hair metal - were putting a serious dent in sales of acoustic guitars.

Chris Martin, now 52, took the reins after his grandfather's death in 1986. He says he was "scared to death" about assuming responsibility for the company at such a young age - and at a precarious time in the company's history - but was determined not to let the Martin legacy fade away.

At his direction, the company introduced a line of mid-priced guitars that put a Martin within reach of a larger pool of potential customers. Martins also became physically easier to play after the company reduced the distance between the strings and the neck, while new amplification technology made them sound better when plugged in.

Meanwhile, MTV's seminal "Unplugged" series, on which stars like Clapton played stripped-down versions of their most famous songs, helped introduce the venerable acoustic to a new generation. Martin has grown explosively since its early-'80s nadir. While it took nearly 160 years for the company to build its first 500,000 guitars, Martin cranked out the next 500,000 in only 14.

So what do the next few centuries hold?

Chris Martin believes the company will still be around - and, he hopes, guided by its founding family. (Think he doesn't think about these things? Note the initials of his only child, 3-year-old Claire Frances.)

Over the short term, however, Martin worries that young people more familiar with Guitar Hero than its six-string counterpart are too impatient to learn the intricacies of the acoustic.

"I love the fact that it's 'Guitar Hero' and not 'Accordion Hero,' but I'm not convinced that learning how to play that video game is going to make it any easier for you to learn how to play the guitar," he says.

Which brings us back to Martin's own adventures in guitar playing.

When he began taking lessons at age 11, Martin just wanted to be able to play some chords. But his teacher had other ideas.

Out came the musical scales.

"It bored me to death. I never practiced," Martin says ruefully. "And that's about where I am with the guitar. ... I still lay in bed at night thinking, 'Maybe I should try again."'

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Associated Press writer John Rogers in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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