by Don McKay
With a rich heritage that extends back over a century and a half, Martin Guitars continue, as they approach their 200th year of building, to be one of the most desired steel-stringed instruments in the world!
The founder of this great company came from a long line of European cabinet makers, and early on displayed an interest in making guitars. At age 15, Christian Frederick Martin was introduced to his father’s friend, Johann Stauffer. Stauffer, one of the premier guitar builders in Europe, came from a family of artisans, too. Johann’s father was also a guitar maker! The Stauffer and Martin families go back in history even further than Johann and Christian, so that the heredity of Martin Guitar Company dates to the intense system of early European Guilds in Medieval times! When you think about it, you begin to sense the immense and rich heritage you embrace–when you hold a Martin guitar!
For the next 14 years, C. F. lived and breathed guitar-making, under his master’s guidance. At age 37, Christian Frederick emigrated to New York, with his wife and family, and his Hudson Avenue music store provided him with income through the retail sale of violins, as well as some guitars he made in the back room of the store. Five years later, at the insistence of his wife, he moved the family and business to a place in Pennsylvania comprised largely of newly arrived Europeans from Germany, Switzerland, and the Alsace region of France. Thus, Nazareth, Pennsylvania became-and continues to be-the home of “America’s Guitar!”
Over the years, the Martins have been credited with popularizing “X” bracing, and with creating the Dreadnought body size and shape. They also embraced the 14-fret join of the neck to the acoustic guitar body.
Today, we are so blessed to have a wealth of fine guitar makers the world over. Their ambitions and dreams have advanced us into a worldwide culture we characterize as the “Golden Age of Guitars!” Folks have experimented with bracing patterns, brace thickness, bolt-on necks, cantilevered fingerboards, sound hole placements, various ways of joining necks to bodies, and various materials to use in guitar construction. We guitar players are the lucky beneficiaries of this luthery largess!!
But, even with all the competition, Martin still stands out as the pre-eminent acoustic guitar maker. You might have heard “This sounds better than a Martin!” Or, “Doesn’t that have the ‘Martin’ sound?!” Often, a competitor might point out that “Our guitars are so much more playable than Martins!” How about “These guitars don’t ‘muddy up’ the bass like a Martin does!” Whatever comment is made, the fabulous Martin guitar is always the sole standard to which others are held.
New makers constantly try to make “better Martins than Martin can make!” They have actually taken apart pre-war (WW II) Martins, and carefully mapped the bracing patterns; they gauged the thickness of the tops, backs, and sides, and re-created their own Nazareth, PA copies. And, wow, were these reproductions wonderful! Still, none of the fine copies sound like, or surpass the continued high quality you witness in the C. F. Company’s still-excellent guitar!. Oh, there is much comment on the new luthiers’ careful craftsmanship, and the fine tone and volume of their creations. And, yes, those all are, indeed, very special instruments. But none can ever lay claim to that unique history and heritage which is the Martin dynasty! Only a Martin guitar can continue to sound like, and be, a Martin guitar!
If you are within a few hours of driving time, or are planning a trip to the East Coast, be sure to visit the Martin workshop and immerse yourself in the rich history! They offer guided tours–without charge–between 11:00 A.M. and 2:30 P.M. I know you will be surprised and pleased at the amount of handwork and skilled crafting of these new Martins that still takes place in Nazareth, PA! But, in case you won’t get to go anytime soon here is a link to some rare footage of Martin’s artisans in 1939, crafting fine guitars at the North Market Street shop! (This is courtesy of Dick Boak at Martin! Thanks, Dick, for finding and preserving this 16 mm footage!)