To honour the occasion of the D-35’s 50th anniversary, Acoustic speaks to Chris Martin IV and Dick Boak from C.F. Martin & Co.
In order to get the most accurate overview of the D-35’s illustrious history, there’s no finer place to go than to C.F. Martin & Co. themselves. First of all, we caught up with the company’s CEO and great-great-great-grandson of Christian Frederick Martin himself, Chris Martin IV. Where better to start than with the origins of the D-35’s three-piece back…
‘We were running out of Brazilian rosewood. We’d run out, basically, by 1969 and so even in ‘65 they knew something was going on and that it was harder to get and more expensive. We had pieces of Brazilian rosewood that we had set aside because there was degrade around the edges, so we reasoned that if we took those and used a third piece as a wedge in the centre we could still utilise them to make guitar backs, they’d just be three pieces instead of two. We weren’t the first people to do this, but we solved the problem of using this wood and keeping production going,’ starts Chris.
‘Someone said that it wasn’t enough and that we needed to do something else – jazz it up and actually ask a premium for it. So we introduced it as a premium to the D-28; not in between a D-18 and a D-28 but above the D-28 and below the D-45, which we weren’t making back then. So initially it was conservational, but then they went beyond that and there were a couple of years where it actually outsold all of the other dreadnought models.’
The D-35 proved to be an immediate success with players. After all, 1965 was right at the birth of the burgeoning singer-songwriter boom with artists like the Byrds, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor waiting in the wings. ‘You know, part of it may have been that they wanted something a little new – everybody knew what a D-18 was and what a D-28 was, but they might have been thinking, “Here’s a new Martin that’s having some success commercially, I’ve got a few bucks in my pocket and I’m going to treat myself…” I think that bound fingerboard was really distinctive; that really set the guitar off visually. I mean, it was a pain in the ass to put the frets on, but that’s another story!’
There’s a book called The Most Revolutionary Year In Music: 1965 and in this book, the author talks about some of the cultural things that were happening that year. In ‘65 there were riots in Watts in Los Angeles, Malcolm X was killed, it was the first year that President Johnson officially sent soldiers to Vietnam and declared it a war. You’ve got the Grateful Dead performing their first concert, Jefferson Airplane debuting in San Francisco, then you have Hunter Thompson, The Hell’s Angels, Allen Ginsberg and Neil Cassidy attending an LSD-fuelled party at Ken Kesey’s house. So there was a lot going on politically and it really converted folk musicians from that sort of cutesy Kingston Trio, Tom Dooley kind of thing to, “Hey, we’re going to write songs about some of the current political issues that we are confronted with in the mid 1960s”. Nobody realised it at the time, but the D-35 came along at a point when musicians were suddenly able to crystallise the angst that people were feeling about some of these pressing issues around race and war.
One of the more noticeable differences between the two contemporary models we have for review and the vintage 1968 D-35 is the shape of the headstock. We had never noticed the rounded corners before – when did Martin return to the flat top headstock?
‘When we realised it was happening! It happened over time and it was very subtle and because it happened so gradually, by the time we noticed it was really obvious, but we hadn’t seen it. So we asked ourselves, “How on earth did that happen?” and it was because the fixture was wearing and so they just kept getting rounder and rounder until someone said, “Something’s going on here… oh, the fixture’s wearing out!” So we built a new fixture,’ laughs Chris.
It was like a famous short video which we’ve seen several times; it’s a psychological thing, they tell you to watch these people passing a basketball back and forth very carefully. They’re passing the basketball by bouncing it and so you’re watching and watching and then, when the video is over, they ask you what you saw. Everyone says that it’s just people passing a basketball back and forth – and they say, “Oh, so you didn’t see the gorilla?” And when you watch it again in slow motion someone walks behind them wearing a gorilla suit! No one ever sees it because they’re so intent on watching those basketballs.
Along with the standard and retro models, there are a couple of special 50th anniversary D-35s… ‘We did a Madagascar rosewood one because we couldn’t get Brazilian as it’s getting so hard to export. We have a little cache of Madagascar and it’s the same thing as before; we had some back pieces with defects which we could cut down for wedges and so that worked out. We introduced a new limited edition model at the 2015 Frankfurt show which has electronics in it, we’re going to do a 60th Birthday Chris Martin three-piece back model at the 2015 summer NAMM show, and we’re also going to do a reintroduction D-1235 because that was also introduced in 1965.’
‘Every Standard D-35 model that we make this year will have a label and laser etching on the block commemorating the fact that, even though it’s just a Standard D-35, it was made in the 50th anniversary year. So anyone who buys something D-35 related from us this year will receive some kind of acknowledgement that it’s an anniversary guitar. The funny thing is that if you look at the D-18, D-28 and the D-45, then the D-35 is the youngest sibling of that family and here we are, 50 years later and it’s still an important part of the Martin model line-up,’ Chris finishes.
The next stop in our archeological dig around the D-35’s history was a chat with Dick Boak who is the director of C.F. Martin & Co.’s museum and company archive. We discussed the more technical issues of the guitar’s development and, as is usual with new models, the story really began with the building of the first prototypes.
‘A prototype was made with standard D-28 bracing, which is 5/16ths of an inch (7.94mm) in width and that particular model was called an X-35. That guitar had such a big heavy bass response that it was felt that the bracing was too heavy for the specific tonal dynamics of a three-piece back. A three-piece back seems to increase the bass response for some reason. So they made three more pairs of prototypes with different bracing configurations, some that had D-28 bracing and some that had the thinner triple-0 bracing and some that had a combination of the two. The one that they decided upon had thin quarter inch (6.35mm) top braces and more delicate triple-0 sized back braces. The thinner bracing seemed to counteract the tonal dynamics of the three-piece back and produce a guitar that still had a very nice strong bass but had a powerful treble response as well,’ says Dick.
‘The D-35 was also very pretty; people really responded to the beauty of the three-piece back and the contrast between the wings and the centre wedge because they purposefully tried to pick woods that contrasted. People who owned D-35s from the 1969/70 era will notice that, during the transition between Brazilian and Indian rosewood, sometimes Brazilian rosewood was utilised as the centre wedge or sometimes as the wings on guitars which would normally be Indian rosewood. That’s something that confuses people sometimes; they would have a D-35 that was made after we stopped using Brazilian rosewood but it has a component or two of Brazilian that was being used up.’
We expect you’re now going to be inundated with D-35 owners from that era who are curious to know whether they have one of the hybrid models.
‘Anybody who knows wood can pretty readily identify Brazilian rosewood by the spidery black overlapping landscape grain versus the more reddish purple colour of East Indian. It’s pretty easy to tell for us and a photograph sent to Martin Customer Service can verify
What about the D-35’s evolution since the 1960s? ‘The original D-35s had mitred fingerboard bindings and as the popularity of the model increased in the late 1960s, that was suspended in favour of a continuous piece of binding that rounds around the end of the fingerboard, which is the way that the D-35s are still made now. Other than that, and apart from the changeover from Brazilian to East Indian rosewood, there haven’t been any significant alterations to the model’s design or dimensions. There have been new models that have been offered; when we reintroduced the herringbone D-28 [the HD-28] we concurrently issued the HD-35 which has scalloped bracing which we call “high performance bracing” because it’s the thinnest that we offer on any of our dreadnought guitars. So the HD-35 has an even more balanced tonality, very similar I think to the D-28. When I compare those two models, I consider the HD-35 to have a heavier bass response than the D-28 and I consider the HD-28 to have more treble and balance than the D-28 or the HD-35. These are subtle tonal differences that I notice after playing hundreds of each of these models, but that’s not to say that one instrument might jump out of the pack as being more bassy or more trebly or more balanced or whatever. Guitars are made with individual pieces of wood and even though each model tends to have a pretty consistent tone across the board, if you were to line 10 of them up and play them all, there’s invariably one that stands out as being a little more bassy and one that’s a little more trebly and the others tend to fall in line in the middle.’
How do you think that the D-35 compares to the D-45? ‘Well the D-45 has also changed from being a Brazilian rosewood scalloped instrument to being an Indian rosewood unscalloped instrument to nowadays being an Indian rosewood scalloped instrument. So it’s gone through three configurations and many different versions like the D-45V or the models that have been made in different tonewoods, like Madagascar rosewood and Cocobolo or various different Custom Shop options. But if we’re talking about stock models then the original D-35 would compare to a 1960s D-45 as being perhaps a little more balanced and a little less thick in the bass. Once the D-45 became scalloped again, I would then equate it to the HD-28 in tone.’
One of the main differences between the Standard and Retro D-35s that we have here is the top wood: Sitka spruce for the Standard and European spruce for the Retro. ‘I think they wanted to make the Retro a little more special than the Standard. If you were to try to analyse the tonal differences in all of the spruces, it comes down to tapping them to see what note they produce. You pinch the guitar at the very top of the soundboard and tap it where the bridge is going to be and it produces a note that you can actually read with a guitar tuner. Of course it’s easy to produce a great guitar with any of these different spruces, but from my experience from just fooling around with tapping tops, I find that Sitka spruce produces a very low, rumbling and boomy bass note. Conversely, Adirondack, which typically has a wider grain but is still very stiff, produces a much higher pitch. The other spruces tend to fall in between European Alpine spruce, which would be kind of in the middle and pretty close to Adirondack, then Engelmann spruce is a little bit lower, but not as low as Sitka. There are many other spruces that vary in their tap tones – and it can vary within the same species. Personally, I tend to like the higher pitch, though Sitka spruce tends to do very well on guitars that are chosen for vocal accompaniment or on smaller bodied guitars where it is balanced out by the natural treble response.’
We noticed that the vintage D-35 seemed to be a little bit lighter than the new Standard and seems richer in tone. ‘They certainly do lose weight and gain clarity as they age. It is our hope that Martin guitars start out with tremendously open and balanced tone, but as the guitar ages, especially after the lacquer has expelled all of its solvents, which happens pretty quickly, and the wood has expelled much of its moisture content and cellular structure, the guitars tend to lose weight and shrink up a little bit and the dryness really continues to improve the tone of the instrument. I think they lose about seven per cent or more in weight and up to seven per cent in terms of dimension.’
The Martin D-35 celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2015. Martin Guitars are available from dealers around the country – you can find your nearest dealer by visiting their website.
Read our review of the Martin D-35 Standard Edition and D-35 Retro here: Reviewed: D-35 and D-35E Retro.