A fascinating new book reveals the hidden treasure in C.F. Martin & Co.’s long and glorious history – David Mead travels through time…
Practically every guitarist or builder you meet will tell you that the Martin Guitar Company set the standard for the modern acoustic guitar. Collectors worldwide will pay overwhelming sums of money for pre-WWII Martins, acknowledging this as the golden era. However, few people realise that there were Martin guitars on the market prior to a much earlier conflict – before the American Civil War began in 1861, in fact. A new book called Inventing The American Guitar by Robert Shaw and Peter Szego (Hal Leonard Books) examines this little known period of the company’s history in minute detail and delivers some amazing facts in the process. For instance, did you know that Martins were around before the Colt Revolver? Or that the earliest example of X bracing on a guitar was to be found way back in 1843? We didn’t. So when we received our copy it was automatically voted book of the month and an invaluable asset to guitar aficionados all the same.
The book’s basic chronology begins when the original C.F. Martin arrives in New York from Bremen in 1833 after serving an apprenticeship with a guitar maker called Johann Stauffer in Austria. From there, we witness a fascinating journey beginning with the very early Martin models and observer them slowly evolving into the forerunners of the instrument we take for granted today. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of the early guitars – some of the rarest and most sought after on the market.
In order to celebrate the new book and talk about the company’s current position in the rapidly changing marketplace, we got in touch with Chris Martin IV, the head of C.F. Martin & Co. today and the great-great-great-grandson of the company’s founder. We began our conversation by asking him what he thought of the new book.
‘It’s pretty impressive. Now that I’ve had a chance to digest it, it makes me wonder; in our museum, we break up the history of the company chronologically and the first display is all about C.F. Senior [Christian Frederick Martin 1796-1873] in Germany and moving to Austria, working with Stauffer and coming to New York City. The next display is him moving from NYC out here to Pennsylvania. The guitars in the two displays are so different but it never dawned on me to think about why. Now that I’ve got this book it’s like: “Oh, there was a reason he switched from copying Stauffer to copying the Spanish luthiers.” Apparently when the guitars that were being made in Spain came over here, the climate was so different that the instruments themselves weren’t holding up. So C.F. was able to say: “Ok, I can copy these things and make them here in the Northeast and make them better than the imports…” And people realised that the Martin guitars worked just as well musically but they were more durable.’
Are there many of those original Martins still around?
There are, and we’ve got a fair amount in our collection. Other people choose to collect them, although they’re not used so much today to make music, but they’re so well made – and people took care of them. Even if you bought one 150 years ago, it was a big investment and so they’ve been handed down through the generations. So someone will say that there’s been one under their uncle’s bed for the last 30 years and so now they want to find a good home for it.
What’s it like being at the helm of a company with such a rich heritage of innovation behind it?
It’s always a balancing act and I have to reference Henry Juszkiewicz from Gibson guitars who has gone on record as saying that when you run a company like Fender, Martin, or Gibson you’re blessed and you’re cursed by your history and your heritage, because none of us has the freedom to do anything that is really wild and crazy. That is just not what the customer wants to see. I go to luthier conventions and I’m always in awe of some of the wild and crazy things that individual luthiers can do and have people go: “Wow, that’s really cool…” But if I did it, they’d think I’d gone insane!
Is the CITES situation regarding the control of certain timbers affecting production?
Well, now there’s actually a lot more acceptance and understanding about how rare and precious these timbers are becoming. It’s a little bit like we’re closing the barn door after the horses have left and the movement towards sustainable forestry particularly for hardwoods, is a long play. Even if you are now willing to accept the fact that you should judiciously harvest the trees that are worth harvesting and allow new ones to regenerate, they take a long time to grow to get big.
It must be doubly difficult for Martin, having virtually created the original blueprint for acoustic guitar construction with regard to body woods, etc. in the first place?
Yes and no. Again, if you look at the guitars back in the day, if you could get rosewood, you used it. If you could get mahogany or cedar, you used it; everybody used spruce… Maybe it’s because we made so many that people think that. But we certainly weren’t the first people; whoever figured out those woods, it wasn’t C.F. Martin & Co. – it was someone who came before him.
What about the severely restricted woods like Brazilian rosewood?
We have a little bit of pre-CITES Brazilian rosewood, but the other wood that has become challenging or nearly impossible to procure right now is the rosewood that came briefly out of Madagascar. It’s almost a kissing cousin to Brazilian rosewood but with the political situation out in Madagascar, it’s not the right time.
You know, it’s funny; I’ll meet people who think that we at Martin or we as an industry can move the market, but we really can’t. All we can do is respond. All my ancestors have been good at is being nimble enough to deal with whatever was going on and make a success of it.
How are you actively responding to the shortage of certain timbers?
We’re always enquiring as to what is available. What are the woods that we haven’t traditionally used that are currently available? What woods are getting certification? It’s a plus for us if we can get a third party like the FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] to certify the wood. And we’ve been looking at alternative materials; we’ve been very successful with the high-pressure laminate guitar and that material came from a tree. It’s been processed by man along the way, but people think that Martin are making plastic guitars, but it’s not plastic; it’s chopped up wood fibre and those trees are farmed, they’re not growing them for their exotic nature, they’re growing them for pulp and so that kind of wood is available.
Another traditional aspect of Martin is the tone – people buy a Martin because they expect a certain sound from it. How difficult is it to adjust to using newer materials and still deliver the sound people expect?
You have to pay attention to it and sometimes it’s something as simple as the density of the wood. You can get in to the whole “how thin can we make it before we might compromise the structure?” thing, but generally if it’s denser you have to thin the wood out a little more to achieve the tone. But it’s also cosmetic; let’s face it, at the price level we’re selling at the wood has to have some kind of physical appearance that’s attractive because customers are thinking: “If I’m spending $4,000 on this I want it to look good.” So that’s something we have to take into account when we’re looking at other woods.
Getting trees that are big enough, too; we all say that some day we’re all going to be making four-piece backs and four-piece tops – there are already multiple piece necks out there. So that’s the other inevitability – using traditional materials, but using smaller pieces of them.
I’ve talked to enough people that study trees and forestry who say there’s nothing wrong with harvesting trees judiciously; it’s actually beneficial to the forest if you do it with some common sense. We’re not talking about clear cutting; we’re not talking about cutting four lane roads through the jungle. There was actually a seminar where they said that a one lane road cut through the jungle provides light and when you leave that road the sun comes in and trees will grow where that road was.
I have a very selfish viewpoint on this because Martin is a multi-generation business and whether or not my daughter joins the business, she’s going to inherit it. So I want there to be a business there for her; I’ve always joked that I don’t want her walking around a trade show with a t-shirt that says: “My daddy cut down the last tree!”
How important is the Martin endorsement programme?
From my standpoint it’s an acknowledgement on both of our parts of the relationship that the artist formed with a Martin guitar early in their career. I can tell you that we get phone calls from people who say: “Hey, y’know, someday I’m going to be famous and if you give me a Martin guitar, I will go out and promote it.” And we say: “Tell you what; why don’t you go and buy a Martin guitar and then, when you become famous, give us a call!” That’s the way it is for these folks; they went out, probably at a point in their career when it was a challenge to buy a Martin financially, they bought the Martin and I hope that the guitar inspired them and, in some cases, they became wildly successful. So what better endorsement is there than to say that this person chose our product on their own? We didn’t pay them to play it and we didn’t give it to them for free, they chose it and, along the way, became famous and successful.
What’s it like working with some of your endorsees?
It really depends. More often than not they’re familiar with the company and the product line and some get very involved with the design. Some use their guitar tech to work on some of the more subtly nuanced parts of an artist model and then they’ll get the guitar and endorse it. That often happens with Eric Clapton; we’ll make a prototype and he’ll say: “Yeah – pretty close!” And then we have to go back and make another prototype and that’s ok, we just have to give ourselves enough time. Like for Crossroads there was a deadline and something happened with the inlay at the 11th hour and we’re all scratching our heads, saying: “Boy, I hope we can turn around a new prototype in time for the concert…” because there was a specific day that the concert was going to happen.
Do some of them come to you with more of an aesthetic agenda, knowing that they want their instrument to look a certain way and sound a certain way and you have to do the science?
Again, we say ok, if that’s what you’re looking for then we should use rosewood or it sounds like we should use mahogany or it sounds like the neck should be this wide and have this profile. You can get pretty close just based on a couple of conversations. Or they’ll say: “Well here are the guitars that I own and I like this aspect of this guitar, this aspect of that guitar and my friend has a so-and-so model that I really like so can we incorporate some of the specifications in that model into it?”
Have you ever had an impossible mandate from anyone?
The funny one was from Scott Chinery. Scott decided to sell his business and become a very prolific collector of guitars and at one point we were having a conversation and he said: “Chris, I want you to build me a custom guitar.” I said: “Hey, great!” And he said he wanted us to build him a Martin copy of a Larson Brothers guitar, because he said he knew we’d do it better than the Larson Brothers guitar that he had. I said: “Ok, let me think about it.” So I came back to my colleagues and they’re all freaking out saying: “We can’t make it, we can’t make it.” So I said: “No, we can make it…” and they said: “Do you know how much it’s going to cost?” So I said: “No, you tell me what it’s going to cost.” So they told me and I got back in touch with Scott and said: “Here’s the deal; the guitar itself is $5000, no problem. But the tooling will cost another $35,000…” And he simply replied: “Fine.” So there was a case of, if you’re willing to pay for it, we can make it – and he was. So he paid for us to tool up to basically make one guitar. My colleagues don’t want me to take too many of that type of order, but it’s a fun story to tell!
Inventing The American Guitar by Robert Shaw and Peter Szego is out now published by Hal Leonard.