Where better to start this special feature than with the man whose family name is on the headstock of every Martin guitar, Chris Martin IV, who tells Steve Harvey about the evolution and success of the Dreadnought, and his true feelings on the plethora of Dreadnought copies out there
Christian Frederick Martin IV, the great-great-great grandson of the original Christian Frederick Martin, is Martin Guitar’s chairman and CEO. Despite his family being an intrinsic part of the production of popular music for the last century, and arguably responsible for the creation of some musical genres, he remains eminently approachable and easy to talk to.
As you can understand, Chris Martin loves talking about his company’s history, particularly the early models of Martin guitars. After expressing his pride at the Dreadnought’s 100th birthday, he reflected on a conversation he had with his grandfather. “He told me that his father, my great grandfather, loved history and that’s why that particular guitar is called the Dreadnought. As my grandfather is no longer alive, I felt the need to learn more about the ship itself.”
Having immersed himself in research material, Mr Martin became more familiar with the Dreadnought battleship (pictured above). “What struck me was that not only is 2016 the 100th anniversary of the Dreadnought guitar, but it’s also the 110th anniversary of the ship,” he said. “So I began to do a lot of research on the ship and learned that it was such a masterpiece of naval engineering, to the point where it was so state of the art in so many ways, it made all previous battleships, including the entire British fleet, obsolete. I began to see more of a connection between not only the word, but the item behind the word.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that that Martin Dreadnought was designed with the sole purpose of becoming the world’s favourite guitar. Mr Martin reminds us that there was no such masterplan. “When you look at the Martin Dreadnought, in hindsight it was revolutionary, but they didn’t sit down in a room and say, ‘Let’s design a revolutionary guitar’. They designed a big-bodied guitar which we believe might have originally been made for Hawaiian music, but which very quickly became the go-to guitar for country, then bluegrass, then folk. And, as it’s been said many times, it has now become the most copied guitar of all time. That’s pretty impressive to me.”
We ask Mr Martin about the Dreadnought’s formative years. “There is a resurgent interest in small-bodied Martins, and that warms our hearts, but when you look at anything we made prior to the Dreadnought, they got bigger – but they got bigger in proportion. The goal was to not have the bass, or the mid-range, or the treble outshine any of the other two. That’s why when you look at the 0, the 00 or the 000, you can see they’ve got bigger, but you can still see the family resemblance in them. Then, along comes the Dreadnought, which was originally promoted by us as a bass guitar. Why? Not because it had four strings, but because it had bass – more bass than anything we’ve ever made!
“The original Dreadnoughts were only sold through the Ditson chain, which meant that they hadn’t got the broad distribution that other Martin guitars had enjoyed. During the Great Depression, Ditson went bust and of all the models we were making for them the Dreadnought was the only one we kept, but we knew that we had to develop the guitar. Very shortly after that we offered a 14-fret to the body model, and then a solid headstock and scalloped bracing. That’s when it became the modern Martin Dreadnought.”
“The herringbone trim and scalloped bracing both went away during the war. We’re not exactly sure why the scalloped bracing went. It might have had something to do with some warranty issues, we’re not sure, but we know the herringbone went away because it was sourced in Germany. It wasn’t until the 1960s that people began to say that those scalloped-braced Martin Dreadnoughts had ‘a sound’. So, it was a combination of the solid head, the 14-fret neck and the scalloped bracing, all of which happened in a kind of sequence, that solidified the Dreadnought’s place as a guitar that had potential to be relevant far into the future.”
The Dreadnought’s place in instrument history and popular music may have been assured, but sales reports for the first few years wouldn’t have led you to that conclusion. “The Dreadnought certainly wasn’t an overnight success,” states Mr Martin. “It took years and years before it became the bread and butter guitar. Throughout the teens and twenties, the bulk of our production was small bodied guitars. Looking back, it wasn’t until after the second world war that it came on strong. We made some Dreadnoughts in the run-up to the second world war, and a few during the war, but it was afterwards that people really began to desire the Dreadnought.”
“Of course, back in the day, it was all acoustic. The microphone came along later and, much later, the pick-up so the Dreadnought proved itself acoustically before it proved itself as an acoustic-electric guitar.”
One of the truly remarkable features of the Dreadnought is that it is used by artists from many different musical genres. We ask Mr Martin if he can put his finger on what it is that causes the Dreadnought to have such universal appeal.
“It has an impressive sound, an impressive look, and you feel like you’re getting good value for money,” he says with utter confidence. “It has a presence about it, without being gaudy. When you see a band and the guitarist is holding a Martin Dreadnought, you say to yourself, ‘OK, this person is going to entertain me. I think I’m in for a treat here.’ Had it sounded good but looked bad I don’t think it would have been as popular. And likewise, had it looked good but not sounded good. It was the combination of the two things.”
As has been well-documented, the Martin Dreadnought is the most copied acoustic guitar in production today. When interviewing Mr Martin in 2008 he reminded me that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, I put it to him that maybe there is a tinge of regret that the design was never patented. “Looking back, I don’t believe there was ever any work done in protecting the design. If they contemplated it, that’s all they did. And don’t forget that design patents are hard to get. It’s easy to get a patent on how something functions, but not so much on how it looks. Even if they had been able to secure that patent, it would have ran out long ago. The one thing we protect vigorously is the Martin brand, but by not protecting the Dreadnought, I believe that allowed it to become what it was destined to become. Without us either encouraging it or discouraging it, the marketplace said, this is possibly the finest design of flat top steel string acoustic guitar ever for the purpose of being in a band and being able to cut through and keep up with the other instruments.”
We ask Mr Martin to expand on the issues surrounding patents. “Maybe the Dreadnought design is something we should have tried to register, but we didn’t. It’s too late now but not that many years ago, at the Patent & Trademark Office in New York, we were able to get protection for the rectangular headstock and for the D-18, D-28 and D-45 model designation, many, many years after we had used them. I thought to myself at the time that there must have been someone working in that office that, when they saw the paperwork, thought, ‘Yes, Martin deserves to have these registered’. As a result, a guitar builder cannot use D-18, D-28 or D-45. Protecting the rectangular headstock is more of a challenge because, in the interim, other people were using it. Where that’s the case we’ve made contact and told them we don’t want to stop you, we don’t want a royalty, we just want you to acknowledge in your literature that you are using a headstock shape that is rightfully owned by C.F. Martin & Co. Some have complied and some have thumbed their noses at us. Whatever the case, this industry is too small to be suing people all the time. It’s not part of the DNA of guitar builders in general, they are more into sharing than hiding things.”
“The biggest kick I get is when I see the expensive copies. We don’t make guitars in China so if someone wants to start out with a £199 guitar, you’re going to get something from Asia and God bless you. But I do have to laugh when people boast about their expensive Collings, or whatever it might be. I ask, ‘Hey, what shape is it?’ ‘It’s a Dreadnought’, they reply. ‘And how much did you pay for it?’ ‘$6,000’, they tell me. ‘So you paid $6,000 for a Martin copy? Good for you! You know, we still make the real thing?’ Don’t get me wrong, I like Bill Collings, but that’s where I scratch my head a little bit.”
With the Dreadnought having enjoyed such success, we ask Mr Martin if the Dreadnought can be improved. “What we will continue to do is refine the Dreadnought in terms of playability. There are necks that we use today that players years ago wish they would have had access to. Let’s face it, for many years, Martin guitars had big, clunky necks which people played on the first three frets. Had we not evolved the Dreadnought’s neck, it might not be as relevant as it is today.”
“We’re also going to continue to work with folks like Fishman to refine the acoustic electric sound. When you plug a Martin in, what I hope you hear is that same guitar, just louder. Larry [Fishman, President of Fishman Electronics] and his team are sharp and every time we do something we get closer to that goal.”
The size of the Dreadnought’s body means that, for some, the guitar can be somewhat cumbersome. When commenting on this, Mr Martin used the opportunity for a little sales pitch. “Yes, they are a little awkward, they’re not couch guitars. That’s why, if you’re really into acoustic guitars, it’s probably a good idea to have a Dreadnought and a 00 or 000 depending on your mood.”
In summary, Mr Martin is clear about his company’s position in the market and the positive effect his competitors have. “We’ve got some formidable competition but we’re number one, and I want to stay number one. Competition has been good for the industry. Guitars today are better because everyone had to make a better guitar and if you weren’t inclined to make a better guitar, you’d better get out of the way.”