“Lightweight and supremely playable” – Martin’s 16 series update is finally here, and promises to be the definitive modern gigging acoustic. Acoustic plugs in…
Words by: Alun Lower
Guitarists are a funny old lot. Some of us obsess over the fine detailing and craftsmanship of our instruments the same way the pickiest of watch snobs wax lyrical over the mechanisms that power their latest exorbitant purchase (that does exactly the same as every other watch, ever). Others treat their guitars like smartphones – craving the latest model and hungrily lapping up a list of new features with probably little-to-no intention whatsoever of actually using them.
Being a reviewer, I often find myself accompanying my guitar-playing mates as something of a personal shopper, and so many times I’ve found myself talking my friends down from purchases that they really don’t need. With acoustics, electronics can often be the point of difference, with buyers eyeing up sophisticated microphone and pre-amp systems when all they really want to do is sit at home and take in the purely acoustic experience. Look, I’m not judging – I’ve done it too. More times than I’d care to admit! But the trick with buying a new instrument is figuring out exactly who it’s for, and whether that’s you.
So with that in mind, let’s get one thing out of the way – the Martin D-16E puts in an awful lot of work to convince you to take it on the road and plug it in. That’s not to say that it isn’t rewarding in a purely acoustic sense (very much the opposite, in fact) – but it’s important to recognize what this guitar wants to do before we judge how well it pulls it off.
The D-16E is a surprising guitar in many ways, and a lot of that hits you within the first few moments. The most obvious difference that sets the D-16E apart is that while the body is a familiar dreadnaught design at first glance, the depth of the body is actually the shallower profile of a 000, which immediately makes the D-16E feel relatively lightweight and easy to handle. The change promises to offer greater clarity and punch from an acoustic standpoint, but also to reduce feedback in a live setting – another sign that Martin is really backing this guitar’s ambitions as a top-drawer gigging instrument.
The other visual difference that catches the eye immediately is the crisp metallic silver binding that makes its way around the body and neck and also covers the heel cap. It’s something I’ve certainly not seen on a guitar before, and every thought in my brain told me I shouldn’t like it – but I do. It’s sharp, modern, distinctive and surprisingly not at all at odds with the lovely natural wood grain that it sits next to. Together with the brushed finish of the open-gear tuners of the headstock and a really attractive orange stripe running through the centre of the rosette and top binding, it all combines for a very snappy, stylish and contemporary look. Purists might not be totally on-board with the silver, but others will be glad to have something distinctive that doesn’t fall into the old tradition of abalone, pearl, or tortoiseshell.
As for the tonewoods themselves, the D-16E features a Sitka spruce top partnered with a sycamore back and sides, which is a material we don’t tend to see too often, making for another intriguing little point of difference with this guitar. It sports a lovely reddish brown hue just a little different from mahogany, but with a much more varied and visually interesting grain.
As with so many modern Martins, the D-16E includes a ‘select hardwood’ neck, which for all intents and purposes looks and feels exactly like any other mahogany neck. The carve is a ‘modified low oval’, which is pleasingly slim and fits very nicely in the palm, reinforcing the modern and versatile ‘gigging guitar’ vibe that permeates the rest of the guitar. The fingerboard is a gorgeous dark ebony, dotted with mother-of-pearl ‘diamonds and squares’ inlays. The neck, back and sides have all received a flawless satin finish, while the top has been dipped in an equally impressive gloss – I’m a big fan of this approach and it makes for a very classy and high-end feeling combination.
Elsewhere on the guitar, the finer details are all very ‘Martin’, with a Plek setup providing a perfect playing experience in every regard, from string spacing and intonation to the superb polishing of the frets. The body features Martin’s forward shifted X bracing, which in theory should partner nicely with the reduced 000 body depth.
Last, but by no means least, we come to the electronics. The D-16E is very much geared as a performance guitar and the electronics package certainly reflects this. The Fishman Matrix VT Enhance has been found on Martin models for some time now and enjoys a reputation as a quality unit that Martin says enhances the percussive qualities of the instrument.
This is largely due to the fact that the system employs a transducer mounted to the bridge plate that really helps pick up all the details from the guitar’s top while hopefully reducing string noise, feedback and other unwanted nasties. What’s great about the whole system is that it’s very discreet – all the controls can be found just under the soundhole. The downside is that you don’t get a tuner or hordes of extra controls to play with, but the upshot is that the minimalistic look of the guitar is maintained and you have a few less options to worry about during a live performance. As always though, the proof will be in the playing, so let’s get stuck in.
Acoustically, the D-16E could be accused of being slightly predictable, but honestly, that’s no bad thing. Pick up just about any Martin and you’ll be expecting high-grade tones that cover a wide variety of styles, and that’s exactly what you get here. The shallower body depth takes away some of the bass response you’d normally expect with a dreadnaught, but the result is a guitar that’s as sharp and defined audibly as it is visually. String balance is exceptional, with the sycamore back and sides offering up a tone that is reminiscent of mahogany but a little more defined and snappy, with a bit less of the honkiness and mid-push that you would normally expect. If you’re familiar with the tones of both mahogany- and maple-bodied instruments, think somewhere in the middle of those tones and you won’t be a million miles off. This could of course be down to the body depth as well, and in reality it’s likely a mix of the two.
At the risk of sounding a little generic in my description, it’s a very modern tone that sounds very ‘hi-fi’ to the ear – never overwhelming in any of the high or low frequencies but still retaining a gorgeous level of detail and dynamism that lends itself to just about any style of playing. The D-16E remains defined and harmonically balanced even with alternate tunings, with a nicely crisp attack to the low-end that prevents it from getting muddied even in the most testing of situations.
Plugged-in, Fishman’s ambitious electronics package does pretty much what it says on the tin – it’s a versatile and accurate representation of the acoustic tone. When Fishman say that the system enhances the percussive qualities of the guitar, they’re really not kidding – fingerstyle, tapping and percussive styles are represented very well indeed, which is perfect for any players that incorporate those styles into their playing, and personally I had a lot of fun mixing taps and slaps with some slide playing in an open tuning. String squeak and other undesirable artefacts were noticeably improved as well, which is always a great thing. It might not be the be-all-end-all solution that it claims on the surface – and really, no electronics package is – but what it does do it does very well and for the right kind of player the Matrix VT Enhance is a very compelling performance tool.
As a contemporary, easy-playing acoustic with an emphasis on modern playing styles and a strong but easy-to-use electronics package, the D-16E absolutely nails it. It’s lightweight and supremely playable, with a distinctive and classy visual appearance that I really came to love in my time with the guitar. Acoustically the tones are balanced and defined, and while they perhaps don’t provide the thrills and depth that you’d expect from a deeper-bodied dreadnought in this price range, the halfway point between a dread and a 000 is an addictive sound in its own right, and the choice of sycamore as the tonewood lends itself really well to this hybrid approach.
It won’t be for everyone, but the D-16E is an exciting addition to the Martin catalogue that is distinctive, attractive and wonderful to play. If you’re a gigging musician that enjoys contemporary acoustic styles, this guitar will serve your needs in just about every conceivable way and leave you grinning from ear to ear.
NEED TO KNOW
Body size: Dreadnought
Made in: USA
Top: Sitka spruce
Back and sides: Sycamore
Neck: Select hardwood
Tuners: Satin pearl open-gear
Width: 15 5/8”
Gig Bag/Case included: Yes
Acoustic test results
Pros: Sharp looks, defined acoustic tones, supreme playability and great electro performance
Cons: Shallow body may not suit acoustic purists
Overall: A thoroughly impressive gigging musician’s guitar. Hard to fault