C.F. Martin & Co. is celebrating a very special 50th birthday in 2015 so we take a look at two incarnations of the birthday boy – a D-35 Standard Edition and a D-35E Retro
Over time, the D-35 has enjoyed the attention of players such as George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, David Gilmour, Van Morrison, Johnny Cash and a whole host of others. Its history is more thoroughly detailed in the interviews with Chris Martin IV and Dick Boak elsewhere on the website but, briefly, this dreadnought was first launched onto the market in 1965, its distinctive three-part back in place to conserve the company’s rapidly diminishing stock of Brazilian rosewood for as long as possible. Despite the back and sides being replaced with the more widely available Indian rosewood at the close of the 1960s, the guitar has seen very few cosmetic changes since its debut. We have two examples of modern day D-35s: a Standard Edition and a Retro to compare – what’s the difference? Well, let’s find out…
D-35 Standard Edition £1,999
The Standard D-35 exists as the basic model, if there is anything “basic” about a Martin. As Chris Martin IV says in our interview, the company has produced a few different takes on the original design in order to celebrate its longevity in the music business, but this is essentially the “no frills” option.
The D-35 sits in the ranks of Martin dreadnoughts between the D-28 and the luxuriously appointed D-45, although way back in 1965 the latter was currently out of production. A great deal of thought was packed into the D-35’s voicing in order that it feature as a contrast to its stablemates, the bracing being a case in point. Early models would have had either Sitka or European spruce tops, but this modern day standard version has Sitka. As you might expect from a company that prides itself on its choice of timber, the top here is immaculate and at present a very pale yellow in hue under the polished gloss finish. The bracing underside is 6mm Sitka in the usual X pattern.
The back and sides here are East Indian rosewood, the distinctive three-piece back having wings of dark wood with a wedge of milk chocolate coloured timber in the centre as a contrast. Even back in the Brazilian rosewood days, every effort was made to show a difference in colour between the outer and inner woods on the D-35’s back and it’s good to see that practice continuing today. All the inlays and binding – back, side and top – are either white Boltaron or a white/black Boltaron combo, the latter being used for the heel cap, too.
The D-35’s neck is one-piece mahogany, although the spec on the Martin website states that it is “select hardwood”. We took this point up with Fred Greene, VP of the Martin Custom Shop, and he told us that “select hardwood” is a generic designation across the whole line.
Apparently, there are times when mahogany supplies are low and so similar woods like Sipo (a member of the same family as mahogany) is substituted. However it’s definitely mahogany on both the D-35s we have before us now.
The machine heads are Grover, sitting in trios on either side of the rosewood veneered headstock with a 43mm bone nut at the top of the bound ebony fingerboard. It’s bone once again for the 16-inch radius (406mm) compensated saddle, which sits in the middle of an ebony belly-style bridge. Needless to say, all the workmanship is absolutely top class throughout the construction and we’re eager to find out what the D-35 is like in action…
It’s safe to say that Martin’s D Series personifies what most of us think of as the classic dreadnought sound, although there are subtle variations built into the range. This D-35 sounds full and rounded with plenty of bass and shimmering trebles to its name. You’ll notice that most of the famous names who have taken the model up are singer-songwriters, and this is no coincidence because the D-35 really does have enough power to underscore a sung melody perfectly. To our ears, it’s brighter than a D-28, but the brightness isn’t in the least bit harsh. On the contrary – there’s a lot of sweetness there and chords sound full and wholesome as a result. Fingerpicking sounds good, too – and it’s not often you can say that about a dreadnought; but we found a clarity that would suit both a solo instrumentalist or singer who just wants a little sonic latticework under their melodies.
D-35E Retro £2,749
As you might expect, the spec between these two models is very similar. Possibly the most striking difference is that the Retro model includes a Fishman Aura Plus pickup, but we understand that there are a few other deviations along the line, too.
The thinking behind Martin’s Retro Series is to build them “like mother used to”. So can we expect the exact formula as the guitars built back in the mid-1960s? Not exactly. The main difference, of course, is that Brazilian rosewood is pretty much out of bounds for everyone these days and so you’re still getting Indian rosewood as a substitute here. However, if you have a taste for exotic hardwoods and a credit card that isn’t already too fried, Martin is producing a special D-35 with Madagascar rosewood back and sides and a Brazilian rosewood centre wedge – this is the D-35 Brazilian 50th Anniversary Limited Edition, and only 100 have been made. Martin has also announced the D-35E 50th Anniversary Limited Edition with a European spruce top (including Martin’s Vintage Tone System) combined with East Indian rosewood back, sides, and centre wedge. (Check out the interviews for more information about the 2015 anniversary D-35s.)
Among the differences between these two D-35s, the first is that the Retro’s top is European spruce as opposed to Sitka. We’re assured that this hasn’t been done on a whim, but merely to produce an alternative sound picture. In any case, it’s a good looking piece of wood, nicely ambered with ageing toner for additional vintage appeal. The Retro’s back and sides are Indian rosewood once again, with the same contrasting wedge of lighter coloured timber in the centre of the back. Another difference between this and the Standard is that the binding here is Ivoroid instead of white Boltaron. It’s slightly less vivid in appearance – Ivoroid being decidedly off-white in colour – which lends yet another touch of class to the guitar’s overall livery.
Mahogany is the “select hardwood” on this model, too; but this time the neck profile is different. On the Standard model the neck designation is “low profile”, but on the Retro it’s a low profile oval with what Martin refer to as a “performing artist taper”, which enhances playability. We’ll see about that in a moment, but for now we’ll continue with the spec in the form of Grover machine heads and Indian rosewood veneer, but this time the nut is 44mm, just one mm wider than on the Standard D-35.
Apart from that, the saddle is once again bone, the bridge ebony and just about everything else is as we left it with the Standard model. Did we mention that this guitar has a second strap pin? Obviously it has been built with performance in mind.
Fishman’s Aura technology is renowned for being able to mimic either other guitar body sizes – as is the case with the foot pedal series – or microphone profiles, as is the situation here. The electronic imaging built into the unit’s preamp was from a 1967 D-35 and so the chances are that the amplified voice of the Retro is as close as you can get to that cherished vintage sound.
Acoustically, though, we switched back and forth between the two D-35s and despite the more obvious fact that the Retro is heavier because of the pickup and preamp here, the sound here is perhaps more “open” than on its Standard counterpart. It sounds more mature, too, if you see what we mean. The Standard might be a tad louder, but any loudness is like that of an enthused juvenile as opposed to the Retro’s more grown up reserve. We could round it all up by saying that, acoustically at least, the Retro has a little bit more going on under the bonnet than the Standard in terms of its tonal soundscape.
The Fishman Aura Plus is not the easiest preamp system that we’ve seen as it takes a while to fully come to terms with the multifunctional controls that span easy mode, performance mode, phase, tuning, tone, and volume with just two rotary/push buttons. However, just a brief run through with the manual revealed that there are plenty of alternative sounds to explore. We set the pickup to “P” which is dry and unaffected in order to best hear the raw audio and the result was incredibly pleasing to say the least. That tonal maturity we mentioned a moment ago really comes through and flicking through the different mic simulations reveals that there certainly is bags here to play with. With all this diversity at hand, the chances are high that a performer will find exactly the amplified sound he or she is looking for.
You’re going to ask us which one we prefer, aren’t you? You know, it’s a difficult question to answer as both are simply fabulous in their own right. The Standard is a straightforward, good-sounding dread with all the accompanying punch that Martin has built their reputation upon. The Retro is around £750 more expensive, but you’re getting more variation, not only from the European spruce, which adds a dimension to the acoustic sound, but from the pickup’s vast tonal palette, too. If performance or recording is your aim, then the extra money for the Retro will be well spent. If you’re after a dread-for-all-seasons, as well as that illustrious guitar history, you’d do no better than seeking out the D-35 Standard.