Martin’s flagship dreadnought is the most imitated acoustic guitar design in history – David Mead enters the tone zone…
Pick up a Martin D28 and you’re aware immediately that you’re holding a piece of music history; an icon, in fact, in the same league as Gibson’s Les Paul or Fender’s Stratocaster. This celebrated dreadnought has found its way into the hands of players as diverse as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, John Lennon, this month’s cover star, Ben Howard and many, many more. So is there anything left to say about it? Well, of course, most of these players would have gone for the pre-war or at least pre-1969 models and there have been a few tweaks made to the design and livery since then. Understandable when you consider that the D28 has been around since 1931. But this is a brand new, fresh out of the box D28 – so does the legend still live up to its name?
It would be very easy for me to compare this instrument to its vintage forbears and bang on about the lack of herringbone inlay and the use of Indian rosewood instead of Brazilian since ‘69, but I think it would be unfair to do so. I believe it’s far better to consider this D28 on its own merits and judge it accordingly – so let’s start with the construction details.
The medley of body woods for a D28 is well known; sitka spruce for the top and rosewood for the back and sides. Before 1969 this would have been Brazilian rosewood, but Martin realised before anyone else the contentious nature of this wood and switched to East Indian rosewood before all the fuss really kicked off. The spruce here looks to be top quality and despite its current yellowish white hue, you just know that in a few years it will have ripened to classic amber. The rosewood has a fine figure to it with an inlay down the centre of the back topping off the bookmatching with Martin’s accustomed finesse.
The binding and heel cap is Boltaron, another fairly modern diversion away from traditional design, but it sits here well and enhances rather than detracts from the guitar’s classic appearance.
The neck is almost certainly mahogany – Martin’s own spec is unclear on this, referring to it as mahogany in one breath and ‘select hardwood’ in the next. But the grain signature looks like mahogany to these eyes and similar to the many Martins that have passed through my hands over the years. At the top of the neck there’s the familiar diamond shaped volute – another hallmark of the Martin line – and the tuners are redoubtable Grovers.
Flipping the D28 back over, the fretboard is a suitably chunky piece of ebony that has sprouted twenty medium-sized frets that have been expertly finished with no sign whatsoever of sharp edges – one of my pet peeves.
Both nut and string saddle are made from bone, the latter boasting a 16″ (406.4mm) compensated radius and sitting atop an ebony bridge.
Inside, among the bits we can’t see, is Martin’s famous X bracing with sitka top braces that form – hopefully – a constituent part of that classic Martin sound.
Overall, the workmanship is everything you’d expect from one of the world’s leading – nay, pioneering – acoustic guitar makers. The inside is tidy with binding and back bracing in ship shape order and so it’s time to play a chord or two and take a listen.
I think it’s true to say that you just know when you’re holding a quality instrument and that’s certainly the case here. When I first picked this guitar up I played it solidly for an hour before putting it down – and that doesn’t happen very often at all. The satin finished low-profile neck sits in the hand like it belongs there and everything from gentle fingerpicked chords to enthusiastic strumming is genuinely effortless.
Then there’s the sound; I believe it’s true to say that Martin guitars have a tonal thumbprint that has been imitated often in the past but very few manufacturers have ever been able to nail it. Instantaneously you know it’s a sound you’ve heard on practically every classic recording in your record collection. It’s sweet but strong, with that deep dreadnought body shape giving you a rich mid-range – and chords that sustain for days! Then there’s the bass; Martin’s bass register has often been described as being very piano like and that’s much in evidence here. In fact the definition across the whole range is really very well defined.
Incidentally, I couldn’t resist the urge to tune the guitar to DADGAD and I’m pleased to report that it sounded fabulous here, too. It’s arguable that dreadnoughts aren’t renowned for fingerpicking either, but here again the D28 passed the audition with distinction. Put it this way, Michael Hedges owned one and he knew a few things about fingerstyle!
I have to keep reminding myself that this is a new guitar and that its sonic characteristics will mature over the course of time. I wouldn’t hesitate before taking this dreadnought out on a gig now and so I can only imagine how it will improve further down the road. It’s a player’s instrument; a workhorse with a proven track record and a voice that has its own niche in music history – and I’m pleased to settle any argument by saying that yes, Martin do still build ‘em like they used to!
Pros: An icon and every notable singer songwriter’s favourite gigging companion
Cons: Probably just me, but I do miss the herringbone inlays!
Overall: An exceptional instrument from a renowned maker at a price that buys you a piece of history without breaking the bank