Roll over, Stradivarius, Martin plays on
NAZARETH, Pa. — For guitar aficionados, a visit to the C.F. Martin & Co. factory is akin to a religious experience. They talk in reverential tones about the handcrafted instruments that have been coming off the production floor here for more than 150 years, even referring to certain models in online discussion forums as “the Holy Grail” of the acoustic guitar.
A new book out Tuesday, to be followed by a yearlong exhibition of Martin guitars at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, will surely add to that aura. The book, “Inventing the American Guitar,” argues that Christian Friedrich Martin, who founded the company in 1833, was not only a sublime craftsman and canny entrepreneur, but also a design and technology innovator, responsible for many features accepted today as standard on stringed instruments.
“At every step of the way, as others dropped by the wayside, C.F. Martin was an astute businessman responding to market demands and opportunities,” said Peter Szego, a co-editor of the book. “He was always modifying things, pushing the limits,” he said, and, “by the late 1840s, was making a guitar that, except for its size, had all the main attributes of today’s Martin guitar.”
In Szego’s view, the instrument “deserves to be adjacent to a Stradivarius violin.”
Up to now, collectors and researchers have tended to regard the period between World Wars I and II as the company’s golden era of innovation, not its first decades.
Chris Martin, a great-great-great-grandson of the founder and the company’s chairman and chief executive, said in an interview that the new book “has forced me to rethink our own history, and made me want to know more about those earliest years.”
Although Martin guitars have been made in eastern Pennsylvania since the 1840s, New York City was C.F. Martin’s first stop after arriving in the United States as an immigrant from Germany.
According to company records cited in the book, he set up his first shop at what is now the mouth of the Holland Tunnel; soon opened a second location on Fulton Street; and also operated from Broadway.
Those first years in Manhattan seem to have been a culture shock for Martin, who grew up in a small village in Saxony. He not only had to incorporate new materials and features into his construction and design, he also had to deal with a new, more demanding type of client:
Since the guitar was then considered a parlor instrument, many among the nouveau riche were buying guitars for their wives or daughters.
“He arrived here using his German shop training, that Old World model of apprenticeship and a guild system, and ran right into American capitalism,” said Jayson Kerr Dobney, a curator in the department of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum.
“So his work began to change almost immediately. Because of the melting-pot nature of New York, he was exposed to influences he would not have experienced had he remained in Germany.”
The most important of those new influences, “Inventing the American Guitar” demonstrates, was Spanish. Most notably, Martin abandoned the Austro-German system of lateral bracing to reinforce and support the guitar soundboard in favor of Spanish-style fan bracing, which he then adapted into the X-bracing style that is the hallmark of Martin and other modern guitars.
Beginning Jan. 14, several of the guitars shown in the book will be featured, along with others, at the exhibition at the Met, titled “Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C.F. Martin.”
Taken together, the book, the show and a booming resale market, in which classic Martins can sell for well into six figures, reflect how these vintage instruments, including the banjos, ukuleles and mandolins that the company also has manufactured at various times in its history, are being elevated to the status of works of art.
“We’re seeing the appreciation of these things as objects, not just as tools, which is why you’re seeing them in an art museum,” said Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments at the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota and the author of one of the essays in the new book.
“It’s a bit like why people have designer clothing or luxury cars or collect American furniture: The craftsmanship is stunning, and the detail is quite pleasing to people attuned to that sort of thing.”
Tastes in music and instrument design continue to evolve, and the Martin company is still trying to accommodate them. Recent years have brought a boomlet in production of the ukulele.
But guitars remain the company’s mainstay. As in C.F. Martin’s day, women are again playing guitar in larger numbers, which has led to greater demand for smaller, more portable models with a brighter sound, in contrast to the bass-heavy Dreadnought favored by the biggest names of the rock era.