Is there a better sounding, better looking acoustic guitar than a Martin?
For one hundred and eighty four years, C.F. Martin & Co. has been producing flattop guitars celebrated as the gold standard. They are prized for their power and balance, deep resonant bass and crisp, clear treble. From Paul McCartney to Eric Clapton, Neil Young to Sheryl Crow, Martin counts hundreds of stellar performers as loyal patrons. Mark Twain strummed one, as did Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain. Members of the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons do as well. Commemorative and deluxe first editions rise above the rigors of daily play to stand as superlative works of art.
It all began when German immigrant Christian Frederick Martin sailed to America and opened a shop in New York City in 1833. Six years later he moved to Nazareth, Pa. where he built the first guitar factory. In any American industry, Martin has few rivals for sheer staying power. Handed down through six generations, it's currently steered by C.F. (Chris) Martin IV. He took the leadership role at age 30 after the death of his grandfather in 1986.
The company just hit a major milestone: the production of its two millionth guitar. In a nod to Martin's durability and longevity the guitar's theme was "Passage of Time." It was a show-stopper. Unveiled at the National Association of Music Merchants show in Anaheim, Calif. in mid-January, it featured a D-45 style body with the back and sides constructed from Brazilian rosewood while the top is crafted from highly-figured bearclaw Engelmann spruce. The company partnered with America’s premier watchmaker RGM Watch, of nearby Mt. Joy, Pa., to create a stunning one-of-a-kind, fully playable model with a custom working RGM timepiece built into the headstock of the guitar.
Set in the rolling hills of the small town of Nazareth, Pa. (75 miles north of Philadelphia), each weekday guitar-playing pilgrims and everyday music lovers travel to the Martin factory to keenly observe how the most famous and respected guitars in the world come to life through the hands of superlative craftspersons.
Inside the factory the shop floor is humming full throttle. Burly tattooed men and grandmotherly ladies attend their stations as lathes turn, sanders buzz, guitar bodies are burnished and strings are strung. The scent of fresh rosewood sawdust wafts through the air. The workers complete about 145,000 guitars a year. Each one takes 300 separate steps to transform the rough timber into a finished guitar and three months to craft a typical guitar and six for custom models.
"We have a vertical integration strategy where the company touches all the bases from the least expensive backpacker model to the famed D-28 and Dreadnought models to the 17 series that targets millenials," explained Dick Boak, Martin's archivist, former manager of artist relations and our tour guide.
Boak entered the business in the 1976 while dumpster diving in Martin's parking lot.
"I literally hit the jackpot with rosewood and mahogany and ebony and spruce, exotic woods I had never seen before that I experimented with creating guitars and mountain dulcimers," remembered Boak, a lifelong illustrator, woodworker and guitar player.
After one of the Martin foremen saw his work, the company offered him a job. That was 40 years ago. Boak has enjoyed a myriad of posts, including helping launch Martin's signature guitar series, a "Who's Who" of iconic musicians where he worked closely with artists on their instruments.
"We've done a number of projects with Eric Clapton that have been have a phenomenal success," noted Boak, (who personally owns more guitars than he wishes to admit). "JohnMayer's have also done very well."
When Sting needed a special sound for the recording of “Dead Man’s Rope” on his ‘Sacred Love’ album, he turned to the small-bodied "Terz" instrument with its bright, chime-like tuning and tone that he co-designed with Boak.
“He wanted a little guitar that could be strung an octave above pitch in order to get a shimmering treble sound effect,” Boak recalled. “In its purest sense the guitar is essentially a tool for musicians. We start with the Martin sound and build a box around it.”
Creating that “box” is a complex and lengthy process. Martin’s trademark is its brilliant tone and sound volume that comes from an “X” bracing system across the top of the instrument that C. F. Martin devised in the 1850s. The hand-shaped scalloped braces are tough enough to withstand the explosive tension of the strings, yet soft enough to breathe superior tone. The company continues to innovate, introducing techniques and features that have become industry standards,
Roughly 350 employees create the instruments with a fascinating blend of old world craftsmanship and modern technology. Craftsmen use drawknives to hand sculpt the final shape of the guitars' necks, but most of the pinpoint, multiple cuttings of blocks of mahogany or rosewood are executed on one of five computer machines. Wood braces that were once hand glued to the guitar top are now grounded via a precise mechanical vacuum clamp.
Most employees eagerly respond to questions as they tirelessly bend, trim, shape, glue, fit, sand, stain, buff and inspect each guitar. Dozens of workers are grouped at stations for various functions, first bookmatching wood strips, then meticulously cutting mahogany, Brazilian and East Indian rosewood, Hawaiian koa or flamed European maple for the backs and sides and Sitka spruce for the tops.
"Martin has had a longstanding commitment to the environment and its collaboration with the Rainforest Alliance for over two decades to protect precious forests, communities and wildlife through the practices of responsible forest management," Boak noted. "Many coworkers across all areas of production are involved in maintaining our compliance."
Computer-controlled machines rough cut lumber into the bridges, fingerboards and necks while the final shaping is still done by hand with rasps, files, and carving knives. Interior rims are attached to the guitar’s side with dozens of clothespins. The binding is put on each guitar which then gets a clear coat finish that enhances the wood grain. All the bodies are buffed to a high gloss. On higher end models spectacular abalone-pearl hexagon inlays are meticulously applied to the ebony fingerboards and the multiple soundhole rings.
While handcrafting reigns, a pair of robots steal the show.
“They actually pick the guitar up and polish it,” Boak explained. “The robot does an unbelievably consistent job that is amazing to watch. And it's really improved the guitars. One of the most popular parts of the tour."
Bridges are glued and clamped into place. The complete guitar is sanded and sprayed during a two-week, 20-step lacquering process. Walking through the end-stage workstation finds a cluster of employees swapping ringing chords and familiar riffs testing each guitar’s playability.
The factory and museum tours attracts upwards of 30,000 visitors annually. There is a Pickin' Parlor near the front entrance where John Hodges is waiting on the tune-up of his GPCPA1 guitar. Meanwhile he is busy strumming high-end and limited edition models. A broad smile creases his face.
“Martins deliver such a rich, full sound,” Hodges said. “There’s a kind of punch, a rhythm that doesn’t last too long. You don’t get a lot of carry-over in the sound when you switch from one chord to another. Playing one is always a beautiful thing.”
The Martin on-site museum is an exquisite piece of American history that tells a well-paced story through 200 rare vintage guitars, photographs, graphic panels and rich artifacts. It takes visitors through Martin’s earliest guitars and into the ukulele craze of the 1920s, and gallops into the cowboy era of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and scoots into the country and rockabilly phase of the ‘50s. It wheels into the folk and rock boom of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s then pivots into the “Unplugged” surge of the ’90s and the 21st century. An 1834 guitar is the oldest Martin guitar in the collection.
After 41 years, Boak has decided to retire at the end of 2017.
"There are just things I want to do: travel through Europe, road trips across the U. S. to visit friends, do more illustration work, finish up my third CD and build other musical instruments," related Boak, 68. "I'm also working on a book on the Konter Ukulele. It's made of Hawaiian koa wood and was carried to the North Pole on Admiral Byrd's first expedition by explorer Richard Konter in 1926."
Boak is grateful to CEO Chris Martin for giving him the opportunity and freedom to work in a field that is his personal passion.
"I do love the craft of guitar making," Boak added. "Not many people get to do their dream job that blends everything that you truly love. It's been an incredible 40 years."
The Martin Guitar Museum & Visitor Center is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The guided tours of the factory are free, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. For more information, call 610-759-2837, or visit www.martinguitar.com.