Martin Guitars - Their Rise and Impact on Modern Guitar Bodies

Author: Jeff Clearstream

Martin Guitars have provided us with many advances in Guitar design since their inception and this potted history gives a brief insight into the company that brought us the Dreadnought Guitar and the 14 Fret neck.

Martin & Co

The Martin Company celebrated 175 years in business in 2008. To stay in business for that length of time you must be doing something right to please your customers. Am I right, you betcha.

The factory producing all the output is based in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. But for the full story you have to go back a few years and to Europe. C.F. Martin was born in Germany in 1796. At 15 he was employed in the family's cabinet making business. He left to study under Johann Stauffer a famous guitar maker in Vienna. He was quickly promoted to foreman and after marrying and fathering a son he returned to his own country and set up his own shop in some place I can't pronounce, Markneukirchen. After involving himself in a dispute with the Violin Makers Guild he finally waved goodbye to Germany in 1833 and set sail for America.


His first shop in America was humble indeed. Selling sheet music, cornets and of course guitars. His workshop was the back office of the store. Martin moved out of New York to Pennsylvania in 1936 followed closely by a much shorter move within the same state to Nazareth in 1838.

Business was good for the fledgling guitar maker and records showed he shipped his goods at this time to Boston, Albany, Philadelphia, Richmond, Petersburg, Nashville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and New Orleans. In 1850 the Martin factory was expanded to account for the increase in demand across the country for his guitars.

Martin Guitar Design Innovations

The early Martin Guitars were all handmade and had the tuning keys on one side of the headstock. This was a design he had picked up in Vienna. In the mid 1840s he stopped this one sided design and it was not picked up again until Leo Fender implemented it on his Fender Telecaster in 1948.

The 1850s witnessed one of Martin's major design improvements. The "X" bracing system for the guitar top. Still in use today on all steel-string Martin guitars, the bracing system is largely responsible for the distinctive Martin tone, characterized by brilliant treble and powerful bass response.

C.F. Martin died Feb 16th 1873. He left a legacy of fine guitar making which the rest of his clan were to build on. His son Christian took over the business. Which, from a one man operation when in New York, now employed over a dozen craftsmen. In 1859 the factory was relocated again to bigger premises to the corner of Main and North Streets in Nazareth. The Martin Guitar factory on the corner of Main and North Streets is still in use at present as a warehouse for strings and accessories. In 1888 C.F. Martin Jr died leaving a very young 22 year to run the business.

Frank Henry Martin was C.F.s son. And one of the first things he did was break the connection between the Martin factory and their sole distributors, C. A. Zoebisch & Sons. He did this as their distributor's main business was in orchestral instruments. Frank Henry was uncertain of their commitment to the guitar as a serious instrument. He was also disappointed by their reluctance to test the market with new instruments. At that time he wanted to start producing Mandolins.

The Mandolin was gaining popularity with a massive influx of immigrants from Italy and Frank Henry wanted Martin to supply the demand for it. As soon as they started to distribute their own products the sales of Mandolins took off. In that year they produced a total of 113 instruments. The previous year had seen a total of 3 built. This doesn't sound a lot until you hear the figures for guitars at that time. The yearly output for Martin Guitars was 220 units per year. This shows that Mandolins quickly paid their way within the Martin fraternity.

Frank Martin made most of the sales to dealers in the New York area supplemented by media advertisements. In 1912 Frank Henry decided to send his oldest son, Christian Frederick Martin III, to Princeton university, followed the next year by his youngest son, Herbert Keller Martin. Christian Frederick returned home after graduation to temporarily make guitars to help his father out before making his own way in the world. Or so he thought. He stayed and spent the rest of his life devoted to guitar production.

As with the Mandolin the Martin family jumped on the Ukulele band wagon in the 1920's. Guitar production in 1920 totaled 1361 units while Ukulele numbers were thought to be double this, as no records of their numbers were kept. By 1928 guitar output at the Martin production facility was up to 5215 units.

Martin Guitars Major Design Developments

The Depression had hit America and the sale of guitars during 1929 to 1931 was halved. The workers at the Martin factory had to accept reduced wages and a three day working week for a while. New products were introduced to try and stimulate some demand for products and the company even tried making wooden jewelery to boost flagging sales.

Old product lines were given face-lifts, design and product development was given voice. And while many of the changes had short lives two still exist to this day.

The Dreadnought Guitar and the Fourteen Fret Neck.

The fourteen fret neck was suggested to Martin Guitars by Perry Bechtel a then famous banjo player. He thought this arrangement would make the guitar a more versatile instrument. It became so popular that it featured throughout the all Martin model lines. Such was its popularity that all other guitar manufacturers of the time picked up on the idea and incorporated it into models of their own.

Guess where the Dreadnought guitar got its name. From a class of British warship. Not a lot of people know that. Drop that into conversation when you next get the chance. The Dreadnought is a large bodied guitar made specifically for supporting vocals with its impressive bass response. Again most manufacturers of acoustic guitars now incorporate a version of this model into their own line of instruments.

Frank Henry Martin died aged 81 in 1948. This left C.F. Martin III to watch over some of the most prosperous times of the company. With the war behind them many people found themselves with more money in their pockets. This coupled with a resurgence in interest in the guitar and the upcoming folk scene, 1948-1970 saw huge growth in the Martin Guitar Company.

While the demand for Martin's products far outstripped supply this did leave them in the situation where orders for their guitars stretched for three years into the future. So while demand was high they lost many sales because of their inability to supply.

Frank Herbert Martin

Frank Herbert Martin joined the company in 1955 and in 1964 helped his father build a completely new production plant in Nazareth. The Sycamore Street facility was based on one floor which made the production process more streamlined and easier to work with. The old plant was spread over 3 floors. Frank Herbert took over from his father running the business in 1970. He quickly began purchasing other musical related businesses.

    *  Vega Banjo Works
    * Fibes Drum Company
    * Darco String Company, owned by John D'Addario Sr, John D'Addario & James D'Addrio
    * AB Herman Carlson Levin Company

While some of these companies were later sold off Darco strings are still part of the Martin company.

Yet More Martins

Christian Frederick Martin IV was born in 1955 and after attending UCLA and leaving with a Degree in Business Administration, he took over the reigns of the company on the death of his grandfather CF Martin III in June 1986.

He expanded the Sycamore Street production facility, introduced the Backpacker guitar, and expanded the limited edition line to include signature guitars for many famous players. Eric Clapton, Gene Autrey and Mart Stuart, but not Tommy Emmanuel, sacrilege.

He also introduced the X Series which brought computer aided production into the Martin build process for the first time. He is still in charge today and travels extensively to keep abreast of guitar development around the world and also to visit the company's dealerships. Long may he reign.

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