Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

For legions of guitar players and admirers of finely crafted musical instruments, the small town of Nazareth in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley resembles its biblical namesake. It is the holiest ground, a Mecca, the wellhead of guitar dreams, aspirations and, yes, even obsessions.

Nazareth is the home of C.F. Martin & Co., considered the world’s premier maker of steel-string acoustic guitars. It is also one of Americas oldest family-owned businesses.

Martin has long been the guitar of choice by top country, folk, pop, and rock performers, including such icons as Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Jimmy Buffett, Paul Simon, Stephen Stills, and Dave Matthews. Even Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, cherished his small-bodied Martin guitar. Aficionados claim it’s easier to list the professional performers who do not play Martins than those who do!

But C. F. Martin & Co. doesn’t manufacture guitars exclusive­ly for professional musicians. In fact, the majority of its guitars are purchased and played by amateurs, including baby boomers who grew up listening to their idols play Martins and who can now afford the company’s highest priced pearl-bound models.

What does make Martin so special? Tone and extraordinary craftsmanship. At Martin the two are inextricably connected, because how well a guitar is made greatly determines how well it performs. While the company uses some mass production techniques, its guitars are still built largely by hand. The work is meticulous, often spectacular with some guitar bodies crafted of rare exotic woods and bound with highly colorful abalone. Craftsmen take their time, too, carefully shaping braces, sanding sides, measuring, again sanding, again measuring, bending, and carving, all with incredible precision and attention to detail. Even where a machine is used to carve a guitar neck, the machine operator is likely to be an artisan in his or her own right, guided by both tradition and a high degree of technical knowledge. The combination of tradition and knowledge of acoustics, tone woods, bracing, glues, woodworking techniques, and state-of-the-art computer-assisted machines creates a tone that is uniquely Martin: clear, resonant, loud with distinct separation between bass and treble tones.

Guitarist and singer Art Podell, a founding member of the New Christy Minstrels, says, “I played a Martin classic guitar in the Christies and it always amazed me the way it performed. The Martin had the uncanny quality that allowed you to sing as softly as you liked, or play as loudly as you liked, and the vocal-instrument ratio was always balanced. I tend to play hard, but I have a soft voice, and the Martin accommodates it. It was made for the singer. To a folk singer in those days, few would opt for a different guitar if they could afford a Martin.”

Bluegrass musician Rich Starkey puts it more simply. “The Martin guitar has it all – the tone, the feel, the look, the class; no other guitar even comes close.” Starkey likes Martin guitars so much, in fact, he waited twelve years to land a job with the company.

In its one-hundred-and sixty-seven-year history, C. F. Martin & Co. has weathered a civil war, two world wars, a depression, trade embargoes, shortage of materials, a major invasion of cheap imports, a labor strike and, the toughest foe of all, ever­-changing musical trends. That the company has prevailed is due to the iron will and business acumen of its founder, C. F. Martin Sr., and the five generations of Martins who succeeded him.

Christian Frederick Martin was born on July 31, 1796, in Markneukirchen, Saxony, now part of southeastern Germany. Although his father was a furniture maker who built guitars on the side, and the region was renowned for stringed instrument making, C.F. Martin mastered guitar building in Vienna at the shop of Johann Stauffer. The Markneukirchen’s violin makers guild believed a cabinet maker’s son was not worthy to appren­tice with them. He spent fourteen years in Vienna, becoming Stauffer’s shop foreman, before returning to Markneukirchen in 1831 to open his own shop. He again met hostility from local guild members, and two years later he and his wife and son sailed for America.

Settling into his first shop at 196 Hudson Street in New York City, C. F. quickly prospered. In addition to selling a variety of musical instruments and accessories, he built guitars on special order. His first guitars were virtually identical to Johann Stauffer’s designs: small, tight-wasted, ornately inlaid, with a distinctive scroll-type headstock (later adopted by Leo Fender for his electric guitars).

Outwardly, it seemed that C. F. Martin truly found all he wanted in New York. Although there seemed to be limitless opportunity, he and his wife sorely missed Markneukirchen, and several times considered returning. But a friend and fellow immigrant, Henry Schatz convinced them otherwise. Schatz, too, had opened a shop in New York, but quickly tired of city life and moved to rural eastern Pennsylvania, near the community of Nazareth. The region’s topography is reminiscent of south­eastern Germany, just what the Martins needed to assuage their homesickness. Nazareth, however, was reserved for Moravians. Non-Moravians could only purchase land outside the town limits, which Martin would do in 1839. The Martin residence, the Cherry Hill property, overlooked Nazareth and, ironically, included the land now occupied by the factory. The Martins would in time join the Moravian church, move to town, and build a house and workshop in 1859 at the corner of North and Main Streets. Although Martin’s company began building guitars in Pennsylvania in 1839, his instruments were still stamped “C. F. Martin, New York” until 1898 because of a sales arrangement with a New York distributor.

Christian Frederick was a thrifty man, meticulous in his record keeping and working habits and conservative in his approach to guitar building. His designs would evolve from copies of the early Stauffer instruments that were plain, yet elegant, with clean lines and impeccable craftsmanship. Nineteenth-century guitars were small bodied, or “parlor size,” with gut strings, and used primarily for voice accompaniment. Top bracing patterns were either the simple ladder type or “fan braced” with strips of wood radiating outward like the leaves of a fan, a design originated by Spanish luthier Antonio Torres Jurado. In the early 1850s, C. F. Sr. began experimenting with X-bracing, which crossed two main braces in an X­-pattern below the soundhole. This provides greater strength and stability to the top than fan bracing, yet allows a great deal of flex which improves tone. The improvement would be less apparent on the gut stringed guitars of the period, but it foreshadowed the coming of steel strings in the 1920s. It’s not clear whether Martin actually originated the X-bracing, as European builders were also experimenting with X-patterns at the same time, but he is acknowledged as its leading proponent and is considered the “father of the steel string guitar,” although he never lived to see one. C. F. Martin Sr. died on February 16, 1873, at seventy-seven.

The Martin mantle was assumed by C. F. Martin Jr., the founder’s oldest son, born in Vienna in 1825. He directed the business only fifteen years before his death at sixty-three, yet he positioned the company for future growth. In addition to adding larger and louder instruments, he introduced steam­-driven machinery, including band saws and sanders. This resulted in more and better guitars, with greater consistency and lower unit cost. Production increased enough to justify expansion of the North Street workshop into a fair sized factory. Like his father, C. F. Jr. was a good businessman who kept the company profitable. Just as his father had trained him to assume the business, C. F. Martin Jr. instilled Martin values, guitar building skills, and business acumen in his son, Frank Henry Martin.

Only twenty-two when he took over the company in 1888, Frank Henry was no novice to business. Mandolins had become a national craze in the late nineteenth century, and Frank Henry Martin saw the instrument as a natural and important diversification. His major distributor, however, did not share the same vision – and that sounded trouble.

For many years, most of the company’s output was sold through a succession of exclusive distributor­ships established by the first two generations, most notably C. A. Zoebisch and Sons in New York. Not unlike today’s giant retailers and distributors that interfere in production decisions, Zoebisch objected to Martin building mandolins and warned him they might not sell. To his credit, young Martin dismissed Zoebisch and for the first time since his grandfather had opened shop in New York, Martin guitars were distributed from the place where they were made, a practice that continues today. Frank Henry was right about mandolins, and the company still produces them profitably.

Under this third-generation Martin’s direction, the company prospered during the following sixty years. Frank Henry capitalized on several major musical trends, including ukuleles, Hawaiian lap-style guitars, orchestra models, archtop jazz guitars, and big “singing cowboy” type guitars. But it was during World War I and the Great Depression that Martin & Co. led a revolution in guitar building.

Before 1901, virtually all Martin guitars were smaller-bodied compared to today’s models. Even though the company would gradually increase the size of its guitars beginning in the 1850s, the largest model did not appear until the introduction, in 1916, of the “Ditson” guitar manufactured exclusively for the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston. By standards of the day, this was a big guitar with a 15 5/8-inch waist and a tall slope-shouldered body. These “D” models, as they would later be called, were built to add bass for vocal accompaniment as well as greater volume to be heard over the banjos and horns of jazz bands. The “D” designation stood for “Dreadnought,” a class of large British battleships. The original Ditson Dreadnoughts were fan braced for gut strings which limited their volume, but still they were the forerunner of the steel string Martin Dreadnought introduced in 1931 – the model that forever changed the guitar.

Among purists and collectors, the Herringbone D-28 Dreadnought, made between 1931 and 1944, and its fancy pearl-bound cousin, the D-45, produced between 1934 and 1942, are the most collectible Martins ever made. Herringbone refers to the pattern of wood binding used on the D-28 at that time; to a collector it also implies scalloped top bracing which allows the top to vibrate more freely and thus increases resonance. The D-45 is rarer; only ninety-one were made, crafted from premium straight-grained Brazilian rosewood and bound on every body edge and seam with colorful hand-cut abalone pearl.

The importance of the Dreadnought went fax beyond these early instruments. The clean design and big sound of the rosewood D-28 and the plainer mahogany D-18 caught the fancy of bluegrass musicians and country western artists. Today, the Dreadnought design is the most popular acoustic guitar in the world, imitated and built by virtually every other guitar manufacturer. It is also Martin’s best selling model, appearing in many variations of materials and trim.

When Frank Henry Martin died in 1948, C. F. Martin & Co. was firmly established as the premier guitar builder in America, if not the world. But its greatest triumph and most serious challenge still lay ahead. Frank Henry’s son, C. F. Martin III, dealt with both.

C. F. “Fred” Martin III literally grew up in the business, working along side his father and a younger brother, Herbert Keller Martin, who would die tragically at twenty-six. By the time C. F. III took over as president and chief executive officer, he had the benefit of nearly a half-century of experience. He was conservative, guided by tradition, passion, love of the company, and concern for its employees.

During the first ten years of Fred Martin’s stewardship, the company continued to turn out its basic product line, primarily D-28s and D-18s, as well as small lots of various smaller bodied guitars. Fancy pearl-bound models had been discontinued in the early 1940s because of a wartime restriction of materials, as had Herring­bone trim which came from
Germany; neither came back in the line after the war. With only sixty-five employees, and all production coming out of the old North Street factory, the maker was content to plod along, making an average of three thousand guitars a year.

Then a character named “Tom Dooley” changed every­thing.

“Tom Dooley,” the first hit record by a new group called The Kingston Trio in October 1958, changed the course of popular music forever, ushering in the “folk boom” of the late fifties and early sixties and creating an overwhelming demand for Martin guitars.

The Kingston Trio played Martins exclusively, posing with them on the covers of their enormously popular albums. Before long, every major record label in America had its own version of The Kingston Trio – plus or minus a few members – and these groups too played Martin guitars, further feeding a frenzied demand. The company found itself three years behind in orders, and in 1964 invested in a new sixty-two-thousand-square-foot factory in Upper Nazareth Township. By this time, C. F. Martin III’s son, Frank Herbert Martin, had joined his father in execu­tive management and encouraged the elder Martin to expand the business to launch a more diverse product line.

When Frank Herbert Martin was named president of the company in 1971 – his father remained chairman and CEO – he had already begun an ambitious acquisition program that eventually brought in the Darco String Company, Fibes Drums, Manos Woods, Vega Banjos, and the Levin Guitar Company of Sweden under the umbrella of the C. F. Martin Organization.

Much of this expansion was financed on the expectation that the boom years would continue forever. By 1971 production increased to an all time high of over twenty thousand instruments a year, with no end in sight. But by 1977 production had wound down to a fraction of the highs of the early seventies. The expense of Frank Herbert acquisitions, however, remained, severely strain­ing the cash flow for years to come. To make matters worse, in 1977 the local United Cement, Lime and Gypsum Workers Union attempted to organize Martin’s workforce, causing a bitter strike that would nearly bring the company to its knees. During the strike only a trickle of guitars of were shipped, built entirely by members of management, who crossed picket lines at personal risk. But the company endured and today remains non­-unionized. Frank Herbert retired early, at forty-nine. Despite criticism of his management, carousing, and profligate spending, he had interjected a spirit of adventure that many consider vital to creative enterprise. His father, C. F. Martin III, would remain the conservative voice in the company until he died in 1986.

C. F. Martin & Co. would need to do more to compete in the years ahead. While the firm was still revered as America’s premier guitar maker, by the late 1980s serious competition was creeping into the acoustic guitar market. Young, aggressive companies, and many small independent makers, were chal­lenging Martin for the quality, high-end market. Japanese builders such as Takamine were aiming for the lower segments, flooding the market with inexpensive Martin lookalikes. It was no longer a bluegrass and folk-music world out there, either. Young players displacing their guitar playing and buying parents knew nothing of Martin guitars except that they were expensive. They bought what they knew, and they knew Garth Brooks was playing a Takamine; it didn’t matter that it was a Martin imitation.

What C. F. Martin & Co. needed was an individual with the instincts of both C. F. III and his son, Frank. Chris Martin, Frank’s twenty-eight-year old son, was the perfect applicant. Chris had spent little time in Nazareth while growing up, mostly just summers visiting his grandfa­ther. His parents had divorced when he was a child, and he had little contact with his father. In fact, he had never intended to join the family business, hoping instead to become a marine biologist. It was his grandfather who encouraged him to step up to the responsibility of management. “I lived with my grandfather for a while,” Chris Martin recalls, “and I learned a great deal from him including how to treat people, which he was very good at. It may make me sound like a Boy Scout, but there is a successful formula for doing business in this company that’s really about honesty and integrity and consideration and trust. My grandfather lived like that and worked like that.”

Dick Boak, the firm’s manager of artist relations, agrees. “Mr. Martin exemplified all the good things about the company. He loved the business and every aspect of it, especially the workers with whom he was very close.

He influenced Chris a great deal who now carries the very best of C. F.’ s attributes. But there is a big difference between the two. Mr. Martin was very conservative in his approach, and in his time that conservatism was good for the company. But Chris is more willing to try things. He’s gutsy, bold, forward think­ing, doing things his grandfather would never have done, such as using comput­er-driven machinery. If Chris hadn’t embraced technology in this way, we would have been left in the dust.”

“We have always had machines here, they’re just more sophisticated,” says Chris Martin. “Unlike the old days, these machines are designed with the input of the people who are presently doing the job by hand. So we have the benefit of their craftsmanship incorporated into the machine. We don’t displace people with machines here. If we can find a better way to do a job with a machine, we’ll re-train our employees in another area.”

Under Chris Martin’s guidance, the company has taken two very different, yet parallel, directions. On one hand, it has developed a line of highly affordable instruments that offer Martin quality, tone, look and variety of styles. Most of these feature a patented neck-to-body mortise, laminated backs or sides, and satin-matte finish. One, the DXM, has a body built of a high pressure, wood-based laminate. On the other hand, Martin has developed limited edition and special edition instruments, some of which retail at twenty-five thousand dollars and up. There’s also a Vintage line that replicates the old Martin patterns, trim, and body materials. And for those who want their very own designs, complete with ornate inlays and exotic woods, the company will oblige through its Martin Custom Shop.

With new products and rising demand, the company once again increased production capacity, adding over eighty-five thousand square feet in plant size and nearly doubling the number of employees to six hundred and fifty. More computer­0driven machinery has been added, too. While company leaders are pleased with the factory’s ability to produce more – at least fifty thousand instruments will be shipped this year. Some fear that Martin’s commitment to build lower priced instruments might displace production of traditional and limited edition models, although so far it hasn’t. Others feel that mechanization simply results in a different type of guitar, one with less finesse and less of the traditional Martin feel and tone. Dick Boak disagrees. “Is the goal to handcraft instruments just for the sake of handcrafting them? Or is the goal to provide extremely well-crafted instru­ments at the best possible price and thus serve the customer that way?”

Milt Hess Jr., a thirty-year company veteran who now heads the repair department, offers testimony. “The guitars we make today are far superior to the old ones in every way. They’re better built guitars, and the design is bette1? too, especially the necks. The old necks were non-adjustable and they would bow up. Our guitars now have an adjustable neck rod that eliminates most of the neck problems and keeps the guitar easy to play.”

The maker has taken advantage of modern task-specific glues, a new pickguard application technique, improvements in finishes, and more reliable sources of wood. Before 1969, C. F. Martin & Co. used Brazilian rose­wood for most of its guitar bodies and fingerboards, but a trade embargo on the export of rosewood forced a shift to East Indian rosewood in 1970. While the factory still uses East Indian rosewood extensively, the Indonesian government has increasingly placed more restrictions on its export of rosewood logs, compelling it to look for alternate sources of wood. The company has long supported conservation of endangered rainforest woods, and has used renewable native species such as ash, walnut, cherry, and maple in many models. “Wood never ceases to confound us with its chaotic ability to do things that you didn’t plan for it to do,” explains Chris Martin. “There’s always the challenge of making sure that no matter what wood we have, which is the best we can buy, we do the best with it – especially as our numbers increase.”

C. F. Martin & Co.’s most precious resource, however, continues to be people. Asked if his enterprise is a uniquely Pennsylvania company, Chris Martin immediately points to the people of Nazareth. “We have survived and prospered in our little neck of the woods. People have a strong work ethic here. They get up early. They work hard. This is still a small town, and there’s still that feeling of ‘I know that person working next to me. I know them as a human being, not an employee num­ber.’ I think. that has a definite effect on the quality of work we do here. You know, during the strike in 1977 there was serious talk about moving the company to another state, and I just don’t think it would have been the same.”

A maple scrollwork plaque hanging in the company’s museum is inscribed with the Latin phrase Non Multa Sed Multum, which translates to “Not Many, But Much.” The plaque was given to C. F. Martin III by his father, Frank Henry Martin, to remind him of the family’s guiding philosophy of producing quality guitars, even if it can only be done in a small quantity.

“My personal goal,” says Chris Martin, “is to take this company from ‘not many, but much’ to ‘many – and much.'” Given the Martin family’s long history of meeting challenge, there’s no doubt he and C. F. Martin & Co. will succeed.

 

For Further Reading

Bacon, Tony, and Paul Day. The Ultimate Guitar Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Carter, Walter. The Martin Book: A Complete History of Martin Guitars. San Francisco: GPI Books/Miller-Freeman, Inc., 1995.

Freeth, Nick, et al. The Acoustic Guitar. Philadelphia: Courage Books, 1999.

Gruhn, George. Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments: A Photographic History. San Francisco, Calif.: Miller Freeman Books, 1997.

Longworth, Mike. Martin Guitars – A History. Minisink Hills, Pa.: Four Maples Press, Inc., 1988.

Washburn, Jim, and Richard Johnston. Martin Guitars: An Illus­trated Celebration of America’s Premier Guitarmaker. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, Inc., 1997.

Wheeler, Tom. American Guitars: An Illustrated History. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

 

The editor wishes to acknowledge the kind assistance of Dick Boak, manager of artist relations for C. F. Martin & Co., who provided access to the company archives for research and illustrations.

 

Bill Bush, of Seminole, Florida, is an award-winning advertising writer and producer. He is a music journalist, whose work has appeared in a number of magazines, including Guitar Player, Frets, and Flatpicking Guitar, as well as books such as The Guitar Player Book, published by Grove Press, and Artists of American Folk Music, released by Quill Books. The author has also written liner notes for EMI/Capitol Records, Folk Era Records, and Bear Family Records. He is a founding member of the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas. He is an avid collector and enthusiast of guitars manufactured by C. F. Martin & Co.