On our recent trip to the Martin factory in Nazareth, Pa., the Musician's Friend Private Reserve Guitars team sat down with two of Martin's most influential leaders: Fred Greene, vice president/general manger of guitars, and Jeff Allen, general manager of the Martin Custom Shop.
MF: What inspired the creation of Martin Authentic guitars?
Fred: Martin employees used to have all these incredible discussions, saying we were slowly losing old-world skills and getting too automated in some areas. So, we went out and recreated jobs and trained people on how to do things the way we did them in the ’30s to ensure sure we never lost those skill sets. We created job training to teach people how to use hide glue and do bar fretting. I don’t know of anybody who even offers bar fretting on acoustic guitars other than Martin.
The Authentic program is our way of showing that we haven’t lost any of those skills that players appreciate. We build the best Martin guitars. These are our guitars. That’s why we used the name “Authentic.” These aren’t copies of Martin guitars. They are Martin guitars made in the factory by the sons and the daughters, the grandsons and the granddaughters of the people who made the ones in the 1930s. There’s a direct, real lineage here. This is the way they were done.
MF: How are Martin Authentic guitars influenced by the Martin Museum?
Jeff: It would be inexcusable for us to not reference the Martin Museum guitars. And that’s not just the guitars themselves, but the processes, too. We digitized all of the old documents and things from the factory. Everything from supervisor letters to suppliers, to managers, to employees, where they’re talking about the process. It’s not just why something is the way it is, but how it got that way, and how they made all of the little decisions behind each guitar.
Fred: We’ve got some of the earliest dreadnoughts known in existence, some of the first X-braced guitars ever made. We can just say, “Hey, I want to take this guitar out on the floor for a little bit,” and the builders can see it, feel it and actually experience it. So, when they’re trying to recreate those instruments, it’s not a guess.
We didn’t want to take apart the really old, $200,000 guitars, so we took them to the Smithsonian and had them all CAT scanned. Now we can see what's going on inside each neck. We can see the exact dimensions that were used for the steel or ebony truss rods.
MF: What are some of the benefits of Martin's dedication to handcraftsmanship?
Fred: When you talk about old Martin guitars, people have this sort of reverence for guitars from the golden era. There’s a mythology around particular Martin instruments and how good they were. They were very, very good, but in all honesty, the quality and the consistency of the guitars we make today is way above what we were doing in the 1920s and ’30s. Those guys were building guitars by hand from start to finish, and there was absolutely no way they could hold the tolerances and the consistency that we do today. It just wasn’t possible.
Jeff: Our players recognize the value the handcraftsmanship. There are ways we could automate a lot of the processes, but we preserve the historic equipment and techniques to let people experience it now with things like neck shaping.
On a Martin factory tour, you see builders with the file and a rasp, working the same way we did 100 years ago. People value those hand operations—things like neck fitting, shaping the neck and bracing, dressing the frets and polishing out the finish.
Fred: Dale Eckart, who has been with the company for 41 years, shaping braces with a file and with a chisel, it’s incredible to watch somebody do it, and the speed and the confidence with which he does it, because he just knows how it’s supposed to look and the way it’s supposed to feel. And when he’s done with it, you’re shocked at how good it is.
Jeff: Yeah. And you could automate that. A CNC machine would make them perfect every single time. But people value the fact that he took the time to do it on that one, individually, the way it should be for that guitar. When you pick up a guitar and you play it, you can immediately feel the difference.
And Martin offers a lifetime warranty on our products, so we have to preserve those things. If someone sends a guitar in that’s 100 years old, and it has a certain type of a neck, with no truss rod in it, or it’s got bar frets, we have to reproduce that, and it has to be just like it was the first time around.
So you can see how our history, as we were talking about earlier, really ties into every single decision, every discussion. In a way, that foundation is at the base of every decision, every discussion we have all day long. It’s almost not even spoken. It’s just there, and we have a tendency to make decisions with that history in mind. It’s like we’ve got this tone we have to preserve. We’ve got this history of the way the guitar looks. It’s really tough, and we have to be careful when we start trying to change that a lot.
Fred: A few years ago, especially in the custom shop area, we took on the design philosophy that we were going to take classic Martin designs and just start making subtle twists. It’s just a twist, a new look at something that is a classic design. It could be the wedge in the back of a D-35. Instead of just making a straight wedge, we make it a little wavy or we do something a little bit different to it. It could be just a different kind of purfling on a binding. It could be as little bit of a pickguard shape or an inlay pattern. But all those things are based off of a traditional design. In other words, we’ll take a diamond inlay pattern and then, all of a sudden, we start to elongate it, or stretch it, or move it a little bit.
The reason we’re taking baby steps with that is, we discovered early on that you can’t come in and just go with something that’s completely different and new for Martin. When somebody sees one of our guitars, they have to know it’s a Martin right off the bat.
Though Martin does have some radically designed guitars, it’s fair to say that their meat and potatoes will probably always be their ability to craft high-quality instruments that lean heavily on the understated successful designs of their storied past. Part of the allure of Martin guitars is their workman-like construction. But don’t let the lack of ostentatious design fool you into thinking the Martin team is resting on their creative laurels. As Fred stated, “It’s like a Rolex watch. You can certainly find flashier watches out there … or a Patek Phillipe. It almost looks like a plain watch. But on the inside, it’s absolutely the best of the best of everything, and it’s influenced everything else."
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