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Dreadnought Story

Chapter 1: The Dreadnought Story

Martin® guitars and Rolls Royce® automobiles, Steinway® pianos, Baccarat® crystal.

High–falutin comparisons, to be sure; but few acoustic musicians can hear the name "C. F. Martin" without instantly linking it to some mental image that stands for enduring quality. Since 1833, the Martin Guitar Company has provided instruments of consistently high caliber to virtually a world–wide market. Among musicians there is a standing joke about being able to communicate in any language as long as you say, "Martin guitar."

What is it that has created the interest and demand for the musical products from this small, privately held company in Nazareth, Pennsylvania? Although some would point to various technical features or famed models, it’s probably best expressed in terms of family tradition and longevity, and a reputation that borders on legend. No manufacturer ever has an unblemished record of creativity, value, and service, but Martin’s has been so good for so long that one would almost think Christian Frederick Martin built his first guitar with wood from George Washington’s cherry tree.

The "hand crafting" image that is part of the aura goes along with Martin’s limited production. The company’s current output does not exactly qualify for Fortune 500 status.

Among the great variety of instruments the Martin Company makes, it’s safe to say that none has enjoyed more popularity than their line of Dreadnoughts or D–size guitars. Currently regarded as the standard acoustic guitar, the Dreadnought once was viewed in less favorable light primarily because it was so large in comparison to other guitars of the day.

The deep bass response of a D–28 was a very unusual feature to musicians used to the clear treble and overall balance of smaller "standard size" instruments. However, when the Dreadnought made its way into the hands of country music performers, it found an appreciative audience – it was just the item for backing up vocals, fiddles, and banjos in lieu of a bass instrument. A look through Mike Longworth’s book, Martin Guitars: A History, shows that the Dreadnought’s gain in popularity has been steady since its introduction. Today the Dreadnought is ubiquitous, found in every style of acoustic music, and accounts for approximately 80 percent of Martin’s yearly production.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Dreadnought Story
Chapter 2: From the Beginning
Chapter 3: The First D-45
Chapter 4: Mid-`40s to the Mid-`60s
Chapter 5: The Tumultuous Mid-`60s
Chapter 6: The Big Guitar Boom
Chapter 7: Other Models
Chapter 8: Approaching 2000 & Beyond

Chapter 2: From the Beginning

The very first Dreadnought guitars (named for a class of World War I­ era British battleships, "Dreadnought") were manufactured by Martin for the Oliver Ditson Company, a publishing firm based in Boston. Curiously enough, the guitars weren’t sold with the Martin name on them, but rather were marketed in Boston and New York under the Oliver Ditson brand name, beginning in 1916. These Dreadnoughts did not even include a Martin serial number, but instead used Ditson’s own serial numbering system. They continued to appear in the Ditson catalog until the company’s demise in the late 1920s.

The Ditson Dreadnoughts were quite different in appearance from their modern offspring: The bodies were elongated to accommodate a wide, 12–fret neck (12 frets clear of the body) with a slotted peghead. The early Ditsons also had a different soundhole rosette and inlay pattern, and had no pickguard. All of the Ditsons had mahogany backs and sides and spruce tops, like a modern D–18.

In 1931 the Martin Company began producing Dreadnought guitars that carried the Martin name. Two models designated D–1 and D–2 made their debut. The D–1, like the earlier Ditsons, was a mahogany body instrument, destined to become the D–18. With the D–2 (four were made in 1931) Martin introduced what may still be the most popular style of steel–string guitar, the rosewood body Dreadnought. All of Martin’s early Dreadnoughts had the 12–fret neck of the Ditson design. It wasn’t until 1934 that D–28s and D–18s officially were offered with the 14–fret neck most consider standard today.

How else did Martin’s early Dreadnoughts differ from today’s version? The early D–18 was similar in appearance to its modern counterpart, with one exception: Ebony was the standard material for bridges and fretboards, rather than the rosewood used now. Like all style 28 guitars preceding it, the early D–28 had a strip of marquetry (with a distinctive "herringbone" pattern) running around the top. This decoration led to the current designation, "herringbone D–28" which one hears reverently discussed among Martin fanciers. (It is basically the same instrument as today’s HD–28.) In addition, bisecting the back was a "zipper" decoration strip of purfling, which is different in appearance than that found on modern D–28s.

The herringbone purfling was discontinued on style 28 guitars in 1947, due to a matter of history and economics: The purfling was manufactured in pre–World War II Germany and was not replaceable from American sources. When the stockpile ran out, D–28s (and all style 28 guitars) were subsequently treated to a new decoration scheme of alternating black and white celluloid originally used on the Martin arch–top C–2 model. Only one herringbone D–28 was made in 1947.

What the company regarded as a minor change still has economic repercussions on the guitar market ­ a `46 D–28 (herringbone) is bound to sell for more than a `47 D–28 (non–herringbone), even though they are structurally and functionally identical guitars.

Certainly the tremendous interest in prewar Dreadnoughts isn’t predicated on the existence of a decorative strip of wood alone, is it? Well, no – and yes. If we could peek inside a 1943 D–28 (for that matter, a `43 D–18 or any 1943 Martin steel–string guitar), we’d notice what amounts to the most significant difference between pre–1945 and 1945 production guitars: the overall shape of the cross braces and lower braces attached to the guitar’s top.

The pre–1945 braces have a scooped or "scalloped" profile, making them lighter in mass. Functionally this means a more flexible vibrating surface (the top) and provides stronger bass response. (It has long been assumed that the switch from the old style scalloped braces occurred at the beginning of 1945. According to Longworth, the change occurred in very late 1944, with 12 D–28s and 26 D–18s produced with the new heavier top braces that year. For convenience, the date 1945 will be used in this article.)

And now for the "yes" part of the answer. The discrepancy between the change to heavier top braces and from herringbone produces an overlap of two–plus years. Simply stated, a `46 herringbone D–28 has more in common structurally with a non–herringbone `47 than it does with prewar and wartime vintage herringbone Dreadnoughts. The `45 Dreadnoughts used Adirondack spruce for the tops, and their braces were not scalloped. The `46s are non–scalloped with a Sitka top. Incidentally, there were just 1,451 D–28s and 3,753 D–18s manufactured before the change in braces, so finding one for sale may be a little difficult.

Why did the Martin Company change from the "scalloped" braces to heavier braces? The answer is not in the guitar at all, but in the strings. Many guitarists of that time were using heavy–gauge strings on their instruments. These heavy strings were tough on the lightly constructed Martin guitars, especially on the Dreadnought with its long 25.4" scale. Quite simply, the Martin Company wasn’t interested in making a much heavier guitar to withstand the extra string tension, so they compensated by adding some rigidity to the braces supporting the top.

As the Dreadnought developed in the early years, there were a few other minor changes–which have kept Martin fans arguing for decades. One was the actual location of the cross braces on the top. In the early production years, the braces were positioned closer to the soundhole, with the result being a top that flexed in a slightly different manner. There are a number of guitarists who consider these "high X–brace" instruments to be Martin’s greatest achievement; others find the difference minimal. The entire bracing pattern was moved away from the soundhole, according to Longworth, in the late 1930s to strengthen the top.

Due to a shortage of metal during World War II, the Martin Company discontinued the use of a steel reinforcing bar (T cross–section) in the neck. They replaced it with a similarly shaped piece of ebony. Their earlier ebony–bar design had been replaced by the steel T–bar in late 1934.

The ebony–bar guitars are quite a bit lighter than their earlier and later counterparts, and more prone to neck–angle problems. After the war, the steel T–bar found its way back into production, only to be replaced in 1967 by a square steel tube. In 1985 (decades after some other manufacturers had initiated its use), the Martin Company introduced the first adjustable reinforcing (truss) rod in its history.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Dreadnought Story
Chapter 2: From the Beginning
Chapter 3: The First D-45
Chapter 4: Mid-`40s to the Mid-`60s
Chapter 5: The Tumultuous Mid-`60s
Chapter 6: The Big Guitar Boom
Chapter 7: Other Models
Chapter 8: Approaching 2000 & Beyond

Chapter 4: Mid-`40s to the Mid-`60s

Following this rather active period of development (1931–1947), the D–18 and D–28 remained virtually un–changed for the next 20 years. There were other changes, however, which produced a pair of new Dreadnoughts and the reissue of a third.

In 1954, the Martin Company again started building Dreadnoughts with the elongated body and 12–fret neck, on a very limited basis. Designated with an "S" after the model number, the first few D–28S guitars were strictly special products.

The E. U. Wurlitzer Music Company of Boston ordered a few of these S–body guitars in 1962 to be sold only through their stores. The resulting D–28S proved to be popular enough that, in 1968, Martin added it (and the D–18S and D–35S) to its regular line. Versions of all three models are featured in the Martin "Vintage Series." According to Longworth, the factory has always given credit to Peter Yarrow (of the folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary) for popularizing the D–28S.

In 1956, a new rosewood–bodied Dreadnought, the D–21, made its first public appearance (six samples had been built in 1955). The D–21, like the D–18 and the D–28, was the Dreadnought version of an existing model (style 21).

The D–21 had the same rosewood body as a D–28, but in other features was more like a D–18: tortoiseshell–colored body binding and a rosewood fretboard and bridge.

Until the mid–’60s, Martin had always purchased rosewood in log (or "timber") form in Brazil. The wood was then resawn in the U.S. to Martin’s specifications. The Brazilian government placed an embargo on timber shipments, demanding instead that the logs be resawn in Brazil. This situation proved completely unsatisfactory for the Martin Company, and it began importing rosewood from India.

The effects of Martin’s decision to change to Indian rosewood occurred in stages. First, in 1965, was the introduction of a Dreadnought which allowed Martin to utilize a narrower section of wood than normally used in a D–size guitar: the three–piece back D–35. It was a brand new style, complete with fancier celluloid trim around the body, and binding on the sides of the fretboard. Unlike the D–21, the D–35 was a major success.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Dreadnought Story
Chapter 2: From the Beginning
Chapter 3: The First D-45
Chapter 4: Mid-`40s to the Mid-`60s
Chapter 5: The Tumultuous Mid-`60s
Chapter 6: The Big Guitar Boom
Chapter 7: Other Models
Chapter 8: Approaching 2000 & Beyond

Chapter 3: The First D-45

In 1933 cowboy star and country singer Gene Autry came up with a special project. Autry wanted a guitar similar in appearance to his idol Jimmie Rodgers’ 000–45, but in the new large body style. The Martin Company complied, and the first and perhaps most famous D–45, #53177, was born, complete with Autry’s name in pearl script on the fretboard.

Like all early Dreadnoughts, the first D–45 had the elongated body and 12–fret neck. As you can imagine, with all of the abalone pearl body decoration, the guitar proved to be expensive to make, costing a whopping $200.00 in the middle of the Depression.

Although the D–45 was not cataloged until 1938, five more were built between 1933 and its official introduction, including two other 12–fret versions. The guitar built for Autry had a "torch" inlay pattern on the peghead; subsequent D–45s had the familiar "C. F. Martin" block letter logo. In 1939, the fretboard inlay pattern was changed from the traditional style 45 "snowflakes" to new "modern" solid hexagons.

The Martin Company had produced 91 D–45s by the time the guitar was [temporarily] discontinued in 1942. Except for the 1936 D–45 (which had a 5/8" wider body and three different 12–fret "S" designs), all of these guitars were structurally identical to the other pre–1945 Dreadnoughts.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Dreadnought Story
Chapter 2: From the Beginning
Chapter 3: The First D-45
Chapter 4: Mid-`40s to the Mid-`60s
Chapter 5: The Tumultuous Mid-`60s
Chapter 6: The Big Guitar Boom
Chapter 7: Other Models
Chapter 8: Approaching 2000 & Beyond

Chapter 5: The tumultuous Mid-`60s

After the introduction of the D–35, Martin was faced with a dwindling supply of Brazilian rosewood and a quickly growing guitar market – folk music was booming. The newly imported Indian rosewood required more seasoning before it could be used. Consequently, Martin began cutting their remaining Brazilian rosewood logs differently to obtain more usable wood out of each log. By late 1969, the change to Indian rosewood was complete, with D–21 #254498 having the distinction of being the first official Indian rosewood guitar.

The changes didn’t stop there. Other familiar features disappeared as well. In 1967 the tortoiseshell–colored, nitrate–base plastic, which was used as body binding on D–18s, D–21s, and for pickguards on all Dreadnoughts, was replaced with a black, acetate–base plastic that was a considerably more stable material to use and store. The familiar ivory–colored (ivoroid) binding on D–28s and D–35s similarly was replaced with a newer, more stable material called Boltaron®.

Another change (albeit inadvertent) was the rounding of the top edges of the mid–’60s Martin pegheads. According to Longworth, who heard the story directly from C. F. Martin III, the original wood peghead template had become so worn from use that the square corners became rounded. Eventually a new metal template was made, and the peghead edges once again were square.

A more serious change occurred on April 9, 1968. On that date the Martin Company began using rosewood instead of maple for the bridge plate, the small piece of reinforcing wood glued to the inside surface of the top, directly under the bridge. Martin also enlarged the bridge plate.

As in the case of heavier braces two decades earlier, the problem of structural stability had been raised. To Martin, a larger, heavier bridge plate seemed to be the answer. If one had to point to a single, indisputable, qualifiable difference between Martin guitars made before and after this period, it would not be in the types of rosewood used in the bodies, the color of the plastics, the shape of the peghead, or any number of other visible components, but rather a seemingly innocuous piece of wood inside the guitar.

It is interesting to note that during the mid–1980s, Martin began to restore many of the vintage "pre–war" features to its entire line, including scalloped braces and smaller maple bridgeplates.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Dreadnought Story
Chapter 2: From the Beginning
Chapter 3: The First D-45
Chapter 4: Mid-`40s to the Mid-`60s
Chapter 5: The Tumultuous Mid-`60s
Chapter 6: The Big Guitar Boom
Chapter 7: Other Models
Chapter 8: Approaching 2000 & Beyond

 
 
 
 
 
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