Skip to navigation

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

Back to top

Email to Friend