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This guitar is one in a million

Source: Newhouse News Service

by John Foyston

The bill of materials for the millionth Martin guitar sounds like the swag from a pretty good heist or an inventory of a lesser pharaoh's tomb.

Rare Brazilian rosewood, straight-grained Adirondack spruce, ebony, mother-of-pearl, abalone, fossilized ivory, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, aquamarine, copper, platinum, silver and gold -- white and yellow.

The millionth Martin is a big deal. It took the family-owned C.F. Martin & Co. 171 years to reach serial number 1,000,000, so they weren't about to let that milestone go unheralded.

Ironically, the millionth Martin flies in the face of the sober-sided aesthetic that has typified most of the company's guitars since 1833.

Most Martins are plain to the point of severity. Their beauty comes from within: They are shapely, handsome and well-built with fine woods. The new ones sound good, and the good old ones can be magical. Thanks to superb functionality, they have no more need of filigree or gewgaws than a wrench.

So to see Martin Million rise slowly from its carbon-fiber sarcophagus in the white-cotton-gloved hands of one of its handlers is a bit like learning that the Shakers had decided to make a Barcalounger with Magic Fingers massage.

Because the Martin folks -- and California inlay artist Larry Robinson -- have built one of the more decorated guitars ever. Martin Million is a dazzling baroque confection of inlay and filigree that will never be sold, will rarely be played and is officially valued by the company as "priceless."

When not occupying pride of place in the Martin museum in Nazareth, Pa., the guitar is accompanied by factory guys such as national sales manager Bruce Mariano, who recently accompanied the guitar to a music store in Portland, Ore. Later Mariano was to fly it out to Texas for a guitar show. As always, the guitar would have its own seat.

"We will not allow it to fly in the belly of an airplane," Mariano said, "so we buy it a ticket. Does it fly first class? No, because I don't fly first class."

As Martin district manager Larry Barnwell held the guitar, Mariano gave the music store crowd a guided tour of the inlays that represent two years of mind-boggling handwork. Guitar inlay is beginning to be mechanized with laser cutters and computer-controlled routers, but this guitar was decorated in a way the first Christian Frederick Martin would've been familiar with six generations ago.

Each leaf, each petal and tendril of the inlays that twine over every surface began as a piece of mother-of-pearl or abalone or sea snail shell painstakingly cut to shape with a jeweler's saw. Each cherub, each angel, the eagle on the headstock and the vase from which the vine-of-life snakes up the fingerboard are made of many pieces chosen to provide color, shading and dimensionality to the inlay.

And every stunning picture tells a story, says Mariano. "On the back, there's a portrait of C.F. Martin in fossilized ivory (which is legal to use); above that, angels hold instruments important to Martin's history -- a ukulele, a concert guitar, and the two angels flanking the vase hold a mandolin and a Dreadnought guitar."

Up near the heel of the neck (which is inlaid with a lyre), two cherubim hold the guitar that started it all, a Stauffer guitar from the German shop where Martin apprenticed when he was 15. On the front, the pickguard is inlaid with the tools of the trade: drawknife, mallet, jeweler's saw and the inverted top of a Martin guitar showing the X-bracing invented by C.F. Martin and credited with revolutionizing acoustic guitars.

"If Martin has a coat of arms," says Mariano, "that's it."

Though Robinson did the inlay, the guitar itself was built in the Martin factory and is testament to the company's craftsmanship, Mariano says.

Mark Hanson, who publishes nationally known guitar instruction books, was allowed to tickle a few runs and chords out of the guitar and said that it played extremely well.

Except that any guitar with 5 pounds of abalone set into it is unlikely ever to develop a truly magical voice. But this guitar isn't about playing, which is almost a first in Martin's history. But not the last. Should you have a hankering for something similar -- and about $100,000 to satisfy that jones -- Martin has reserved the 50 serial numbers from 1,000,001 for the D-100 Deluxe model.

The guitars have simplified, laser-cut, versions of Robinson's inlay but are still the fanciest Martin production guitars ever. And they apparently fill a niche, because Barnwell said 15 of the 50 D-100Ds are sold already.

Publisher: The Star-Ledger

Copyright 2004 The Star-Ledger

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