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One in a million

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. All that's missing, it seems, is frankincense and myrrh.

But the millionth Martin is a big deal. It took the family-owned company 171 years to reach serial number 1,000,000, so the Martin folks weren't about to let that milestone go unheralded. And herald they did, as 50 or so local guitarists and guitar fanciers might attest after seeing Martin Million earlier this week at an invitation-only showing at Pioneer Music in downtown Portland.

"I'd seen pictures and I thought it was really going to be garish," says Jim Bolland, who bought his first Martin when he was 20 and has since owned seven or eight of them. "But seeing it in person makes you realize that it's a piece of art, and why not? After all, it's C.F. Martin & Co., and they've been around so long and weathered so many storms that they can pull it off."

True enough. This would be hubris or worse had almost any other guitar company attempted it. But somehow Martin has earned this, even though the millionth Martin flies in the face of the sober-sided aesthetic that has typified most of its 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 and district manager Larry Barnwell. They drove the guitar down from Port Angeles, Wash., for its Portland debut, and Mariano will fly it out to Texas for a guitar show. As always, the guitar will have its own seat.

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

As Barnwell held the guitar, Mariano gave the 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.

After the presentation, the Martin guys took the guitar into the audition room, where an armchair was set up under a photographer's light. After checking that no belt buckles, zippers or snaps would scratch the guitar, they allowed people to hold it for portraits.

"It's a little bit fancy for my blood," said guitarist Geoff Clarkson, who played with the Countrypolitans, "but I'm blown away by the craftsmanship. My fiancee, Carrie, and I are going to get a picture of us and the guitar and put it on our wedding announcements."

"'You'll have to put the beer bottle down, though," said K.C. Wait, who owns the shop.

"But I was going to play a little bottleneck," Clarkson joked back.

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 that 15 of the 50 D-100Ds are sold already.

Alex Truax might be a future owner. At 14, he's already bought a nearly $5,000 Martin partly with money earned from gigs with a bluegrass band. And the sight of Martin Million and a D-100D set him to thinking.

"Wow, what a cool guitar," he told his dad, Ed Truax. "We could sell the house . . ."

John Foyston: 503-221-8368; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Publisher: The Oregonian

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