Just for Fun, From the Factory | May 15, 2024

The 50 Greatest Martin Songs Ever

Preview the ultimate Martin playlist from our latest Martin Journal 

Photo of musicians holding Martin Guitars

For as long as there’s been pop music, there’s been Martin. From the earliest tunes that crackled across the airwaves to the golden era of music on TV to the TikTok generation, our instruments have always inspired songwriters. Countless classics have been written, performed, or recorded using a Martin guitar. But which are the greatest? 

Well, the Martin Journal team put their heads together to decide. In an attempt to make things easier, they set some ground rules: every song had to have been written, recorded, or famously performed using a Martin guitar, and artists were only allowed one entry each. Ranked in no particular order, below are just a few of the greatest songs ever brought to you by a Martin guitar. 

Make sure to check out the complete list in the latest issue of our Journal and listen to all these amazing songs on our curated Spotify playlist, which you can also find at the end of this blog.

Black and white photo of The Beatles

The Beatles – “Blackbird” (1968) 

This track distills Paul McCartney’s belief that songs are fundamentally vehicles for melody into little more than two minutes of unforgettable beauty. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick during sessions for the band’s self-titled album (a.k.a. the White Album), “Blackbird” famously features only McCartney’s voice (as well as that of a male blackbird), his tapping feet, and a converted right-handed 1967 D-28. The song was inspired musically by Bach’s “Bourrée in E minor” for lute, which in a 2004 interview with Guitarist, McCartney termed a “little show-off piece” that he and George Harrison learned as kids. Lyrical inspiration came from the civil rights movement. It all hangs together around a plaintive vocal hook and McCartney’s unstudied picking technique – his thumb plucking bass notes while his index finger flicks – which does away with finesse in favor of always searching for the next melodic swerve. That says everything about McCartney as an acoustic player. He appreciates the masters and the time it takes to become one, yet instead focuses his energy on whatever song is coming into view around the next bend. 

Pink Floyd – “Wish You Were Here” (1975) 

This one is a tale of two Martins: a D12-28 12-string, used on the radio-aping intro, and David Gilmour’s prized D-35, employed for the pace-shifting solo. Gilmour bought his D-35 on the street outside Manny’s in New York City in the early ‘70s. Rarely was his relationship with it more beautifully expressed than on this track from the album of the same name. It may just be the band’s finest song.

Black and white photo of Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell – “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970) 

Joni Mitchell never really got over the loss of her “dear one,” a 1956 D-28 that had been gifted to her after surviving an explosion while it was on a tour of duty in Vietnam with a Marine Captain. “When they cleared the wreckage, all that survived was this guitar,” Mitchell told Acoustic Guitar magazine in 1996. Sometime before the release of her 1974 album, Court and Spark, it was stolen from a baggage carousel in Maui, Hawaii. By that time, however, it had already underpinned Mitchell’s rise to pop-folk prominence, featuring on earlier works including “Big Yellow Taxi,” a creative peak from her 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon. Written during a stay in Hawaii – and inspired by seeing far-off mountains spreading out from beneath the parking lot of her hotel – it fizzes with the playful melodic attitude of her foundational writing. Presented in open E, the song is also a wonderful example of Mitchell’s unorthodox approach to tunings. Despite its ready supply of hooks, “Big Yellow Taxi” has an antic quality, pointing towards a career that wouldn’t find Mitchell sitting in any one place for very long. 

Willie Nelson – “On the Road Again” (1980) 

Trigger, Willie Nelson’s 1969 N-20 with a PrismaTone pickup and a preamp taken from an earlier Baldwin guitar, is one of country music’s great companions. With its clattering railway beat and wistful aw-shucks delivery, “On the Road Again” is perhaps the quintessential song for touring musicians too, with added impetus from its ringing nylon solo. The best of friends, indeed.

Photo of Kurt Cobain

Nirvana – “The Man Who Sold the World” (1993) 

In 2020, Kurt Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E became the most expensive guitar ever sold at auction, fetching more than $6 million. Cobain bought the instrument at Voltage Guitars in Los Angeles in 1992 for $5,000 and subsequently used it during Nirvana’s elemental MTV Unplugged set, ensuring its spot in the rock pantheon. Flipping the show’s usual script on its head, the band, augmented by former Germs guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston, eschewed the hits in favor of covers by outsider legends such as Meat Puppets and the Vaselines, bringing their music to an enormous new audience in the process. In its crowning moment, though, Cobain delivered an electrifying take on this relatively lesser-known David Bowie cut, leaning into its jagged riff using a Bartolini 3AV pickup he had fitted in the D-18E’s soundhole. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York album was released in 1994, while the song was released as a promotional single the following year. 

Dolly Parton – “Jolene” (1973) 

The rolling thumb-picked acoustic intro and needling rhythm parts on Dolly Parton’s pleading, heartbreaking hit “Jolene” came courtesy of Chip Young. The renowned Nashville session guitarist created a latticework of melody and countermelody in tandem with Wayne Moss, a hired hand of similar skill and reputation. It all added up to an all-time great of any genre. 

Photo of John Mayer

John Mayer – “No Such Thing” (2001) 

The single that launched John Mayer owes plenty to another guitarist who likes to keep things smooth but rockin’. “No Such Thing” – a laid-back, nostalgic pop song that masks some bile about breaking out of the boxes set aside for kids in school – was tracked on a Martin DM3MD, a Dave Matthews signature model that the young gunslinger bought with a $5,000 check his label cut to help with equipment costs. It’s the only acoustic Mayer played on his debut LP, Room for Squares, before he graduated to a D-45. Mayer would get a series of signature Martins over the next two decades, beginning with the eye-catching OM-28JM and running through to 2023’s spangly OM-45 20th anniversary model. With them, Mayer reshaped the classic Martin vibe to reflect his own style and outlook. 

Tracy Chapman – “Fast Car” (1988) 

This song features one of those riffs that immediately puts you in a ruminative state of mind. Tracy Chapman’s generation-spanning hit is a coruscating narrative of low-wage inertia, lit up by the resonance of her voice and some crystalline, patient melodies that are wonderfully understated where others might go to saccharine extremes. 

Photo of Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash – “I Walk the Line” (1969) 

The Man in Black’s history is intimately interwoven with Martin guitars, from the D-28 he used to record the original version of this song at Sun Studio in 1958 to the custom D-35 he convinced Martin to paint black – something the company had never done before – and later became his trademark instrument. Johnny Cash is at his most iconic and most boisterous, however, on his 1969 live album, At San Quentin. From the album’s cover art and the legendary middle-finger photograph to the Grammy-winning intensity of Cash’s performance, the recording spawned many memorable moments. For this cut of “I Walk the Line,” he used his trusty custom D-35S, a constant presence on The Johnny Cash Show and a guitar he would play on more than 20 albums and on countless stages all the way up to his death in 2003. 

Joan Baez – “We Shall Overcome” (1963) 

This protest song had been a rallying cry for the civil rights movement long before August 28, 1963. But it would enjoy what may have been its most powerful and enduring musical expression thanks to a 22-year-old Joan Baez. When the folk sensation climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, she and her Martin 0-45 led the assembled 3,000-strong crowd of the March on Washington in an unforgettable rendition. 

Read More & Listen to the Full List 

If you liked what you read, want to learn more, or have a song in mind that we didn’t mention, check out the complete list of the “50 Greatest Martin Songs Ever” in the latest issue of the Martin Journal.

Not only can you find the full list in the Journal, but we also have plenty of other great features in this year’s issue, like an in-depth conversation with country music legend Vince Gill, a songwriter’s tour of the Martin archives, a peek behind the design of the GPCE Inception™ Maple, interviews with the songwriters and craftspeople who work at our Nazareth factory, and so much more. 

Don’t forget to listen to the full list of 50 songs on our curated Spotify playlist below, and if you feel inspired to write a song that might make it in our next version of this list, check out our legendary lineup of instruments here

Happy playing!