I woke up in Philly on a Thursday morning, full of excitement. Having spent my whole life on the West Coast, I was finally going to knock off a big item on my bucket-list! A store I managed back in the ‘80s was a Martin dealer, and ever since then I’ve wanted to visit the C.F. Martin & Co. factory – and today was the day! My fond appreciation for Martin guitars has only grown over the years, as I kept ‘trading up’ and now I am blessed to own a 1943 ‘War Era’ 00-18. It is the best sounding acoustic guitar I have ever heard.
After a ninety-minute drive through the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, I pulled into the Martin parking lot. As soon as I walked into the main entrance of the C.F. Martin & Co. building, who did I see walking right towards me? None other than Chris Martin IV himself!
Yes, the heir apparent of the family linage that dates back to 1833. If you do the math, you soon realize that someone from Chris’s family has been building iconic guitars while leading the company for the last 185 years. That is amazing! Then, when I found out that Chris was going to lead a small group of us through the Martin museum personally, my bucket-list day got even better!
Having the CEO of this vibrant company tell the story of this American institution from the totally unique perspective of ‘growing up Martin’ was more than I could have hoped for. I even got permission to record Chris’ presentation so I could take you on this amazing journey with me!
Chris led us into the museum which is filled to the brim with a trove of Martin treasure from years, decades, and even centuries past. Chris stopped at each of the enclosed cases to describe their contents in a conversational and personable manner. The tour started with a brief ‘coming to America’ history lesson.
Christian Frederick Martin was born on January 31, 1796, in Saxony, which is now modern-day Germany). Typical of the times, young C.F. followed in his father’s footsteps crafting cabinetry in the family business. It probably comes as no surprise that C.F. also shared his father’s interest in building guitars. So, after completing the lengthy and equally arduous apprenticeship required by the local furniture guild, when C.F. announced that he’d rather build guitars than furniture, his father gave him his blessing. Keep in mind that in those days, one of the benefits of a family business is that the family participates in the family business. Although ‘losing a son’ would have come at a financial cost to Christian’s father (Frederick Georg Martin), he not only gave his blessing, he sent the fifteen-year-old boy to Vienna to apprentice with Johann Georg Stauffer.
Stauffer’s work remains highly regarded for his craftsmanship and for his innovation. He not only designed a detachable neck that enabled players to adjust the action on their instruments, he also crafted fingerboards that extended over the sound hole. Wait – a detachable neck with a fingerboard that extends beyond the neck – that sounds an awful lot like a 22-fret Strat neck! I digress…
After working his way up to the position of foreman under Stauffer’s tutelage, C.F. spent one last fortuitous year in Vienna working for another instrument manufacturer by the name of Karl Kuhle. It would appear that C.F. had as eye on more than Kuhle’s instruments as he went on to marry his daughter Ottilie.
Shortly thereafter Christian and new bride returned to C.F.’s hometown in Saxony with C.F. Martin Jr. in tow. Presumably, C.F. Sr. made this move to support a family which soon grew to include a daughter. In his absence Neukirchen had changed its name to Markneukirchen, but some things remained the same. Well known for the fine instruments crafted there, a war of sorts had been waging between the cabinetmakers guild and the violin makers guild over who would control the booming guitar market. Although the violin makers’ guild was arguably right that they were far better suited to control who had the right to make guitars, their repeated government petitions were rejected, supposedly turned back the quality of the instruments that the Martin family produced. After his father’s death C.F. set his sights on the land of the free, and free trade not controlled by archaic guilds called.
So, C.F. made the fateful decision to pack up his tools and a few guitars and sail off to the New World with his family in tow. A classic immigrant’s tale, his first stop was New York, where he opened up a shop at 196 Hudson Street in lower Manhattan. They kept the store for a while before moving to Nazareth, PA., the present home of C.F. Martin & Company. Perhaps inspired by the Kuhl’s innovative spirit, C.F. started to look at how he could improve the instrument structurally. In 1843* while making a pin-bridge to hold the strings better, C.F. decided he needed to develop a bracing system to strengthen the body. Necessity being the mother of invention, C.F. invented a proprietary system of bracing called ‘X-bracing’.
In time, C.F. II would join his father in the company business to create a network of dealers and distributors and started to develop a consistent line of models. Just think about it, Martin was once a boutique builder looking for stores and customers who might be interested in the instruments they were crafting!
As Chris repeatedly pointed out, the Martin story parallels that of American history… “Fifty miles from here, in the 1800s, the Civil War broke out. Americans were killing Americans, and we were trying to run a business. The one thing I will say is that the guitar seems to be a great equalizer. There are real stories of people finding a great deal of solace in the down time of war. The sun sets and they start to fire up some campfires and make dinner. And on both sides, someone pulls out a guitar and starts playing”. As it turns out, guitar isn’t the only instrument from Martin that echoed the ‘coming to America’ theme. The mandolin became wildly popular after it came over with Italian immigrants. Later, as Hawaiian music became popular Martin entered that market with some high-end ukes.
As Chris pointed out, Martin also continued to evolve and innovate as a guitar builder, especially as steel strings became popular, “In 1915* we started making steel string guitars. I have a very strong feeling about the best sounding guitars. The best sounding acoustic guitars are built to be durable enough to feel like you are getting your money’s worth, but they are also built right on the point of self-destruction because that is where the good sound is. So, if you want to play it safe you over build it, right? Big fat braces, big thick veneers, nice and heavy. It’s never going to break, but it won’t sound good either.”
In 1902 Martin introduced the 00-42 which morphed into the Style 45 in 1904. Both models featured Martin’s innovative pearl inlay work. Then the Great Depression hit. Pearl laden guitars didn’t sell and sat in inventory for years. Yikes! Since people couldn’t afford a $125.00 guitar, Martin innovated by producing all-mahogany guitars for $25.00 which kept the factory going and gave dealers something they could sell.
Archtops came around next, but they didn’t sell particularly well for Martin. As Chris elaborated, World War II had a significant impact on Martin, “The Federal government came around and said, ‘We are going to have to ask all the men to go and fight the war.’ So that is the first time we hired women to build guitars. Then the government put us on rations for metal because they needed the metal for armaments and for screws. We realized that every time we bought a tail piece we used up some of our metal allotment, and every time we made an arch top we took a thick piece of spruce that could’ve made us five flat tops!”
The end of WW II was a happy footnote in Martin’s history in that it coincided with what is now affectionately known as the ‘Golden Era’ of Martin guitars. Another important spillover from that era, as demonstrated by our photos from the factory tour, the Martin factory employs a large number of women in luthier-centric roles. Equally important is the fact that Martin hires employees for life, not a job.
As the post-war economy marched on, as Chris pointed out, the guitar business did as well “The guitar became a much more integral part of American and British musical culture – both six and twelve string acoustic guitars. My dad joined the business in 1955 and he caught the folk boom. Holy mackerel! That is why we are in this building today. We couldn’t keep up. They came home from a trade show in Chicago and we took enough orders, based on our capacity at North Street (the old factory) to run flat out for the next four years – and not take an order.” That trade show was actually the NAMM show, which today remains the hallowed grounds where many a brand has been made. The success of that singular trip was the impetus to move to their current factory (which I’d be touring shortly).
Martin’s growth continued into the ‘60s. Martin started hiring veterans returning home from the Viet Nam war right around the time when Folk and Rock music collided, and a whole new generation of people embraced the guitar.
Then came the ‘80s. While our friends at Yamaha celebrated the release of the iconic DX7 FM synthesizer, ‘popular’ music shifted to disco, which signaled the end of a highly successful era for manufacturers like Martin. Another change came when Chris’ father decided to retire, and his grandfather stepped back in to run the family business, while Chris went off to college to study business. Sadly, Chris’ grandfather passed away leaving a big hole in the family, the company, local community, and the music industry. The fate of this iconic brand would come to rest in the untested hands of Chris Martin IV.
As Chris pointed out, the weight of this moment was not lost on him, “The board put me in charge, and I was scared to death! I can’t express to you the significance of that event to me. When I came out from the board meeting it gave me a lot of confidence in myself as a leader. It also taught me team building skills”. Chris’ gift as a leader is just as apparent as you tour the Martin factory as it is on the concert stages where Martin endorsers like John Mayer are crafting their legacy. Chris has literally taken hundreds of his employees out on field trips (hikes, rafting etc.) to forge the Martin’s flourishing company culture. It is palatable as you walk through the building that great leadership resides there.
As we came to another display case Chris said something I wasn’t expecting to hear, “One of the things we don’t get enough credit for, we were the first company to amplify acoustic guitars. But because we have gone through so many variations (of pick-up systems), and ultimately at the end of the day, we are known as an acoustic guitar company. We don’t get enough credit for the focus we have put on trying to amplify the acoustic guitar.” When asked what the key is to amplifying acoustic guitars, Chris added, “The best way is to get a good guitar, get a good pick-up, and get a good PA. If any one of those three aren’t good – the other two almost don’t matter!”
As he prepared to wrap up the tour, Chris shared the following with us, “And I will leave you with the biggest challenge we are facing today. It is the procurement of raw materials. There is a reason they are called ‘rare exotic timbers’ – because they are. We have done a marvelous job of convincing all of you that a fine guitar should be made from rosewood, mahogany, ebony and spruce. They are all under pressure. Shame on us, when we should have been planting trees, we weren’t. Even if we wanted to, they probably wouldn’t have allowed it. But that is changing dramatically. There is a great deal of appreciation now of these exotic old trees. We are working with indigenous folks about sustaining forestry and how it isn’t all that complicated. Sometimes it is just letting mother nature do her thing – don’t turn this into a cattle ranch! Harvest the mature old trees, then walk away. Go away and come back and there is a sapling. Yeah, that is how it works. It is a work in progress. There is a lot of regulation today which is generally a good thing”.
As Chris graciously thanked us for coming and we gave him a round of much deserved applause for his insightful commentary. Straight from the CEO himself!
Shortly thereafter, the Martin brand of hospitality went up another notch. They brought out the keys to the displays and pulled out the ‘holy grail’ of all acoustic guitars, a 1942 D-45! This treasured instrument is the acoustic equivalent of a flame top 1959 Les Paul ‘burst’. Rare and valuable! Once I had this iconic instrument in my hands I could see (and hear) why this prized treasure is as storied as it is. I finally found a Martin guitar that sounds bigger and richer than my own. The sound of it filled the museum room. Another unexpected bucket-list moment.
THE FACTORY TOUR
With the D-45 safely back in its glass display case, and the museum tour behind us, we headed out to meet Joel Zingone, our guide for the factory tour. True to Martin’s ‘raise from within’ culture, Joel is a long-time employee who has worked in several key roles over the years. His insights made for an outstanding tour as we traversed the factory floor.
First of all, Martin offers guitars in all shapes and sizes at price points from entry level to high-end professional. Noting how much hand crafting we saw on the factory floor, you begin to realize how much labor is actually required to the nearly insatiable hunger for these instruments worldwide. Currently, the Martin staff is right around 400 employees.
One of the first things I noticed was how happy the employees are. They were genuinely friendly, greeting us at every turn with smiles that were never forced. While these factory tours must be a little distracting, everyone made time to answer my questions and never made me feel like an outsider.
I was equally impressed by how they intermingle the use of good old hand craftsman and technology into their production process. At one station we saw a woman skillfully using a sheathed razor blade to scrape the binding to the prescribed thickness. While at another station they were using lasers to cut the tone wood guitar tops with, well, laser precision! Precision being the operative word, it’s no accident that Martin guitars consistently sound the way they do.
I have always appreciated nice inlay work on guitars but the Martin custom shop station was truly remarkable. We saw a few pieces of fine art that will end up being the part of a guitar that will debut at 2019 NAMM Show. I am not allowed to talk about it yet, but let’s just say I was smitten these artisans’ work!
It was also fun to see how they approach doing the fingerboards and frets. It was insightful to see how they shape the guitar necks for the different models and the see the racks of solid spruce guitar tops!
Another thing that caught my attention was a rack of guitar bodies with blue stained maple backs and sides. This is very unusual for Martin as they primarily use rosewood or mahogany for the back and sides on most models. I look forward to playing those at the next NAMM show as well. I am easily persuaded by blue finished guitars and these Maple ones will really pop once the final finish is applied and they are buffed.
Speaking of buffing, Martin employs robotic machines to do this part of the process as the act of leaning into a buffing machine holding a guitar body all day long was just too much wear and tear on a human body.
Along one of the factory walls was a huge thirty-five foot model of a Martin guitar. It was actually from a parade float that Martin made, which brings up another key C.F. Martin & Co. attribute well worth mentioning. They are very civic minded and give a lot back to the community of Nazareth, PA.
The hospitality of the folks at Martin cannot be over emphasized here. This comes from the CEO of this family owned company right down through the employees. From upper management all the way down to the factory floor, the people at Martin care every bit as much about their culture as their bottom line. This is why they have so many long-term employees, and they want to keep it that way. When they hire someone new, they want them to be a legacy employee, one who stays for decades.
If Worship Musician magazine had been around for 185 years too, I think I might feel the same way. C.F. Martin & Co. is an outstanding example for American companies, regardless of what products they make.
Bucket List Takeaway Advice
- Go play and hopefully own a Martin Guitar (or two) in your lifetime. The sooner the better.
- Makes plans to visit the C.F. Martin & Co. Museum and take the Factory Tour.
- Don’t miss the gift shop. I got some cool stuff there.
- If you are looking for a long-standing company to work for and want to be part of a focused family-orientated team, maybe you should apply at C.F. Martin & Co.?
There you have it, straight from a guy who just crossed off a big item on a short bucket list!
Bruce Adolph – Publisher
* Special thanks to Jason Ahner of the C.F. Martin & Co. Archives for his insights, fact checking, and sharing the wonderfully insightful book “C.F. Martin & His Guitars” by Philip Gura.