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A tale of two D-18's

1956 D-18 from www.mckenzierivermusic.comI've posted a couple of times about the 1956 "Dawg" D-18 from McKenzie River Music recently (here and here), and generally rambled on about D-18's a lot, so I figured it's time to write about this model a bit more. Rather than rattle off a list of artists who have played D-18's, I thought I'd provide a bit of history and technical information about this guitar.

Martin introduced the D-18 in 1934 and shortly after its debut it became their most popular guitar, a position it held until 1968, when production of the D-28 overtook it. There has been a steady evolution of the specifications of the model over the years, but the defining features of the D-18 is that it's a 14-frets to the body dreadnought ("D") guitar with mahogany back/sides, dovetail neck joint, spruce top, and dark (black or tortoise-colored) binding (style "18").

stock image of a D-18GE from www.martinguitar.comFor 60 years, from 1934 to 1994, there was only one D-18 in Martin's regular lineup; in 1995 the D-18V (including the reintroduction of some "vintage" features that had been changed over the years) was added to the family (along with a limited run of 1995 D-18 "Golden Era" 1937 guitars), and in 1999 the D-18GE "1934" (a very different guitar from the 1937 Golden Era D-18) joined the D-18 lineup. The D-18GE is a loose interpretation of the original D-18 from 1934, and brings back several desirable features that the D-18 lost over its evolution, including the location and shape of the braces (i.e., scalloped until 1944), an Adirondack spruce top (a.k.a., red spruce; Sitka spruce replaced red spruce on the D-18 in 1947, except for a few "mystery spruce" guitars in the 50's), and the 1-3/4" neck width at the nut with a V-shaped profile (rather than the slimmer 1-11/16" neck that had evolved over time). I first played a D-18GE in 2000 or so at Mass Street Music in Lawrence, KS.

In 2005 the D-18 "Authentic" (unofficially known as the D-18A), which is, to date, the truest recreation of a 1937 model handbuilt by a select group of luthiers at Martin, was introduced, but I haven't played one yet so I can't comment (although peeps on the interwebs seem to rave about them). So, in summary, the current (as of 2012) D-18 lineup, from least to most expensive, is the standard D-18, D-18V, D-18GE, and D-18 Authentic (there's also the recent/current D-18P, with a 1 3/4" neck width, and short scale D-18SS, and there was the D-18 Marquis, which was nearly identical to the D-18GE, although it lacked the Brazilian rosewood headstock overlay). UPDATE #1: in January 2012 Martin merged the features of the D-18V (bracing and appointments) and D-18P (neck) into a redesigned standard D-18. The current D-18 lineup is the (a) standard, (b) D-18GE, (c) D-18 Authentic, and (d) short scale D-18SS. UPDATE #2: in January 2013 Martin replaced the 1937 D-18 Authentic with a new D-18 Authentic based on the 1939 model.

D-18AG, based on Andy's own '56 D-18; image from www.martinguitar.comNote: The above doesn't speak to runs of limited edition and artist model D-18's like the D-18GL [Gordon Lightfoot], D-18CW [Clarence White], D-18AG [Andy Griffith], D-18DC [David Crosby], D-18 Del McCoury, HD-18JB [Jimmy Buffett], D-18 1955 CFM IV, D-18 75th Anniversary Edition, the early limited D-18V's of 1985 and 1992, the 1989 D-18 Special, or the maple-bound D-18MB of 1990.

I'm mostly writing here about the MRM Dawg 1956 D-18 and a D-18GE built in 2002, which are the two D-18's I've spent the most time with.

The first thing to note in the graphic below is the spike in Martin production that started in the mid-nineties, after the dip in the 80's that followed the folk boom of the mid-60's to late-70's. Martin has grown a lot in the last 20 years; the company, which was founded in 1833, has built about 2/3rds of its total guitars since 1992. Stated another way, in their first 160 years Martin built about 50,000 guitars; in the last 20 years, they've built twice that.

In 1956 Martin built 5,897 guitars; 1,078 of them (18%) were D-18s. By 2002 Martin was up to 68,208 guitars, but only 1,431 (2%) of those were D-18 variants (standard D-18, D-18V, and D-18GE). Comparing 1956 and 2002, Martin's production was 11.5 times greater in 2002, but they only built 353 more D-18 variants that year than in 1956. The D-18 used to be the bread and butter workhorse guitar for Martin; now it's one of many instruments that Martin makes, from entry-level to museum-showcase models.

Some of the key differences between a 1956 D-18 and a 2002 D-18GE include:

  • Sitka spruce top (1956) vs. Adirondack spruce (2002)
  • Brazilian rosewood fretboard and bridge (1956) vs. ebony (2002)
  • Straight bracing (1956) vs. scalloped bracing (2002)
  • "Forward shifted" bracing, i.e., the X-braces cross closer to the soundhole, on the 2002 D-18GE (which is a return to the pattern used prior to the late-30s)
  • Non-adjustable T-bar (1956) to stiffen/support the neck vs. an adjustable truss rod (2002)
  • Hide glue construction (1956) vs. modern tite-bond glue (2002)
  • 1-11/16" neck at the nut, C-shaped neck profile (1956) vs. 1-3/4" with V-shape profile (2002)
  • Kluson tuners (1956) vs. Waverly vintage-style tuners (2002)
  • Tortoise-colored binding (1956) vs. black binding (2002)
  • This particular 1956 D-18 has a (replacement) bone nut and saddle; the 2002 D-18GE has those components made from fossilized (mammoth) ivory; both have the vintage cut "through" saddle
  • 46 years of playing

Note that the contemporary standard D-18 (not GE) is relatively similar to the 1956 version, at least nominally in specifications, other than the hide glue construction, truss rod, saddle, origin of rosewood for the bridge and fretboard (currently Indian rosewood), binding (currently black), and tuners (modern style). But these subtle differences plus several generations of playing will definitely create vastly different sounding guitars. The current standard D-18 is quite a separate animal from one circa mid-50's.


  • In 1956 a D-18 was priced at $155; in 2002 dollars, this would be about $1020.
  • A 2002 standard D-18 had a list price of $2099 (raised to $2159 by the end of the year); street price (i.e., actual cost after typical dealer discount) would have been $1260-1300.
  • The list price of a 2002 D-18GE was $3795 with a street price of about $2300. The current (2011) list price is $4349; the street price is just north of $2600. 
  • Assuming that Martins weren't sold at significant discount in 1956 (i.e., $155 was pretty much the street price), the standard D-18 sold for about $240 more (in 2002 dollars), or about 20% more, than it did in 1956. This is interesting because in 1956 there was much less automation at the Martin factory. I have to imagine that the number of hours to make a D-18 was greater in 1956 than 2002. Maybe the cost of some materials (e.g., mahogany) have gone up?
  • In 2002 it cost about twice as much to get the vintage features in the GE vs. the standard D-18 (i.e., increased costs associated with Adirondack spruce, ebony, and Waverly tuners). There's no way that these upgrades and extra construction time (e.g., labor to scallop the braces) cost more than a few hundred dollars, so the profit margin on the D-18GE is likely much higher than the standard D-18. And given that the D-18GE sold (and continues to sell) really well, players are willing to pay a premium for the vintage features on the GE. 

Sound and tonal characteristics:

  • The 2002 D-18GE has much more bass; it's warmer and balanced across the strings.
  • The 1956 D-18 sustains a hair longer, has more "bark," and the sound explodes off the first four strings more. The bass is punchier and is not as round as the D-18GE. It's certainly not as even across the strings; it leans towards the treble. It's tighter, but in a good way; like a snare drum. I think it's a more powerful guitar. The D-18GE smoother, while the '56 has more "bite" to it. It sizzles.
  • I haven't stood out front, but my guess is that the '56 is louder. It will likely cut through a jam better, while the D-18GE would probably be my choice for the solo "singer-songwriter" type. The GE envelops you in sound, whereas the '56 is more immediate and direct; more localized, if that makes sense. I've heard exceptional guitars referred to as "cannons" before; I'd say the '56 is more like a "rifle."


Note: Much of the techincal and historical data came from the excellent resource Martin Guitars: A Technical Reference, by Johnston, Boak, & Longworth; the production numbers are from martinguitar.com.

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