Entries in d-18 (14)


40 reasons to drive 9 hours to try 8 Collings guitars

Having just turned the corner on 40, I decided that I could splurge for a new guitar. I love D-18-style guitars (i.e., mahogany and spruce dreadnoughts), and wanted something with even more cut and volume than a Martin D-18 (which I have and love; it's a classic bluegrass, folk, and singer-songwriter guitar). I dig Collings guitars, so I quicky honed in on a Collings D1A. In the past I had a D1VSB (i.e., vintage neck and sunburst top) that I traded for another Collings some years back, so I had a pretty good idea that this was the direction I wanted to go.

It's not as simple as just running down to a local shop and getting a D1A (especially since Acoustic Roots closed several years ago); there are lots of different options that one can get on top of the standard adirondack spruce and mahogany configuration:

  • standard sitka bracing vs. adirondack bracing
  • neck profile and corresponding string spacing at the saddle: 1-11/16", 1-23/32", 1-3/4" standard, vintage now, and vintage necks
  • standard vs. varnish finish
  • standard bracing or sans tongue brace
  • sunburst or natural finish
  • standard or vintage/cut-through saddle
  • other cosmetic bits like bound fretboards and pegheads, back strips, etc.

Rather than ordering online, I decided I had to get my hands and ears on guitars with these various options for a purchase of this magnitude. Luckily, a top Collings dealer is within driving distance, so I decided to take a road trip to Acoustic Music works in Pittsburgh. They have about 200 Collings in stock, and a great variety of different D1A configurations.

Click to read more ...


1995 Martin D-18 Golden Era information and tracker

I have recently become interested in the Martin D-18 Golden Era from 1995. This was a limited edition guitar from 1995 and is not the same guitar as the "D-18GE" that has been a popular model in the Martin line-up since its introduction in 1999 (I wrote about my 2002 D-18GE previously). The 1995 Golden Era is roughly based on a 1937 D-18 and was the first Martin to bear the "Golden Era" name; it was followed the next year by the 12-fret 000-28 Golden Era and in 1998 with the 00-21 Golden Era. See an advertisement for the 1995 D-18 Golden era here (along with the 000-42 Eric Clapton model and D-35 30th anniversary edition). In addition, the good people at Martin supplied me with the spec sheet for this model. They noted the guitar was known as the "D18VGE," which is name I haven't heard before for this instrument.


According to the Johnson, Boak, & Longworth (2009) reference book, the 1995 D-18 Golden Era was produced with a natural sitka spruce top (272 instruments) or sunburst top (48 instruments) and listed for $3100 ($3320 for the sunburst model). They note that:

Many features were copied directly from at 1937 D-18, including: original mahogany stain color, black binding, small abalones dot pattern on neck, Brazilian rosewood headplate with old-style decal, hot stamp burned in reinforcing center strip, cloth strips on sides, 1 3/4" V-neck, 2-5/16" spacing at bridge, long bone saddle, bone nut, chrome vintage-style tuners; other features simialr to later D-18V. This first version of the D-18GE did not have an Adirondack spruce top like the later GE Series model. (pg. 139)

Click on the image above to see a PDF of the spec sheetAnother notable feature is that the 1995 model lacks a tongue brace (a.k.a., popsicle brace), similar to early D-18s. The sitka spruce top and lack of a tongue brace are two of the key differences with the later D-18GE (1999 to current; based on a 1934 model), which has an adirondack spuce top and includes a tongue brace.

I find this guitar particularly interesting because 1995 is right at the up-turn in Martin production; it was among the first vintage-inspired models that have now become a staple for Martin and other manufacturers. For example, the 1985 D-18V sold 56 units, the (non-traditional) HD-18LE sold 51 in 1987, 15 1989 D-18 Specials, and 215 D-18 Vintage in 1992. In 1995, Martin built 589 "regular" D-18s and 320 of these limited edition guitars, so relatively speaking the Golden Era was a success. Maybe this showed Martin that the "lowly" D-18 could still be popular on the market and justified the development of the later "GE" series.


Click here to check out some 1995 D-18 Golden Era videos >>

Based on some sleuthing around on the internet and tracking of various guitars on ebay and guitar shop websites, and contributions from folks who have stumbled upon this page, I have started a registry of serial numbers and prices, when available, of 1995 D-18 Golden Eras:

Serial numbers known:

Serial numbers unknown (i.e., some of these could be the same instruments and/or listed above):

*For sale, at least the last time I checked...

If you have a 1995 D-18 Golden Era (or have information about one), please contact me here; I'd love to hear from you and add your guitar to the list above.


Martin (and Taylor) guitars, the seasons for bluegrass, and burritos vs. burgers, according to Google Trends

Guitar discussion boards (like the UMGF and Acoustic Guitar Forum) often devolve into brand wars..."What's better...Martin or Taylor?" with fans of each weighing in. I'm not going to get into my preferences (other than saying I've had three from each at various points in the past, and still have at least one of each), and there really isn't an answer to that question anyways. The primary questions I'm musing about here are (a) whether one of these brands has garnered more interest on the internet and (b) has that changed over time?

A third question ties into my ramblings from last week on the prospects of vintage guitars as investments, where I questioned (c) whether there would be continued interest in this instruments over the long haul.

I recently ran across the Google Trends tool...Here are the trends for "martin guitars" and "tayor guitars" (top) and "martin guitar" and "taylor guitar" (bottom):


  • In the top plot, Martin clearly outpaces Taylor until mid-2010 or so. Then things are pretty even. But more interestingly, both are decreasing over time. Does this indicate that people are becoming less interested in these awesome instruments over the last decade?
  • In the bottom one, Martin is higher than Taylor until early 2007, then things are relatively even for a couple of years, and then Taylor takes over. These differences aren't really the product of increasing searches for "taylor guitar"-- that stays relatively flat (or at least doesn't trend one way or another, although it spikes and falls sporadically). Again, it's due to Martin slipping.
  • I did versions of these plots with "gibson guitar(s)" included and Gibson outpaces both, but that's likely due do the fact they make both acoustic and electric guitars. But Gibson trends downward as well.
  • In the top plot there are regular yearly spikes in December; a holiday gift effect?
  • What's interesting about this is that in the last decade, Martin pumped out more instruments that ever (see here for more data). Even with Martins in the hands of more players than ever, there's less interest in them, at least using this metric. 

In looking at some Martin dreadnoughts, it looks like the D-28 is still king, and that the D-18, D-35, and D-15 are pretty much similarly searched. But the entry-level DX1 comes in second; this speaks to Martin's efforts to expand their market reach with affordable instruments.


Is the guitar become less popular? Maybe a bit, but the "electric guitar" is being hit a bit harder than "acoustic guitar" (this plot clearly shows the December spike).


Here's "acoustic guitar" and "banjo" (note that if you just enter "guitar," it dwarfs "banjo"). They both are relatively flat, just trending downward a bit, and the "martin" downward slope is steeper than the general "acoustic guitar" slope. Also, "banjo" doesn't show the December spike in the same way that "acoustic guitar" does. Kids must not be asking for banjos for Christmas.


This one for "bluegrass" is cool because is so perfectly cyclical. Interest is low in November and then increases through the following summer, peaking in the height of bluegrass festival season in July and August. Then things drop in the fall season.


Just to show that some things have gone up over time, here's "facebook" (the plots for "twitter" and "iphone" are similar).

And here we see "wendys" being passed by "jimmy johns" and "chipotle".


*Note, these analyses were inspired by research by my friends and colleagues Drs. Patrick and Charlotte Markey.


Changing strings: Martin's Tony Rice "Monel" bluegrass strings

I recently picked up three sets of the new Martin Tony Rice Monel strings from Elderly Instruments. My usual strings (at least on D-sized guitars) are Martin 80/20 bronze Marquis strings in medium gauge. The Monels are a nickel alloy, and at similarly gauged (the B, D, and A strings are a shade lighter than the Marquis 80/20s). Interestingly, the Monels have slightly higher string tension (184.9 pounds) than the Marquis (181.1 pounds), although they feel a bit looser/lighter than the the 80/20s. The more important question, of course, is how they sound. Well, they have been on my 1956 D-18 for a few days, and here are my initial impressions.

Generally, my D-18 seems to have lost its mojo with these strings. There's not the same snap, crackle, and pop with them; the sizzle and power in the guitar seems to have disappeared. The Monels sound more jangly to me, and the richness and quality in the tone has melted away. The bass is muted in favor of trebles, and this is a guitar that doesn't need to lean further in that direction. Overall the volume seems lessened and there's a thinner tone. The guitar doesn't sound "bad," but the Monels don't let this special guitar shine.

The reviews and chatter on various discussion boards seem to be about 4-to-1 in favor of Martin's new Monel strings. I still have two sets and I'll try them on some other guitars, but so far I'm in the minority that doesn't love them. The question is whether I leave them on the D-18 and play them until they need to be changed (maybe they'll get better!), or if should pull them off and put my old stand-bys back on.

Of course, your experiences may differ with your guitar, ear, and preferences. And I reserve the right to change my mind as these strings break in and/or the weather (i.e., humidity) changes...

Update: I'm still not too keen on the Monels with the D-18, but I tried a set on a Collings CJ (mahogany with an adirondack top) and they okay, at least to me, on this guitar. Some of what I said before still holds (more jangle, less bass), but that works better on the CJ than the Martin. This isn't to say that they are better than the Marquis on the CJ. Just different, but in an acceptable way. I don't have the urge to immediately go back to Marquis like with my D-18. We'll see how these strings settle in on the CJ...

Update 2: My D-18 is strung back up with medium Marquis, and it has its mojo back...


The vintage bug

I got a taste of it playing a '49 D-18 at Vintage Instruments last summer, but spending time with the "Dawg" '56 D-18 has really made me understand that there's something special about old guitars. Admittedly I don't have any experience with pre-war dreadnoughts, but I've now played a few D-18s from the late-40s through mid-50s (a '48, '49, '55, '56, and '57) and I'm starting to see why guitar-geeks go crazy over vintage guitars. Sound is so subjective and hard to describe, but I can say that they *feel* different. Much like your favorite broken-in faded blue jeans, they're worn in just the right places to be comfortable. Your hand knows exactly where it's supposed to be on the neck, following generations of players before you.

I'm a bit concerned that I'm developing a taste for vintage guitars. I'm starting to get it; there is something special about vintage guitars.

Willie Nelson's well-loved "Trigger"Of course, as I scientist I'm trained to think about various possible explanations. Why are old guitars different? Maybe it's attrition: the best guitars are the ones that made it through the last fifty or sixty years. It's musical survival of the fittest. Great sounding boxes were loved and cherished, while the dogs were cast aside as disposable guitars. I don't really buy this explanation; Martins and Gibsons have never been been cheap. Musicians wouldn't be carelessly casting these aside instruments, even the ones that might sound sub-par. And great sounding guitars would have been played a lot (i.e., used and abused); one can just as easily make a compelling argument that great sounding guitars would have been less likely to have survived.

If it's not a selection bias, it has to be either the quality of the construction (the materials and craftsmanship) or processes associated with aging. Good grapes, a skilled vintner, and some years of waiting make for a fine bottle of wine. Guitars aren't that different.

The Martin factory in Nazareth, PA circa 1939Clearly there was more premium wood to build with in the mid-20th century, and some of the more labor intensive building techniques that contribute to tone (e.g., hide-glue) were abandoned as production increased in the 60s. With less production it's possible that the craftsmen in Nazareth and Kalamazoo spent more time and care tuning each individual instrument. Then again, costs have always always been partly determined by the hours it takes to build an instrument; turning instruments out quickly would always have been important. But there is clearly a reason to believe that the quality of materials and construction techniques contributed to the great tone of these instruments.

The aging process is much more mystical. Maybe the wood settles in the the patterns of vibrations associated with musicality. Just like those old jeans get comfortable in just the right areas, guitars might start to loosen up at points corresponding to the frequencies where they'be been played. Maybe the wood continues to dry; the cellular structure changes and the wood becomes more dynamic and resonant.

I don't have any answers that this point. I'm just thinking out loud. This is a journey is just starting; I've got a lot to learn. But my guess is that there will be some old guitars in my future.


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.


"The D-18 Song"

"The D-18 Song," written by Jerry Faires, performed by Norman Blake (on a Gibson L-00, ironically).

Have I mentioned that I like D-18's?  :-)


1956 D-18, part 2

I was doing some more digging around on the 1956 D-18 that I wrote about the other day; seems like it was offered by Steve Swan Guitars at some point in the recent past. Here's what he wrote about it (this text comes from his site):

This 1956 D-18 has a bright, clear voice and has had little in the way of repairs. Honduras Mahogany back, sides, and neck, Medium grain Sitka Spruce top, Original Kluson Deluxe tuners, Brazilian Rosewood headstock overlay with gold "C.F. Martin" decal, Original ivory nut, Brazilian Rosewood fingerboard with pearl dots, Turtle-oid body binding, Black and white top edge and rosette purflings, Original Brazilian Rosewood bridge with original pins, Replacement bone bridge saddle, Original red turtle-oid pickguard, Brazilian Rosewood heelcap, Replacement endpin. PREVIOUS REPAIRS include: Neck reset and refret, bridge reglue, replaced bridge saddle. RECENT REPAIRS by Alan Perlman include: Glue split bass leg of X-brace, Install small ebony bridge plate cap, Glue 2 small hairline in treble side, Glue and cleat small interior pickguard crack, Level and crown frets. There is a little finish wear on the back of the neck, and pickwear on the bass side of the strings at the soundhole and below the pickguard. Dings and nicks from normal play wear. Four shallow "case bite" marks on the lower bass side of the top. The guitar feels great and responds very evenly. A fine flatpicking or bluegrass guitar.

(the above pictures are from www.steveswanguitars.com; click to see each larger)

I also found mention of this same guitar at Players Vintage Instruments:

1956 Martin D-18 VG ++ An exceptionally good sounding old dreadnought. And it is all original and all straight. The nicely aged spruce top has just barely the start of the usual pickguard crack and some case latch dings but is crack free. The mahogany back is likewise crack free but has some dings and scratches as does the bottom. The sides are crack free - there is one surface hairline on the bass side that cannot be seen from the inside - as is the nice C profile neck. Original Kluson Deluxe tuning pegs and the gold Martin script on the headstock.

So it looks like this guitar has been making its way around the some of the vintage guitar shops on the west coast.


Dawg's 1956 D-18

Yesterday I went down to McKenzie River Music in Eugene to play some guitars. It's a fantastic shop with lots of vintage Martins as well as newer stuff by Collings, Bourgeois, Santa Cruz, etc. I played a 1966 Martin D-35 which I liked more than I had expected to, a stellar Collings DS3 with an adirondack top and Brazilian rosewood back and sides, and a nice Brazilian Bourgeois Signature D.

The superstar of the day, however, was a 1956 D-18. What an awesome guitar. Dry, punchy, yet still warm, and really light-weight. Tight-grained spruce in at the center opening up to really wide-grain at the edges. Lots of honest playwear, but it's all original and no structural issues other than the (repaired) era-typical B-string crack and three small cleated cracks on the back. It's had a neck reset so it plays great, and I was surprised that I didn't find the 1-11/16" nut width to be too tight given that I typically prefer 1-3/4".

What's even more interesting about this guitar is its backstory, although there is no formal documentation of this narrative. Apparently MRM got the guitar from a lawyer in California who said he had received the guitar in trade for legal services from David Grisman. Yep, that David Grisman, "Dawg," the fabulous mandolin player. Of course, the guys at MRM have no way of verifying this, but it's a nice story. Then in October of this year, Grisman, who is playing a show at the McDonald Theatre in Eugene that night, walks into the shop to check out some vintage instruments, and they say "hey, do you recognize this D-18?" He confirms that he swapped it for some legal work...So, no official paperwork, but the story according to the nice folks at MRM is at least consistent from two sources, including Dawg himself.

Update: 3.5 years later I visit MRM for the first time since purchasing this guitar. I remind them that I bought the '56 D-18 a few years back, and they launch into the same story about how it came from Grisman to them. So at least the story has remained consistent, which helps it credibility.

Read more about this guitar here.

(click on the pictures below to enbiggen)

pictures from www.mckenzierivermusic.com


Martin Guitar factory footage, 1939

A video from the Martin factory in Nazareth, PA, circa 1939. Music by Norman Blake and Tony Rice. Awesome.


Summer update

Sadly, the summer is ticking away at a tragically fast pace. There's only one more week of the summer research season (students are funded to work in labs for 10 weeks), and then a month until the last minute crunch before classes start. My summer students have done really great work and I'm excited about their project and for the skills they've developed over the last nine weeks.

I'm teaching stats/methods in the fall and need to start working on that syllabus soon. Plus I volunteered for a "transdivisional seminar" during orientation week and have a stack of articles to review (i.e., peer review for journals). Oh, and those manuscripts I'm supposed to be writing. Sigh...Summer goes by way too fast.

Last week we went to the U2 show at "the Linc" (Lincoln Financial Field); it was a good, not spectactular, show. But it was a nice summer activity and a good time with friends (other than the 90 minute traffic jam trying to get out of the parking lot). We saw U2 in Indianapolis 11 or 12 years ago, and I thought the band was tighter and more energetic then, but of course Bono and company are that much older now (and coming off of back surgery) so I suppose they should get some slack. The stage/screen was impressive and the band played most of the songs you'd want to hear, so all in all it was a good time.

Yesterday I went to the semi-annual Philadelphia guitar show (a.k.a., the Great American Guitar Show). It was smaller than when I last went a couple of years ago, and it's probably 70% electric stuff, so there wasn't too much for me to see. Plus it's pretty loud and hard to hear any acoustic guitars you might want to try out. But I did play a 1948 Martin D-18 that seemed pretty fantastic and a 1957 D-18 that was in really great condition that was also nice, but a couple other mid-50's D-18's didn't impress me as much. I'm starting to think a late-40's models is where it's at for me (since I can't affort a pre-war model!), if I ever get into the vintage game.

I also played a few late-40's to late-50's Gibson J-45's and SJ's, as well as a modern J-35 reissue, and didn't find anything that I was particularly impressed with. I've been wanting to play more Gibsons, but so far nothing has particularly resonated with me. Maybe I'm just more of a Martin guy.


I like mahogany

Image from: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MahoganyThe two most common traditional tonewoods for the back/sides of guitars are mahogany and rosewood (with nods to maple, koa, walnut, etc). Typically, rosewood was the more premium and prized of the two; for example, Martin's flagship models like the D-28 and D-45 are rosewood, compared to the "entry-level" D-18. I've gone through my share of guitars, and I expect to go through many more, and I'm coming to realize that I'm a mahogany guy.

Two koa guitars have come and gone (Taylor 414K and Larrivée parlour in koa), three rosewood guitars are in new homes (1978 Larrivée L-11, Taylor 420R, Collings OM2HA), and a maple guitar (1977 Taylor 915) has moved on. Of course, a fair share of mahogany guitars have been traded/sold away (1995 Larrivée LS-05, 1990 Lowden S7c, 1976 Guild D-40SB, a Collings D1VSB, a 12-string Takamine N-10, Guild 12-string....I think it was an F-212 or similar) as well, but all of the guitars that are still around, except for one, are mahogany.

(read more about these guitars, and others, in my in-progress personal guitar history: Part 1 | Part 2)

I'm no good at describing tone, but there's something about the warmth and clarity of mahogany suit me. That doesn't mean I've totally sworn off other tonewoods, but if I had to wager on it, the next one will be mahogany!

Maybe next time we'll talk about sitka vs. adirondack spruce tops...Hint: I like both.


A trip to heaven

I've been in Philadelphia for ten years now, and I'm embarrassed to admit that today was my first visit to Vintage Instruments, which is a few blocks south of City Hall on Broad Street. When Acoustic Roots was in Bryn Mawr I didn't have much of a reason to go into the city to play guitars, but it's been gone for two and a half years now and I haven't found a new place to get my fix.

I was mainly interested in trying a set of Gibsons: a mahogany-topped "banner" 1944 J-45, a 1949 J-45, and a 1953 SJ. Unfortunately (for me, not for its new owner), the SJ had recently sold, so I went back and forth between the two J-45s for an hour or so. I had a clear perference for the '44; it was warm, with a good rumble in the bass, and had even tone across all the strings. It sported a huge neck; I guess this is the (in)famous wartime "baseball bat" neck that guitars of this era are known for. I tend to like big necks on my guitars, but this was a handful.

Even though I didn't go down there to play Martins, I couldn't help but give a trio of dreadnoughts a go: a 1948 D-18, a '49 D-18, and a '64 D-28. I love my D-18GE, with is loosely modeled after a 1934 D-18. The big winner of the day was the '49 D-18. It had a shadow of a second pickguard and a replaced bridge made from ebony (rather than rosewood); based on the playwear and new bridge, I suspected it was played by a lefty for many years. But it's back as a right-handed guitar and was warm and punchy like a good D-18 should be. Anyone have a spare $7.5k so I can bring the '49 D-18 home with me?

1949 D-18...Photo credit: www.vintage-instruments.com (click to enlarge the image)


Day 17 - Shaping the neck and gluing the bridge

Day 17: I started the day by putting a coat of shellac as a sealer on the back and sides; later in the day I applied pore filler to the back/sides. Rosewood has open pores that need to be filled if you want subsequent layers of finish to go on smoothly, so doing the pore filler is an important step. We also worked on the finish on the top of the guitar. It’s looking pretty good! 

The two important operations for the day were shaping the neck and gluing the bridge in place. Up until today the neck was still a rectangular block that somehow needed to become round. I was really worried about how this would work; would I be able to carve it round? Of course, George had a clever way of doing this by having us measure and remove triangular pieces of the neck that were at a tangent to the target radius of the neck. It took some careful measuring and drawing lines, but overall it was pretty painless. I had grand plans of trying to duplicate the neck on my Martin D-18GE, but decided that I should just focus my attention on making a well-shaped neck rather than mess around with a custom neck profile.

I especially liked using the spoke shaver, although that tool is so efficient for working on the neck that I only used it for a few minutes. Towards the end of the day I installed the heel cap, sanded the neck, and applied a few coats of shellac.

The other big task for the day was gluing the bridge into place. We had previously masked off its placement (so not to get finish there), but we still had to do some careful measuring for the location of the holes for the bridge pins and saddle. I discovered that my neck is slightly askew, so we’ll have to dial that in later to get everything lined up properly. I was pretty worried that this was a big screw-up, but George reassured me that we’d be able to correct it (my dad’s neck also had a similar problem, so there must be a genetic predisposition to be slightly askew...left-leaning, as it turns out). Gluing the bridge requires stuffing several large clamps through a small soundhole.

If I'm keeping track correctly, this is what's left (I won't even begin to guess which will be easier and which will be more difficult than expected):

  • Install side dots on the neck; I'm leaning against putting in position markers on the fretboard itself
  • Make the nut and saddle, figure out the intonation, and dress the frets
  • Continue working on the finish on the back and sides
  • Fix my neck angle
  • Install the tuners and string it up

Matt with his maple #9-sized guitar

Went in at 7:00am, an hour for lunch, an hour for dinner, and done at 10pm.