Entries in martin (34)


These are a few of my favorite strings

For years I played Martin Marquis 80/20s, although I'm not against trying different strings (see here for my thoughts on Martin Monels; a.k.a. Retros) and have been playing D'Addario EJ12s recently.

A few months ago picked up a few sets of strings made by the Guadalupe Custom Strings (update 8/13/18: now The Gabriel Tenorio String Company); these are handmade strings, wound on a round core rather than hex-core, and at $18 a set they weren't cheap. GCS makes all sorts of cool strings for various instruments, and I liked their guitar strings a lot. And I like supporting artisans who produce unique products. But last I checked they were up to $25 a set in the gauge(s) I prefer, which is more than I want to spend. So I just picked up a stack of DR Sunbeams, which are also round core strings available at about $7 a set. We'll see if these stick for a while.


Martin Guitars factory photographic details


Photo of the week - November 19, 2013

At the C.F. Martin factory in Nazareth, PA. Fuj1 X-Pro1 with 18mm lens @f/2.8. Processed with Snapseed on a Mac. See more (in black and white) here.


The environmental politics of Sitka spruce

I recently visited the Martin guitar factory; it was my 5th time taking the tour, but my first time on the 2-hour "behind the scenes" tour. I first visited Martin when I first moved to the east coast 12 years ago. At some point I'll write more about the transformations that I've seen there over the last decade. But for now, one thing that is clear: things in the tonewood world are changing. I recommended checking out the documentary previewed above, Musicwood (see my previous thoughts on environmentalism and guitars here). While this film focuses on future of Sitka spruce, this is something industry has confronted in the past (e.g., rosewoods from Brazil and Madagascar), with increasing frequency manufacturers and consumers will have to adjust their expectations.


Photo of the week - November 12, 2013

At the C.F. Martin factory in Nazareth, PA. Fuj1 X-Pro1 with 18mm lens @f/2.8. Processed with Snapseed on a Mac. See more (in black and white) here.


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...


More Martin 00-DB (Jeff Tweedy signature model)

I previously wrote about this guitar, but just ran across this nice video of a 00-DB in action from the good folks at Gryphon Stringed Instruments.

And another video from Chicago Music Exchange.

And here's a video of a guy covering Van Morrison on one. A nice recording, but the guitar is plugged in so maybe not the best sense of the true tonal characteristics of it.


Martin on sustainable timbers


Martin 00-DB: Overcoming preconceptions

A couple of weeks ago I commented on the conservative nature of guitar players and their preferences in materials and construction techniques. Exotic tonewoods. Ebony appointments. Dovetail neck joints. Traditionally X-braced tops. And I started thinking about the use of sustainable materials in lutherie. What guitars out there have been designed and constructed with environmental concerns in mind? I started digging around and ran across a guitar that I had vaguely been aware of previously, but hadn't thought about at the time: Martin's 00-DB Jeff Tweedy signature model. I'm typically not a fan of artist-sponsored models, but this one has an understated elegance to it, and is FSC certified, fully using sustainable materials. Plus, it's got some other attributes that make it an interesting guitar...Mahogany top, sizes, and back, 00-size, deep body, 1.75" nut with a V-shaped profile. And Wilco is one of my favorite bands.

It does buck some traditional construction choices, at least by Martin standards. In particular, it doesn't use Martin's standard dovetailed neck joint; it's built with Martin's "hybrid X-bracing" rather than the bracing design that has been used by the company for a hundred years; it sports a synthetic fretbroad and bridge made of Richlite rather than ebony or rosewood.

I've been interested in a small-bodied guitar with a mahogany top for a while, so I issued a challenge to myself (as if a guitar purchase can be considered a challenge!): could I get over my preconceptions about guitars and be open to these non-traditional features? I like the idea of supporting environmental causes with my wallet; that's not a particularly difficult challenge. But I found myself slipping back into old ways as I did my internet research...What about moving up to a Santa Cruz 00 1929, a modern guitar with its fair share of vintage features? Maybe small-bodied Collings with a mahogany top? A custom mahogany-topped Martin? After a couple of weeks of cognitively chasing these options (and mentally doubling the cost of an eventual purchase), it dawned on me that I had lost the point of this guitar: The 00-DB is cool guitar that makes use of modern design and construction choices and is a statement about environmental sustainability. So here it comes...I'm looking forward to it arriving.* Here are the specs (PDF) and an article about it in Martin's The Sounding Board newsletter (PDF; #33, July 2012).

*I did play a 00-DB Jeffy Tweedy for a few minutes at a local "big-box" store where I refuse to spend money. It seems to me that this guitar is exactly opposite to the big-box store mentality. I don't understand why people shop at places like this; the prices are higher than what you can find at good independent shops and they aren't cool places to hang out. I can't comment on the sound of this guitar yet, although I enjoyed the one I played.

image source: http://thedailywilco.tumblr.com/post/20658381160/jeff-tweedy-playing-his-new-signature-series


Guitars, religion, evidence, and beliefs

Beliefs about characteristics and generalizations of acoustic guitars, and their associated construction techniques and materials, seems to me to be a lot like religion. As an atheist this is weird for me to think about, but we (guitar players) make a lot of leaps of faith based on scant evidence (what we scientists call an "N of one"), what others have told us, and what makes "reasonable sense" to us as individuals. How much of what we believe, prefer, and hear in our instruments is based in tradition, expectations, superstition, illusory correlations, and what we read in books/magazines and on the internet?

Another interesting parallel between acoustic guitar players and religion, although somewhat of a sidenote to this discussion, is that we are inherently conservative; it takes a long time to get us guitar players to change the standards of what is perceived as "normal" or preferable. For example, I'm really interested in seeing how the necessary future use of sustainable "alternatives" tonewoods is embraced by players/consumers. While I love the idea of walnut and cherry guitars that are made from timbers locally and responsibly harvested, given the choice, I'd still take my tried-and-true Honduran mahogany!

I really have great respect and envy for those few folks who have played hundreds and thousand of vintage and new guitars, and for those who build instruments (i.e., and do "experiments" to learn about acoustic properties of materials and construction techniques); those people with lots of data to base their beliefs on. Unfortunately, that's not me (yet?).

Keeping these reservations in mind, here are my guitar beliefs; much like religion, they are based on a small sample size, what people I respect think, and what "makes reasonable sense" given my basic knowledge of physics and lutherie. Some of these beliefs are probably totally irrational, and like religion, we could get into endless and unwinnable debates about all of these points:*

*However, unlike religion, the below points could all be tested experimentally,
and I'd happily change my mind in the face of good evidence.

  • Lots of little things add up to a good sounding guitar. There are many "ingredients" that can be slightly changed, and these are the things that, in sum, create the unique tonal signatures of individual instruments and general characteristics of different acoustic guitar brands.
  • I believe that hide glue positively impacts the sound of a guitar compared to titebond or other commonly used adhesives, which have more "flex" to them.
  • I don't believe that, as a broad statement, lighter guitars sound better than heavier guitars (and I'm not talking about lightness of soundboard/bracing; that's another issue, and much less debatable). In terms if the thickness and stiffness of the sides/back of the instrument, I wonder if this impacts the projection of the sound outward versus feeling more vibrations as a player. I do, however, prefer the feeling of playing a light weight acoustic guitar, but that's probably more due to ergonomics.

Bourgeois neck (from pantheonguitars.com)

  • Bolt-on vs. dovetailed necks: I believe that both can be excellent sounding, but that the type of neck joint probably does impact the tonal qualities of a guitar (although I can't say how). I like Collings (bolt-on) and I like Martin (dovetail). But bolt-on does add a bit a weight. I love, in principle, the design of bolt-on necks that don't glue the fingerboard to the top of the guitar (i.e., Taylor's NT neck and similar designs used by Bourgeois, my friend David Cavins, and like we did at the Vermont Instruments School of Lutherie) due to the relative ease of maintenance. I'm sure it colors the sound somehow, and it certainly does impact the overall weight of the instrument.
  • Image source: fretnotguitarrepair.comWith the commercial success of Martin's "Authentic" series, which employs non-adjustable T-bar truss rods in many models (and non-adjustable ebony in others), there's been a renewed discussion in the relative merits of adjustable vs. non-adjustable truss rods. Like with neck joints, my guess is that there is a sonic difference, but this is one place I'd rather err on the side of modernity...I'll take adjustable over not if given the choice, especially if I'm buying a used guitar (like I tend to do).
  • I don't have enough personal experience with Brazilian rosewood to make statements about it's merits compared to Indian or other rosewoods. But I believe that the use of good Brazilian (i.e., quarter-sawn) is confounded with a lot of other variables that I do think are important (i.e., the use of hide glue, T-bar truss rods, age of the wood, and break-in time for vintage guitars). I'd love to spend some time with some guitar sporting various rosewoods that are otherwise as identical as possible.
  • I do believe that herringbone purfling (or other similar decorative details around the top, like pearl inlay) could have a small impact on the sound, due to the wider channel being routed into the top right where it's connecting to the sides (maybe more flex = a bit more bass? just thinking theoretically, here).

Herringbone Martin (image from folkwaysmusic.com...lots of nice guitars on their website!)

  • I have heard a similar argument about sunburst tops: that the extra pigment that is applied to certain areas ever-so-slightly changes the mass of the top in those areas, which changes the sound. This seems far-fetched to me. In my opinion, if you do want to make the claim that sunbursts sound different/better (and I'm not a all convinced about this claim, although I love a good sunburst), what makes more sense is thinking about the stack of cosmetically "flawed" wood that could not be used if not for the shaded top...That there's lots of great sounding wood to choose from if you ignore cosmetics, and sunbursts allow luthiers to pick tops based on tonal properties only without having to balance the look of the top in their selection.
  • I think there is probably significant overlap in the distribution of Sitka vs. Adirondack tops (i.e., normal curves that overlap), but that there are some characteristic differences between them on average. But that "different" does not globally mean "better."
  • I suspect that the labels of "European," "German," "Italian" etc. spruce that are used are not particularly useful, because they refer to where the wood came from, not a particular species. That's not to say they don't sound and look different that your typical Sitka top, but that it's not so clear, across makers, what the consistent tonal properties of these woods are.
  • In theory I like idea of Madagascar rosewood as an alternative to Brazilian, but I'm uncomfortable with it due to the socio-political and environmental concerns associated with its harvest (more about this topic here and here). For my own piece of mind, along with all the reasons to buy vintage, if I wanted a rosewood guitar, I'd pony up the dough and get a '50s-era D-28 or '45-55 000-21 or 000-28, and not one of the re-issues or custom models that many manufactures have rolled out recently.

  • That wood, as a material that is/was alive, continues to change both due to aging and playing (i.e., the "opening up" that players described is a function of at least two processes that impact the structure of the wood itself).
  • Related to the above point: I believe that part, but not all, of the "opening up" process is psychological-- that we become more familiar with the sound of a guitar over time, and that is perceived as more pleasing. Yes, remember that I'm a social psychologist, and that we call this the "mere exposure effect."
  • One of my biggest "turn-offs" are the pixelated pickguards that Martin used (still uses?) on some of their guitars, like my 2002 D-18GE. I've since replaced mine with a "tor-tis" Dalmatian pickguard, which is admittedly a non-traditional choice for an -18-style guitar.

Ick! (from http://www.acousticguitarforum.com/forums/showthread.php?t=266220)


Guitar history - High school and college

I've been meaning to do a log of the guitars I've owned across the last 20+ years. This is a pretty daunting task if I try to tackle it all in one big list, so I'll break it up into chunks. To get the ball rolling, I'll start with high school and college (Cal Poly and Grinnell), which goes up to summer of 1996; later editions will cover other eras (split by academic markers: grad school, pre-tenure, post-tenure).

  • Fender Gemini II (mid-to-late-80s, I assume) - My first steel-string acoustic. I got this for Christmas in 1990 (I think...maybe the year before that?). Bought used from the music shop in Davis, CA. Sold it to a guy in the dorms at Cal Poly when I got the Landola jumbo (see below) in 1993.

Bad circa 1990 fashion with the Gemini II.

  • Fender Stratocaster (Lake Placid blue, maple neck, MIM, early-90s) - Christmas 1992; bought used at a (now forgotten) shop in San Luis Obispo. Consigned it at some point in graduate school in West Lafayette.


  • With the Landola jumbo, summer 1993.Landola jumbo...I don't remember the model number (early-90s) - Purchased new in spring 1993 at some shop in San Luis Obispo, Los Osos, or Morro Bay. I'm shocked how bad my memory is! An interesting jumbo guitar, made in Finland, with a solid spruce top and laminated birch back/sides, and matte finish. Landola went on to make a run of acoustic guitars for Peavey (the amp company). Sold it in West Lafayette. Never saw another Landola until the fall 2012 Philly guitar show, where I ran into a similar one. A nice guitar.
  • Cheap-o Aspen 12-string (unknown year) - I don't recall where this one came from. I assume I bought it off someone at Grinnell; $40 rings a bell. The bridge started to pull off and had it reglued by a guy in Marshalltown at least once. We ended up playing this as a six-string to keep the bridge from flying off; I think I handed this down to Wulfy.
  • Takamine N-1012 (early-90s) - My first decent 12-string; this one came used from the Guitar Foundation in Iowa City in late-1994 or early-1995...Solid cedar top with (laminated) mahogany back/sides. My buddy Dave and I played this one a lot; I had it until 1997 or 1998, when I sold it West Lafayette.

Dave with the Takamine N-1012 and Ben with the Landola jumbo.

  • Guild 12-string (can't recall the model or year, although I'm pretty sure it was a jumbo or mini-jumbo from the '70s...maybe a 212XL?) - If I recall correctly, I got this at Ye Olde Guitar Shoppe in Des Moines. What I remember more about YOGS is that's where I saw my first Martin...I remember that vividly: a 1989 D-16A (ash); that Martin was probably around $800, but it seemed like a million bucks. But I'm thankful for running in to it, as it put Martin on my radar screen. I think that Guild had some (neck?) issues, and I have no recollection what happened to it. I assume I sold it when I got the Guild D-40SB. I wish I would have paid more attention to this guitar; it was probably pretty nice!
  • Martin Backpacker (1995; serial #23,058) - This came from a shop in downtown Santa Rosa...I remember buying it when I was home for winter break in 1995. Sold it on craigslist once I moved to Pennsylvania (maybe 2005 or so?).
  • Guild D-40SB (1976; serial #158276) - My first venture into quality solid-wood American guitars; this likely started my affinity for sunburst guitars. I found it at the music shop in Grinnell for $500, which was a fortune for a college student in 1996. I maxed-out my credit card to buy it. A nice guitar...Build like a tank with a sweet sound, although it wasn't that loud. I traded this one at Elderly Music in Lansing towards the Rickenbacker 360 (to be described in the next edition).

The only picture I could find of the Guild D-40SB.

 Next up...Student loans in grad school = the start of guitar collecting.


Martin guitars and I/O psychology

A nice discussion of the organizational culture at the Martin Guitar Company. Other organizations I've been involved in could learn a lot from Martin ("we treat all coworkers with dignity and respect"). I always love it when the psychology and guitar worlds collide.


What I'm GAS-ing for

"GAS" = Guitar Acquisition Syndrome

Everyone knows I like guitars; nice acoustic instruments are really my only vice. If a big pile of money fell into my lap, I'd buy the following in a heartbeat:

1. A late-40's to mid-50's Martin D-28. I know that I'll never be able to afford a pre-war D-28, but one from a few years later isn't totally out of the question. Someday.

2. A mid-to-late-30's Gibson L-00 or similar. Something ultra-light, oozing with mojo. Update: ended up with one of the first Waterloo WL-14X guitars available to the public in fall of 2014. How cool are these? And at half the cost of a vintage Gibson, the price is right!

3. A Bourgeois Slope-D, Fairbanks F-35, Santa Cruz Vintage Southerner, Walker Wise RiverCollings CJ (new Mass. Street Music custom; update: what they call the "CJ35" now), and a vintage Gibson J-45 or J-50 (pre-1955). Not sure why I'm so into slope-shouldered guitars right now, but I want them. All. (note, a Kopp K-35 isn't on this list because I have one :-)

4. An early-30's Martin OM-18. Probably will never happen, so a newer OM-18GE might be as close as I get. But maybe a late-30's 00-18 or 0-18 could happen some day. Ditto on a pre-war 000-18 and contemporary 000-18 Authentic. A D-18 Authentic wouldn't be too bad either.

1953 D-28...Click to embiggen. Photo from vintage-instruments.com.


Photo of the week - May 22, 2012

At the Martin guitar factory, in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Fuji X100 @ f/2. Converted with Nik Silver Efex Pro.


Photo of the week - May 15, 2012


At the Martin guitar factory, in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Fuji X100 @ f/2. Converted with Nik Silver Efex Pro.


Photo of the week - May 8, 2012

At the Martin guitar factory, in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Fuji X100 @ f/2. Converted with Nik Silver Efex Pro.


Wayne Train Station gig

Jen took these photos of our gig at the Wayne Train Station (May 4, 2012). Lee, our bass player, has more pictures here.

The band: Sara (vocals & mandolin), David (vocals & guitar), Chip (vocals & guitar), Paul (vocals & electric guitar), Ben (guitar & mandolin), Ellen (vocals & banjo), Carol (vocals & banjo), Alex (vocals & accordion), Lee (bass), and Alan (drums)

Jen also took these pictures of me with my Martin D-18 between sets:


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.