The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #152510   Message #3567205
Posted By: Desert Dancer
15-Oct-13 - 06:00 PM
Thread Name: 'Inventing the American Guitar' - Martin
Subject: 'Inventing the American Guitar' - Martin
Roll Over, Stradivarius
'Inventing the American Guitar' Explores 1840s Innovations

by Larry Rohter
The New York Times
October 14, 2013

NAZARETH, Pa. — For guitar aficionados, a visit to the C. F. Martin & Company factory is akin to a religious experience. They talk in reverential tones about the handcrafted instruments that have been coming off the production floor here for more than 150 years, even referring to certain models in online discussion forums as "the Holy Grail" of the acoustic guitar.

A new book due out on Tuesday, to be followed by a yearlong exhibition of Martin guitars at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will surely add to that aura. The book, "Inventing the American Guitar," argues that Christian Friedrich Martin, who founded the company in 1833, was not only a sublime craftsman and canny entrepreneur, but also a design and technology innovator of the first order, responsible for many features accepted today as standard on stringed instruments.

"At every step of the way, as others dropped by the wayside, C. F. Martin was an astute businessman responding to market demands and opportunities," said Peter Szego, a co-editor of the book. "He was always modifying things, pushing the limits," he said, and, "by the late 1840s, was making a guitar that, except for its size, had all the main attributes of today's Martin guitar." In Mr. Szego's view, the instrument "deserves to be adjacent to a Stradivarius violin."

Up to now, collectors and researchers have tended to regard the period between World Wars I and II as the company's golden era of innovation, not its first decades. Chris Martin, a great-great-great-grandson of the founder and the company's chairman and chief executive, said in an interview here that the new book "has forced me to rethink our own history, and made me want to know more about those earliest years."

Although Martin guitars have been made in eastern Pennsylvania since the 1840s, New York City was C. F. Martin's first stop after arriving in the United States as an immigrant from Germany. According to company records on file here and cited in the book, he set up his first shop at 196 Hudson Street, at what is now the mouth of the Holland Tunnel; soon opened a second location at 212 Fulton Street; and also operated from 385 Broadway.

Those first years in Manhattan seem to have been a culture shock for Martin, who grew up in a small village in Saxony. He not only had to incorporate new materials and features into his construction and design, but he also had to deal with a new, more demanding type of client: since the guitar was then considered a parlor instrument, many among the nouveau riche were buying guitars for their wives or daughters.

"He arrived here using his German shop training, that Old World model of apprenticeship and a guild system, and ran right into American capitalism," said Jayson Kerr Dobney, a curator in the department of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum. "So his work began to change almost immediately. Because of the melting pot nature of New York, he was exposed to influences he would not have experienced had he remained in Germany."

The most important of those new influences, "Inventing the American Guitar" demonstrates, was Spanish. Most notably, Martin abandoned the Austro-German system of lateral bracing to reinforce and support the guitar soundboard in favor of Spanish-style fan bracing, which he then adapted into the X-bracing style that is the hallmark of Martin and other modern guitars.

"The most fundamental features, things that we take for granted in Martins, he wasn't doing before he discovered Spanish guitars," said Mr. Szego, an architect and collector. Adopting those techniques made Martin's guitars "bigger, louder and more resonant than before that time," in keeping with what an emerging American market wanted.

The text of the book, which is in coffee table format, is supplemented by lush color photographs of the guitars themselves, many of them close-up shots that highlight design features or the sheen or grain of the wood that Martin used. The effect is similar to that of viewing a Georgia O'Keeffe painting that magnifies the stamen of a flower or part of a cow skull. "We weren't thinking about her, but we were thinking about parts of the guitar that could be isolated in photographs that were both pleasing to look at and informative," said Robert Shaw, the book's other editor. "We wanted to make a point about C. F. Martin's high level of attention to detail. A lot of what he did was not necessary, but that was his aesthetic and his integrity as a master craftsman."

Beginning on Jan. 14, several of the guitars shown in the book will be featured, along with others, at the exhibition at the Met, titled "Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin." Taken together, the book, the show and a booming resale market, in which classic Martins can sell for well into six figures, reflect how these vintage instruments — including the banjos, ukuleles and mandolins that the company has also manufactured at various times in its history — are being elevated to the status of works of art.

"We're seeing the appreciation of these things as objects, not just as tools, which is why you're seeing them in an art museum," said Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments at the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota and the author of one of the essays in the new book. "It's a bit like why people have designer clothing or luxury cars or collect American furniture — the craftsmanship is stunning, and the detail is quite pleasing to people attuned to that sort of thing."

Tastes in music and instrument design continue to evolve, and Martin is still trying to accommodate them, as is evident on the floor of the factory here. Recent years, for example, have brought a boomlet in production of the ukulele, driven by the popularity of the Hawaiian virtuosos Jake Shimabukuro and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and easy access to online lessons via YouTube.

But guitars remain the company's mainstay. As in C. F. Martin's day, women are again playing guitar in larger numbers, which has led to greater demand for smaller, more portable models with a brighter sound, in contrast to the bass-heavy Dreadnought favored by the biggest names of the rock era.

In the early 1980s, at the tail end of the disco boom and its reliance on electronic beats, the Martin company was nearly forced out of business: annual output fell from more than 22,000 instruments a decade earlier to barely 3,000. Production only took off again toward the end of that decade, when MTV's "Unplugged" series encouraged a migration back to acoustic instruments, a trend that has strengthened with the rise of the Americana movement over the last decade. The plant here now produces 48,000 guitars a year, with the price of standard-line instruments ranging from $1,500 to $11,000.

"Because of our history, customers don't want wild and crazy from us," Chris Martin said. "Any change tends to be incremental.

"People think we can move the market. We can't. All we can do is respond."


Visit the NYT site at the top link for more links in the article.

~ Becky in Long Beach