For 175 years, some of the world's most accomplished musicians have chosen Martin guitars. Sixth-generation Chris Martin IV talks to Marc Smith about just what makes his guitars so special.
What links Jimmy Rogers, Hank Williams, Willy Nelson, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash? A guitarist's hall of fame? Greatest ever guitar songs CD? In fact, they are all owners of a Martin guitar – the last word in acoustic guitar making.
Since the 19th century Martin guitars have been making what musicians, critics and guitar aficionados the world over describe as perhaps the finest guitars on the planet. As the family-owned, US-based company begins to celebrate its 175-year anniversary, the sixth-generation chairman and CEO is keen to dispel a few myths about why so many legendary guitarists have chosen the famous brand.
"I would like to keep alive the myth that we have some well-guarded secrets about how we make guitars, but I don't think that's true anymore," admits Chris Martin IV. "The truth is we don't copy anyone else, people copy us. And we are just so darn consistent."
A family legacy
Martin's great-great-great-grandfather made guitars "as well as they could be made" and he feels the firm's obligation today is to continue to achieve that very high level of craftsmanship, but in greater volume. "We make more good guitars than any other guitar builder on earth," he states. "There are people who make more guitars, but they're not as good."
To achieve this greater volume with the required skill level, the workshops used to manufacture the guitars by Martin's predecessors have given way to a factory where up to 400 workers, expert in as many different operations again, show off their skills. "We teach our staff to become the best in the world at one particular aspect of assembling a guitar," explains Martin. "It takes about two to three months to put one together, but this doesn't count the time it takes to buy, dry and acclimatise the wood, which can be upwards of two years."
This painstaking work is perhaps behind another of the well-worn epithets used about Martin guitars – their "uniqueness". The story goes that guitar players can listen to various guitars being played in a different room, but always pick the unique sound of a Martin. "Hopefully that's true," says Martin. "We like to think that we have our own unique sound – we've been doing this for so long that we have figured out how to get the right design, the right wood and the right craftsmanship to create the kind of sound that we're looking for."
Not only do they strive for unique sounds, they also strive for exclusivity with an extensive range of limited edition guitars. "We make modifications to the materials and the ornamentation," says Martin. For example, exclusive woods such as Brazilian rosewood, which Martin says is now an endangered species, and Indian rosewood, for which a permit is required to ensure its authenticity, are used to give the guitars their distinctive look, feel and, of course, sound.
The firm is also making limited edition, authentic reproductions of guitars from its extensive back catalogue. "The guitars we used to make in what's called our 'golden era' – the 1930s and early 1940s – are currently proving to be popular," says Martin.
There are also limited edition guitars named after musicians who are fans of Martin. Stephen Stills, of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame, is one such example and the firm made a special reproduction of an old guitar from Stills' collection. "He is very knowledgeable about the history of Martin guitars and he likes the high-end guitars, so it was a good partnership," says Martin.
If you prefer to buy something customised, however, then the firm will usually be able to accommodate your requests via their Custom Shop. "I like to say to my colleagues 'don't ever say no to anyone, just tell them how much it's going to cost'," says Martin. He recalls one story of a very wealthy Martin fan who wanted a reproduction of a guitar that another company – that was no longer in business – had built. "My staff said 'we can't do that,' but I said 'This guy's a good customer. We can do that'."
The custom team looked into it and found that the materials would cost $3,000, but the tools needed to make would cost $35,000. "In this case he said 'let's do it' although that's not always the case," admits Martin.
So with the thousands of guitars that Martin has strummed over the years, does one in particular stand out? "I like the high-end, pearl inlayed guitars because I know they get the best wood and are the most labour intensive," he says. "I appreciate the fact that my colleagues have spent so much time making it and that I'm getting something a little unique that I can pass onto my daughter who may run the company some day."
A musical childhood
Martin's first guitar was a gift from his father and grandfather, which had a little plaque on the back "To Chris, Merry Christmas", which he still has to this day. But, he says disappointingly, he did not receive lessons from any of the greats who have played Martin guitars over the years. In fact, his mother arranged for some lessons with a teacher called Mr Conrad, who had no idea who his latest pupil was. "He said 'I see you have a guitar'," recalls Martin. "I opened up the case and you could see he's looking at me and he's looking at the guitar and he says 'You're 12 years old, and you have a Martin guitar?'
"When he finally found out who I was he decided to try and make me into the new Andrés Segovia (the father of the modern classical guitar movement)!" Unsurprisingly for someone who grew up with Woody Guthrie and Elvis Presley, they didn't hit it off. "I am definitely not the best guitar player you ever heard," he admits. Perhaps it is too much to ask to make some of the world's best guitars and to be a great guitar player. "That's what I say when people really push me on it. I look them in the eye and say 'Can you make a guitar?'"