Although the extent of my guitar knowledge consists of just three or four chords, I’ve always been interested in music as a cultural history (though I confess I’ve always liked heavy metal, the heavier the better). While growing up in Nazareth PA, I knew a few people who worked at the nearby Martin Guitar factory.
The use of stringed instruments goes back thousands of years, to the ancient Greek lyre and the medieval lute. But the guitar in its modern form (six strings played over a soundbox and tuned with pegs on a neck with frets) appeared in Spain in the 16th century, developed from a form of lute called a vihuela. Nearly all modern acoustic guitars are derivatives of the classical Spanish guitar.
Christian Friederich Martin was born in 1796 at Markneukirchen, Germany, in a region that was already known for its crafting of musical instruments. His father was a cabinet maker, but at age 15 Martin went to Vienna to apprentice with master guitar maker Johann Georg Stauffer.
When he returned to Markneukirchen to open his own shop, however, he found himself in the midst of a controversy between two craft guilds. “Guilds” had existed since the Middle Ages: they were sort of a cross between a professional association and a labor union. They set the quality standards for work, the pay and prices that everyone got, and the requirements for the apprenticeship process.
Since the woodworking skills needed to make a guitar were similar to those of a carpenter, most of the guitar-makers in Markneukirchen (including Martin) were members of the Cabinet-Makers Guild. But the Violin-Makers Guild also claimed the right to represent guitar-makers, and they filed legal actions to try to prevent Cabinet-Makers from producing any guitars. The Cabinet-Makers eventually won the dispute, but the whole mess convinced Martin that the European guild system was too constraining, and he left for New York City.
The CF Martin Guitar Company opened on Hudson Street in 1833. At first, Martin collaborated with other guitar-makers who had also moved to the US, and many of his early models bear names like “Martin & Coupa” or “Martin & Schatz”. But he soon developed a style of his own, influenced by his teacher Stauffer.
In 1839, Martin moved again, this time to the tiny town of Nazareth in Pennsylvania. This was a German-speaking enclave founded by the Moravian Church. Here, Martin introduced two important innovations of his own which were never dreamed of by the old German guitar-makers. From his woodworking experience, he began using dovetail joints, which were very sturdy, to attach his guitar necks to the body. More importantly, he began using an X-brace inside the soundbox, which was stronger and allowed for better sound. As more singers began to be accompanied by guitars, they needed a louder and brighter sound that could be heard even without an amplifier. This was provided by steel strings. These strings put a large strain on the guitar neck and body, but Martin’s strong X-brace and neck joint was able to handle it.
In the early years of the 1900s, Hawaiian music became all the rage, and Martin responded with a trendy line of ukuleles. The factory was also producing mandolins, which were popular with the Italian immigrant market. By 1928, the Nazareth workshop was turning out 5,000 instruments a year—each of them hand-fitted. The mandolin line in turn caused a conflict with Martin’s longtime distributor in New York, Zoebisch & Sons, who were afraid they wouldn’t sell—this led the company to drop Zoebisch and open up its own distribution network.
The Great Depression, however, hit the CF Martin Company hard. As sales dropped, Martin ended its line of mandolins and ukuleles, and focused all its attention on high-end steel-string acoustic guitars. Once again, the company introduced new innovations. At the suggestion of the famed banjo player Perry Bechtel, Martin extended the neck of its guitar to 14 frets, allowing players to reach higher notes. By this time the banjo was fading in popularity and was being replaced by guitars. The company also introduced a new style of guitar body that was wider and deeper to produce better sound: this style became known as “Dreadnought” or “D-Series”, after the new British Navy battleship famed for its strength and size. Together, the two modifications produced a new guitar that was better-suited for accompanying a singer, even when unamplified. Martin began marketing it as the “OM” brand (standing for “Orchestral Model”). It quickly became the preferred type of professional steel-string guitar.
In the 1950s the acoustic guitar had a new surge in popularity as folk music found new audiences. Musical acts like Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and the Kingston Trio played to packed houses—and they all used Martin guitars. The simple three-chord songs encouraged an entire generation of young people to pick up an instrument. By this time, the production of custom Martin guitars was backlogged for as much as three years, and the factory scrambled to keep up.
When rock music roared into life and the electric guitar screamed onto the stage, Martin tried to keep up with a new line of solid-body and hollow-body electric guitars, but these never did very well and they were soon dropped from the catalogue. Instead Martin focused on high-end acoustic steel-strings for professional country and folk singers. In the 1990s, though, MTV sparked off the “unplugged” craze, and, suddenly, fashionable rock fans wanted steel-string acoustics too. To meet the new demand, Martin introduced a line of less-expensive mid-level guitars, using laminated woods.
In Nazareth, after moving through several different locations, the Martin Guitar factory had grown from fewer than 12 employees to over 600. In 2004 the company moved production of its mid-level guitars to a factory in Navojoa, Mexico. The facility in Nazareth now focuses solely on custom-made high-end acoustic guitars for professionals.
There is a museum at the factory which showcases various models and styles of guitar, and also a room where visitors can sit and play (if you play “Stairway to Heaven”, everyone will glare at you). The building itself is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
There are a number of guided tours throughout the day. Each tour begins with the wood storage area. Martin Guitars use a lot of very rare and expensive tropical woods like Rosewood and Ebony, and although the company is searching for sustainable replacements as these materials become harder to get, they have laid in a stockpile to last them a few years. Next the tour continues through the steaming and bending process, then to the stage where the neck and fretboard are joined to the body, and finally the completed guitar is strung and played by a number of people whose sole job is to test every example before it goes out.
At the end of the tour, everyone is given a round piece of wood with the “CF Martin” logo burned onto it. These are the waste pieces produced when the soundhole is punched into the guitar body. They’re not really good for anything, our tour guide told us; but they do make good beer coasters.