Christian Frederick Martin I (1796-1873) was the progenitor of the Martin guitar-making dynasty, the oldest and most highly-respected acoustic guitar manufacturer in America today.
He was born on January 31, 1796, in Mark Neukirchen, Germany, where he learned the art of guitar construction from his father and later apprenticed with the famous Viennese luthier Johann Georg Stauffer.
As a result of a lengthy jurisdictional dispute between the Cabinet Makers Guild and the Violin Makers’ Guild in Mark Neukirchen, in 1833 Martin emigrated to America. He set up shop at 196 Hudson Street in Manhattan, where, in addition to building guitars, he also sold other instruments and sheet music. Barter was an important part of his method of operation in those days, and extant company records show exchanges of childrens’ clothes and even wine for guitars.
Never comfortable in New York City, Martin, with the assistance of his associate Henry Schatz, moved his business to a 55-acre tract in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where it remains to this day.
The earliest hand-crafted American Martin guitars that survive are decidedly European in construction, very similar to the traditional work of Martin's mentor, Johann Stauffer. But starting with his efforts in the 1840’s, Martin’s designs underwent radical change, and the guitars of that period are completely recognizable as the ancestors of the instruments that grace modern concert stages.
Martin invented the X-bracing, which has become the standard for steel-stringed flat-top guitars, although his early instruments were designed for gut treble strings and steel-wound silk-cored bass strings. The first steel-stringed Martins were only available custom-made, beginning around 1900. It wasn’t until 1922 that steel strings became available on standard production guitars. Martin’s X-bracing is the singular feature responsible for the guitars’ shimmering treble and shuddering bass tones.
C.F. Martin died on February 16, 1867, and was succeeded by his son, Christian Frederick, Jr.. Sales had fluctuated late in the senior Martin’s life, as the Civil War and a currency crisis both contributed to difficult times. C.F. Jr. died suddenly in 1888, and the company was left in the hands of 22-year-old Frank Henry Martin. The grandson was a gifted businessman and the company flourished, not in the least due to his decision to build mandolins, which corresponded with the influx of Italian immigrants to America.
Frank Martin, ever the strategic businessman, invested in college educations for his two sons, and thus Christian Frederick Martin III and his brother Herbert Keller Martin attended Princeton University before the First World War.
Inherited business acumen and innovation saw the company through the Great Depression. The 14-fret guitar was invented late in 1929. The Martin Dreadnought, named for a class of World War I British battleships, became the dominant model in the company line, copied by every guitar manufacturer in the world.
Martin’s phenomenal success, spearheaded by a continued emphasis on quality by consecutive generations, resulted in world-wide demand that far outstripped the company’s hand-made production capabilities, and factory-made rivals such as Harmony
quickly grew to fill the void that home entertainment, vaudeville
, and pop and folk music
After World War II and through the 1950’s and 60’s, the folk music boom fueled an increase in production of hand-made Martin guitars from around five thousand a year in the early 50’s to over 20,000 by the 70’s. It seemed like every artist played a Martin, from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez to Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Martin was able to compete with the factory-made instruments—as well as the burgeoning incursion of Japanese instruments made by companies like Yamaha—by continuing to emphasize quality over quantity and counting on innovation in manufacturing techniques to off-set constantly spiraling production costs.
The company's sixth-generation guitar-maker, Christian Frederick Martin IV, was born in 1955 and attended UCLA in Westwood, California, which is where Martin guitars and I first crossed paths in a serious way. Chris worked in my neighborhood music store—just up the boulevard from Ed the Fishman’s place—the venerable Westwood Music, owned by Herman Walecki, which was a beacon to ALL the acoustic musicians in the late 60’s and early 70’s. You could walk into Westwood Music on any given day and see David Crosby, Robbie Robertson, or Joni Mitchell just hanging out, trading licks and war stories. It was at Walecki’s, perhaps, that the most important keys to the survival of the 150 year-old Martin guitar company were given, for Chris talked to customers, professional, amateur, it didn’t matter. He learned about people and the delicate balance that is constantly in play between quality and affordability in musical instruments.
One sunny day, on my wife’s birthday, I walked into Westwood Music to find Ry Cooder playing one of his signature tunes, Diddy Wah Diddy, on the prettiest guitar I had ever seen. There was a group of maybe ten people hanging out, listening the way you do to accidentally-discovered genius. Herman Walecki’s son, Fred, was among them, though I couldn’t tell you who else might have been there, cause I couldn’t get my eyes and ears off the spectacle of one of my guitar gods playing that gorgeous axe. Ry finished the song and declared: "That’s the best 000-28 I’ve ever played."
I wrote a birthday present check for a thousand dollars that day, for a guitar built fifteen years previously in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, by hand, the old-fashioned way. It was sweat-soaked, a little worn, and its bridge was cracked and would eventually fail and be rebuilt, but it had something no other instrument I’ve ever picked up since has had. I guess you could say that it was probably built—and played—with love.
Six generations of excellence. How many of us will claim the same?
Guitars, From the Renaissance to Rock, Tom and Mary Anne Evans, Facts On File, New York, 1977