In search of the perfect guitar

C.F. “Chris” Martin IV is in pursuit of perfection. “We are trying to make a perfect guitar, and we are closer than ever,” he says.

The CEO of C.F. Martin & Co., who was on vacation with his family in Rehoboth Beach, stopped by B&B Music in Lewes Aug. 15 to talk about the history of the company founded by Christian Frederick Martin – Chris’ great-great-great-great grandfather – who immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1833. He started the company in a small shop in Manhattan, and three years later he moved his family and the company to Nazareth, Pa., where it is still headquartered today.

The sixth-generation family company has been in operation since 1833.

“He built fine guitars that are durable, and that’s still our hallmark today,” Martin said.

The colorful, trend-setting history of the company has ebbed and flowed as it parallels events and musical trends in the country’s history.

Guitars have always been at the company’s core, but throughout the years mandolins and ukuleles were also part of the company’s business.

There have been several turning points in the company’s history.

In 1916, the company developed the revolutionary Dreadnought guitar body, a much larger guitar with a richer, louder sound – a style that has become standard for nearly all acoustic guitars manufactured today. Martin said D-series guitars make up about 80 percent of company sales.

The guitar style was named in tribute of the British Dreadnought series of battleships, the most powerful battleships in the world when launched in 1906.

But growth spurred by the D-series was followed by The Great Depression, a trying time for the company. “We had to look at where we could find business and keep our people working,” Martin said. “We found it in country music, and that kept us going.”

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the company introduced the 14-fret guitar, which is considered the standard today. In 1922, it switched from gut strings to steel strings.

After World War II, Martin’s business again boomed, reflecting the country’s robust economy.

In addition, a variety of music styles emerged, including country, bluegrass, folk, blues and early rock ‘n’ roll. And Martin was there providing acoustic guitars for performers in all of the genres of music.

In the 1960s, folk and rock music collided, Martin said. Acoustic guitars were in demand more than any time in the company’s history. “We could not make enough,” he said.

It didn’t hurt that popular music stars were seen and photographed using Martin guitars, including The Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez. “Everyone wanted a Martin guitar,” Martin said.

One of those photographs was a cover shot for the album “Crosby, Stills and Nash,” the group’s 1969 debut album that sold more than 4.2 million copies. It featured Stephen Stills holding a Martin guitar along with band members Graham Nash and David Crosby sitting on an old couch in front of a dilapidated building.

Martin said Nash is on the left in the photo, so it didn’t match the album’s name and a reshoot of the photo was scheduled. However, when they returned, the building had been torn down and in the end, the original photo was used. It has become part of rock ‘n’ roll lore – with a Martin guitar in the center of the photo.

A decade later, the electric guitar became the instrument of choice for many bands. “We were told it was the end of the acoustic guitar as we know it,” Martin said.

The company went from making 23,000 guitars a year down to making 3,000 a year in the late 1970s into the early 1980s.

Martin said over the years, the company had looked at manufacturing electric guitars, but never pursued it. “The music business is a niche. We realized we needed to focus on our core business,” he said.

Around that time, Chris Martin was named CEO. Martin, who has a background in economics and business, and a working knowledge of every facet of the company, went back to the basics to save the company. He hit the road to promote the family business with a focus on its never-compromising manufacture of acoustic guitars.

The company’s rebound received help from an unlikely source – MTV. Martin said producers of MTV Unplugged, a show featuring music videos, needed acoustic guitars for its sessions. Martin was happy to fill their orders, and with MTV exposure, business picked up.

Today, Martin produces more than 100,000 guitars a year and recently made a series of its 2,000,000th guitar, a collector’s item that sells for $149,000. The company employs 500 people at its Nazareth and Mexico locations. The company also manufactures guitar strings.

During the event, local musicians had a chance to play a variety of Martin guitars, including the 2,000,001st guitar.



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