Inventing The American Guitar, The Story Of The Amazingly Modern Pre-Civil War Martins

Inventing The American Guitar
The Story Of
The Amazingly Modern Pre-Civil War Martins
By Richard D. Smith

After all these years—180 years, to be exact—is there anything left to learn about Martin guitars? A great deal, as it turns out. And these revelations are featured in the deeply researched and lavishly illustrated new book Inventing The American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations Of C.F. Martin And His Contemporaries.

Edited by Robert Shaw and Peter Szego, Inventing The American Guitar was published by Hal Leonard Books to coincide with the 180th Anniversary of C.F. Martin and Company in October. It has also inspired a special exhibit on Martin Guitars running into December of this year at the world-renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Among the new findings:

  • The “modern” system of top X-bracing that made possible the large bodied “Dreadnought” guitars favored by today’s bluegrass musicians was, in fact, in use by Martin as early as 1846.
  • C.F. Martin’s full development of what we now call the American guitar took him less than two decades.
  • Spanish-style guitars, often thought of as being totally unlike American-style guitars such as the Martins, in fact heavily influenced them.
  • The creation of the Martin guitar was not a straight-line process, but one of ranging experimentation.

The project that became Inventing The American Guitar began when Peter Szego, an architect and designer based outside Princeton, N.J., who is also an avid old-time music performer and instrument collector, joined with Fred Oster of Vintage Instruments in Philadelphia to create a database of high-quality Martin guitars made before the Civil War.

Says Szego, “One of the issues was it’s very difficult to document when these guitars were built and in what order.” This led, in May 2008, to the first Early Martin Guitar Conference, a hands-on event hosted by Vintage Instruments in Philadelphia and also by the Martin Guitar Company in Nazareth, Pa. A small but distinguished group of scholars, dealers, collectors, and luthier/restorers scrutinized as many of these surviving Martin antebellum instruments as the organizers could gather.

Outstanding examples emerged from private collections. The results were eye-opening. Not only was it important to put these guitars in a chronological order and see how C.F. Martin experimented with designs, but also: “The instruments themselves are remarkable,” says Dick Boak, Martin Guitar Company’s museum curator, archivist, and special projects director and author of the book Martin Guitar Masterpieces, who became involved early on. “Many we hadn’t seen at Martin. We didn’t know where it was going at all.”

One of C.F. Martin, Sr.’s greatest innovations was, of course, the development of braces installed in X-shaped patterns that reinforced the top without greatly sacrificing vibrational qualities. And these X-braces made possible the large-bodied dreadnought guitars—including the D-18, D-28, and D-45 models—that helped define the bluegrass band sound.

Naturally, the top of a guitar or other stringed instrument must vibrate to produce sounds. But the sheer foot-pounds of tension caused by strings tuned to pitch are considerable. Without some kind of reinforcing braces glued inside the top, this tension would warp the top or even yank out the guitar’s bridge. But potentially, the more bracing installed, the stiffer, less flexible, and “deader” the top becomes, drastically inhibiting its ability to vibrate and lessening its volume and timbres. C.F. Martin’s designs gradually morphed from parallel-bracing and radiating fan-bracing to a system employing braces in X-patterns. This approach proved strong and reliable without overly sacrificing the top’s musical flexibility.

Peter Szego plays old-time guitar, fiddle, and banjo and is a collector. His primary interest was the banjo, but he had played guitar since childhood. His love for it as both instrument and work of art was heightened by the landmark book C.F. Martin And His Guitars, 1796-1873, a biography and cultural and trade history by Philip F. Gura, distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “It was certainly the springboard for me becoming fascinated with these instruments.” Rather than repeat Gura’s research in Inventing The American Guitar, Szego says, “We focused on the instruments and filled in the blanks. You could say it’s ‘Gura Part Two.’”

Just as bluegrass is a band music, with each member of the group making an indispensable contribution, Inventing The American Guitar is the work of a band of contributors, each playing a vital role. “The book wouldn’t have the scope or depth it has without that collaboration,” Szego says.

Szego himself was co-curator of the exhibit Birth Of The Banjo at the Katonah Museum of Art, and he co-chairs with Jim Bollman the annual Nineteenth Century Banjo Gathering. But, he stresses, “I am first and foremost a designer and a project manager. I’m not the historian or scholar. The scholars came up with the insights as we worked over the years.”

These scholars included David LaPlante, a guitar player and constructor/restorer who built his first instrument at age 16. Now, with some forty years of investigation into both early Martins and the building of Spanish-style guitars, Szego says it was LaPlante who “came up with the specific insight on how Spanish guitars directly influenced the development of Martin guitars.”

Richard Johnston, who in 1969 co-founded Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, Cal., has been a writer and contributing editor for Acoustic Guitar magazine since it began in 1991. Johnston also collaborated on the two now classic Martin references, Martin Guitars, An Illustrated History with Jim Washburn in 1997 and the 2008 update with Dick Boak of Mike Longworth’s widely-read Martin Guitars: A History. Viewers of the public television series Antiques Roadshow may also recognize Johnston as one of its fretted instruments appraisers. Johnston wrote five of the eleven chapters. “He provided the running commentary on C.F. Martin the man and his guitars,” Szego says.

Widely-talented David Gansz is a poet, art historian, theologian, educator, and information technology expert who also started playing guitar at childhood. He contributed new scholarship on the rival Ashborn guitars and on the influence of Spanish music and art in nineteenth century America. “He put Martin’s innovations in a cultural context,” says Szego.

Robert Shaw is a professional editor and expert on American decorative and folk arts. He was curator at the famed Shelburne Museum in Vermont for 13 years, and has arranged exhibits at other major American museums. He is no stranger to music, having authored Electrified: The Art Of The Contemporary Guitar in 2011. Shaw copyedited the new book and assisted Szego on design and content issues: “He brought another cultural connection and additional visual strengths that tied the entire book together.”

In addition, independent researcher Greg Hutton was project researcher for the Early Martin Guitar Conference. As such, he was given full access to the archives and records of the Martin Guitar Company by Dick Boak.

According to Szego, “Boak took a personal interest in the project, right through to completion. He was as committed to it as any of us who were directly working on the book. He was at the first two early Martin conferences, sacrificing his weekends and personal time.”

“It’s always been important for us to document that X-bracing was first used by C.F. Martin, Sr.,” says Boak, who credits Hutton’s work as being crucial in confirming findings made at the conference gatherings. “Greg Hutton’s research in the archives began to merge with what was being found in the guitars being examined,” Boak says.

He adds, “The interesting thing is, by the time that Peter’s book concludes around 1867, the development of the guitar as we know it today really had solidified.” None were Dreadnought-style models but—eight decades before the bluegrass sound coalesced—structurally they could have been. “All the guitars [from this period] were featuring fully developed X-bracing. All the ingredients were there. The only thing that changed was the size.”

Peter Szego is grateful for the “great spirit of collaboration that we experienced” at the conferences and during the subsequent book project. “A lot of the insights were arrived at collectively. And it was all with an intellectual generosity that allowed us to collaborate.” And just as a band of experts collaborated on its creation, Inventing The American Guitar features a fascinating cast of historical characters.

The dominant figure is, of course, Christian Friedrich Martin, Sr., the talented and industrious immigrant from Germany who became America’s first major guitar maker. Born in the town of Markneukirchen in 1796, C.F. Martin, Sr., became skilled in the construction of guitars in the style of Johann Georg Stauffer, born in 1778 in Vienna, Austria, which was then the music capital of Europe. (Among other elements, Stauffer is credited with installing what were perhaps the first three-on-a-side mechanical tuning pegs.) In 1833, Martin immigrated to New York City. He became a leading figure in the city’s vibrant and growing circle of guitar builders, virtuoso performers, and instructors.

Martin’s rapid success is illustrated, quite literally, via Young Woman Playing A Guitar by artist George Peter Alexander Healy, one of numerous period paintings and sketches reproduced in the book. In 1834, only a year after Martin had arrived from Germany, Healy painted a now unknown gentlewoman holding a new instrument extremely close in style to the oldest known extant Martin guitar, also produced in 1834.

In 1839, C.F. Martin, Sr., relocated his production shops to Nazareth, Pa., home to the modern Martin Guitar Company, while carefully maintaining his business and shipping connections to New York. Says Szego, “Before our book, what was known about C.F. Martin was that he came over in 1833 making the Austro-German ‘Stauffer-style’ guitars. By the Civil War, he was making what we now call Martin guitars. But how did he get from A to B? “No one had filled in the blanks. He got from A to B much faster than we had presumed. And the critical steps he went through were the lessons he learned from the Spanish-style guitar.” And these steps led to a triumph that was astonishingly early. “By 1846, he had already come up with modern X-bracing,” continues Szego. “Not just X-bracing, but modern X-bracing! The development time would have been just ten to thirteen years.”

To illustrate this, and to document and celebrate the artistry of Martin and his rivals, Inventing The American Guitar features carefully illustrated two-page layouts for 45 of the most significant guitars discussed. These sets contain beautiful front, back, and side color photographs of the instruments, plus internal construction diagrams, dimensional information, and comparative graphs of their relative sizes.

Also detailed in the book is the life and work of English-born James Ashborn (1816-1876), C.F. Martin’s only significant competitor at the time. Unlike his German immigrant colleague, Ashborn became a true Connecticut Yankee who joined notable New England clock, firearms, and farm machinery manufacturers in exploiting mass production and interchangeable parts. “For the first 15 years that Martin was in the United States, nothing [of his guitars] was standardized,” Szego notes. “James Ashborn was exactly the opposite.”

Ashborn adapted many elements of Spanish guitar design, just as Martin did. But he labeled his instruments not as Ashborns, but under the names of the stores that ordered them. (Some examples are confirmed in Inventing The American Guitar for the first time as being true Ashborns.)

Among other compelling persons who came into focus during the new research was Spanish guitar virtuoso Maria Dolores Esturias y Navarres de Goni (1813-1892). Born in Spain, she achieved great success in her native country, France, and England before arriving to acclaim in New York in 1840. Three years later, Martin built her a guitar that expert David Gansz hails as the “foremost extant instrument in the history of the American guitar.” Significantly, it features not the Spanish style of fan-bracing (with braces that radiate out like spread fingers), but a prototype of what became the revolutionary Martin X-bracing. “My guess is that de Goni never endorsed Martin,” Szego says. “[But] Martin made much of the fact that she played his guitars.” Dick Boak adds, “She was arguably the best guitar player in America at the time and the best guitar player no one has ever heard of.” Both Madame de Goni and this instrument receive long overdue recognition in Inventing The American Guitar.

Another significant Martin Spanish-style guitar was owned by Col. John Darragh Wilkins, who received it as a gift upon his 1846 graduation from West Point. Wilkins carried it with him during the Mexican War of 1848 and the Civil War (in which he saw action at both Fredericksburg and Bull Run). The Martin, its reinforced wooden case, and their owner all survived, and we have many reasons to be thankful. “The history and provenance of this guitar are impeccably documented,” Szago observes. And just as the 1843 de Goni guitar is the earliest documented example of a guitar with an X-braced pattern, the 1846 Wilkins is the earliest documented extant guitar with a fully modern X-bracing.

Martin’s association with John Coupa from about 1840 to 1850 was one of the longest he enjoyed and came during a crucial period of his guitars’ development. Coupa was an established teacher and virtuoso performer. And, significantly, he ordered from Martin only Spanish-style guitars for himself and his students.

Spanish guitar design has proven to be absolutely crucial in the development of what is the truly American guitar as exemplified by Martins. “Before the conferences and the book, there wasn’t an in-depth appreciation of this period and the influence of the Spanish guitar,” says Szego, noting that the head shape, the volute where the head meets the neck, the heel where the neck meets the body, and the contours of the guitar itself are all decidedly Spanish. He adds, “Even the three-ring rosette pattern [inlaid around the sound hole], which is classic Martin, even that came from Spanish guitars.”

Of the Viennese Stauffer-style design elements learned during his European apprenticeship, Martin retained the system of securing the ends of the strings via ball-ends pressed into the bridge by pins. Looking over these findings, George Gruhn, the prominent Nashville-based instrument dealer and pioneering expert in vintage American guitars, observed with wry humor, “We know now that [by the mid-1800s], the only thing left on the Martin guitar from the original Stauffer guitars are the bridge pins.”

Just how did the characteristic Martin bracing evolve? According to Szego, “First he built very simple fan brace guitars with three struts—center, left, and right. Then five strut-form braces: one center and two right and two left.” Soon, he began to reduce the radiating fan braces and add a simple X-brace on one side. The experiment proved successful enough to create essentially X-braced guitars.

C.F. Martin’s design evolution overarched many stages. He went back to older forms while experimenting with his new concepts. “It’s not simplistically linear,” Szego emphasizes. “[Martin] was a businessman and a craftsman. He was creative with a range of approaches before he settled on a design. It was not a linear progression by any means. He was still doing Austro-German guitars and fully Spanish guitars. When he was doing X-bracing, he was still doing fan bracing on other instruments. His career was one of experimentation and meeting the needs of his market, what he thought his customers wanted.”

There were challenges and frustrations during the research. The Martin Company’s “factory journals” (which were ledger books detailing sales, inventory and general business) from 1840 to 1850 are missing. “That’s an absolutely critical period of time,” Szego notes. “They have 1833 to today, but not 1840 to 1850.”

“I’m sure there were journals [during this period],” Dick Boak adds. “It’s amazing we still have what we have. It could be they were kept in a home and not the company and got lost. Or maybe someone took them.” But this did not prevent the historical gaps from being filled and Inventing The American Guitar from being born. “Besides putting the instruments in a chronological order and seeing what their development was, there was so much information, it deserved to be a book,” Boak says.

John Sterling Ruth, a frequent photographer for Martin, began working on new color images of the historic instruments. Steven Hill, an independent graphics designer, was brought aboard by Szego early in the project. Boak introduced Peter Szego to the Hal Leonard Corporation, a prominent music publishing company, to discuss whether its book division would be interested in a large illustrated volume stemming from the new investigations into Martins. And Hal Leonard was indeed interested. “The Hal Leonard Corporation has been terrific,” says Szego. “Their production and promotion of the book were everything I hoped they would be.”

The influence of Inventing The American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations Of C.F. Martin And His Contemporaries might be felt not only in future Martin scholarship but, just possibly, in the company’s own instruments.

First, there’s the tantalizing question of the fate of the 1840 to 1850 factory records, now the holy grail of Martin research. Publicity about the book may hasten their rediscovery. “Sometimes these things come back to us,” Boak says, noting that dusty desk drawers become opened, items appear on eBay, and material is discovered in response to scholarly work. “The [Martin] archives have tripled in size in the last few years due to projects like this.”

Maybe there will be new progeny for the instruments now lovingly illustrated in Inventing The American Guitar and showcased this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “They’re so beautiful. A lot of their features deserve to be recreated on modern guitars,” says Boak. “We take a hint from our own legacy.”

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