There's a saying in the Cognac region that runs something like: 'The Martells speak only to the Hines, the Hines speak only to the Hennessys and the Hennessys speak only to God'. It's an enjoyable game for rainy afternoons, transposing that to the pecking order of the guitar business, but whoever's names you conjure with, there are no prizes for deciding who it is who gets to be chatting with the Almighty - it has to be C.F. Martin IV.
Only Chris Martin isn't like that - and he's no more like that now than when I first met him, getting on for twenty years ago. In fact he's so not like that that he must be sick and tired of people writing about how normal he seems - how much more like one of his own customers, than the latest of six generations of Martins to have headed the family firm, since the original Christian Frederick decamped from Markneukirchen in 1833, to escape the restrictive practises of guilds in his homeland.
Leaving aside the fact that he's as close as the guitar business gets to royalty, why Chris Martin might have changed during the past couple of decades is because he has been at the helm of the company during difficult times and has succeeded in turning it round. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s it's an open secret that Martin was in trouble - in fact everyone making acoustic guitars was in trouble. Sales had slumped like a crumpled soufflé after the acoustic '60s and the company had diversified widely but not wisely. There were those who said the writing was on the wall. They were, of course, famously wrong. Acoustic guitar sales bounced back, in no small part due to MTV's Unplugged series, and today the instrument is not only once more in fashion, it is very much back in health. C.F. Martin, meanwhile, has re-invented itself with a line of celebrity-endorsed Signature editions, re-issues of often exquisite beauty and more affordable but still superb 'standards'. What is more, by common consent, it is making guitars as well today as it has ever done.
But, this being the music industry, it hasn't all been good news. Along the way, we lost several instrument brands and Martin's (rather good) Japanese-made Sigmas. Now, in common with their competitors, the company is under pressure from the Green lobby and its friends in Government about the scarcity of much-loved tonewoods, which are now closely monitored and regulated by international agreement. That at least one well-known American acoustic guitar maker has fallen foul of eager Customs and Excise men seeking to enforce the U.N. 'CITES' agreement on the importation of endangered and thus restricted materials, is common knowledge and, as the doyens of the business, Martin must feel itself under an increasingly powerful spotlight.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet up with Chris Martin again (this time in the company of Diane, his charming wife - and that isn't journalistic flattery, she really is) and the long-standing UK distributor, Philip York of the Dreadnought Guitar Co. I had questions about CITES and the whole endangered materials farrago up my sleeve, but first I wanted to know about those difficult years, starting with how Mr. Martin had found himself in the hot seat and what he had done about the trouble the company was in.
'I took over as Chairman and CEO in 1987, following an interim period after my Dad' (Frank Herbert Martin) 'had retired and my grandfather had come back to run the business. That's when I began to feel more connected with it. My father and I had some of those typical father and son things going on and he had rowed the business through the folk boom and then, when it hit that difficult period during the '70s and '80s, he decided it was time to go to Florida and play golf. That's when I really felt more a part of it. Then when my grandfather' (C.F. Martin III) 'passed away, in 1986, the board huddled and said "OK, we'll give the kid a shot"'.
I suggest he's made a pretty passable job of it, but he deflects the compliment with a laugh. 'It was a fortuitous time really because we were forced to we divest ourselves of Vega banjos, Fibes drums and Levin' (the Swedish guitar maker owned by Martin). 'Levin was the most challenging because it was a large organisation in a foreign country and my Dad had borrowed a lot of money to make these acquisitions. That was ok as long as the guitar business was good, but when the acoustic market slowed down in the late '70s and the cash stopped flowing , we almost were forced to go back to the core business, though we kept the D'Arco string company. We really ran the business hand to mouth in those days. The chief financial officer had a blackboard in his office and he would track the incoming cash every day and call the bank. We were this far away from bankruptcy around '83, '84, and then... well, I think musicians and consumers and the people who promote music recognised the emotional value of the acoustic guitar and it started to change.
'It began with some television shows, which used the acoustic guitar as background music, then MTV did Unplugged and then Eric Clapton did Unplugged with a Martin acoustic and it's kind of been on a roll ever since.'
Does the company disclose figures, to give us some idea of the turnaround? 'The figures that we do disclose are production number and total volume. The high point during my father's era, in the mid-late, '70s was something like 17, or 19,000 Martin guitars and what's amazing is that within a period of just a few years that had dropped to 3,000 guitars. Every time we turned around it seemed business was just going down. It hovered at around that 3,000 guitars level for a while and now, this last year, we made just over 60,000 guitars and that's a Dollar volume of about 70 million.'
Those with long memories might wonder at this sort of volume. Can Martin maintain its quality at these production levels?
'Well, you know people talk about those Martins of the Seventies and the issue there wasn't so much that we consciously decided to let quality slip as they unconsciously stopped inspiring everybody to get better. It was case of "We're so busy and we have these acquisitions that aren't working, so whatever you did yesterday is good enough for tomorrow". I think what happened was when we got rid of the acquisitions, we concentrated back on guitars and the people in manufacturing said, "Well, that's what we wanted to hear". Then we went on a campaign that we're still very much on, of continuous improvement, not accepting that what was good enough for yesterday will do today. We're continuously asking if we can get be a little better. Some of the changes are very subtle and they have to be as we're up against the issue of not changing it so much that it's no longer what it was. For example, that crack between the bridge and pickguard. We finally said we've got to put the pickguard over the finish, so we sourced the pickguard with an adhesive backing. Also there was the adoption of the adjustable truss rod and a lot of other, subtle changes.
When you're Martin, changes have to be very gradual indeed. Take the necks. Time was when a Martin was, almost by definition, quite literally a bit of a handful - which was not good for a generation brought up on Strats, strung with rubber bands. But though Martin knew it needed to slim its necks, it couldn't do so overnight. 'It had to be a gradual transition, which began with the D-28P - The 'P' meaning it had the lower profile neck. We were afraid that if we put this slim neck on a guitar and sent it to Tennessee, the good old boys would freak-out, so we offered them both ways for a while.'
And, of course, there was also the competition to think about. 'Yes, we were becoming conscious of Taylor. I think they must have said "OK, we're not going to beat them on heritage or warranty or tone, but they're vulnerable with their playability" and rightly so. Of course, they've since bulked their necks up, and it's been a gradual transition.'
And so to woods - or, rather, the relative lack of them. Last year I spent some time talking with specialist wood importers, very much off the record, trying to research the subject of international CITES restrictions and limitations. The opinions I got were that there was a great deal of hysteria in the air, not to mention the odd spot of greasy politicking. If there's any part of Chris Martin that agrees with this view, he was keeping it well hidden when I asked how the company was handling this issue.
'It's a challenge,' he says, shrugging. 'For example, we did a focus group study a few years ago, at a time when we were rejecting a lot of tops because of cosmetic issues. It wasn't that we couldn't get them, but we thought it was odd that every third top was deemed unacceptable by manufacturing, based on prior beliefs of what the customer would accept. So we decided to ask the customers what they would and wouldn't accept. We did this focus group study and the customers were very sympathetic to the thought that woods are getting scarcer. You know how focus groups work, they have the mirrored walls and we're watching what's going on. At one point one guy turns to another and says "You know, we'd better run out right now and buy a Martin with the good wood." So as sympathetic as they were, they didn't want it to be them that bought the Martin with the cosmetic flaw on the top.
'But it helps now that we have the DM, the D-1 and DX1 so we can use these tops and say we're still going to use the best wood in the world on the D-45, but for £800, people will say "yes, you're right, for £800 we'll accept more character."'
But what about the long term prospects? How much longer is Martin going to be able to build its luxury-level goods aimed at wealthy 40 and 50-somethings, given the ever-tightening pincer movement of shortage and legislation?
'Well, whoever picked those woods and all us who make guitars, have done a great job convincing people that they're great tonewoods, as opposed to other woods that may be viable but that you're not familiar with. Brazilian rosewood, for example, that's a fun part of the business while we can still get it, but it's not the future of the business and if it went away, we would probably do almost the same volume of units in Dollars. We can get a little bit of it with the CITES documents, but in terms of volume it's not significant.
'Mahogany, until very recently, was really an issue because we didn't know what else to use but we are beginning to use some South American cedar which is similar enough in appearance that, though it's not a true mahogany, as soon as mahogany starts to get scarce people will accept it. In our organisation, we say we wouldn't mind if the price of mahogany went up, because people might then stop using it for coffins and furniture. It's still a very viable wood for guitar necks and bodies but there are other woods that can be used'
'We also have the sustainable yield guitar, which is made out of cherry. In doing our research on cherry we discovered that during the post-colonial period in America, it was called 'American mahogany' so that kind of warmed our hearts. So, yes, there are other materials.
'The wood we're using now come from a tree farm, so it comes with FSC certification which is kind of a pain in the butt as it means that each piece of wood as it goes through the plant, has to have a document that travels with it and we get audited periodically. So we've had to train people to learn that they can't just take a piece of wood from a pile. This piece of wood has to go with that guitar, with that document as it goes through the plant.'
I raised the issue of the politics behind the environmental clamp-down and, particularly, some of the grumbling I had heard from wood specialists who had seen first hand some of the shenanigans that had been going on at a political level. Did he have any views on that issue?
'Well, we don't go to the CITES conventions - the mahogany suppliers do, though and they have an interesting argument. Their point is if you stop harvesting this wood you're going to damage the economies of the countries where it grows, while if you regulate the harvest, it's in the best interests of everybody. If you ban it, on the other hand, like ivory, then they are going to cut the trees down and just waste them because they have no economic value.
'I think the British are much more conscious of this than Americans. For example, to sell a Brazilian rosewood guitar internally, we need to have a document to bring the wood into the USA but we don't need to have document the sale domestically, only if we export it. So we can sell a Brazilian rosewood guitar inside the United States without the document, and we can't in Britain.'
Perhaps surprisingly given the pain they've caused guitar makers, Mr. Martin seems to have a high regard for Greenpeace's activities in this area. 'They recently exposed illegal mahogany concessions in Brazil. We're buying all our mahogany now from Peru by the way, and what has happened now is that the Brazilian government has stopped the export of all mahogany, because they can no longer determine whether it was from a concession allocated by the government or not. And good for them. There is a way of doing this right and it took Greenpeace to go in, take photographs and do this big exposé of what was happening. Finally the Brazilian government admitted that it was wrong and stopped it.'
Does he feel there has been over-reaction, though? 'No. I think it's very valid. For too many years, nobody planted trees for the ones that were being removed and some of these tropical hardwoods take a long time to be regenerated, so I'm all in favour of it.'
At 46, Chris Martin, almost certainly has many years ahead of him, but as steward of such a legacy and having seen the mess the acoustic guitar business got into once before, how does he see the future? 'I could be wrong, but my theory is that when we were younger, if you wanted to play the guitar, more often than not, your parents discouraged you. But we did it anyway, whether our parents liked it or not. But today if a young person wants to play the guitar, it's more likely that the parents will run out and buy one for themselves too. It's so much more a part of our culture, because Western popular music - Rock and Roll - hasn't gone away. Then, if kids want to find the roots of that music, they're going to find people like Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie playing Martin guitars, and the more they go back, the more they find their heroes playing Martins.
'Of course, it's unpredictable and every year for the past seven or so years we keep saying to ourselves that this can't continue, that we can't get any bigger and we're going to hit a speed bump but we haven't.' In fact, the figures suggest that, even despite September 11th, Martin is, if anything, getting even stronger.
They don't always get it right, however. Consumables, as every dealer knows, are wonderful. Sell a guitar and it might be the only one a customer ever buys - sell him a packet of strings and he's going to be back for more. Martin is one of the world's top string brands, but Chris Martin admits they were completely blind-sided by a newcomer. 'The Gore product, the Elixir, really surprised us. When we first saw them in the market our reaction was "What on earth is Gore - raincoat people - doing in our business?" and we bought some of the product and honestly our reaction was that these things didn't sound good at all - in fact the saying we had in the factory was "They sound bad, longer". That was our attitude, so we dismissed them out of hand. But guess what? They created a market. There was no market for $27 strings with a coating on them before, and had we or D'Addario tried it we'd have been laughed out of the business, but they did it, with their marketing prowess and budget and it's only been recently that both we and D'Addario realised we were missing something, hadn't been paying attention and it's taken both of us a couple of years to come up with a product that doesn't infringe the patent and have our own coated string. Three or four years ago, if you'd come to the plant with that idea, we'd have said, "get the heck out of here"'.
This development has been doubly beneficial to dealers, because it means that all new Martins now come fitted with the longer lasting strings. 'In the store we realised that strings were getting knackered, if they were the old type, so people would play somebody else's guitar, then pick up a Martin, find the strings were all grotty and think it was the guitar's fault. Dealers don't have the time to change strings, so this will help.'
Also from a UK dealer's perspective (and, of course, for Dreadnought Guitars') one of the problems with an instrument like a Martin guitar is that it is expensive and very global. No one will fly to Nashville to buy a Chinese Strat or a piano, but if you're talking about a £5,000 Martin dreadnought, which can be brought home as hand luggage, if it were significantly cheaper in the USA (or in Holland, for that matter) flying out to bring one home looks very attractive indeed. The strategy here was for Dreadnought to have developed what it calls the Golden Era dealer's scheme. 'We say to dealers in the UK that if they opened a shop in Boston or New York, you won't pay any less for a guitar than if you buy them from us,' said Philip York.
No one can predict the future for the acoustic guitar, but one thing for seems pretty sure. From having been dangerously close to the edge around 15 years ago, the grand old name in the business is back, punching its weight and only benefiting from its considerable age. Speaking of which, if I meet Chris Martin in yet another twenty years and he still looks the same, I am calling the police. There must be something in the water in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
My interview with Chris Martin, which took place with Philip York of Dreadnought Guitars present, happened just before the spread of rumours that appeared to peak at the recent NAMM show. The gist of these was that Dreadnought had lost the Martin agency, which was being passed to... well, you can take your pick of several UK distributors. Just before this issue closed for press, I spoke with Philip York about the rumours and found him as perplexed as everyone else. 'I really have no idea what this has been about, or where these rumours have come from. In fact one of the companies who were supposed to have been given the distribution, if you believe the rumours, has phoned me this morning to apologise and say it had absolutely nothing to do with it and knows nothing about it. I suspect people don't understand that we've actually had a very successful time. In fact I'll be collecting the award for the best international sales for Martin, at this year's Frankfurt - which will be the 21st year in a row that we have won it. I really have no idea what these rumours are about.' My reflection on this (ever the cynical journalist) is to speculate about who stands to benefit and why they would want to sow confusion in the ranks. And that's another fun game for rainy afternoons.