In any industry, a business founded over 150 years ago, that has somehow managed to remain family-owned and is still going from strength to strength, would be remarkable. That there's one in the music business is astonishing, given what a fashion-conscious bunch musicians tend to be. Or are we? Guitar players, in particular, are lovers of nostalgia and 'authenticity' - which may be one of the reasons why the name C.F. Martin seems, if anything, to have been growing in stature in recent years: particularly since the company has launched a string of beautiful vintage-style guitars and mouth-watering Signature Editions, like its Eric Clapton model.
Every acoustic guitarist knows Martin. Even if they've never actually put their hands on one, they know the name 'Martin Dreadnought' - the jumbo-sized guitar first designed in 1916 and named after the mighty First World War British battleships. Though regarded as a bit of a handful by the more genteel finger pickers of the day, they soon became the standard for guitarists needing to make themselves heard - especially when played with other instruments or to accompany country and folk These days, a Martin Dreadnought from the company's 'Golden era' (widely regarded as being during the 1930s and 1940s) is out of the price range of all but the super-wealthy - but there's still hope for the rest of us, thanks to the company's re-invention of itself in recent years, when it has seemed to come alive after some years - well, not in the doldrums exactly, but perhaps slumbering a little.
The man responsible for Martin's re-awakening is C.F. Martin IV - Chris, to everyone who meets him - the sixth generation of Martins to have been involved with the legendary US maker, since the luthier Christian Frederick Martin I, left Germany in 1833, first settling in New York, eventually arriving in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where Martins today are still hand-made.
Chris Martin took over as Chairman and CEO of the company in 1986, following the death of his grandfather, and is about as far removed from the stereotype of 'the boy who inherited the family business' as you can get. He started in the firm boxing guitar strings and is friendly, casual and hugely knowledgeable about his products. In fact, at a Martin clinic, you'd almost certainly mistake Chris for a member of the enthusiastic audience. He's about as far removed from the corporate executive type as you can get, for all that he heads this major music company.
I recently met-up with Chris to discuss how Martin had been changing in recent years and, particularly, ask what future delights might be in store for us. First, I wanted to know whether a business that has, quite literally, hand-crafted its own legend can continue making guitars the old way. Can Martin still find people capable of the guitar-making skills required to make Martin guitars - and find them in sufficient numbers to maintain production levels without sacrificing quality?
'What's happened is we've divided-up the operations even more specifically than in the past. For example, with body assembly, as the older generation of craftsmen were retiring we said to ourselves that to get a new person up to speed with body assembly was really a challenge. So is there a way to take that body assembly operation and divide it into several separate jobs? As a result, if you were to join us today, we wouldn't teach you how we built bodies back in the '70s, we would teach you a portion of the body assembly operation, which you could learn quicker.
'Also, we've been very fortunate that in eastern Pennsylvania, up until a few years ago there was a tremendous amount of clothing manufacture that had traditionally been done by women. If you come to our factory today, you'll find that over 50 per cent of the guitar makers are women. They join us, having a manufacturing mindset, and the difference isn't so much that they're making guitars, it's that they are treated decently - so many of them have said to me they'd had no idea that a manufacturing job could be something they'd look forward too, as all the experience they'd had before had been in sweatshops. Now they're making something that is the best of its kind. whereas before they were sewing a sleeve on something and they didn't even know the brand.
'Additionally, a lot of people who work for us are family. People have the attitude that "My father could make them well, so I'm going not going to be the one in my family who screws-up - and the same goes for me too, of course!'
That the process is working seems unarguable - some players say that recent Martins seem, if anything, even better than they have done at certain points in the past. Give them a few years to play in and mellow (as the highest quality solid tonewood acoustic guitars all benefit from) and it's hard to see why a 2002 Martin won't, one day, be as much as sought-after as any post-second world war model.
Martin has had some serious competition in recent years. While in the past it tended to be from individual luthiers, or fellow 'majors' like Gibson or Ovation, they usually made such different guitars that you probably wanted a Martin as well as, say, a J-200 or an Adamus. That began to change when companies like Taylor and L'Arrivee began to reach wider audiences. Though many of these makers more or less copied Martin's original ideas, some of them developed the principles and, adding insult to injury, made instruments to a standard that even Martin might have felt challenged by. How, I asked, did Chris view these competitors?
'Part of the reason we are as successful as we are today is because our competitors have inspired us to pay attention. I think there was a period during the late seventies and early eighties when Gibson basically stopped making acoustics and Guild became a non-entity, when there was no inspiration to do better, because nobody was doing any better. Then Taylor came along and L'Arrivee and Tacoma and Santa Cruz, not to mention all the little guys in Britain who make great guitars. If we aren't staying with them, somebody is going to run right over us. Competition has been a wonderful thing - especially the consumer because it's held prices down.'
So what of the future? In recent years, Martin has produced a stream of exquisite vintage models, Signature editions and regular production instruments, widely felt to be as good as any it has made in its history. But can the company stand still? What about the future in a world where so many of the exotic woods used in craftsman guitar building are either becoming prohibitively expensive, or being banned by international treaties? Has the craftsman-built acoustic guitar finally hit a brick wall? Far from it, Chris says.
'Fifteen or twenty years ago, I was in Arizona at a clinic in a music store and afterwards this middle-aged gentleman came up to me and said, "have a look at this guitar I made." Whenever I hear that I think "Uh-oh, here we go, I'll have to be polite". Anyway he opens up this guitar case and it wasn't that well made, so I was being as nice as I could while thinking I hoped he hadn't given up his day job. Then he asked me if I knew what it was made of - and I didn't. He told me it was made of a material called a high-pressure laminate - basically, chopped-up wood fibre, bonded under pressure with epoxy and with a photographic image on it. I said, "well, that's clever - that's really clever." To which he said "Well, I think so, and I've taken out a patent and I want you to make them." I had to say to him that I couldn't. We made D-28s and I didn't know how to go from D-28s to this thing made out of a mass produced, man-made material., that one time used to be a tree but is pretty far removed, today.
'Anyway, three years ago, Tim Teal, who works in R&D came into my office one day, gushing with pride saying "look at this guitar I invented!" I took one look at it and said, 'Tim I have bad news. This guitar was invented twenty years ago by a fellow named Jim Witchell and he has a patent on it. By then, we were making the DM and I looked at it and thought that we might finally be able to make it affordable. So I called Mr. Witchell, who said he'd been waiting a long time for this call and did a deal with him.
'The result of that was the entire X series of guitars. We started out using the high-pressure laminate on the top - we actually took a photograph of a D-45 top and had it custom made for us. But a lot of my colleagues and dealers said, it didn't have the sort of sustain that we're used to from a Martin. So then we put a spruce top on it and now the people that didn't like the original one started to like it and it's gone on from there. It's become a platform for us. Here we had a guitar that didn't have a history, so we could have fun with them and experiment - the most recent addition has been a guitar with an aluminium top. They are getting a lot of buzz in the States and they're a place for us to experiment and do some crazy things without people saying. "Oh my God, Chris has gone insane." The fingerboards and bridges on some of them are paperboard products. They look just like ebony and they perform just like ebony, but they aren't.
'You're going to start seeing those materials on more expensive guitars over time, as the more scarce woods get increasingly expensive and rare.'
The history of guitar making is littered with experiments that either didn't make it or were way ahead of their time (Gibson Firebirds, Tokai Talbos - you know the sort of thing) and no one is pretending this will happen overnight. Mercifully, Chris Martin isn't forcing these ideas on us, but he is watching the future, where price alone may soon force us to consider using materials we once would have consigned to the very cheapest guitars.
And finally, in the much nearer future, comes a pair of Martin Signature edition guitars which are destined to become collectors' item of special appeal to we Brits - the brand new 000-28LDB and 000-28LD, Lonnie Donnegan Signature models. Lonnie who? He'll need absolutely no introduction to older readers, but Donnegan (a career Martin player) was the man who virtually created the 1950s 'skiffle' boom in the UK. In the process he inspired musicians as diverse as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler, which is why he is being honoured.
Does that seem a strange thing for a US maker to be doing? Listen to Chris Martin on the special place British music and musicians hold in his, and the company's esteem.
'I personally, and the company generally, have great respect for British guitar players. I noticed years ago, going round little guitar shows and clinics in the UK with Philip York our distributor here, that the technical prowess of some of the British players is amazing. If you play the guitar over here it's pretty serious - you actually know how to work the darned thing, so in talking about who are the British guitar heroes to work with, we asked who had been tremendously influential here and that led to this signature edition.'
There are those who believe that C.F. Martin is currently going through another golden era today. If they're right, the man to thank for it is eminently likeable C.F. Martin IV.