This article appeared in Woodstock Times in July, 2004.
An American success at the tips of your fingers
They sing to you, these guitars do. You propel them into action, sure, and your will sculpts the sound, defining the curves, the shadows, the space between and the shape of each of the notes. But you can perform these motions on a variety of instruments, and they give you back different things — the big ones boom from the bass, thesmaller bodied, light-finger models chime from the upper registers with the alternating dropped thumb of a Travis pick; the sweetness of mahogany; the hard-toned ones of flamed curly maple sides; the holy grail, Brazilian rosewood, with a book-matched Adirondack spruce top thin as a reed, a sleek ebony fingerboard, no fancy inlay but just mother-of-pearl dots marking positions, double ones at the third, seventh and twelfth frets. The music becomes pure color for the ear, the tones so round and full…and that’s even if ya can’t play.
C.F. Martin IV gets me a cup of coffee. We’re sitting in his office at the Martin Guitar factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and there’s a pretty good collection of guitarobilia strewn about, mostly concerning his favorite instrument, on which his namesake some seven generations ago first inscribed the brand. There’s a Martin sound-hole clock, the face of a new archtop guitar with his picture burned into it, numerous instrument cases,
and Chris, as he’s called, opens one up and takes out the first guitar he ever built — a curious instrument, a Martin, you can tell by the materials and the slotted headstock, with its body the shape of an isosceles trapezoid. He made it as a summer camp project and had written home for the materials.
“They sent me a box of parts. I cut the top and back out and built the sides and they were the wrong things to do,” he says. “You build the sides and back, then put the top on it.” With no way to bend the curves, the body of the instrument ended up with corners. The affable, thin, mid-40s guy with curly red hair owns outright 60 percent of a company that has been in his immediate family since 1833, has seen ups and downs as its
proprietorship has passed from Christian Frederick Martin Sr. to three others of the same name (Jr.; III; and IV), and a Frank Henry Martin, Herbert Keller Martin and Frank Herbert Martin, Chris’ father.
“Dad caught the folk boom in the 50s,” says Martin. “He did two things — one of which was to embark on a (never completed) journey of going public. We were growing and he began to give officers some stock options. Some executives got stock. Sometimes he would sell stock because he was getting divorced, something he did four times. Every time he got divorced, he would have to raise capital. So, I own 60 percent and members
of the family own another 10 percent. Others own the rest.
“I have a board of directors. When I joined the business, because I’m not the sole owner, I was advised that it was in my interest to run it like a public company. So, every now and then I feel held to a higher standard than those who own family businesses, lock, stock and barrel, and do funny things.”
The company appears to be an American success story, proving that the finest something can still be built in a factory in a small town. Martin finishes about 200-250 guitars a day. “Once we begin production, it’s two and a half to three months to make the guitar,” says Martin. “After the final inspection, we store them again for eight days, then check them again before shipping.”
The company grossed over $71 million in 2001, according to the Robb Report (which called it “the largest acoustic guitar producer in America”). It doesn’t sell an instrument under $500, and this year finished making the 1,000,000th Martin, an ornately inlaid Dreadnought that is not for sale but is said to be worth a million bucks.
“My grandfather (C.F. Martin III) was instrumental in explaining to me what the business was about. My father (Frank Herbert Martin) was more of a businessman, not a guitar builder. But I believe it to be the oldest family guitar business in the world.”
The boy didn’t grow up in the business. “I went to UCLA and worked in Westwood Music. They knew who I was, but I didn’t know who I was. But I came away with a clear understanding of how a guitar is made and how I rely on my fellow workers. If I take the day off and they come to work, it’s OK, things still get done. If I come to work and they take the day off, it’s deep doo-doo.”
He lends some insight into the culture.
“We talk guitars all day long,” says Martin. “Every now and then we put more work into one than we can charge for it. That’s the challenging part, finding the sweet spot, what can we charge and have the kind of quality we require…what is the cost of quality. It’s really sad that every now and then we have to destroy a guitar, but it’s just not right. Sometimes the more you try to fix it…as scientific as it becomes, it’s still a piece of art,
and every now and then you have to paint over it.”
He dispels a clinging myth.
“We don’t sell seconds. If it is deemed a ‘second,’ it’s destroyed. If someone comes up and says they have a cheap Martin or a factory second, I can say, no you don’t. They don’t exist. The majority of acoustic guitars in the world are under $500. We’re not in that market. Industry watchers say ours are expensive guitars. We’ll charge what we have to, but we want to make guitars people can afford. Especially if you aspire to be a good
So, is he? Well, when he was young, “I got a little 5-18 and took some lessons, but my teacher and I never saw eye to eye. I had to play ‘properly’ because I was C.F. Martin, and that was the beginning of the end. He didn’t teach me what I wanted to know. So I don’t play in public.”
I was flown down to a tiny Pennsylvania airstrip near the factory in Ed Surowitz’ single engine 1976 Cessna Skylane, which will forever have the imprint of my fingers around the bottom of the seat where I gripped it so tightly for the ever-so-smooth little hop from Kingston Airport to Braden Airpark in Easton, next door to Nazareth. Surowitz is the proprietor of Allegro Music in Kingston and sells many Martins along with some other
fine brands of guitars, like Taylor and Guild, at his Albany Avenue shop. As a favored dealer, he’s part of the reason for the personal welcome from Chris Martin — that, along with the promise of an interview to be published in a highly prestigious publication (yes, this one).
I am a little skittish getting in Ed’s plane, but he’s experienced, instrument rated, and for him this flight is no more complicated than driving to the supermarket. He’s filed flight plans, and with the country on Agent Orange alert, we’re not going anywhere near anything remotely resembling a target, don’t want any F-18s forcing us down. We fly into the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, the eastern end of the Rust Belt — Easton, Allentown, Bethlehem, Nazareth.
“Hello, Braden-Easton Airpark, requesting clearance to land…” OK, so it’s not a direct quote, I couldn’t let up my grip long enough to write, but he said something like that. And got no answer. He tries again. No answer. Once more. Silence. Ed swivels his head around, doesn’t see anyone else flying, and sets the Cessna down like it’s Philippe Petit landing on a high wire.
Oh, we’re living here in Allentown…
Once, the mighty Bethlehem Steel ruled the Lehigh Valley, a titan of industry that worldwide employed more than 275,000 people. On a day in 1977, (they called it Black Friday) things changed, 7,000 were laid off and a jagged chart emerged that contained more downward peaks than upward. The company stopped making steel in Bethlehem in November, 1995; the last fire in the coke plant was extinguished in 1998, and its final
liquidation came on December 31, 2003.
The area still has some manufacturing — Essroc Cement Company, Crayola, and Martin Guitars. Anecdotally, people will tell you that the many housing developments you see from the air are being built for commuters from Philadelphia, Trenton and other affluent New Jersey locations where the property taxes are considerably higher. Nazareth still lists 22 manufacturing facilities, employing some 1,400 people, of which Martin Guitars is responsible for 625, almost 44 percent.
Sandy Applegate, a woman in her 50s, has worked for Martin for 29 years. Her father was Martin’s head of maintenance before that. “It’s not unusual for a few generations in the same building,” she says, as she drives us in the company van. “But it seems like young people today stay on for two years and then move on. We have it so good, but not everybody thinks that way. But the company is very accommodating, especially if you have small children. We have super-good health benefits. To have been here when Mr. CF was here and Chris’s dad, back when we were going through bad times, you had to do other stuff. I drove Mr. Martin. I remember one day he said, ‘You don’t have to pick me up tomorrow. I’m taking a day’s vacation…’
The original factory is in the downtown of old Nazareth; ‘Martin Guitars’ in white paint on the red brick building that is still kept to store materials. The new one is in a more suburban area, looking kind of like an elementary school. There’s a Martin museum, with eye-popping treats behind glass and others you can try out; a shop filled with trinkets; and a plan for a new visitors center to better acquaint pilgrims with the storied history.
Are the wages decent?
“I think so, but it’s only the second place I ever worked in my life,” says Applegate. “I think it’s really good. There aren’t many companies around here anymore, that stayed. Even our cement industries have gone elsewhere. Most of us don’t have to go very far to work. They’re trying to get horse racing and slot machines here, but I don’t know. We don’t have many farms left here, either. But I’m able to live in the home I grew up in.”
Martin says that there once was a union, but that the workers chose to de-certify, and points to profit sharing plans, ergonomic work stations, and the fact that so much of the process of building these guitars is still done by skilled hands, as reasons for higher wages and satisfaction among the employees. He says that more of the staff than ever play guitar.
He takes us to lunch. A fine restaurant, a couple of his top execs, Dick Boak and Dennis Tenges, director of sales.
We talk about collectibles, and Martin guitars are about as collectible an item as there is. “I watch for things to fill out the (company) collection,” says Martin. “When we find unusual guitars, we usually have an example of it. But the company does not own a pre-War D-45. I just have a hard time writing a check for $150,000 for a used Martin. I’d rather buy wood.”
He allows as to how he, personally, has a good collection. “I buy one a year. I get the employee price. I have a soft spot in my heart for the jumbo guitar (the quadruple-O body style) because I had a hand in its development. It’s a finely balanced guitar, you appreciate the versatility. But I constantly pay homage to the Dreadnought — the bread and butter, as my grandfather used to say. It accounts for 75 percent of the sales.” The
big-bodied style pioneered by the company is much copied and prized for its large sound, and the sonorous way it wears in after years of playing.
Boak says he has 100 guitars and described the woes of a cutthroat market. “I sold my most special guitar to a collector who begged me for it…six weeks later it is on the wall in Matty’s (Matt Umanovs, a vintage guitar shop in New York City) for $20,000.”
They ask about my 1977 D-35, a $400 purchase, used, in 1978, and estimate it to be worth about $3,000 now.
“But it’s the psychic reward,” says Martin. “We go out of our way not to push the investment. Chances are over time, it might go up. But compare it to a CD in the bank — you don’t get the years of pleasure a guitar brings you.”
We get a personal tour of the factory from Martin, who holds a door for a worker carrying guitar bodies, and talks easily with workers. Some wooden blanks are unidentifiable until he smells the wood. We see stacks of wooden sheets, different types, Koa, mahogany.
“The wood is kiln-dried, then kept in the room for two years to stabilize,” he says. “The company keeps a two-year stock of wood. We don’t want old wood, but properly cured wood. And we keep it all at 72 degrees, 45 percent humidity, the environment everyone should strive to keep their guitars in.”
Behind a wire wall is the 10-year-old Brazilian rosewood.
We see some state-of-the-art industrial machines, but at many more stations individuals are notching out guitar bodies for the inlays; laying in the ribbons that hold the sides and backs together, stations for buffing and polishing. A heat process for bending sides into the contoured curves. “We still do some hand-bending.”
Every work station is clean. Dovetail joints, where the neck meets the body of the guitar, are married together with the bodies early in the process, made to fit just right, then separated while other work is done to each, but come back together for a fitting.
Martin shows us an incomplete black-faced 000-42 that will belong to Eric Clapton, for nearly $8,000; another with an ornate inlay pattern on a Dreadnaught that will go to the owner of the Indianapolis Colts. He points out where they make the “Sustainable Yield” series of Cherry wood. Each guitar comes with documents tracing the wood back to the forest so that the owner knows the wood source is being renewed.
The missing link, to me, is something we’ve been working on for two years,” says Martin. “I said, make me a D-18 just like we used to. Now it’s in the discovery phase — where can we get the old tempered-steel truss rods; we’re now asking questions about hide glue versus more modern white glues…part of the process is talking to experts like George Gruhn, he’s closer to vintage guitars. We’re getting them to help us do it right, and that means that they won’t criticize us when we make it. It will be called the D-18 Original, and it will have no adjustable truss rod and the pick guard may crack, but because of who we are, we can make it, and so veer back to tradition. Being a factory, you have to tool up (to make new models or other instruments, such as mandolins, as has been suggested) and that’s an expensive thing to do. You have to be sure the market is there. The archtop is a good example. Tooling and fixturing to make the f-holes was difficult, and the top is not flat. So we tried to cut them with a laser. I was skeptical but it worked. I think we’ve found a good balance between modern technology and a heaping handful of tradition.”
In the lobby are CD covers with artists holding Martin guitars. Johnny Cash, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Dylan, McCartney, Norman Blake, Judy Collins, Paul Simon, Clarence White, almost every country and bluegrass album ever made. On a pedestal is a leather-tooled D-18 with ‘Ricky Nelson’ carved into it — the leather is actually a zip-on covering of the body; a double-necked Martin acoustic, with six and 12-string necks. Martin leaves us for another meeting, and we await the van for the trip back to the airpark.
At Braden-Easton, there is someone in charge now, and we are cleared for takeoff. I’m slightly more at ease for the trip back but it’s cloudy and we go through some disorienting periods of white life, when that’s all you see, no ground, no sky, just white. And it’s a little more turbulent in the white, so I’m grateful for even a hazy view of the earth when it appears. We turn north and eventually come upon the Shawungunk Ridge, and from above you can see the sharp drop off, with Mohonk at the peak, that defines the beginning of the Hudson Valley. The Ashokan, off to the left, and Kingston appears below, a welcome sight. We’ve been in the air for about 45 minutes each way, and the drive would have likely been three hours coming, and another three going. So one can appreciate the convenience of no traffic, a direct line, and 150 miles per hour at 7,000 feet. We alight on the runway, part company, head for home and a few loving strokes of the sweet guitar that awaits.