The C. F. Martin story

For well over a century and a half, The Martin Guitar Company has been continuously producing acoustic instruments that are acknowledged to be the finest in the world.

The Martin Guitar Company has, through the years, managed to survive with each succeeding generation from C. F. Martin, Sr.’s Stauffer influenced creations of the 1830s to recent developments introduced by C. F. Martin IV. Continuous operation under family management is a feat bordering on the remarkable, reflecting six generations of dedication to the guitarmaker’s craft. In or out of the music industry, C. F. Martin has few rivals for sheer staying power.

Throughout its colorful history, the company has adapted successfully to continual changes in product design, distribution systems, and manufacturing methods. In spite of the many changes, C. F. Martin has never veered away from its initial commitment to quality. The concern for producing the finest instruments possible in 1833 is especially evident today at Martin’s expanded facility in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

The story behind one of America’s most famous guitars began on January 31, 1796, in Markneukirchen, Germany, with the birth of Christian Frederick Martin, Sr. Born into a long line of cabinet makers, Christian Frederick took up the family craft at the early age of 15, when he left his hometown and traveled to Vienna to apprentice with Johann Stauffer, a renowned guitar maker

Fleeing restrictive guilds

While records of the period were sketchy, it would appear that the young Martin was a gifted apprentice, as he was named foreman of Stauffer’s shop shortly after his arrival. After marrying and bearing a son, he returned to his homeland to set up his own shop. Shortly after launching his business in Markneukirchen, Martin found himself caught in an acrimonious dispute between the Cabinet Makers Guild and the Violin Makers Guild.

Martin and his family had long been members of the Cabinet Makers Guild, as had numerous other guitar makers in the area. Looking to limit competition, the Violin Makers Guild sought to prohibit the cabinet makers from producing musical instruments. Attempting to receive an injunction against the cabinet makers, the Violin Guild launched an abusive rhetorical campaign, declaring: “The violin makers belong to a class of musical instrument makers and therefore to the class of artists whose work not only shows finish, but gives evidence of a certain understanding of cultured taste. The cabinet makers, by contrast, are nothing more than mechanics whose products consist of all kinds of articles known as furniture.” Slandering the work of the cabinet makers, the Violin Guild added: “Who is so stupid that he cannot see at a glance that an armchair or a stool is no guitar and such an article appearing among our instruments must look like Saul among the prophets.”

In defending their right to manufacture guitars, members of the Cabinet Makers Guild asserted that “violin makers had no vested right in making guitars” and that “the discovery of the guitar” had been brought about 35 years ago and had been completed by the cabinet maker George Martin, father of Christian Frederick Martin. In supporting their claim before local magistrates, the cabinet makers submitted testimony from a noted wholesaler, who declared, “Christian Frederick Martin, who has studied with the noted violin and guitar maker Stauffer, has produced guitars which in point of quality and appearance leave nothing to be desired and which mark him as a distinguished craftsman.”

While the cabinet makers successfully defended their right to manufacture guitars, the drawn battle took its toll on C. F. Martin. Concluding that the guild system severely limited opportunities in Germany, he made the decision to emigrate to the United States, and on September 9, 1833, he left his homeland for New York City.

On arriving in New York, he quickly set up shop at 196 Hudson Street on the Lower West Side. Martin’s first establishment on these shores was a far cry from the company’s current 84,000-square-foot factory staffed by nearly 500 employees. His modest storefront housed a limited guitar production set-up in the back room, as well as a retail store selling everything from cornets to sheet music.

Given the limited output of guitars and the immaturity of the music market in 1833, distribution of Martin guitars was a haphazard affair in the early years. To augment the sales of his retail store, C. F. Martin entered into distribution agreements with a variety of teachers, importers, and wholesalers, including C. Bruno & Company (operating today as a subsidiary of Kaman), Henry Schatz, and John Coupa. Consequently, a number of Martin guitars manufactured prior to 1840 are labeled “Martin & Schatz” and “Martin & Coupa.”

 Guitar for wine

Accepted business practices in the early days of Martin’s retail and manufacturing operation were far removed from today’s methods and reflected a simpler society. Barter was common in the retail trade. C. F. Martin’s personal records contain numerous entries of trading musical merchandise for everything from a case of wine to children’s clothing. New York City’s teeming Lower East Side was a harsh environment that was a world apart from the pastoral Saxony where Martin and his family grew up. Correspondence between Martin and his close friend and business associate, Henry Schatz, revealed that he never felt truly at home in New York and longed to move. In 1836, Schatz moved to the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, purchasing a 55-acre tract near Nazareth. When C. F. Martin’s wife paid a visit to Schatz and his family, she developed an instant affinity for the tranquil Pennsylvania countryside. Upon returning to New York, she exerted what must have been considerable influence and prompted her husband to make the big move to Nazareth. Thus, in 1838, Martin sold his retail store to another music dealer by the name of Ludecus & Wolter and purchased an eight-acre tract on the outskirts of Nazareth. He had obviously found what he wanted, for he spent the remainder of his life there.

The following years were a period of significant development for C. F. Martin & Company guitar makers. In addition to products sold by Ludecus & Wolter in New York, company records indicate that numerous shipments were made to the then centers of trade, which were primarily shipping posts and those cities served by the canal system, since the railroad had yet to evolve. Martin’s shipping records made frequent mention of sales in Boston, Albany, Philadelphia, Richmond, Petersburg, Nashville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and New Orleans. Business in the period was obviously satisfactory, for in an advertisement in 1850 the company declared, “C. F. Martin, Guitar Maker, respectfully informs the musical public generally that the great favor bestowed upon him has induced him to enlarge his factory, in order to supply the increasing demand for his instruments.”

From workshop to factory

The early Martin guitars were totally hand-crafted products, made on a one-by-one basis, and there was little standardization. However, there were a few features that commonly incorporated in most of C. F. Martin’s instruments. Until the mid-1840s, Martin guitars were characterized by a headstock that had all the tuning keys on one side. Martin acquired this design from his teacher in Vienna, Johann Stauffer. The headstock design with all the tuning keys on one side was discontinued by Martin and went unused until Leo Fender resurrected the design in 1948 with his Telecaster guitar.

Another feature of the early Martin guitars was an adjustable neck. A screw mounted in the back of the heel of the neck was extended into the neck block. At the top of the dovetail (where the neck joins the body) there was a wooden fulcrum about which the neck could pivot up and down. With the strings attached, the neck could be adjusted via a clock key inserted into the heel. While the adjustable neck allowed the player to adjust the playing actions of the guitar, the device was complicated and prone to slipping under full string tension. So gradually, Martin phased out this unique neck adjustment.

The 1850s also witnessed one of C. F. Martin’s major design innovations, the “X” bracing system for the guitar top. Still in use today on all steel-string Martin guitars, the bracing system is largely responsible for the distinctive Martin tone, characterized by brilliant treble and powerful bass response.

C. F. Martin, Sr., died on February 16, 1873, leaving to his family and the musical world a fine tradition of guitar making. Succeeding him at the helm of the young company was his son, 48-year-old Christian Frederick, Jr., who was born in Germany. Since relocating from New York City to Nazareth, the Martin Guitar Company had evolved from a one-man operation into a thriving entity employing over a dozen craftsmen. Originally located in the Martin family homestead, Martin guitar operations had expanded to the point where a factory was needed. In 1859, a plant was constructed on the corner of Main and North Streets in Nazareth. Having undergone numerous expansions, the North Street plant is still used today as a warehouse and shipping location for strings and accessories, as well as the site of Guitarmaker’s Connection, a retail supply house for instrument making and repair.

Testing a young man´s character

During the years following C. F. Martin, Sr.’s death, the fortunes of the Martin Company rose and fell with the business cycle. Company records, while incomplete, indicate that sales flourished during the Civil War, due in small part to the fact that many guitars were destroyed during the course of the war. A currency crisis following the war caused something of a panic among the populace and dampened Martin’s sales. However, by that time, the organization had been built to a level where it could withstand fluctuations in the economy. In 1888, C. F. Martin, Jr., died unexpectedly, leaving the business in the hands of his 22-year-old son, Frank Henry. Young Frank Martin’s abilities as a businessman were put to the test early on in his career as he took over a company faced with a severe distribution problem. At the time, C. A. Zoebisch & Sons, a New York-based importing firm, was the sole distributor for Martin guitars.

The primary business of Zoebisch & Sons was the distribution of band and orchestral instruments, and Frank Martin felt that consequently they did not devote sufficient effort to promote the Martin guitar. Martin was also continually aggravated by Zoebisch’s reluctance to handle new products, particularly the mandolin.

During the 1890s, with the massive immigration of Italians into the United States, the mandolin (an instrument of Italian origin) became increasingly popular. Frank Martin decided to terminate the distribution agreement, a large move for a young man with limited experience. Severing ties with Zoebisch was made even more difficult due to a long-standing bond of friendship that had existed between the Martin and Zoebisch families.

Upon assuming distribution of its own products, Martin enjoyed a tremendous boom in the sale of mandolins. In 1898, Frank Martin’s personal records indicated that the firm produced 113 mandolins of various styles. Production in the previous year had totaled a mere three units. Given that the company’s guitar production for the previous three years had been approximately 220 units per annum, the addition of mandolins to the product line represented significant growth for the company.

In the absence of a distributor, sales of Martin guitars and mandolins were handled by various direct mail advertisements in local newspapers and through the efforts of Frank Martin. On an annual basis, he made extensive sales trips throughout upper New York state and the New England area, where he personally sold the majority of the company’s output to music dealers.

Education instead for sales

The growth of C. F. Martin & Co. was slowed somewhat by Frank Martin’s decision to invest in a college education for his two sons, rather than in an expanded sales force for the company. A self-taught scholar who placed a high value on learning, Martin felt that a fine education for his sons would be in the best interests of the company on a long-term basis. Thus, Christian Frederick Martin III enrolled at Princeton University in 1912 and was joined there the following year by his brother, Herbert Keller Martin.

Recalling his father, Christian Frederick III says, “He was a remarkable man. He worked long hours all of his life in the guitar business. Yet, with little formal education, he was extraordinarily well read, with a thorough knowledge of Greek and Latin.”

Upon graduation from Princeton in 1916, Christian Frederick III entertained the idea of attending the graduate school of business administration at Harvard University. “I had ambitions at the time of getting away from the family business,” he recalls. “But my brother was still in college and my father needed help managing things, so I came home and went to work making guitars on what I thought would be a part-time basis.” What started out as a temporary situation for Christian Frederick evolved into a life-long vocation.

Riding the ukelele boom

The 1920s were booming years for the Martin Company, as the ukulele captured the fancy of the American public. The first Martin ukuleles were not well received. They were made much like a guitar, with too much bracing in the body, particularly in the top, which was of spruce. The excessive bracing and the spruce top gave the instruments a dead and lackluster tone that failed to appeal to the buying public.

Recognizing the shortcomings of its initial ukulele design, Martin went to work at producing an acceptable uke. By reducing the amount of bracing and substituting mahogany for spruce, Martin quickly garnered a large share of the ukulele market. The demand for the products was such that Martin was forced to double the capacity of the North Street plant with an additional wing and increase in the work force. Guitar production in 1920 totaled 1,361 units; records of ukulele production were not kept, but Christian Frederick Martin III estimates that the company turned out nearly twice as many ukuleles as guitars during the ’20s.

In structuring the organization of the company, Frank Henry Martin initially envisioned Christian Frederick Martin overseeing manufacturing with Herbert Keller Martin attending to the sales. This division of responsibility worked well until Herbert Keller Martin died unexpectedly after a few days of illness in 1927. With the passing of his brother, Christian Frederick became increasingly involved in company sales efforts, traveling extensively throughout the country.

During the decade of the ’20s, sales of C. F. Martin instruments increased every year, and by 1928 annual guitar production stood at 5,215 units, over four times the output of 1920. With the advent of the Great Depression in 1929, national economic hardship forced the Martin family to discard aspirations for increased sales and concentrate on plain survival. With millions out of work and thousands of businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, selling guitars proved increasingly challenging.

Between 1929 and 1931, guitar sales were virtually halved. Responding to the harsh climate, Martin reduced its wage rate and for a time operated on a three-day week. The company also diversified, producing violin parts and even some wooden jewelry, in an effort to keep workmen busy. However, the company never vigorously pursued any of these areas. “We were always afraid that getting into some other business would hurt our guitar business,” related C. F. Martin III. He added, “We entered a few other fields during the Depression, not with any enthusiasm, but out of necessity.”

Striving to stimulate seriously depressed sales, Martin launched an active product development campaign during the Depression. During this period, the company added new designs to the product line, altered existing products, and explored numerous features in hopes of finding a product that would bolster lagging sales. While many of the products conceived during this period had a short life span, two major developments emerged that had a lasting effect on the company: the creation of the now famous “Dreadnought” guitar and the invention of the 14-fret neck.

Martin innovations

According to C. F. Martin III, the 14-fret neck was developed in late 1929. Prior to the period, guitars were generally equipped with a 12-fret neck. As the story goes, a renowned plectrum banjoist of the day, Perry Bechtel, suggested to Frank Henry Martin that he make a guitar with a 14-fret neck. Bechtel reasoned that the longer neck would increase the guitar’s range and make it a more versatile instrument. Following Bechtel’s advice, Martin introduced a guitar with the longer neck and dubbed it an “Orchestra Model.”

The 14-fret neck was so well received that Martin eventually extended the feature to all models in its line. In short order, it became the standard design for the American guitar industry.

The Dreadnought guitar, named after a large class of World War I British battleships, has become something of a trademark of the Martin Company. The original Martin Dreadnought models were designed by Frank Martin and Harry Hunt, manager of Chas. H. Ditson Co., a leading music retailer with stores in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. A shrewd judge of the market, Hunt reasoned that a Dreadnought guitar, with its large body and booming bass, would be ideal for accompanying vocals. The first Dreadnoughts, introduced in 1916, were sold under the brand name of “Oliver Ditson & Co., Boston, New York.” At first the instruments were not very well received simply because there were not many singers using guitars, and solo players felt that the bass on the Dreadnought was overbearing. However, as folk singing became increasingly popular, sales of the Dreadnought picked up. The Ditson Company went out of business in the late 1920s, and in 1931 Martin incorporated the Dreadnought into its line of guitars. Today, the model is a dominant factor in the Martin line, and virtually every maker of acoustic guitars, both domestic and foreign, has introduced a version of this original Martin design.

An Era of prosperity

Frank Henry Martin died at the age of 81 in 1948, and C. F. Martin III assumed the presidency of the company, which continued to enjoy worldwide recognition for its guitars of uncompromising quality. Post-war prosperity, coupled with a growing interest in guitars and folk music, made the years 1948-1970 an unprecedented era of growth for C. F. Martin. Demand for Martin guitars increased at a far greater pace than did production capacity, and thus by the early ’60s the company was back-ordered as much as three years. While some might have felt that Martin’s back-order situation was enviable, C. F. Martin III recounted that it was a frustrating time. “When someone walks into a music store with several hundred dollars and asks for a Martin guitar, he wants it then, not three years later. Our lack of production capacity at the time cost us sales and strained our relationships with our dealer family.”

Thus, C. F. Martin III, with the aid of his son, Frank Herbert Martin, who joined the company in 1955, made the major decision to build a new larger plant. In 1964 the North Street plant, with its multi-story construction and numerous additions, was no longer adequate to service the demand for the company’s product. “The North Street plant was not the best production facility, but running up and down four flights of stairs constantly every day probably contributed to the longevity of Martin family members,” quipped C. F. Martin III.

Production methods at the new Sycamore Street Martin plant have evolved slightly from methods used at North Street. Hand craftsmanship was and remains the trademark of the Martin guitar. However, with the building’s efficient one-story layout, Martin has been able to improve the flow of materials and work in progress and thus gradually increase output without sacrificing quality.

Under the direction of Frank Herbert Martin, who succeeded his father, C. F. Martin III, as president in 1970, Martin began a period of acquisition. In 1970, the company purchased the renowned Vega Banjo Works of Boston. Months later, it acquired the Fibes Drum Company, makers of a unique fiberglass drum. The year 1970 brought still another acquisition, that of the Darco String Company, owned by John D’Addario, Sr., John D’Addario, Jr., and James D’Addario. Another addition in the early ’70s was the A. B. Herman Carlson Levin Company of Sweden. Levin made a variety of classic guitars as well as the steel string type. In subsequent years, Vega, Levin and Fibes were spun off; however, the manufacture of Martin and Darco strings remains an integral part of the company.


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