By 1912, players of fretted instruments were familiar with steel strings. Mandolins, which were enjoying their period of greatest popularity, were strung with steel. Guitars made by Gibson and by the Larson Brothers were strung with steel. The tenor banjo had recently arrived on the scene, having been introduced by J.B. Schall in 1907 as the “banjorine,” and its steel-string tone would soon be the preferred rhythm sound in American popular music.
Despite an advance in body sizes at the turn of the century – a response, no doubt, to a demand for louder instruments that could be heard amongst the steel strings of a mandolin band – Martin guitars continued to be designed for gut strings, as is clearly indicated by the ivory friction pegs of this 1912 Martin 000-28. Martin was certainly familiar with steel strings, having introduced a mandolin line in 1895, but when it came to guitars, Martin resisted the movement to steel and stayed with its proven market base of “serious” guitarists, who typically took formal lessons and played their gut-string guitars in parlors and recital halls. Although we use the term “classical” today as a catch-all for the gut-string guitars and guitarists of this period, the term was not in use at that time.
This guitar has a number of features that distinguish it from the Spanish-style guitars that evolved into what we today call classicals. Possibly the most significant of these features is not visible without looking inside the guitar. It is the X-pattern bracing that C.F. Martin perfected around 1850. Spanish “classicals” had a fan-braced top. Ironically, some of the early guitars Martin made in partnership with New York guitar teacher John Coupa had the fan-pattern bracing that would become a trademark of Spanish makers by the end of 19th century and would help define the “classical” guitar as we know it today.
One visible difference between the typical Martin and Spanish-made guitars is the bridge. Spanish guitars had the strings tied to the bridge, while this Martin has the strings anchored with bridge pins. There are some early Martins (1830s to 1850s) with strings tied around the bridge, but the great majority had bridge pins.
Not so obvious, until the guitar is played, is the difference in necks. The Martin fingerboard of this era is typically 17/8″ wide at the nut, while the standard Spanish neck has a nut width of 2″. The profile of the Martin neck is relatively thin by today’s standards, but it still has a pronounced V-shape, while the Spanish neck is flat in the middle. The neck joints, too, are different; a dove-tail joint with an end block on the Martin, an end block that is integral with the neck on a Spanish guitar.
The solid peghead with friction pegs was atypical – most Martins, like the Spanish-made guitars, had a slotted headstock – but was hardly unknown. Wood friction pegs were a sign of a cheap guitar (since wood pegs were cheaper than tuners), and ivory pegs had been used not only on Martins but on lavishly appointed guitars going back to the baroque era. The ivory pegs were not strictly ornamental; if they were properly fitted, they could be as accurate as geared tuners. But they could not handle the tension of steel strings and thus were used strictly with gut strings.
The fourth distinguishing feature of this Martin is subtle but significant – its size. Today, Martin’s 15″ 000 is only a midrange size. The D (dreadnought), M, J, and Grand J are larger; sizes 00, 0 and 5 are smaller. In 1910, however, the 000 was Martin’s newest and largest size. Introduced in 1902, it was a full 7/8″ wider than the next largest size, the 00, and a full 3″ wider than Size 2, which had been one of the more popular sizes of the 1800s. Spanish-made guitars were becoming larger, too, during that period, but even today, the typical classical guitar is something under 15″.
The 000 was slow to catch on. As of 1912, the year this 000-28 was made, Martin had made only one 000-17, four 000-18, 18 000-21s (two of which were 10-strings and four of which were harp guitars), nine 000-28s, and one 000-45 – a total of 33 000-size guitars over a period of 10 years, for an average of less than four per year.
What was the 000’s problem? It was $5 more expensive than the 00-28 at $50, but if it had offered an improvement in sound and volume over the 00 – which one might expect, from a comparison of today’s steel-string 00s and 000s – then the price difference would have been insignificant. The real problem was probably rooted in the fundamental design of Martin guitars, which VG columnist R.E. Bruné (“Guitars with Guts”) describes as “industrial” and “overbuilt” compared to Spanish-made guitars.
Indeed, Martin’s X-brace was not as responsive to gut strings as the Spanish-style fan pattern, and the larger, 000-size body only gave the strings a heavier load to drive. It’s impossible to know what was going on in the minds of “serious” guitarists at that time, but a sampling can be taken from the buyers of Martin’s Style 44 guitars. These were the signature models of noted guitarist Vahdah Olcott-Bickford. Of the total of 31 style 44 guitars made from 1913 to ’38, four were size 2, 17 were 0, seven were 00, and only three were 000. Clearly, the larger body was not preferred by this group of players.
For the first 20 years of the 000’s existence, Martin never produced more than five of any 000-size model in a year. Production of 000s picked up considerably in 1923, and it’s probably no coincidence that Martin began phasing in steel strings (albeit on the less expensive, mahogany-body models) around the same time. With steel strings, Martin’s “overbuilt” design finally found its voice.
Because of the 000’s rarity in the era before steel strings, friction pegs are extremely rare on a 000-size Martin. In fact, this is the only 000-28 we have ever seen with friction pegs. While the ivory pegs represent one of Martin’s last nods to a bygone era, the 000-size body sets the stage for a new world of larger bodies and steel strings.
This article originally appeared in VG July 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.