Over the years, I’ve tried to include instruments in this column that were functional and affordable. Occasionally, we’ve lucked out and found spectacular instruments that offer more than your money’s worth. Some of my personal favorites from the past include the Mesa/Boogie Mark III amp, Kramer Pacer guitar and the Gibson L6S.
This month’s entry is a guitar I can no longer ignore. The Martin D-1 is my favorite new acoustic, and yet I see them priced new for $700 or less across the nation. I’ve started seeing them used in the $600 range, and for what you get in return, this may just be the best bargain I’ve ever written about in this column.
Martin guitars need little introduction. In 1833, Christian Frederick Martin left 19th-century Germany and relocated in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania. Through the years, the company has made dozens of models, almost completely handmade, and hammered out a reputation that business people in any industry could only envy. The D-1 is a new guitar, which first appeared on the scene at the Winter NAMM show in 1993. With a list price of $995, the folks in Nazareth were doing their best to produce a quality made-in-America acoustic deserving of the “since 1833” moniker. As the current catalog illuminates, “Martin opted to utilize a two-piece solid mahogany back, coupled with veneered mahogany sides. The three-ply sides provide an extraordinary dimensional stability.”
Cosmetically, it’s hard to tell the sides are not solid wood.
“Perhaps the most radical departure from most typical Martin guitar construction is the redesign of the top bracing pattern and neck-to-body joint area,” the catalog continues. “Unique A-frame braces tie directly into a laminated alder neck block, adding support to the soundhole area. The neck incorporates a buttress extension designed specially to support the fingerboard.”
Gibson pioneered the concept in 1960, with the Johnny Smith jazz guitar. The idea is to have more wood beneath where the fingerboard joins the top. Smith reasoned this would give better sustain and fewer dead spots above the 12th fret. While the D-1 isn’t a cutaway guitar, it does add clarity to upper-register notes. I also suspect this diminishes the chances of the fingerboard pulling away from the top. Martin also stresses that “the X brace has been modified to a full square overlap, and a unique, angled maple bridge plate minimizes failure of this high-stress component.”
Thus, the different construction techniques are designed to improve an already excellent design many players argue can’t be improved upon.
Visually, this isn’t the typical Martin finish. The white spruce top, made famous on dreadnoughts and concert 00 series guitars, is missing, along with the shiny glossed rosewood back and sides. The D-1 looks like a Gibson LG-0 made in Nazareth and sized like a D-18. With the cost of a new D-18 over $2,000 (list), Martin wisely decided to opt for a less expensive finish and still use quality materials. The D-1 looks like it’s made totally from mahogany wood and finished with a paper-thin coat of lacquer sealer. In fact, Martin says the D-1 uses “a special cross link finish… extremely thin, to optimize tone.” The typical dreadnought features apply – 20 frets on an 251/2″ scale, 14 frets clear of the body, etc. The fretwork is nice, with somewhat larger frets than the typical Martin. Tuners are chrome-plated affairs that look suspiciously like Schallers without really saying so. In my experience, they are the weakest part of the guitar. While many will find they work satisfactorily, they are also the easiest part to replace.
We’ve looked at the cosmetics and the materials, but how does the D-1 sound?
To my ears, fantastic! In the past two years, two students have bought these guitars and they both have special stuff I didn’t expect to find in a newer acoustic. I think of the D-1 as almost two separate guitars – a great fingerstyle instrument and a very good bluegrass “battleship.” Unlike most every D-series Martins I’ve played, the D-1 responds to every little nuance, whether played with fingers or fingerpicks. It seems lighter than other acoustics I’ve played, but the D-1 is probably my favorite fingerpicking dreadnought. If you need more guts, grab a flatpick and it’s all there.
To be fair, the D-1 doesn’t have the bluegrass festival volume of a good D-28 or even an average D-18. However, it doesn’t cost anywhere near as much, and to me, the D-1 is more versatile. Most studio players don’t record fingerstyle parts with a dreadnought. This guitar is perhaps the only Martin D size you could do it with and still sound convincing. Maybe the top bracing, thinner finish or combination of woods is responsible; whatever does it, the D-1 works.
I don’t think Martin should drop its other guitars and just make the D-1. I don’t care for its appearance, only because I prefer the white spruce top on the other D-series guitars. Many of you will find the mahogany finish attractive. I also don’t care for the tuners, but I’ve already said this can be remedied easily, and if Martin had to cut any corners, this is without question the place to do it. But these quibbles are picayune, and the D-1 is one of my favorite new guitars, regardless of price.
The best thing about this guitar is its consistency. Phil Jones, in North Carolina, and John Jegen, in Texas, both have D-1s I’ve played extensively, and both instruments amaze me. This is hard to do with any instrument, but even more so with a flat-top acoustic. If you’re looking for a new, American-made acoustic with real tone and magic, snap up a D-1 before Martin wises up and raises the price $500 or so. You might find these guitars on sale new for around $700, or call one of our VG dealers and tell ’em Riley sent you. Happy hunting, amigos!
Special thanks to Phil Jones and John Jegen for the use of their guitars and Michael Havens at Brook Mays music for research for this review.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’97 issue.