Martin 5-18

Martin 5-18
This Martin 5-18 was made in late 1935 and carries serial number 61745.

The Martin style 5-18 is the smallest guitar in Martin catalogs; at the lower bout, it measures 11.25″, while at the upper bout it is 8.25″. And its body is just 16″ in length, with a scale of 21.4″. In 1930s catalogs, the style 5-18 and the less expensive matching size 5-17 were listed with the caption “Junior, or three-quarter, sizes fine for children; easy to hold and to play.”

Though most players viewed size 5 guitars as “junior” instruments, in the 1950s and ’60s, the style 5-18 was popularized by Marty Robbins, who used it extensively onstage.

Early in the history of the Martin company, guitars of this size were not viewed as a junior or three-quarter instruments, but were part of the Germanic tradition of “terz” guitars, designed to be tuned to a minor third – three frets higher than standard pitch and suitable for solo performances and harmony work. Terz guitars were produced by many 19th-century Germanic makers, and many European composers in the early/mid 19th century – most notably Giuliani and Sor – wrote solo and ensemble music that included parts for terz guitar. C.F. Martin, Sr. was deeply influenced by the designs of Johan Stauffer and was familiar with Stauffer’s terz guitars. Some surviving Martins of the 1830s and ’40s are terz guitars, and have a scale of 22″.

From the 1840s through the 1850s, Martin’s style designation system became increasingly standardized. Guitars were offered in sizes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, with the largest (size 1) measuring 12.75″ wide and the smallest being the size 5 terz. The very rare size 4 was also designated a terz. As larger guitars became popular during the 1800s, Martin introduced the size 0 measuring 13.5″ wide and later the size 00 measuring 14.125″ wide. It was not until after 1900 that the 15″-wide size 000 was introduced.

The 5-18 was listed as early as 1898 in Martin literature and last appeared in their catalog in 1989, though a Marty Robbins reissue 5-18 has been offered since 2006. With the exception of the slotted peghead, which was discontinued in the late 1940s in favor of a solid peghead, the 1935 5-18 shown here is virtually the same in appearance. This guitar has an Adirondack spruce top, whereas the post-war 5-18 has Sitka spruce. The ’35 has a Brazilian rosewood bridge, fingerboard, and peghead veneer, while those made from 1970 onward have Indian rosewood. The ’35 also has mahogany neck, back, and sides, as do the post-war models.

Though Martin offered size 5 models ranging from style 15 through the elaborately ornamented style 45, the only ones made in any significant quantity prior to World War II were the style 17, 18, and 21 in six-string guitars and styles 17, 18, and 21 tenors, as well as some style 15 post-war size 5 tenors. In recent years, Martin has offered highly ornamented size 5 models.

While terz guitars tuned a minor third above standard are a common instrument in the Germanic tradition, requinto guitars tuned a fourth higher (five frets above standard) are common part of Spanish and Latin American tradition. The requinto used in mariachi music is smaller than the standard-tuned guitars in the band, but has greater volume and projection and plays a significant role in the music. From the mid 1990s until recently, the Tacoma Papoose (tuned five frets above standard) was part of that company’s line, which ranged from the Papoose to standard-size instruments and a baritone guitar as well as acoustic four- and five-string basses.

Though size 5 terz guitars are smaller, they produce as much volume and have as much (if not more) projection than a full-sized/standard-tuned instrument. Many other small instruments have similar qualities; a fine violin can be used to play a solo heard above an entire symphony orchestra without amplification, a mandolin is fully as loud if not more so than any guitar, and the sound from the lone piccolo in a large symphony orchestra can carry throughout a concert hall. In spite of their size, small instruments designed with the proper ratio of air-chamber size to pitch are capable of tremendous volume and projection.

It’s ironic that although size 5 instruments were designed to be tuned three frets above standard pitch and have a scale length very similar to a standard guitar capoed at the third fret, pre-war Martin catalogs, as well as those of the 1950s through ’80s, referred to them as simply three-quarter-sized guitars. They are quite playable tuned to standard pitch, but tuned at least two frets above standard pitch, their sound comes alive. The short scale and smaller body results in a very different sound with excellent tone, volume, and projection. Though three of the four strings of the violin and viola are tuned the same, their tone remains quite different; the same applies to the terz, which has a voice all its own.

Martin’s description for the Marty Robbins 5-18 instructs players to tune the instrument three frets above standard pitch, finally acknowledging (and paying homage to) the fact these are descendents of early terz guitar designs from the homeland of C.F. Martin, Sr.

This article originally appeared in VG June 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.