Through the years, Martin’s dreadnought, OM, and 000 guitars may have gained the most notoriety. But for the sweetest and best-quality sound, Martin itself recommends the size 0, exemplified by this 0-42.
There’s obviously a catch to that statement, since only two of Martin’s current offering of over 200 models are size-0 guitars. The recommendation appeared in Martin catalogs around the time this guitar was made – 1920 – when a 131/2″ guitar was still considered a full-size instrument. If a sweet sound was not enough, Martin recommended the larger (though still small by modern standards) 141/8″-wide 00-size for clients wanting the greatest possible power in a concert setting (the even-larger, 15″-wide 000 was a more powerful guitar than the 00, but with sporadic production averaging less than five guitars per year from 1902 to 1920, its staying power was still unproven).
At the time this guitar was made, the vast majority of Martin guitars were designed to be played with gut strings. Although these guitars are braced with an X pattern, which is typically associated with steel-string instruments, it should be noted that Martin was using X bracing by the early 1850s, long before the company ever had any thought of putting steel strings on any of their guitars. It’s also of interest to note that while the bracing in 1920 was still very light, the actual dimension of the bracing was not radically different from the late ’20s onward, when Martin’s smaller guitars were intended to be used with steel strings. It was not until the mid 1940s that Martin dramatically beefed up the size of the braces on the small-body instruments.
This 1920 guitar features French polish finish rather than lacquer. Martin started using nitrocellulose lacquer in 1926. Prior to that, their guitars had a hand-rubbed shellac-based finish (“French polish” is the technique). Sprayed lacquer is much easier to apply and more resistant to scratches, but tends to dry out and crack over a long period of time, whereas French polish finishes look good even when over a century old.
This guitar features a one-piece, 12-fret, slot-head mahogany neck, whereas prior to 1918 the necks were Spanish cedar and their pegheads were grafted on. After the grafted style was replaced by a one-piece neck and peghead, Martin left a volute on the back of the peghead on styles 28 and higher that preserves the artistic appearance of the original German-style graft.
This guitar has bindings of white “ivoroid” (celluloid with an ivory grain pattern) on the fingerboard and body edges, whereas Martin guitars with white-colored binding made prior to 1918 had genuine ivory. The pearl-trimmed models also had violin-style wood purfling up until 1943 (when they were all discontinued). Martin continued to use ivoroid bindings until the late ’60s, after which they switched to white plastic. Today, Martin uses ivoroid bindings (but with plastic purfling lines rather than real wood) on many Custom Shop and limited-edition guitars as well as the Vintage Series, Golden Era series, Marquis series instruments and the D-28 Authentic model.
As is typical of Martin guitars of Style 21 and higher made prior to World War II, this guitar features an Adirondack spruce top; Brazilian rosewood back, sides and peghead veneer; and ebony fingerboard and bridge. The pyramid-end ebony bridge is typical of higher-grade Martins made prior to mid 1930, before the introduction of the modern “belly” bridge. The ornamentation of this guitar, with snowflake fingerboard inlays, white binding on the fingerboard and body edges, and abalone top trim, is typical of Style 42.
Style 42 dates back to the 1850s, when Martin began standardizing ornamentation schemes. Then, as now, it used abalone trim around the soundhole, top border, and around the fingerboard extension. Style 40 was almost the same model, but it lacked the abalone border around the fingerboard. Model numbers were originally the wholesale price of the guitar, so the wholesale value of the extra abalone trim was $2. Style 42 remained Martin’s top model for almost 50 years, until the introduction of Style 45 in the early 1900s. At the time this 0-42 was made, Martin guitars were offered in style 17, 18, 21, 28, 42, and 45 with the style 17 being the least ornamented and the 45 being the most ornate.
The 0-42 sold in small numbers from 1898 (the first year that production figures are available) through 1920, peaking at 20 per year but with single-digit production in many of those years. In the ’20s, production jumped considerably to a high of 52 in 1927. While the ostentatious trends of the Jazz Age may been a factor in the increased demand for the pearl-trimmed 0-42, Martin experienced a surge in production across the entire line in the ’20s – from the small, plain 0-18 to the large, fancy 000-45.
When the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Depression arrived, it hit across the entire line, too, prompting Martin to introduce the cheaper all-mahogany Style 17 models and abandon most of the rosewood-body 0-size models. Only the 0-28 was produced in any significant numbers. The economy recovered in the mid ’30s, and Martin did, too, thanks to a combination of strong sales of low-end models and increasing demand for its larger 000 and dreadnought-size models. The 0-42, with high-end ornamentation and what was now considered a small body, never recovered. It had been in regular production from the 1850s through 1930, but after 1930, Martin made only one 0-42 in 1934, one in ’38 and one in ’42. The larger 00-42 and 000-42 did not fare much better, lasting only into ’43, after which Style 42 was discontinued.
This 1920 0-42 is a superbly crafted guitar that represents the end of the era of small-bodied guitars – an era when many players valued tone above power. In that context, it still lives up to its billing as the Martin with the sweetest and best-quality sound.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April 2010 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.