The exotic figuration of Hawaiian koa wood on this Martin 0-28K from 1923 has a visual appeal that matched the exotic sound of Hawaiian music in the 1920s, and koa guitars accounted for a significant part of Martin’s sales through that period.
Koa guitars played a larger role in Martin history, introducing steel strings to the line and changing the company’s market from classical guitars and mandolins to modern steel-stringed guitars.
Most guitar histories cite the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 as the beginning of a Hawaiian music craze that swept the nation, but American audiences and American guitar makers had been aware of Hawaiian instruments and musicians for 20 years before the movement took off. Recordings of Hawaiian musicians were made as early as 1899, and Hawaiian performers appeared at a number of fairs and expositions prior to the Pan-Pacific, including Chicago (1895), Buffalo (1901), Portland (1905) and Seattle (1909).
Awareness of koa guitars with steel strings goes back even farther. American instrument makers had steel-string instruments thrust upon them with the mandolin craze that began in 1880, but they resisted the idea of steel-string guitars. The prevailing belief, as expressed in the 1894 Sears Roebuck catalog, was that a spruce top simply could not withstand the extra tension of steel strings. That same catalog noted how the Hawaiians had found a solution; their koa-topped instruments were in fact strong enough to handle steel strings.
Not all makers subscribed to the belief that steel and spruce couldn’t work together. Separate from the influence of Hawaiian music, in Chicago, the Larson Brothers were making Maurer-brand steel-string flat-tops with spruce tops by the turn of the century. They solved the problem of extra tension with stronger bracing rather than stronger wood. Not far away, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Orville Gibson made guitars with a self-supporting arched top and strung them with steel.
Through 1915, in an era dominated by the mandolin, Martin was well on its way to becoming a mandolin company. From 1898 to 1915, mandolin production slightly surpassed guitars (4,408 mandolins compared with 4,209 guitars). In 1915, the company made 302 mandolins and only 162 guitars.
Thanks to performances by Hawaiian musicians at the Pan-Pacific Exhibition, the market for guitars surged in 1915, but the new style of Hawaiian playing, with a steel bar, simply would not work with gut strings; a Hawaiian guitarist had to have a steel-stringed guitar.
At that point, it was clear to Frank Henry Martin, grandson of the founder and great-grandfather of the current CEO, that the classical-guitar market could no longer support Martin, and the company gave Hawaiian music its undivided attention. Within a year of the Pan-Pacific Exhibition, Martin had ukuleles on the market. Also in 1916, Martin began producing steel-string guitars under contract with the Ditson company and all-koa Hawaiian models for Southern California Music. It would be 15 years before Martin incorporated one of the special Ditson models – the dreadnought – into the regular Martin line, but the koa guitars were a different matter. It took only one year from the first SCM koas for Martin to offer a koa model under the Martin brand.
To make the biggest splash with its entry into the Hawaiian guitar market, Martin chose its most popular size, the 131/2″-wide Size 0, and trimmed it with Style 28 ornamentation including the distinctive herringbone border around the top.
After making six 0-28Ks in 1917, Martin temporarily abandoned the model and introduced the plainer, less expensive (and thus more likely to sell) 0-18K. A 00-size in Style 18 was added a year later, and a 000-28K a year after that. In 1921, the 0-28K rejoined the line.
This 1927 example has a standard nut and standard frets. Like virtually all Martins before 1929, the saddle is aligned perpendicular to the strings, so this model could easily be converted to Hawaiian-style by simply replacing the standard nut with a high nut to raise the strings off the fingerboard. By 1925, Martin was listing a Hawaiian version, with a flat fingerboard, flush frets, and a high nut as an option. When Martin replaced the pyramid-end bridge in ’29, the standard models had the bridge slightly angled.
Martin’s koa models jump-started overall interest in Martin guitars, as the company’s production immediately tripled from 181 in 1916 to 598 in 1917. In 1919, production topped 1,000. The first non-Hawaiian Martin steel-string, the all-mahogany 2-17, debuted in ’22, and Martin’s annual guitar production topped 2,000 that year. The koas remained strong through the ’20s; from 1927 to ’29, the 0-28K outsold the regular 0-28.
Steel strings began working their way across the Martin line, starting with the mahogany-body Styles 17 and 18. By the end of the ’20s, the standard bracing on a Martin was strong enough for steel strings. With the larger dreadnought body waiting in the wings, Martin was ready to take advantage of the guitar’s rise to prominence in the 1930s. However, the koa models that had brought the company to that point were not faring so well. Resonator guitars, introduced by the National company in 1927, were significantly louder than koa instruments, and they quickly dominated the Hawaiian market. With the advent of electric guitars in 1932, most Hawaiian guitarists went electric, making acoustic Hawaiian guitars obsolete.
With no demand from Hawaiian players and with larger-bodied instruments beginning to dominate the guitar market, Martin stopped production of the 0-28K after 1931; total production of the model was 641 (including one straggler in ’35). The 0-18K lasted through ’35, with total production of 3,132.
The pleasing tone of koa wood has given the 0-18K and 0-28K an appeal beyond Hawaiian music, and some owners have converted Hawaiian models to standard setup. Installing a nut, radiusing the fingerboard, re-setting the neck, and rerouting the saddle slot typically does not increase the value beyond the cost of the repair work, but it does make the guitar more versatile. As a display piece, a nicely figured 0-28K continues to be one of the most beautiful of Martin’s standard guitar models.
Special thanks to Richard Johnston.
This article originally appeared in VG July 2010 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.