The Martin D-45, offered by the company from 1933 through 1942, is well-known as the Holy Grail of acoustic guitars. While players and collectors may argue whether it is the absolute best guitar ever made, in terms of value, it easily outdistances any other acoustic model in the vintage market.
Ironically, the D-45 was not the result of some historic moment of inspiration at the Martin company. In fact, each of the three key steps in the creation of the D-45 originated outside of Martin.
The first step came in 1902, when two customers ordered extra-fancy versions of Martin’s Style 42, which had abalone pearl around the top border and around the fingerboard extension. Style 42 had been Martin’s top ornamentation package since the 1850s, and the company apparently saw no need for a fancier model. These two extra-fancy guitars were simply called Style 42 Specials. A few more 42 Specials were ordered in 1903. In the context of the 68,000-plus guitars made by Martin in 2008, a handful of special orders may seem insignificant, but in 1902 and ’03, Martin made a total of 218 and 192 guitars, respectively, so even a few orders amounted to a wave of demand. Martin responded in 1904 by making the “popular” new custom style official, calling it Style 45. Only one 00-45 was sold that year, from total production of 178 guitars.
The company was much slower to recognize the dreadnought wave. Again, the idea came from outside the company, in this case from Harry Hunt at the Oliver Ditson Co., a prominent Boston retailer. Hunt contracted Martin to provide an entire line of Ditson-brand instruments, including an oversized guitar that Martin simply referred to as “extra large.” The body looked bigger, thanks to an outline that was relatively wide across the waists. And it was in fact bigger – 155/8″ wide and 43/4″ deep. By comparison, Martin’s largest body size, the 000, was 5/8″ narrower and 11/16″ shallower.
Ditson called these monster guitars “dreadnoughts,” after the HMS Dreadnought, which was the largest battleship of its day. They didn’t sell well – only 33 between 1916 and 1930. Just as Ditson was giving up on the dreadnought, musicians were abandoning the tenor banjo in favor of the guitar, and they needed louder guitars – i.e., bigger guitars. Martin gave the dreadnoughts one last shot, beginning in 1931, with two models featuring the same specs as Styles 18 and 28 (initially called D-1 and D-2 respectively). One of the first went to a hillbilly singer named Luther Ossenbrink, better known to listeners of Chicago radio station WLS as Arkie the Arkansas Woodchopper. Arkie had Martin inlay his name in script on the fingerboard.
Arkie’s big new Martin did not go unnoticed by his fellow WLS performers, among them a hillbilly/blues singer named Gene Autry. In 1932, Autry’s career took off with his recording of “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” and he needed a guitar that matched his superstar status. Arkie’s Martin was relatively plain except for the pearl “Arkie” on the fingerboard. Autry asked Martin for the same size guitar but with the all-out pearl treatment of Style 45, plus his full name inlaid in script on the fingerboard. Martin delivered the first D-45 to Autry in 1933.
A Milwaukee singer named Jackie “Kid” Moore undoubtedly saw Autry’s D-45 and ordered one for himself in 1934. Still Martin did nothing to capitalize on Autry’s unofficial endorsement of the D-45. In fact, Martin seemed uncertain of what to do with the model. No D-45s were made in ’35. Two were made in 1936, but they were supersized with an extra-wide 161/4″ body width. Both of them featured the 14-fret neck that Martin had adopted for its larger models. The next D-45, made in 1937, was almost a standard model, but it had double pickguards. The second example from ’37 was another custom job, with a 12-fret neck and a solid peghead.
Finally, in ’38, Martin put the model in the catalog and sold nine D-45s that year. By this time Martin’s annual production had reached 3001, so nine D-45s represented a smaller percentage of production than the lone 00-45 of 1904 that kicked off Style 45.
Some time in 1940 or ’41, a player in the small Illinois town of Waterloo (near St. Louis) put down his $200 for a D-45. Seven miles up the road in Columbia, another guitarist was so impressed by his friend’s instrument that he later traded a banjo for a used ’42 D-45. The two guitarists played together occasionally, representing what is surely the only band to feature two pre-war D-45s. Through the years, the ’42 guitar received no special care. The owner’s kids used the case as a ramp for their toy cars, and the guitar was stored in a closet. Somehow, the instrument survived without a crack.
This guitar illustrates the changes in the D-45 since Gene Autry’s special order just nine years earlier. Autry’s had a 12-fret slot-head neck with the “torch” inlay that was standard on the smaller Style 45 models. With the change to 14-fret necks, the D-45 adopted a headstock inlay that had first appeared on Martin’s C-series archtops, consisting of “Martin” inlaid vertically, framed by the letters C and F. The fingerboard inlay on Autry’s guitar was customized, obviously; the production D-45s initially had the standard Style “snowflake” pattern, but that was changed in 1939 to another pattern borrowed from the archtop line – hexagons.
Martin stopped making the D-45 (and all abalone-bordered Style 40 models), during World War II, but the reason is not clear. Unlike Gibson or Epiphone, Martin did not cut back production and, in fact, increased production in 1945, the last year of the war. The most logical reasons for discontinuing the pearly models would be a shortage of abalone pearl or a shortage of craftsmen who could perform the inlay work. For whatever reason, the last D-45 from the original production period was finished in ’42, bringing the grand total, including Autry’s and the other non-standard models, to 91.
Martin did undergo a major change in 1945, when C.F. “Fred” Martin III, took over from his father, Frank Henry Martin, as president of the company. A mandolin player in his youth, C.F. III was in his early 20s when World War I ended, and he witnessed first-hand the dramatic change in the musical instrument business as the tenor banjo and “jass” quickly overshadowed the mandolin. He had seen the banjo succumb to large-bodied acoustic guitars in the early ’30s, and he had seen the beginnings of an electric guitar market in the years just prior to World War II. When he became company president at age 50, another World War was coming to a close, and the future of the acoustic guitar was unpredictable. Any student of history would have proceeded cautiously, and that’s what C.F. III did. He did not revive the archtops. He did not jump on the electric bandwagon (at least not until ’58). And he did not revive the D-45 nor any of the other pearl-bordered models.
Demand for the D-45 lay dormant for a while, but by the ’60s, there were not enough of these 25-year-old used guitars to go around. In the meantime, a repairman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, named Mike Longworth was building a thriving business converting D-28s to D-45s, and by ’68, Martin responded to the demand and revived the D-45. Having employed no inlay specialists since the pre-war years, they hired Longworth to do the inlays on the reissue. Since then, Martin has offered more than a dozen special variations. The basic model remains in production today and, in the minds of guitar aficionados, remains the epitome of acoustic guitar design.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.