When trying to determine originality, guitar dealers and collectors have a tendency to study instruments with the care of a forensic pathologist. Still, modifications can be difficult to detect, and manufacturers’ records are often the only way to map an instrument’s history and determine whether it has been repaired or modified.
No matter how skilled a collector, dealer, or repairman may be, they simply cannot look at an instrument and determine exactly how many years ago a repair or modification may have been done. To complicate matters, custom-order instruments were built with non-standard specifications, while other instruments were sent back to the manufacturer for reconditioning, upgrading, or repair.
Luckily, one can often find remarkably detailed information about the history of a particular instrument by researching factory records. Martin and Gibson maintain records dating to their earliest days, but only in recent years and through hours of research have many of they been properly organized and archived in a manner that makes the information readily available and easy to use. As a result, we are able to learn more about the history of these instruments each day.
Martin has remarkably accurate records going back to the 1830s, with the exception of a missing ledger from the 1840s. They did not, however, stamp serial numbers on guitars until 1898, and didn’t stamp model designations on the neck block until 1931.
The neck block on the Martin featured here is stamped with the model designation 00-45, but the serial number 21596 is consistent with a manufacture date of 1924, so, even a quick inspection leads an observer to suspect it has been re-worked.
While the guitar mostly conforms – it has a 12-fret mahogany neck, slot head, Brazilian rosewood back, sides, and peghead veneer, Adirondack spruce top, ebony fingerboard and bridge, snowflake fingerboard inlays, torch peghead inlay, white ivoroid bindings on the neck and body, and style 45 abalone trim on the top and sides, it deviates in a few ways and in its date of manufacture; the back of the body lacks the typical style 45 abalone body-edge trim to match the front and the sides. Also, rather than the ’20s pyramid-end bridge, it has a belly bridge of a style not used until 1930. The pickguard is also not typical of Martins made prior to 1930. Beyond that, a 1924 00-45 would not have a pickguard, there is no pearl trim around the outside edge of the body, and the small white/black plastic purfling strip on the back differs from the wood purfling used during the ’20s. It’s also clear that in the recent past, the fingerboard was professionally replaced along with original style snowflake inlays and modern frets rather than the bar frets used prior to late 1934.
Internal inspection of this guitar reveals that small pieces of kerfing have been spliced in on either side of the brace where they intersect with the kerfing strip. When the top of the body is viewed from the inside, there are gaps that have not been filled in where the braces intersect with the kerfing. This work is never perfectly done, but mid-’20s work would have been tighter than this example.
The manner in which manufacturers conducted business when this instrument was made is remarkably different than today. During the Great Depression, Martin, Gibson, and other manufacturers went to great lengths to please dealers and customers, as these were extremely hard times – almost unimaginable by current standards. As a result, many instruments at Martin and Gibson remained unsold for years before being shipped, and quite a few were returned by dealers to the manufacturers for reconditioning, upgrading, or in exchange for new merchandise. Some instruments were re-worked and re-sold as new, years after they were actually made. Martin and Gibson have extensive records showing that some instruments were sent back and forth between the factory and dealers several times before finally finding a home. It was also not uncommon for customers to send guitars back to Martin for refurbishing or upgrading to more modern specifications, even as far back as in the ’30s. For example, Gene Autry had a 0-42 and a 00-42 – made in the ’20s – sent back to Martin in the ’30s for upgrades including fancy torch peghead inlays, peghead binding, pickguards, and belly bridges to accommodate steel strings.
Presented with a serial number, Martin’s computerized records are able to quickly bring up information on almost any instrument it made from 1898 to the present. When we submitted this serial number to Martin researcher Greig Hutton, he was able to provide extensive documentation.
Factory records for this guitar include 1933 correspondence to and from Mr. William McMeekin, in Chicago, who discovered the 00-45 he had recently purchased as new from Chicago Musical Instrument Company was, in fact, made in 1924. Martin agreed to take the guitar back in trade for another instrument, but discovered several holes in the top when it arrived at the factory. In the end, Martin re-topped the guitar, Chicago Musical Instrument Company received a credit memo (less the $9 charge for a new top for the 00-45, of course), and McMeekin received a new 000-45 two months after sending his letter to Martin. On August 20, 1935, this same 00-45 was shipped back to Chicago, when it was sold as new to the Rudolph Wurlizter Company, which, for unknown reasons, promptly returned it to Martin for credit. Two months later, Martin sold and shipped the guitar to the New York City branch of Wurlitzer.
According to Hutton, Martin does not have repair records from 1936 to ’66. And, because the back of this guitar has the same backside centerstripe as used on the style 40, 42, and 45 guitars (but in a style not used after 1943 on any production model until it was copied on reissue D-45 models in ’68), it’s reasonable to assume the back was installed before the end of World War II, but apparently not at the time the guitar was given a new top. Even without Martin’s repair records, it’s reasonable to assume the back was installed at Martin between 1936 and ’43, since the work clearly appears to be Martin.
While collectors are concerned with originality, and instruments that have been reworked typically will appraise for less than those which are fully original, instruments sent back to the factory prior to World War II, as well as some electrics which were reworked and upgraded by the manufacturer in the ’50s, can be worth fully as much as – or even more than – one with standard original factory specifications. In view of their age, most instruments made prior to 1970 will need setup work, re-fretting, or a neck set to be playable. While this 00-45 would not likely sell for as much as a fully original example, most of its modifications were done at Martin’s factory and the work done more recently is of excellent professional quality. This is still a superb instrument.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.