From 1933 to ’42, Martin produced a total of 91 D-45 guitars.
At the time, the model was the most deluxe and highest-priced flat-top guitar in the Martin line. Today, these instruments are among the most sought after of all steel-string flat-tops, and without doubt bring the highest prices of any vintage American-made acoustic guitars.
The first D-45, made in 1933, was a custom-order instrument for Gene Autry. This guitar is on display at the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. It features a 12-fret slothead neck, torch peghead inlay, Gene Autry’s name inlaid in pearl script on the fingerboard, and the extended-length 12-fret dreadnought-size body. The second D-45, made in ’34, was for a Milwaukee performer named Jackie “Kid” Moore. It also featured a 12-fret neck, but had a solid peghead and the owner’s name inlaid on the fingerboard. A third 12-fret D-45 with a solid peghead was made in ’37.
All other D-45s had 14-fret necks, but two made in ’36 were listed as having a wide body. These two guitars look like typical 14-fret D-45s of the period, with snowflake inlay and vertical C.F. Martin peghead logo inlay, however, their body width is 161/4″ rather than the typical 155/8″ Martin dreadnought size.
Prior to 1939, D-45s featured the same snowflake inlay pattern on the fingerboard as other Martin style 45s in the 0, 00, and 000 size. D-45s were made in very limited quantities and were not featured in the Martin catalog until 1939, at which time the abalone hexagon fingerboard inlay pattern was introduced on the model. Interestingly, both the vertical C.F. Martin inlay pattern for the peghead and the hexagon inlay pattern for the fingerboard were not designed for Martin flat-top guitars, but were used on the archtop models. The vertical logo first appeared on the Martin style C-2 and C-3 archtops in 1931. The hexagon inlays were also used on the C-2 beginning in 1939 and on the Martin F-7 and F-9 archtops beginning in ’35.
As an interesting aside, while the D-45 was Martin’s most expensive flat-top prior to World War II, the F-9 archtop cost $250 new while the D-45 was only $200. As rare as the D-45 is with a total production of only 91 prior to World War II, the F-9 is even more rare with only 72 having been produced. The price of $200 retail for a D-45 is often cited as being the reason for the model’s scarcity since money was hard to come by during the height of the Depression. If price alone, however, were the factor in the rarity of this model, then Gibson’s L-5 listing at $275 and the Gibson Super 400 selling for $400 should be far more scarce, but that is not the case. The L-5 and Super 400, as well as the Epiphone Emperor and expensive handmade D’Angelico guitars which also cost more new than a D-45, sold quite well because they appealed to professional jazz, swing, and orchestral musicians of the time. During the 1930s and very early ’40s, the big band era was in full swing and there was money to be made playing that style of music. By contrast, dreadnought-size flat-top guitars, and for that matter flat-tops in general, were often viewed as “hillbilly” instruments. There was far less money to be made playing flat-top guitars at that time, and as a consequence, far fewer expensive flat-tops were made.
Martin had made pearl-trimmed fancy guitars since the 1830s, but the actual style 45 was not introduced until 1902. The typical specs of the model 45 included an Adirondack spruce top with scalloped bracing, Brazilian rosewood back, sides, and peghead veneer, mahogany neck, abalone trim around all body edges of the top, back, and sides, white binding on the body, fingerboard, and peghead, snowflake fingerboard inlays (the exception being hexagon inlays on the D-45 model only from 1939 through 1942), and torch peghead inlay until late 1933 at which time the vertical C.F. Martin inlay was introduced on style 45s featuring a solid peghead. The D-45 features typical style 45 construction on a dreadnought-sized instrument. The smaller 0, 00, OM, and 000-45s were built with the same materials and the same standards of ornamentation and quality of workmanship as the D models.
The appeal and value of the D-45 is not simply a matter of scarcity. There are numerous Martin models which are more rare, but none which are as sought after. Pre-World War II Martin dreadnought guitars are today considered the standard by which virtually all other flat-top steel-string guitars are judged against. In the opinion of many collectors, while there have been other great makers of flat-top steel-string guitars, none have beaten Martin when it comes to the quality and sound of their 1930s flat-tops. The dreadnought-sized instruments are particularly prized, not only due to their relative scarcity but because they have a powerful sound sought by bluegrass and country musicians, as well as players of virtually of every style utilizing flat-top steel-string guitars.
While Martin’s records are clear as to how many D-45s were made, and their specifications, there is no directory of how many of these instruments survive today, but the majority are still with us.
While it’s true that not all old D-45s have survived in pristine condition (and some had been repaired or refinished poorly), almost all have survived sufficiently intact to be highly desirable instruments. In view of their great desirability and high monetary value, those which have survived in less-than-pristine condition are worth whatever effort it takes to restore them properly. If there is any one flat-top steel-string vintage American guitar which can be viewed as a “holy grail” to collectors, the pre-World War II D-45 Martin is it.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.