One of Martin’s most successful innovations of the 1970s arose, ironically, from one of the company’s least successful ventures of the legendary pre-war years. The success was the 16″ M-size body and its deeper offshoot, the J-size. The “failure” that spawned the M-size was Martin’s F-series acoustic archtops, exemplified by this F-9 from 1939.
With the exception of Gibson, which had been making archtops since Orville Gibson introduced the concept in the 1890s, guitar makers had shown little interest in archtops through the first quarter of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the guitar began to supplant the tenor banjo as a more suitable rhythm instrument for the music of the late 1920s that guitarists in horn bands gravitated toward the more cutting tone of an archtop. It should have come as no surprise to Gibson when Epiphone, which was based in the music center of New York City, responded to this trend by launching a full line of archtops in 1931. It probably surprised the entire guitar industry, however, when Martin did the same.
Martin moved with uncharacteristic speed in entering the archtop market. The dreadnought flat-tops models Martin also introduced in ’31 represented a more typical process, having taken 15 years from the time Martin first made dreadnoughts for the Ditson company to the time they were finally introduced under the Martin brand. There was no such “research and development” period for archtops, and the three new models, C-1, C-2 and C-3 appear to have been hastily put together. They illustrate just how deeply and irrevocably rooted the company was in its flat-top designs. All three models had the same body size as Martin’s 15″ OM (14-fret 000) flat-top. The soundhole, too, was round like that of a flat-top, even though Gibson’s f-hole L-5 (introduced in 1922) had become the standard-bearer for archtop design, as evidenced by the preponderance of f-hole models in the Epiphone line of 1931.
Other appointments of the three Martin archtops were straight out of the flat-top style book. The C-1 had mahogany back and sides with dot inlays and a dark outer layer of top binding, the same as Martin’s Style 18 flat-tops. The C-2 was rosewood with slotted-diamond fingerboard inlays, a la Style 28 (but with a new vertically oriented peghead logo). The C-3 was rosewood with Style 45-type backstripe and snowflake fingerboard inlays.
A year later, Martin recognized the preference among players for f-holes and began offering the C-series with f-holes. However, the company failed to follow a trend toward larger guitars – surprising, in light of the concurrent appearance of the larger-bodied dreadnoughts in the 1931 flat-top line – and in fact went in the opposite direction, introducing the smaller 00-sized R-18 archtop model in 1932.
In ’35, Martin finally did respond to the demand for a larger-bodied archtop model – even larger than the 155/8″ dreadnought. The result was a pair of F-series models, the F-7 and F-9, with 16″ bodies drawn along the lines of the 000-size rather than the thick-waisted dreadnought design. These were high-end guitars, with rosewood back and sides, bold hexagonal fingerboard inlays (at six frets on the F-7, eight on the F-9) and a vertically oriented “C.F. Martin” peghead inlay. The F-7 was priced at $175, which was $25 less than a D-45, while the F-9 was Martin’s most expensive model, at $250.
The rosewood or mahogany bodies of Martin’s archtops gave them a unique voice that was noticeably different from that of the maple-bodied guitars made by Gibson and Epiphone. However, by the time Martin expanded the body to 16″ for the F-series, Gibson and Epiphone were offering 18″ models. And there was a more serious problem with the Martin designs – the neck angle. In designing its archtops, Martin apparently failed to take into account the fact that an archtop bridge was significantly higher than that of a flat-top. To compensate, Martin simply increased the neckset angle, and as a result, the neck angled off awkwardly behind the player.
Martin’s archtops initially had respectable sales, but the combination of strange feel and non-mainstream tone ultimately doomed all of the models. The F-7 and F-9 started out well, with sales of 91 F-7s and 28 F-9s in their first year, but they never matched those figures in subsequent years. By 1942 the total annual production for all archtop models was only 194 guitars. With the onset of World War II, Martin had a good excuse to curtail archtop production, and none of the models were reintroduced after the war.
That might have been the end of the Martin archtop story except for one F-7 with a busted top. Circa 1965, the owner brought it into the New York shop of Mark Silber and traded it for a $100 Guild flat-top. Silber obtained a dreadnought top from Martin, which was cut big enough for the 16″ F-7 body, and he installed it. The guitar became known in New York folk circles, and within a few years David Bromberg showed up at Matt Umanov’s store in Greenwich Village with his own F-7 and an order to convert it to flat-top. Bromberg encouraged Martin to put this new 0000-size guitar into production. But unlike in ’31, when Martin rushed into the archtop market, the company took its time researching the new concept, and in 1977 introduced the M-38. The M-size wasn’t an instant hit, but it gradually gained acceptance and expanded, gaining a cutaway in ’81 and a deeper body (named the J) in ’85.
The F-9 has the dubious distinction of being rarer, but far less valuable, than a pre-war D-45, and rarer still because some of the F-9s have been converted to flat-tops. Although the F-series models, along with all the Martin archtops, are seldom thought of as having the same “golden era” status as the flat-tops of that era, it was the archtop line that introduced the vertical C.F. Martin headstock logo that is so closely identified today with the D-45. The hexagonal fingerboard inlays that identified a D-45 (and eventually other 40-series models), also made their debut on the F-series archtops. And the F-series bodies provided the foundation for today’s M- and J-size guitars. So perhaps the F-9 and F-7 do deserve “golden era” model status after all.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s October 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.