Of the nearly 200 artists who have been granted a “signature” Martin guitar, only one was given their own style number. It wasn’t Clapton. It wasn’t Cash. Rather, it’s Vahdah Olcott-Bickford who ranks above all others.
Perhaps the most famous American guitarist of the early 20th century, in her day and in her world – that of classical guitar – Olcott-Bickford was as renowned as any of today’s Martin signature artists.
Born in 1885, Ethel Lucretia Olcott grew up in Los Angeles, where she began taking guitar lessons at the age of eight. At 17 or 18, she was invited to live with the family of guitar teacher Manuel Ferrer, in Berkeley. When Ferrer died in 1904, Ethel introduced herself to the classical-guitar world by publishing her first musical work, a set of variations on a theme from the Giovanni Paisiello opera “La Molinara.” Onstage, as chronicled in a concert program reprinted in The Crescendo magazine, she served up a mix of music ranging from Schumann to Verdi to her own compositions.
A 1905 review in the Los Angeles Herald offered perspective on the guitar’s impending emergence as a solo instrument, noting it was a “hazardous experiment.” But, with good technique and full resonant tone, Olcott succeeded in garnering several encores. The review also said she, “…has a most attractive stage presence and she made a charming picture.”
It was probably the combination of Olcott’s resonant tone and charming looks that attracted the attention of mandolin-orchestra leader Myron Bickford, from Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1908, The Crescendo announced Bickford’s newest composition, “The E.L.O. Schottische.” “E.L.O.” was, of course, Ethel Lucretia Olcott; Bickford had written the song for her.
In ’09, The Crescendo brought them closer together (visually, at least) when it featured a short profile of Olcott followed by a profile of Bickford. In ’13, Olcott took over the magazine’s “Guitarists Round Table” column, and in June she devoted half of it to C.F. Martin, Sr., including a short lesson on the dates of Martin brand stamps. She closed by saying, “Martin guitars are among the best instruments manufactured, here and abroad.”
Her column did not mention any specific reason for focusing on a guitar maker, other than the opportunity to present a “splendid portrait” of C.F. Martin, but it coincided with the first production of a new guitar. Presumably, Olcott asked Martin to build a model specifically for her students. Her specs were simple; she wanted the best woods (same used for a Style 45), and she wanted no frills, no ornamentation – no pearl trim, no herringbone purfling, no fretboard markers. Even the backstripe was toned down from the zigzag or zipper patterns of the higher models to simple black-and-white lines. Though Martin put a pearl soundhole ring on models as low as Style 27 and a pearl top border on Styles 40 and higher, the company presumably gave this new model a style number befitting the quality of its woods and status of the artist who designed it – Style 44. There was no product launch, and Martin never advertised it or listed it in a catalog.
The idea of an “artist” model was nothing new at Martin. In the 1840s, it made guitars branded for New York guitarist and teacher John Coupa (branded “Martin and Coupa”) before they’d established a nomenclature system. In 1911, Martin had begun making a line of guitars for New Jersey teacher William Foden, though these “Foden Specials” were, arguably, not true Martins. They had their own model names, alphabetic from A to E, and did not have a Martin serial number.
Martin records show eight 0-44s and two 00-44s were made in 1913. For a new model, 10 instruments was an unqualified success. Consider that Martin made only 256 guitars in ’13, and the Olcott models accounted for just under four percent of total production. For perspective, Martin made 107,991 guitars in 2019; to have the same impact, a model today would have to sell 4,211 units. Many of Martin’s artist models fall short of announced limited runs of 50 or 100. The only artist who might come close to Ethel Olcott today would be Eric Clapton.
While no one was graffitiing “Ethel Is God” on alley walls, Olcott’s career was gaining notice. In September ’13, she relocated to Cleveland – a seemingly odd choice for an artist on the rise. But, not coincidentally, she was leading a mandolin orchestra there. And though she announced a 1913-’14 winter tour with noted classical mandolinist William Place, Jr., by the beginning of ’14, she was performing with Bickford (who often provided piano accompaniment), billed as the Bickford-Olcott Duettists.
An ad in the October ’14 Crescendo announced Olcott’s move to New York, and Bickford’s ads included his new location: New York. Olcott began working as personal secretary to Evangeline Adams, who became the first superstar of astrology after she was arrested for fortune telling (which was illegal in New York). Adams gave Olcott and Bickford new astrological names – Vahdah and Zarh certainly sound more mystical and exotic than Ethel and Myron, but the meanings of the names are unknown. It’s likely that they were made up based partly on sound and partly on numerological significance. Whatever the reason, in the April ’15 issue of The Crescendo, the name on Olcott’s column was changed to Vahdah (E.L.) Bickford.
The importance of astrology in the Bickfords’ lives is evidenced by a letter from Frank Theodore Allen, head of the Astrological Research Society. Vahdah had written Allen, asking him to officiate her wedding. Allen replied that he had cast an astrological chart for their wedding date and she should not be worried about Saturn being in the ascendant. However, he was not aware that a Doctor of Astrology could perform weddings in California. The Crescendo announced the couple’s marriage in New York in September ’15. Going forward, Ethel went by Vahdah Olcott-Bickford and Myron went by Zarh Myron Bickford.
After the Style 44’s initial splash, Olcott’s model all but disappeared. Though she was among the most prominent guitarists in the country (The Crescendo called her “our greatest lady guitarist”), Olcott had relocated twice in two years and increased her touring activity. It’s likely she had fewer students who would have been the main buyers of her model. In ’14 and ’15, Martin made no Style 44 guitars at all. Not until ’17 did production resume, but it was never more than a trickle after that – a single 000-44 in ’17 and one in ’18, followed by one 000-44 and one 00-44 in ’19. Production peaked in ’22 with two 0-44s and two 00-44s. A year later, Vahdah and Zarh relocated to Los Angeles.
Vahdah never experienced a time when the guitar was in the forefront of popular music. When she took her first guitar lessons, the mandolin was just beginning its rise. By the time she married Zarh, the tenor banjo was on the rise. There were strong undercurrents of guitar music, to be sure, but the most popular guitar music through the first two decades of the 20th century was Hawaiian. And when the spotlight finally landed on a guitar in ’22, it was Nick Lucas’ decidedly non-classical, flatpicked solo work on “Pickin’ the Guitar” and “Teasing the Frets.” This overshadowing of the classical guitar prompted Vahdah to organize the American Guitar Society in 1923. She was its musical director, Zarh its vice president.
As the guitar began making inroads to popular music styles, Vahdah continued to champion the classical guitar and even had stickers made, which she attached to correspondence, saying “Keep the guitar classical.” But even within the classical world, the instrument was changing. In ’28, Spanish-born Andrés Segovia performed in New York for the first time, introducing Americans to a more-robust style and a guitar (made in Germany by Hermann Hauser) built to be more responsive to it.
It was the beginning of the modern classical-guitar era – and beginning of the end of the era represented by The Crescendo (which last published in ’33), the Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists and Guitarists (which The Crescendo represented), Vahdah Olcott-Bickford, and Martin classical guitars. By the end of the ’20s, Martin was bracing its standard models for steel strings.
From 1921 through ’31, Martin made only 16 Olcott-Bickford models. In ’38, after six years without producing one, it made two, stamping them 00-44G (the G denoting gut-string), a designation Martin had begun using in ’36. Both were sold by Schirmer’s music store, in New York.
The factory slip on this final Style 44 (serial number 70469) reveals the influence of the Hauser-style guitars in its specification for bracing. Though it was to be “regular” X-pattern (rather than the fan pattern that had endured and emerged as the standard for classicals), it was to be “as light as possible” for a more-robust response.
The straight-grained Brazilian rosewood is consistent with the highest grade a Style 44 guitar would require (while highly figured Brazilian may have a higher aesthetic value, straight-grained Brazilian is considered better for tone and durability).
It’s not known if Vahdah was involved in ordering this guitar. Her archives contain no correspondence with Martin about guitars (only about the American Guitar Society), but she likely was not involved, as the Style 45 inlays on the fretboard, headstock, and back stripe were just the sort of superfluous ornamentation she wished to avoid.
The Martin decal on this guitar also seems out of place, but it was specified on the shop slip for the other 00-44G that came through Schirmer in ’38. Some earlier Style 44s had “Olcott-Bickford Artist Model” on the headstock, if they had anything at all. None had the decal because earlier ones were made before Martin introduced a silk-screened version in late ’31.
This 00-44G ended Martin’s run of Style 44 guitars at 32 units. Though it made other G and later C (classical) models, Martin never had a significant presence in the modern world of classical guitar. Vahdah Olcott-Bickford remained active with the American Guitar Society and the Astrological Society. Zarh Bickford died in 1980 leaving her Style 44 guitars as a reminders of a largely forgotten part of the guiatr’s history in America.
This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.