1937 Martin 0-21

1937 Martin 0-21

Martin is known for its orderly model-naming system, under which all guitars of a certain style from any particular year have the same materials, ornamentation, and other features, regardless of body size. A 1935 D-28, for example, would differ from a ’35 000-28 only in body size. Changes in specifications, such as the D-28’s change from herringbone top border to plastic binding in 1947, would apply to all Style 28 models.

Because pre-World War II dreadnoughts have been the most highly sought and most carefully studied Martin models, their spec changes are the most familiar to vintage Martin aficionados. But anyone who assumes that changes in dreadnoughts (or any other size, for that matter) were uniform across the line will be in for some surprises. As this 1937 0-21 illustrates, many of the 0-size and 00-size models did not change in step with the larger models.

Style 21 is not as well-known as styles 18 and 28, in part because Style 21 was “left behind” when Martin introduced dreadnought versions of Styles 18, 28 and 45 in the early 1930s. Not until 1955 did a D-21 appear. Nevertheless, from the late 1890s to the late 1940s it was one of the easiest Martins to identify, thanks to its herringbone soundhole ring (a feature it shared with the obscure Style 20 in the 1800s), and a herringbone backstripe. After Martin dropped herringbone trim in 1947, Style 21 continued with a mixture of Styles 18 and 28 specs.

Introduced in the mid 1800s in size 1, which measured 123/4″ across the widest part of the body, Style 21 appeared in progressively larger sizes, with the 131/2″-wide 0-21 by the 1890s, the 141/8″-wide 00-21 in 1898, and the 15″-wide 000-21 in 1902 (the same year the 000 size was introduced across the Martin line).

Martin added small slotted-diamond inlays to the previously plain fingerboard of Style 21 in 1901, with a single inlay at frets 5 and 9 and a pair of inlays at the seventh fret. Style 28 had the same small diamonds, but with two at frets 5 and 9 and one at fret 7.

Through the ’20s, the noteworthy changes in Martin’s line occurred at the low end – specifically the Style 17’s move from a spruce top to all-mahogany body, and the strengthening of the bracing on Styles 17 and 18 to accommodate steel strings – while the rosewood models (Style 21 and higher) remained the same. Near the end of the decade, however, the introduction of the Orchestra Model (OM) in 1929 seemed to open a floodgate of changes for the builder.

Some of the changes were fundamental innovations in guitar design, such as the OM’s 14-fret neck or the introduction of large-body dreadnoughts and Martin’s first archtops in 1931. Other changes were smaller but still significant, such as the pickguard that came in with the OM, the “belly” bridge shape that appeared in late ’29, and the change in binding on Styles 18 and 21 from rosewood to black plastic around ’32 and then to tortoiseshell celluloid around ’36.

With all the changes, the strict organization of the line began to fragment a little. In the ’30s, bracing on rosewood 000s and dreadnoughts was beefed up for steel strings, but the rosewood 0 and 00 models lagged behind. It was as if Martin had determined that in the market niche of small-bodied rosewood guitars, buyers wanted older-style instruments.

When it came to a 14-fret neck, the Martin line fragmented further. The mahogany 0 and 00 models (Styles 17 and 18) – Martin’s cheapest and most popular styles – went to a 14-fret neck in 1932. The rosewood-body 0 and 00 models stayed with 12-fret neck. Two years later, all the 000s and dreadnoughts went to 14 frets, but curiously, the rosewood 0 and 00 models stayed with 12 frets. The 000-21, which trickled out of production by 1932, reappeared in ’38, but it had the inlay pattern of Style 28, with slotted diamonds from frets five through 15, while the 0-21 and 00-21 retained their original inlays at the fifth, seventh, and ninth frets. Again, it was as if Martin had decided to hold back a few models to preserve old-style features.

At the same time, Martin seemed to compensate for the increased production of larger guitars by abandoning the rosewood 0-size models. From 1932 to ’69, Martin made only 17 size-0 guitars in Style 28 or higher. Now, the 0-21 suddenly was essentially the only rosewood size 0, and as such, it was the only size 0 with a 12-fret neck.

Meanwhile, in the mahogany-body styles (15, 17, 18 and later, 16), the 0 model did quite well, with annual sales in the hundreds, and occasionally over a thousand, until the late ’70s. The 0-21 was significantly more expensive – $55 in the ’30s compared with $40 for the 0-18 and $30 for the 0-17 – and it struggled. With annual sales ranging from zero in some years to a high of 48, Martin put an end to the model in 1949. 

In today’s vintage market, dreadnoughts are categorically separated from 000 models, but 0 and 00 models are typically lumped together. It appears Martin may have had the same view of rosewood-body guitars in the 1930s and ’40s, concluding that in the buyer’s mind, there was not enough difference between the 0 and 00 sizes to warrant both models. Rosewood 0s were eliminated, but Martin made a respectable number of Styles 40 and 42 in size 00 through the ’30s, and the company stuck with the 00-28 (replacing it in the mid ’30s with the 00-28G classical) into the ’60s. The 00-21 – still with its 12-fret neck – far outlasted the 0-21, being offered into 1994, at which point all the 0 and 00 models were discontinued.

Martin revived the 00-size five years later, on various production models (none above Style 16), and it has become popular with Martin’s signature artists; the current offering includes a dozen 00 models. In 0-size, Martin offers only two models, the 0-28VS and the Steven Stills 0-45S. True to the tradition of rosewood 0-sizes, both have 12-fret necks.

This article originally appeared in VG’s December 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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