Conventional Wisdom| Guest Feature Article| Ed Rhoades
ears ago, when I was young, I bought a D-28. It was the guitar I had seen everywhere, on TV, in magazines and in the Martin catalogs…and I studied those catalogs. I ordered it from my small town local dealer and when it arrived, my dreams had been answered. It was my fourth guitar and my first quality instrument. I played it constantly. I even took it to work to play on my lunch break.
The sound got better and better, but after six years the frets has considerable wear. Through a series of inexpensive purchases and trades, I acquired a second guitar to tide me over until the factory would complete refretting the D-28. My second guitar was a very nice Gibson, but the neck and fingerboard didn’t suit my style as much as the Martin.
At the factory, I asked why the frets were so soft that they required refretting after such a short time, and I was told that they “…tried using harder frets, but they caused the strings to wear out quickly.” I remarked that it was easier to change strings than frets as I turned my guitar over to be worked on. However, before I could leave the room, I began to suffer withdrawal and left the factory quickly with my D-28 in hand, saying I would be back.
I sold the Gibson and called every store in Philadelphia and the suburbs to find the least expensive new D-18 available. When I got to the store, I was directed to the demo which I played and loved. It had a beautiful piece of tight grained spruce and a balanced sound. The wood looked so pale compared to my other guitar, but the sound and feel showed the guitar to be exactly what I was looking for.
The owner said, I would get a brand new guitar, untouched and in a new case. It was wrapped in a large thick plastic back and was in sparkling pristine condition, but I left with the much preferred demo instead. The guitar served me very well while I had the new frets put on my D-28.
A few years later, I found myself struggling to make a living playing music and in need of a nice electric for the stage. My band had grown and amplifying my guitar with a mic on a stand was limiting and prone to feedback. My lead guitarist found an opportunity for me to trade the D-28 in for a Gibson ES 340 with a Fender Pro Reverb amp, which worked perfectly. I really didn’t mind so much, because by this time, the D-18 had become a wonderful seasoned instrument with a sweet balanced tone.
Since I played with a bass player and drummer, I was doing less fingerpicking and more strumming so the overbalanced low end from the Brazilian rosewood was less important. I eventually sold the Gibson and amp, but kept the D-18 which was now amplified with a Barcus Berry transducer. For shows, I bought a beautiful Japanese copy of a Strat and a nice Peavy Bandit.
When that band dissolved, my friend Eric Schulte selected a nice piece of maple for me and built a wonderful Les Paul Custom which I still have, but I have a day job which and only play when and where I choose and not nearly as often. At this point, my faithful D-18 was beginning to show wear, so I bought a nice Alvarez with onboard electronics and tuning and one of nicest solid spruce tops I have ever seen.
I took the Martin to the factory last summer and they said all the struts were loose, the neck needed a reset and the frets were shot. Since I was the original owner, everything was covered but the frets. It took six months for my guitar to be done, and when I got it they told me they kept the old bridge because it was Brazilian rosewood, but it had to be reglued. It sounded bright and clear, but very much like a new guitar.
I took it home and lowered the action and played it and within a week, the glues had dried and it began to sound like an old Martin again. I had the Barcus Berry removed and a new Fishman Pro pickup installed and bought an external pre-amp. The cost of the refretting and Fishman system was more than I paid for the Alvarez with a hard shell case.
The acoustic sound improved drastically, but the amplified sound was no better than the Alvarez or the generic guitars I bought off of Ebay while waiting for my Martin. It seems that even the best pickups fail to reproduce the nuances of the sweet aged sound of an old guitar.
While at the factory to pick up my D-18, I had an opportunity to play a plethora of fine instruments. In addition to the special jam room and the picker’s wall, they had just gotten back from the NAMM show and had all their special models on display. I played everything. There were surprises.
The Elvis signature model with the leather encasing sounded far better than I expected. The Madagascar rosewood looked and sounded quite comparable to the almost extinct Brazilian rosewood. The more elaborate Fishman amplification systems sound great when played through a very expensive Fishman amp.
My brother in law has a collection of guitars including two old D-28 (one with Brazilian rosewood) and playing them as well as all the guitars on display at the Martin factory caused me to think about getting another Martin. Once again, I studied the catalogs and absorbed more ‘conventional wisdom.’ The sound of mahogany is supposed to be balanced and subtle.
The sound of rosewood is supposed to be deeper and boomy in the bass. Instruments made from all solid woods are said to provide the most desirable tone. Still, I wondered about the use of less exotic woods that could be replenished. The upper end Martins use Adirondack spruce tops rather than Sitka spruce. Rosewood is cosmetically pleasing…more so than mahogany, but is it a superior tone wood?
Suddenly, Martin added so many variables to the equation that drawing conclusions became more difficult. The top of the guitar is said to be responsible for most of the tone, and the back and sides create the resonance. They have created some unexpected variations with the back and sides including plywood and HPL which is their own formula for a kind of formica with unique properties.
Martin now produces ‘Vintage’ style solid wood guitars with scalloped bracing that are a throwback to the oldest Dreadnaughts. Their standard guitars from D-18 to D-45 remain basically unchanged (except for adjustable truss rods), because they don’t want to mess with the popularity and consistency that they have earned…but for the lower priced models, they allow themselves the opportunity to experiment with technological advancements.
For my electric guitar needs, I bought a new Epiphone Dot Studio which for thousands of dollars less than it would cost to buy an equivalent of my old Gibson ES 340, turned out to be very satisfying and similar when I needed that semi hollow body sound for a blues or jazz feel. I also found myself playing my D-18 more than ever, and with the Martin neck, my playing improved.
There are just things I can do on the Martin fingerboard that I can’t do on my Alvarez or most of the Korean and Japanese guitars. There is something about the Martin feel that is very real to me. With this in mind I traded a beautiful solid top Korean guitar and bought a Mexican made Martin DCX1E.
I was assured during my tour at that the Mexican plant featured the same standards and technology used at the Nazareth plant. I was also told that HPL was a viable alternative to solid or traditionally laminated woods for back and sides. I knew that plywood is more durable than solid woods.
People who aren’t familiar with fine instruments may feel that the more a guitar costs, the sturdier it is. Actually, the opposite is true. For higher prices, guitarists expect better sound. This is accomplished with the use of thinner tops, lighter braces and less finish which allows greater vibrations. (Carbon guitars are the exception to this, but I’m talking about wood here.)
I was shocked when I compared my new DCX1E to my old D-18. The older guitar has a little sweeter sound, but the new one also has a sweet sound and a deeper bass, a solid balance mid and a bright resonant treble with more volume. Plugged in they sound similar but the DCX1E is louder.
The modified low profile neck is reinforced and consists of 30 slices of wood giving it a nice stability and a great feel…a little nicer than the solid mahogany neck on my D-18. This guitar has more volume and sustain than my older instrument.
With my renewed interest in Martins, I began to take notice of the array at my local shop thinking I would like to save up to buy a solid wood rosewood model perhaps reminiscent of my old D-28. A friend who has a nice sounding but very delicate Taylor is convinced that he wants a Martin now and after learning about my DCX1E, he is very interested.
The DCX1E sounds great with fingerpicks, so it’s a good fit for him. I went back to the store to find there was another DCX1E on display. I had to play it to see if mine was an anomaly. It sounded very similar to the one I purchased.
Then I began to play the others. There were two some nice smaller D-28s, one a used model with 7 years of breaking in. It had a nice sound, but the treble was a little weak especially when compared to my new guitar. The other new one was pretty much the same. I played a lower end completely solid spruce/rosewood dreadnaught and it had a good sound, but no better than my DCX1E.
I played a road series dreadnaught with a solid spruce top and laminated rosewood back and sides. It sounded better than both D-28s although it was half the price of either of them. How could this be?
Then the dealer showed me a Tawny Satinwood dreadnaught with HPL that he had just gotten in. It was incredible. The top had the tightest grain I have ever seen. Since it was Sitka instead of Adirondack spruce, it couldn’t be used for a D-45 or a D-100, but oh my, what a top! The guitar sounded better than anything else I played up to that point.
Before I left, it was suggested that I try the D-18 Vintage series guitar. I said, “I already have a D-18 that is more than 30 years old. I’m really interested in a guitar with a rosewood back and sides.” However, I took down the guitar and couldn’t believe the tone.
It had more bass than any of the rosewood models and brought back the memory of my old Brazilian rosewood D-28. I asked why it sounded more bassy when the rosewood model are supposed to have more bottom end. I was told simply “You can’t go by that.” At that point, we agreed that there is a snob value for beautiful solid rosewood and if players tested guitars blindfolded, their choices would be quite different.
To further complicate the issue, Martin uses different bracing systems for each category. The traditional and vintage models use the standard X bracing with and without scalloped struts as always, but other models utilize newer technological advances. For instance, the DCX1E used the “1 style” X braces which only features one tone bar.
At the factory, I saw this research room where they measure vibrations and aspects of guitar construction that were just theories only a few years ago. If I ever get one of my songs on the charts and have a chance for a signature guitar, I think I may know what I want them to build.
I would like a cutaway dreadnaught guitar with tasteful, but not over the top appointments and a top like that Tawny Satinwood, scalloped bracing like the D-18 Vintage style, a modified low oval mortise neck, and a solid Madagascar rosewood body. I only hope it will sound as good as the cheaper HPL or plywood bodies.
At this point, I’ve come to the conclusion and realization you need to disregard expectations, because every piece of wood is unique causing every guitar to have its own personality, and conventional wisdom can only be applied after you’ve actually played the guitar.
©2008 Ed Rhoades