As the cofounder of Gryphon Stringed Instruments, Richard Johnston has spent a good part of his life around guitars, mandolins, and other stringed instruments. An appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow,” Johnston is also an author, whose most recent title traces the history of C. F. Martin & Company. In this interview, Johnston explains the histories of Gibson and Martin, including their early forays into mandolin and ukulele making, and weighs in on the effects that age and different types of wood have on the sound of a guitar.
I started playing guitar when I was pretty young and bought my first guitar when I was 10 or 11. Like a lot of people of my generation, I was inspired to do so because of the folk revival, initially the more commercial parts of it like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. I later got interested in their influences, like Woody Guthrie and Doc Watson, and from there I got into early country music, bluegrass and country blues.
When I was about 20, I got interested in buying, selling, and working on guitars. Around that time I met Frank Ford, and we started working together while I waited to see where I was going to fit in the draft lottery in 1969. Gryphon started that fall.
I was never really interested in collecting a lot of guitars. I bought a couple of early Martins when I was in college, one I still own. I’ve had a couple of different old Gibson mandolins and things like that. But partly because of the space they take up, I never really aspired to have a big collection. I’ve never owned more than three or four guitars at any one time.
Before the Gryphon partnership started, I was buying and selling guitars, primarily Martins, and Frank was working on them and building them. But once we linked up, we both did everything. As it’s become necessary to specialize, we’ve reverted to our old roles: Frank is in charge of the repair department and I’m more in charge of buying and selling vintage instruments as well as appraisals and writing. Franks also writes about how to repair them, offers shop tips, and also teaches repair techniques at a couple of different trade schools.
We were originally just interested in acoustic instruments—we didn’t do much with electric guitars until the mid-1990s—and almost exclusively American-made guitars, mandolins, banjos, and ukuleles. Of course, there wasn’t really much business in old or even used ukuleles until fairly recently. They’re the most recent instruments to enjoy a resurgence. For the first 25 or 30 years, although we would buy and sell ukuleles, they were a very small part of the business because they were worth so little.
Neither of us played electric guitar, so we were primarily interested in music that was acoustic-based rather than electric. Although I listened to the classic San Francisco-era bands like Jefferson Airplane, trying to recreate that sound never appealed to me. Frank and I were more involved in playing old-time string-band music. In the early days of Gryphon, we had the Mayfield String Band, which was active playing square dances and parties, and that was very much based on music of the 1920s and ’30s.
Collectors Weekly: Can you give us a brief history of the acoustic guitar?
Johnston: I didn’t do much writing on guitar history until the 1990s. But I was an English major in college, so I’d done a fair amount of writing in general. I helped out when “Acoustic Guitar” magazine was getting started. I took them around at one of the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) shows and introduced them to manufacturers so they could get an idea of the advertising support they could expect. I wrote a long article for the premiere issue and have done quite a bit of writing for them since.
From there, I contributed to books for Tony Bacon and Backbeat and then the first Martin book, which was published in 1996. The two-volume set was just completed last year. That’s the most recent book on Martin guitars.
The acoustic guitar as we know it today, which is primarily played on steel strings, is a relatively recent development. The guitar was fairly popular in this country in the early 1800s, and there were a number of different individuals and companies building guitars here in the 1830s. For example, C.F. Martin Sr. came to New York from Saxony in 1883. The guitar was quite a fad. There were a lot of touring musicians from other parts of the world who played New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and other major cities.
At home, women were the primary players of guitars, so a lot of the instruments from that era are quite small and feature a lot of decoration. Although there were a few concert guitarists, the guitar didn’t really gain widespread popularity until the mandolin craze of the late 1880s. The guitar hitched on as an accompaniment instrument in mandolin groups or for duos. Guitar and mandolin duets were popular around the turn of the 20th century. That’s also when mass production techniques arrived, especially with large companies in Chicago like Lyon & Healy.
Large-scale manufacturing and wide distribution of the guitar began at this time because that’s when catalogs first appeared. You see guitars and mandolins featured prominently in the early Sears & Roebuck catalogs, for example. Mail order also enabled people in rural areas to acquire instruments—they didn’t have to travel to a major city to find them. So that’s when it really began to pick up. The guitar was far more popular in this country in 1910 than it had been in 1880.
Collectors Weekly: Did popular music styles drive the creation of specific types of guitars?
Johnston: From the beginning instrument makers sought ways to make their guitars louder. These guitars were strung with gut strings similar to violin strings, but longer. A small gut-string guitar isn’t very loud compared to the instruments it might accompany such as the mandolin—which was always strung with steel strings—the piano, the violin, horns, and woodwinds. It’s a highly portable instrument, extremely versatile, comparatively easy to learn to play, but it just wasn’t loud enough to hold its own, especially outdoors.
“Before MTV Unplugged, I don’t think many people believed you could play ‘Layla’ on an acoustic guitar.”
So there was an immediate push to make bigger guitars, string them with steel, and make them louder. The quest for volume dominates guitar development from the 1880s to around the 1930s, when they figured out how to make resonator devices—a mechanical diaphragm that vibrated in a metal body and amplified the sound—for what became Dobro and National brand guitars. Of course, magnetic pickups eventually came along, and the search for volume has primarily been in that direction ever since.
Since both the guitar and mandolin were so portable, it was very easy for two people to travel around and entertain in almost any situation. In fact, two Martin brothers performed on mandolin and guitar shortly after the turn of the 20th century, as did many others, sometimes with a vocalist. Around the same time, it was popular for people to write songs and record them. Of course it’s much easier to sing with accompaniment. And if you can accompany yourself on guitar, then the money doesn’t have to be split two ways.
Shortly after that, radio broadcasts of live music became extremely popular. Microphones had made it possible for the guitar to be amplified more effectively in balance with the human voice for broadcast. In the late 1920s, WLS-AM broadcast “National Barn Dance.” We think of those radio shows as being primarily associated with country music because that’s what they became. But at the time they were variety shows that would include popular sentimental songs, folk songs, light opera, and humor. It was basically whatever could be carried over onto the radio from Vaudeville.
Collectors Weekly: So when was the mandolin’s heyday?
Johnston: It would have been just before World War I. It began to fade in popularity in the early 1920s, although it was still popular throughout the decade. There were mandolin orchestras. If you’ve seen “The Music Man” with Robert Preston, which is about distributing horns and starting brass bands, the same formula was used to distribute mandolins. In fact Gibson—the most famous American mandolin company and the one that did more than any other to popularize the instrument—didn’t even sell through retail stores for the first two decades of its existence.
The instruments were all sold through what they called teacher agents. They would go to small towns and find a couple of people who already played the violin, because the mandolin is tuned like the violin but played with a flat pick instead of a bow. Then they would teach these people a couple of songs and demonstrate the mandolin in a concert.
The salesman would say, “Well, George Sanders has only been playing the Gibson mandolin for two weeks and listen to what he can do.” And so there would be these really impressive performances, and it got across the idea that you could play credible music much more quickly on a fretted instrument with a pick than when dealing with the difficulties of intonation and tone with a bowed instrument.
Of course this was before there was radio, and before many people listened to recordings at home, so it was appealing to be able to play music and do it socially and reasonably well without having to practice for years. I don’t think many people already in their 30s were willing to take up the violin or the piano because it was understood that the difficulty of those instruments required starting young. So working-class or middle-class people who’d had little music education when they were young were basically resigned to never playing music.
The mandolin was a way out of that. Although people worked 50 or 60 hours a week in those days, they still might have time to become good enough to play in a mandolin orchestra, maybe not as a soloist, but in the section. The music was primarily popular classical songs, things like Stephen Foster tunes.
Sometimes relatively small towns would have a 50- or 60-piece mandolin orchestra with guitars, mandolins, mandolas—the mandolin equivalent of the viola—and mandocellos, which were the fretted mandolin equivalent of a viola. Gibson even marketed mando-basses, which were almost the size of a regular string bass but were played with a pick and had frets. So that kind of distribution brought mandolins, guitars, and other instruments to small towns all across the country. One of the last functioning mandolin orchestras in the U.S. was the Garment Workers’ Union Orchestra in New York City—they were still active in the 1950s.
Towards the end of World War I, the Hawaiian music craze offered an even easier route to playing music. Magazines and catalogs were full of “Learn the ukulele in five minutes” type of courses. And a lot of guitar methods were for Hawaiian guitar, which is played on the lap in an open tuning with a slide for that glissando effect that you hear today from pedal steel players. Even more portable and way less expensive was the ukulele.
It’s hard for us now to imagine how influential these musical fads were because we’re surrounded by music. But in those days, we weren’t. Certainly both radio and records were already happening when the ukulele became popular in 1915, but not nearly to the extent that they are today.
For example, at the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, Hawaii had a large pavilion with a four- or five-piece Hawaiian group performing several times a day. People just went nuts for that sound. They loved thinking about sun-drenched beaches, girls in grass skirts, and coconuts on the ground. It was a great antidote to all that horrible, depressing news from the other side of the Atlantic during World War I. The Hawaiian pavilion by far drew more people than any other exhibit at the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition. Everyone wanted to see it.
There was also a wildly popular Broadway show called “Bird of Paradise” that played in major cities on the East Coast and in Canada, and it featured Hawaiian music. It’s almost impossible to imagine how popular this trend was: You’d see palm trees on napkins, pillowcases, cocktail glasses, everything. A shipment of ukuleles would arrive at a store and sell out in an afternoon. A lot of the interest was centered in and around Los Angeles because that was the main place to board a cruise ship for Hawaii.
At one point, up to one-third of all recorded popular songs had a Hawaiian guitar on them. On most of the recordings by Jimmie Rodgers, who’s considered the father of country music, the lead guitar is a Hawaiian guitar. It was not played in the conventional way of country music today.
Collectors Weekly: What happened as that craze died out?
Johnston: It had already begun to fade before the Great Depression hit in late 1929. Swing became more popular, and people were dancing to big orchestras. In the mid-1920s, the guitar had been given a whole new life as American manufacturers began making guitars with an arched top and back—more violin-like rather than flat.
Guitars with F-shaped sound holes rather than round sound holes project more and have a much more percussive tone. They’re much louder than a flat-top guitar. And so that became the standard guitar for dance bands and orchestras because it was better able to compete with horns, pianos, and percussion. But its role was primarily to play rhythm. It wasn’t until Charlie Christian began playing amplified lead solos on a guitar with a magnetic pickup that the guitar began to be considered a solo instrument.
Collectors Weekly: How did the guitar rise to prominence?
Johnston: Recordings certainly helped. Nick Lucas, who played both an archtop and a flat-top guitar, played with a flat pick on songs like “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Teasin’ the Frets.” He was the first to record what we would consider to be a hot flat-picking kind of solo guitar with singing. Recording made it possible for people to hear what the guitar was capable of without sitting right in front of the guitarist.
Riley Puckett, who was the guitar player for a popular string band called the Skillet Lickers, recorded solo records in which he would announce at the beginning of the songs, “I’m going to play a tune called ‘Fuzzy Rag.’ Now play close attention to these runs.” And of course he would play these long solos. He knew people were listening for that, and the recordings made it possible to hear every note. So singers realized that if they could play a guitar solo themselves that made the performance more interesting, they wouldn’t have to pay a guitar player.
When you look at photographs of those performers, you notice that they frequently wear their guitars extremely high on the chest compared to the way most guitar players do today. The reason is that most of them were performing and recording with only one microphone. By holding the guitar very high, basically so the upper edge of the guitar is almost in line with your bowtie, the guitar would be picked up by the same microphone you were singing into.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the best-known early guitar manufacturers?
Johnston: Martin and Gibson were the primary ones to make flat-top guitars, which are the ones that are most popular today. For archtop guitars, there were also other manufacturers, like Epiphone. But in terms of the flat-top guitar, with the exception of a couple of much smaller builders like the Larson Brothers out of the Chicago area, Martin and Gibson pretty much ruled the roost.
They were highly competitive and paid very close attention to what the other was doing. For instance, Gibson had always produced a lot of instruments with a dark-shaded finish on the face, so Martin began doing that in the 1930s. Martin was having a lot of success with a big, fancy guitar aimed at cowboy singers like Gene Autry, and that prompted Gibson to do the same. You see both of those brands in those early 15-minute short films that would either precede the main feature in a movie theater or would be played between reels.
Collectors Weekly: Did their quality distinguish them from the rest?
Johnston: Their quality and their volume. Those guitars were extremely loud. They worked well with the crude microphones and sound systems of that period. For a typical Western band such as the Sons of the Pioneers, those early flat-top Gibson or Martin guitars would frequently be the only instrument that was used. There might be a string bass, but sometimes it would just be one member playing chords on the guitar and then the three- or four-part vocal harmonies, and that was it.
That same formula was used by a number of singing groups in the swing genre and black harmony groups such as Three Cats and a Fiddle, which used the tiple, a large steel-string ukulele. They would perform with really tight three- and four-part harmonies with these ukulele bass instruments plus one guitar, which was frequently a tenor with just four strings. It was played like a tenor banjo.
Collectors Weekly: When did Martin start making guitars?
Johnston: C.F. Sr. came to New York in 1833, so there are Martin guitars that date from 1833, 1834. The company didn’t really begin to make a lot of instruments until it began to make steel-string guitars for the Hawaiian craze in the late teens. But certainly by the 1920s it was making a lot of steel-string guitars, and the production accelerated very rapidly from 1915 until the Depression slowed things down. The company went from less than a dozen employees in 1913 to more 70 employees in 1928.
As I said, the early guitars were strung with gut—they didn’t start making steel-string guitars in any quantity until well after the turn of the century. The more elaborately decorated guitars didn’t really begin to become popular until that time either. Martin’s decorations were always quite subtle. Usually it was just a narrow band of abalone inlay around the sound hole and around the edge of the top. The decorated instruments were initially intended for women, so they were only produced in the smaller sizes, but men immediately took to that kind of decoration as well.
Martin was asked to build larger examples of those guitars almost from the very beginning in the Civil War period. Those larger guitars were sought later by performers like Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry, both of whom played the fanciest Martin style, the style 45, because they glittered a lot from the stage.
That’s really the beginning of highly decorated instruments for performers. Jimmie Rodgers was one of the first to have his name inlaid in the fretboard of a guitar. The guitar became a portable press agent. You’re holding a business card, essentially, that says, ‘my name is Jimmie Rodgers’. A lot of performers after that, especially in what we now think of as country music, did the same thing.
Collectors Weekly: What are the characteristics of an American guitar?
Johnston: History is written by the survivors, and Martin was the company that stuck with it. So by the 1890s, most other guitars being made in this country were of a similar shape and style to Martins. And even when they were making gut-string guitars, the gut-string American guitar looked distinctly different from similar guitars made, say, in Spain. That was largely because Martins had evolved into a narrower waist and a smaller upper bout for a longer, slimmer body profile.
Likewise, when they began making instruments for Jimmie Rodgers or Gene Autry, and then even later for performers like Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, the popularity of those performers and the photos of them defined the style. For instance, the Martin Dreadnought, which is a bulbous-looking instrument with a very wide waist, was first produced as a Hawaiian guitar in the teens. But once it was adapted for use as a regular stage guitar and played by Hank Williams, Elvis, and Johnny Cash, it became the iconic American acoustic guitar, and remains so.
If you look at steel-string guitars made anywhere in the world, an overwhelming majority of them have directly evolved from those early 1930s Gibson and Martin examples. Many times the manufacturers don’t even know that’s where they came from. It’s just such a standard appearance that it’s like a bowtie or wing-tipped shoes—nobody buying them thinks, “Gee, where did that come from?” It’s just that’s what everybody wears and that’s what you have to have.
The guitars that are commonly referred to as having the hourglass shape are the earlier ones Martin made before it developed its own style. If you look at the guitars they were making in the 1830s, the upper and lower bouts were almost the same size, the waist is very narrow, and the upper part mirrors the lower section.
Sometimes the hourglass shape is used to describe later Martins that still have that narrow waist, even though the upper bouts in the later ones are much slimmer in comparison to the lower bout. But today, because of the popularity of the dreadnoughts, which have a very wide waist, sometimes the hourglass term is used to describe any guitar that has a narrower pinched waist as opposed to that very wide waist that results in a guitar shape that’s almost a trapezoid.
Collectors Weekly: What set Martins apart from Gibsons?
Johnston: The Martin Company has always been so conservative. Also the ownership of the company has remained more consistent, whereas Gibson, especially in recent times, has been owned by outside corporations that oftentimes had very little interest or knowledge about music, let alone guitars. So Gibson has had more ups and downs in terms of quality, consistency, styling, and things like that.
A certain percentage of Martin is publicly held, but I think the family still retains a majority stake in the company. So the Martin family has always had the last word as to what was being done. The guitars have evolved very slowly, and that means they have a more consistent sound and style. Today both companies are making reissues of the guitars they made in the 1930s, the ones that are really valuable to collectors. So the differences aren’t as apparent now as they were for many years.
Probably the most important innovation Martin made was the way the underside of the top is braced. They began using a pattern that has been widely described as an X pattern. The intersection of the X is between the sound hole and the bridge, and it enables the top to be quite stiff to counteract the tension of steel strings without being overly heavy so that it muffles the sound of the guitar. That was the style of bracing Martin began using 50 years before they began making steel-string guitars. But as it turns out, it’s a bracing pattern that’s far better for steel strings than it is for gut.
Today, virtually all steel-string guitars have some variation of X-bracing, whether they’re shaped like a Martin or like a Gibson. But Gibson began using that pattern in the late 1920s. Today it’s just accepted as the way you brace the steel-string flat-top guitar.
Collectors Weekly: Did Martin make mandolins and ukuleles?
Johnston: They did. Martin’s success with the mandolin was not nearly as great as it was with the ukulele. Today Martin ukuleles are very highly regarded. The most valuable American-made ukuleles are the more decorated Martin models. Martin’s mandolins have never competed successfully with Gibson. So Gibson rules the design and the configuration of the American mandolin in much the same way it rules the electric guitar and the archtop guitar. But Martin’s ukuleles were far more successful. The ukulele was one of the few times when Martin came to a popular fad before anybody else.
When Martin started making ukuleles in 1907, they didn’t get it quite right and only made a very few. But they started making them again around 1915, and the instruments quickly caught on. It was the ukulele that really enabled Martin to grow. They had success with their guitars at the same time, but they made something like 14,000 ukuleles in 1927, which is what gave them the cash reserves to survive the Great Depression.
The Depression wiped out a tremendous number of American manufacturers, especially those that made the banjo because it had begun to lose popularity right at the same time. Companies like Paramount, Bacon & Day, and others that relied on banjos were either bought by larger companies or just disappeared altogether. Gibson was reduced to making toys for a couple of years to make ends meet. Martin was able to continue to be primarily an instrument manufacturer. They had some hard times and had to lay off a lot of people, but they came out of the Depression better than most manufacturers.
Collectors Weekly: Why didn’t Martin mandolins hold up?
Johnston: Gibson had a head start. It was actually called the Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company around the turn of the century. Martin didn’t want to copy Gibson, and their mandolins were just not as loud. They were very well made—they’re still excellent instruments for playing in the home—but they just don’t have the volume and the percussive chop needed for modern mandolin playing. All the famous American mandolinists, especially Bill Monroe, used the Gibson F-5. That mandolin and the more simply shaped A-model have defined the American mandolin. Martin never quite got the formula right.
Collectors Weekly: When was Martin’s heyday?
Johnston: Most Martin fans would say the company’s heyday was from the late 1920s through the Second World War. But I don’t think the company would have seen the 1930s, when it began making the big steel-string guitars that made it famous, as a heyday because that was the height of the Depression. They were making great guitars that would go on to be worth tens of thousands of dollars and would appreciate more rapidly than most other collectibles. But they were struggling to survive at the time.
World War II interrupted production, and Frank Henry Martin, who’d led the company for many years, died in the late 1940s. His son C.F. Martin III was far more conservative. So Martin still made great-sounding guitars after the Second World War, but the ones that are considered the best and are being reproduced today are from the 1930s.
During World War II, there were restrictions on how much brass and steel you could use. Martin was fortunate in that it had no facility for doing anything with electronics, so it wasn’t forced to aid the war effort. Gibson had to devote a certain amount of its energy to wiring things for control panels for airplanes and things like that. Martin was only limited in the amount of brass and steel it could use. So it stopped making archtop guitars, which weren’t really selling very well anyway, as well as its mandolins, tiples, and things like that. They limited the number of guitars they made and didn’t put steel reinforcement in the neck. Other than that, the guitars were pretty much unchanged.
The large dreadnoughts are the most valuable, especially those made in the 1930s. Martin first started making what is now considered the modern dreadnought—meaning the ones with 14 frets clear of the body instead of only 12—in 1934, and so the most valuable Martin guitars are those made between 1934 and roughly 1939.
The reason they’re so sought after comes down to supply and demand. They weren’t making many of the large guitars. The Martin company itself didn’t think much of its largest guitar. They thought they were too bass heavy. As I’ve said, singers liked them because the sound systems of the day were very harsh and trebly. And so you needed the bassiest, smoothest sounding guitar you could find.
Today, of course, we like a lot more bass in the music we listen to than we used to. What do you hear when somebody comes driving down the street with their sound system turned up? Basically, bass is all you hear. So our affection for bass response over anything else is partly why those early guitars, which Martin called bass guitars, caught on. They didn’t really consider them for solo playing, but we use them for that today.
Collectors Weekly: Is the Martin guitar sound associated with particular musical genres?
Johnston: Yes. A Martin dreadnought or a copy thereof is basically the standard guitar for any bluegrass singer and flat picker. Whether it’s made by Martin isn’t really the point. There are other companies—Collings in Santa Cruz, Merrill, and others—that make guitars that look almost exactly like a D-28. Basically, that look is required for that style of music. Many performers who play early, Hank Williams-based country music use the guitar for the same reasons.
Other types of guitarists also prefer Martins, but the bluegrass crowd and many folk performers have stuck with them through thick and thin. Martin was the most popular brand during the folk revival of the late ’50s and ’60s. Joan Baez, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary, and Bob Shane of The Kingston Trio used Martin. Woody Guthrie primarily used Martin guitars.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have a favorite Martin guitar?
Johnston: Among the Dreadnoughts I like a brighter sounding guitar, so my favorites are the D-18s. They’re very simple. I like that understated elegance. Among their big guitars, that’s my favorite, but I actually like the smaller ones, too, because they’re so much easier to hold, and they have an elegant shape. But I don’t really have a favorite model.
My interest in Martin is partly the family history, its connection to American history, and things like that. It’s been a fascinating company to write about because the personalities have had so much to do with shaping the direction of the company. So you’re sort of writing about family psychology, American popular music, instrument building, and guitar popularity all at the same time.
Collectors Weekly: How has the wood used to make the guitars evolved?
Johnston: Martin has always used rosewood for most of its guitars, and of course that’s a tropical hardwood—there’s no rosewood in North America. So they were importing wood for the back and sides of their guitars from the very beginning. That hasn’t really changed much.
They used Brazilian rosewood, which is from the Amazon, up until the late 1960s. At that point they switched to wood from India, East Indian rosewood. They still make a few guitars out of Brazilian rosewood, but the wood is endangered and is extremely expensive. So that’s a very small part of their production, whereas they used only Brazilian rosewood on all their rosewood guitars from the 1830s until the very end of the 1960s.
Martin initially used local spruce from the Adirondack Mountains, which are not far from their headquarters Nazareth, Pennsylvania, but that type of spruce was overharvested so there wasn’t that much available by the mid-1940s. That’s when they began using Sitka spruce from the northwest. They now primarily use that and spruces from Europe and other parts of the world.
They do use a limited amount of Adirondack spruce today, although it’s from much farther north than what they used before. Now most of it comes out of New Hampshire and even Canada. Martin also uses rosewood from Madagascar and other exotic hardwoods on special limited edition guitars.
Collectors Weekly: Does the type of wood change the sound of the guitar?
Johnston: Somewhat. I think most of us who work with guitars don’t feel that the wood has nearly as large an impact on the sound of the guitar as the advertising and the consumers would like to believe. But it does make a difference.
Martin has been making both rosewood and mahogany guitars for a long time. The bulk of their mahogany guitar production was in the 1920s and ’30s. And they sound significantly different than rosewood guitars. Rosewood tends to produce overtones that are somewhat offset or stacked in a way that produces a natural reverb effect, and that’s the sound a lot of people like, especially in the bass tones. They like a very rich palate of overtones.
Mahogany delivers a brighter, much more straightforward tone. It’s not as complex, and it’s easier to record. But for somebody sitting around the living room who probably wants something bassy—something that comes close to the sound you get when you’re playing in a tiled bathroom—a rosewood guitar will deliver that.
In recent years, even genuine mahogany has become scarce, so more guitar makers are using an African hardwood that closely resembles mahogany but isn’t really a true mahogany at all, for the backs and sides. What we’ve always called genuine mahogany, South American mahogany, is probably going to disappear from all but very expensive reissues of earlier historic guitars within the next 10 years. It’s been overharvested.
These days, Martin produces a number of models made from sustainable woods—either the species isn’t endangered or the wood is harvested in such a way that it can be designated “sustainable.” So they’re doing more with some native hardwoods like cherry. For a long time in the 1800s, cherry was widely used for banjos in this country. In recent years there has been a lot more attention paid to how the wood is harvested.
A lot of effort is being made to prevent the remaining Sitka spruce forests in Canada and Alaska from being overharvested because spruce is the best wood for guitar tops. But a lot of the spruce trees are being felled and used for construction purposes when other woods would function just as well. So there’s a growing consciousness of the fact that the woods like mahogany and spruce that we thought were going to last forever are going to run out if we don’t change the way they’re used.
Collectors Weekly: Is it true that guitars sound better the more they’ve been played?
Johnston: That’s purely anecdotal. Someone will say that this guitar they’ve had for 10 years sounds X-percent better than it did when they first got it. Its may be true, but how can you possibly determine that? I don’t want to say that guitars don’t improve with age. For one thing, only the exterior of the guitar body is finished. The interior is unfinished in almost all instances in finer guitars. So the wood in the guitar is certainly going through a seasoning process that continues for a long period of time. Although the wood is seasoned before the guitar is made, it’s still going to continue to absorb moisture, lose moisture, and age.
Some of the tests that guitar makers have made indicate that when wood takes on moisture, loses moisture, and goes through a lot of climate changes, the variation in its reaction to those changes becomes narrower with time. So, in other words, a relatively freshly cut piece of wood will fluctuate more dramatically to changes in humidity than an older piece wood.
On the other hand, we don’t have any real data on all of this. All we have is what people perceive, and frequently they’re comparing things in radically different environments, including humidity and other factors. And that’s not even counting the differences in rooms. There’s a huge difference between playing a guitar in a room with wall-to-wall carpeting and heavy floor-length drapes compared to playing that same guitar in a room with a hardwood floor and bare windows. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to make a really knowledgeable comparison between two instruments in two radically different environments.
That’s why I say that the scientific community would just laugh at all the anecdotal comparisons we have about guitars. But in the music industry, it’s widely accepted. A bunch of people all log on to a forum and say how much better a certain type of wood sounds than something else, and first thing you know, it becomes the gospel truth.
Collectors Weekly: Why does a musician need more than one guitar?
Johnston: Well, that’s easy. We’ve talked about the difference in sound of different kinds of woods, but there’re also different sounds from different sizes and body shapes of guitars. So different guitars have distinctly different tones, and some people are happy playing virtually everything on one guitar, while others feel the need to have several guitars to produce different sounds. That’s just a matter of choice and probably indicative of how many styles they play.
Some musicians can really cover a lot of territory, from acoustic pieces on a steel-string guitar that are classical or even Baroque in nature to music that’s heavily influenced by hip-hop and other modern styles. A lot of modern acoustic guitars are played in a very percussive style with a lot of slapping and tapping on the body and strings. So guitars that might work well for the more delicate, classically oriented pieces simply might not be strong enough to withstand the heavy rhythmic pounding that the player might use for another piece of music.
Collectors Weekly: Are guitar companies continuing to evolve as music changes?
Johnston: Well, yes. The biggest difference in the evolution has been that as the acoustic guitar began its revival in the late 1980s and early ’90s, guitars were expected to be much louder. A lot of guitars now have built-in pickups. So they’ve evolved in the sense that a lot of them look like a regular acoustic guitar, but have a fairly complex electronic arsenal inside that enables that guitar to be amplified almost to the same degree as a solid-body electric guitar. So it’s made the acoustic guitar a lot more versatile, as well as more complex.
Manufacturers are introducing a wider variety of models and types of woods partly because they want to offer more choices to their customers. Also, because of the introduction of CNC (computer numeric control), a company can store a lot more bracing patterns or neck shapes than in the past. What used to take up a wall in a warehouse can now be contained in an envelope. There’s still a tremendous amount of handwork involved in the guitar, but much of the machining is computer controlled.
Collectors Weekly: You mentioned an acoustic guitar revival in the late ’80s. Has that revival ebbed?
Johnston: The guitar was tremendously popular both in the folk revival and in the folk-rock era that followed it, with groups like Crosby, Stills and Nash. But in the 1980s, synthesizer-based popular music was dominant, and frequently there would be no songs in the top 10 that involved much guitar at all. The guitar really went through a horrible downturn, and that had disastrous effects on all American guitar companies, including Martin.
In 1983 or so, Martin only sold about 5,000 guitars—they now sell 150 guitars or more per day. In the early ’80s, their production was below what it was during the early 1940s. So it gives you an idea of why the company almost went out of business. A lot of the revived interest in the acoustic guitar started when “MTV Unplugged” became popular, and performers like Eric Clapton began arranging their rock hits of the ’60s and ’70s to be played on acoustic guitar.
Before those MTV Unplugged performances of the early ’90s, I don’t think many people believed you could play “Layla” or Beatles classics on an acoustic guitar. But then people began to realize that most of those songs were written on an acoustic guitar, so you can take them back to their beginnings and they’re often very credible songs with just a singer.
We were so used to the loud bands of the ’70s and early ’80s that I don’t think we were willing to listen to something played in a stripped-down, fairly elementary form like that. But now we’re a little more flexible. We’re willing to listen to the song itself, and frequently an acoustic guitar for accompaniment is all you need.
(All images in this article courtesy Richard Johnston of Gryphon Stringed Instruments)