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C.F. Martin & Company Celebrate 175 Years of Making Music

One hundred and seventy five years ago, Christian Frederick Martin came from Germany to the United States and started making guitars in a small workshop. Six generations later, the company has grown, and the guitars it makes may end up in the hands of some of the most talented musicians and songwriters today. VOA's Susan Logue has the story.

Brad Marshall will never forget the first time he played a Martin guitar. "It felt like it was a whole band when I strummed it. It was so full sounding."

Kevin Artz says the first Martin he heard put every guitar he had ever played to shame. "It was like the guitars I had been playing were like a honky tonk piano, and this guy picked up something and put it before me that was like a Steinway. It was so beautiful."

Marshall and Artzhave been performing together for 30 years. Between them they own nine Martin guitars. In fact Martin guitars are the only guitars they play.

Blues-rock legend Eric Clapton loves Martin guitars so much he'd like to come back in his next life as one. It is the guitar he chose when he "unplugged" for MTV.

And when Sting wanted a special sound for his "Sacred Love" album, he commissioned Martin to design the instrument. "Sting wanted a little guitar that could be strung an octave above pitch in order to get a shimmering treble response," says Dick Boak, the man Sting came to with that request.

As director of artist relations at C.F. Martin and Company, Boak has worked with some of the best known guitarists on the planet, from Paul Simon to John Mayer.

"In many cases we know exactly where a guitar is going," Boak says. "Not only do we know [that], but we'll see [the guitar] on television a few nights after we have strung and tuned it with [the artist] playing the guitar on stage, and it is a tremendous thrill."

Musicians Who Have Played Martins

  • Eric Clapton
  • Paul McCartney
  • John Lennon
  • George Harrison
  • Paul Simon
  • David Crosby
  • Graham Nash
  • Stephen Stills
  • Buddy Guy
  • Elvis Presley
  • Hank Williams
  • Woody Guthrie
  • Johnny Cash
  • Gene Autry
  • John Mayer
C.F. Martin and Company makes several hundred models of guitars. They come in different sizes and can be made of different woods. Some are ornately inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

No matter how they look on the outside, they all share something in common, Boak says: the Martin sound.

"Our historian Mike Longworth used to have a nice way to describe the Martin phenomenon," Boak says, "and that's that 'we start with the Martin sound and build a box around it.'"

The Martin phenomenon began in 1833, when Christian Frederick Martin, Senior came to the United States from Germany with his family and set up a shop in New York. Six years later they moved to Pennsylvania.

"They were unhappy in New York," Boak says. "They moved to Nazareth, because it reminded them of their hometown of Markneukirchen, Germany. And in Nazareth, he really found his style of guitar-making, and the guitars that C.F. Martin built really came to define the instrument."

Six generations later, they still define guitar standards. Today, nearly 500 employees work in the factory in Nazareth. Most of the guitars they make are handcrafted in a process that involves about 300 steps.

This year, in honor of the company's 175th anniversary, a limited number are being crafted just as they were in 1937, using rare woods and animal hide glue.

"Going back to the old glues, old process and old woods, just produces something very, very special," Boak says, adding some have compared the quality of those pre-World War II Martin guitars to that of a Stradivarius Violin.

But, as Kevin Artz notes, even Martin Guitars crafted with more modern methods are valued by musicians as something special. "If you're an acoustic player, Martin Guitars tend to be your dream."