By Greg Cahill
After 27 years at the helm of America’s oldest and most storied guitar maker, Chris F. Martin IV has learned a thing or two about preserving a legacy. Unlike his father, C. F. Martin III, who headed the company through the disco era and resulting acoustic guitar market crash, Martin has presided over his great-great-great grandfather’s company during a time of relatively steady growth. In 2004, after 171 years in business, the company reached an impressive milestone, producing its one millionth guitar. Just seven years later, Martin had made its 1.5 millionth model. [UPDATE: In 2016, Martin built its two millionth guitar.]
Preserving the craftsmanship that has earned the company its reputation of building the gold standard of acoustic guitars has long been the central mission of generations of Martin CEOs, and C.F. Martin IV has proven himself an able steward of the brand. In 2006, the company opened an acclaimed museum at its factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Martin also made the company’s archives available to author Robert Shaw for his authoritative 2013 book Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C.F. Martin and His Contemporaries, and contributed materials for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current year-long exhibition based on the evolution of the instrument.
Acoustic Guitar caught up with Martin at his office in Nazareth.
How would you characterize your role as the keeper of the Martin legacy?
The blessing and the curse of those of us that have these big significant brands with a lot of history is that we can play to our strengths. The customers like that. But the curse is, if we do something really wild and crazy, the customers freak out. They’re like, “Oh my God, Chris Martin has gone insane.” When I go to luthier conventions and I look at wild and crazy stuff, I go, “God bless you, you have that freedom.” I don’t. [Gibson CEO] Henry Juskowitz has done some stuff that was really cool and the market was just like “No, Gibson should not be doing this.” So that’s the one thing I’ve learned, we’re very cautious in terms of changing that tradition that we’re so blessed with.
Where do you see Martin moving in terms of its place in the market in the coming decade?
The biggest issue is going to be the traditional raw materials. Now that we’ve all realized that there’s a reason they’re called rare exotic timbers and we’re beginning to talk about the scarcity and what’s going to be necessary to allow these woods to regenerate, there’s also the understanding that, oh man, these trees take 50 years to 100 years to grow. I’m actually sitting in my office looking at a picture of my nine-year-old daughter thinking, “Huh, so when she’s my age, she will actually be able to harvest some of those trees that are regenerating right now and that’s going to become more significant.” It’s going to force prices up. It’s going to force all of us to think more seriously about alternatives. It’s just inevitable.
In 2013, Martin built a signature marketing campaign around 22-year-old British singer and songwriter Ed Sheeran and his Martin signature LX1E guitar, which is one of the most affordable in the company’s line and makes use of alternative woods. Can you talk about that decision?
Fortunately, when you come down in price people are a lot more open about it. You get up around the price of a D-28, you run into the very traditional, “Hey, why isn’t it rosewood? Why isn’t it mahogany? Why isn’t it ebony?” Yeah, as long as you’re willing to pay for it, but none of my ancestors, I don’t think, ever sat down and said, “Let’s create a company that makes really, really expensive guitars that we’ll sell only to doctors, lawyers, and people who run hedge funds. You know, that’s not what I want. I want a business that allows a dedicated amateur to get into a Martin product without having to break the bank.
Why do you think we’re seeing more slope shoulder designs in the marketplace now?
I don’t know if it’s a tonal thing or just a comfortable look. It’s a very comforting look, where things are rounded like that. That’s the big difference between acoustic and electric guitars. Electric guitar guys go in the other direction. They can do all this weird angular stuff. With acoustics, you want it to play well and you want it to look real comforting. For all those people you see standing up playing an acoustic guitar, there are probably ten of them playing one sitting on a couch.
What about the rise in the use of mahogany?
From a manufacturing standpoint, it’s a wonderful wood to work with. It’s extremely durable. It’s still available and it has a nice sharp sound. It’s marginally cheaper than rosewood.
One of the challenges that U.S. guitar manufacturers face today is competition from Chinese companies that copy American designs.
My concern about China is that apparently they don’t have any laws regarding the use of illegally logged timber. So, it’s not illegal. It is definitely illegal in America to use illegally logged timber. That’s a big concern of mine, that they can do unethical things that those of us in America wouldn’t, shouldn’t and can’t do. The customer really has to decide, particularly if you’re buying a copy of a Martin guitar and it’s expensive. I always scratch my head and go, “Really? Why didn’t you just buy a Martin? Why buy an expensive copy of a Martin?” I don’t get it.
Obviously a lot of these companies have sat down and reverse engineered a Martin. The build quality has come up in recent years, but they don’t sound exactly like a Martin.
You know, I appreciate that. I think there probably are some that do [sound like a Martin], particularly from a hand builder. I’m not going to go on record as saying no one can build a guitar as well as we can. What I do know, and I know this for a fact, is that no one can build as many as we do. We make more great flat-top steel string acoustic guitars than any other entity on Earth, and that to me is a sign of somebody who knows what they’re doing.
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You’re talking about the hand-built copies, but what about the manufactured guitars out there?
Like you said, the quality of most guitars today is better than it ever has been. I think that’s great. The chances are a beginner is not going to pop for a Martin. They’re going to start somewhere else and work their way up. I would really recommend that a beginner, in particular, take the time and go to a music store to buy a guitar. Don’t go to one of these discount warehouses, because they don’t really know what a musical instrument is. Their business is selling boxes with things in them for cheap prices. Music store owners stand behind the product. They’re going to look at it before handing it to you. But I have a lot of respect for some of the stuff coming out of Asia today. The majority of it is better than it has ever been.