Posted by Stevie Coyle
C.F. Martin and Co. is arguably the best-known steel-string guitar manufacturer in the world. But it’s a fair guess that when most folks picture a Martin, it’s not the diminutive 0 size that springs to mind. Truth be told, however, these little guitars hold a special place in the company’s history. First introduced in the 1850s, the 0 was Martin’s first true concert-size instrument, despite the fact that it is so small by today’s standards that it is often misidentified as a “parlor” guitar. That term, however, more accurately belongs to instruments of the period that were even smaller than the 0 and that have shorter scales. In its day, the 0-size was considered a big guitar. The times, they have a-changed, eh? But the mighty little 0 has always had its devotees, most notably, perhaps, in recent years Joan Baez and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson.
Martin didn’t offer its original 12-fret 0-size models for many years, but recently the company updated and reissued the design as part of its Vintage series in the form of an 0-28VS, which we had a chance to check out.
12-Fret Style 28
With a 12-fret body that measures 131/2 inches across the lower bout, the 0-28VS is over two inches narrower than a standard, 14-fret dreadnought. But the body is only a fraction of an inch shorter than a dread, and the placement of the bridge—in the middle of the lower bout rather than toward the waist of the guitar—is often considered to be the best position for producing a loud, clear, and highly articulate voice. With their wide fingerboard and string spacing, 12-fret Martins have been perennial favorites of fingerstyle players, and the 0-28VS offers true vintage-style dimensions in its 1 7/8-inch nut and 2 5/16-inch string spacing at the saddle.
Of course the number “28” in the Martin model designation indicates that the guitar is built with rosewood back and sides and a spruce top. Other typical style-28 features include herringbone top purfling and a distinctive “5-9-5 band” rosette. And, do you want to hear a fun fact that is truly heartbreaking? When it hit the stores in the 1850s it was called a “28” because it cost $28.
A Thing of Beauty
The russet-hued solid East Indian rosewood back and sides and gold-toned solid Sitka spruce top of this 0-28VS are finished in “polished gloss,” but the neck is satin-finished. That’s the best of all possible worlds, by my lights. The wood grain on the back and sides is wide and quite straight, while the top has quite a lot of cross-grain and a bit of a dark spot above the soundhole, which might have been considered a flaw in previous decades. But then again, we all wanted narrow-grain “pound cake” spruce tops back then, too. Thankfully, these days sonic superiority generally trumps visual perfection.
The V in the guitar’s model name is for “vintage,” of course, and while this guitar doesn’t have the über-retro features of Martin’s Authentic line (such as hide-glue construction and a non-adjustable neck) the 0-28VS does have a lovely old-style pyramid bridge. What looks like a by-the-book glued-in saddle, however, is actually a drop-in, an improvement that allows for easy adjustments and the installation of UST pickups. And unlike its forebears, it has an adjustable truss rod.
Chunky Neck, Muscular Tones
Our review 0-28VS arrived set up with light-gauge phosphor-bronze strings and medium-low action. Having the action just slightly higher than dead low made sense to me, considering that it’s a short-scale guitar with a rather soft fretting-hand feel already, and that many players will want to get full tone and volume out of a box this small. The modified V-style neck will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found that little extra bit of angle gave my left hand some added mechanical advantage, especially on a neck that starts wide at the nut and gets even wider as you march up the fingerboard. Small-body, 12-fret guitars have always been a favorite of fingerstylers, and in that realm the 0-28VS truly shines. While bigger-bodied guitars excel in single-string play and really light up under the sonic saturation of strumming, this sweet little guitar has such precise articulation that it felt downright impolite to strum it with a flatpick.
It’s probably a ridiculous thing to say, but this 0-28VS is a very Martiny Martin. It’s got that Martin mojo, even at HO scale. The distinctive overtone stack that is typical of the brand infuses this guitar in spades. (I wish I could concisely articulate better what the devil that means, but I’m certain Martin aficionados will catch my drift.)
There’s not a lot of hard science to back up claims about how guitars sound to individual players. It’s a very subjective subject, if you’ll pardon the tortured syntax. But it’s always been my largely unscientific vibe that on a slot-head guitar the steep break angle over the nut contributes considerable downward pressure and improves the overall energy transfer of vibrating strings to the top. Ditto with a neck that’s got some heft and mass to it. For its size, this is one heavy little puppy. Even though the 0 model itself is scaled-down, the body woods are the same thickness as you’ll find on dreadnoughts.
Raw Power, Rich Harmonics
The 0-28VS is remarkably loud, with bell-like overtones even in the bass registers. In fact, on first meeting I felt that the combination of ringy-ness and massive sustain made this a bit of a runaway guitar. But that’s the kind of problem I like. I vastly prefer a guitar that gives you too much of any important sonic feature to one where there’s just no “there” there. While fingerpicking, I found that judicious application of palm-muting and left-hand damping helped rein things in, but while flatpicking or strumming, this guitar was sort of “stuck on 11.”
With this kind of raw firepower and such a rich harmonic stack available, there was nothing for it but to swing the 0-28VS into a whole slew of alternate tunings. Even though I’d normally tune a short-scale guitar up instead of down (for example, to E A E A C# E rather then D G D G B D, or to E B E A B E instead of D A D G A D), this guitar handled dropped tunings with much less flabbiness on the bass strings than I would have ever guessed. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note, however, that as clear as the trebles are, and as rich and surprisingly deep as the tones are, in any tuning, capoed on any fret, played fingerstyle or with a flatpick, the sound of this little Martin has a sort of small-bodied tankiness, an attenuation of the extreme low end, that some folks will find immensely appealing, but that others might find too far from their expectations of what a steel-string flattop should sound like.
It’s really small. It’s a 12-fret. It’s loaded with character, and IMHO, it’s a jewel. Tone, volume, vintage vibe, herringbone, and heritage, all in a guitar you don’t have to stand on an apple crate to play.
SPECS: 12-fret 0-size body. Solid Sitka spruce top. Solid East Indian rosewood back and sides. Scalloped X-bracing. Select hardwood neck with dovetail joint. Ebony fingerboard and bridge. Bone nut and saddle. 24.9-inch scale. 17/8-inch nut width. 25/16-inch string spacing at saddle. Polished gloss body finish. Satin neck finish. Slotted headstock with nickel Waverly tuners. Light-gauge Martin Lifespan strings. Made in USA. Available in left-handed version.
PRICE: $4,699 list/$3,599 street.
MAKER: C.F. Martin and Co.: (800) 633-2060; martinguitar.com.