No steel-string guitar design has proven as enduring as the 14-fret dreadnought, which was introduced to the world by Martin in 1934. With its commanding voice, the dreadnought is at home in many styles of music, from bluegrass to folk to unplugged rock and beyond, and its silhouette has become the blueprint for the standard steel-string acoustic. Martin has a comprehensive selection of dreadnoughts in its catalog, but most of them don’t come cheap. A brand-new D-28, one of the most popular dreadnoughts, will currently set you back about $2,300. Luckily for those unable to afford a D-28, Martin recently unveiled the DRS1—a guitar with many similarities to the American-made D-15, but built in Martin’s Mexican facility. From the company’s Road Series, designed with the working musician in mind, this tough but sweet dreadnought is made from solid sapele and outfitted with Fishman electronics.
Premium Martin guitars have long been made with spruce tops and rosewood bodies, while less expensive ones have been constructed of mahogany. But as mahogany has become threatened, some guitar makers are turning to sapele, a durable, attractively grained wood native to Africa. The top, back, and sides of the DRS1 are made of solid sapele, while the neck is Stratabond—white birch that is dyed and laminated into large blocks before being carved, a process intended to increase strength and stability. The guitar’s headstock is covered with a sliver of Indian rosewood, and the fingerboard and bridge are black Richlite, a composite made of recycled paper and resin that bears a resemblance to ebony.
The DRS1 has an understated appearance with minimal ornamentation—a simple black-and-white rosette as well as 1/8-inch dot fingerboard inlays. A single-ply black pickguard complements the dark fingerboard and bridge, and the guitar’s overall look is further subdued with a satin finish.
Our review DRS1 evidenced the impeccable craftsmanship typically seen on a Martin guitar. The 20 medium frets are perfectly crowned and polished and similar care was clearly taken in cutting the Corian nut and compensated Tusq saddle. The satin finish is smoothly and uniformly applied, and the kerfing and bracing inside the guitar have been attentively shaped and sanded; there’s not a trace of excess glue to be seen.
Lively Sound and Excellent Playability
The DRS1 has a very comfortable neck shape; a modified low oval with a 111/16-inch nut, its contour feels full but not overwhelming. The action is nice and low, and it was easy to play open and barre chords up and down the neck, as well as brisk single-note lines in all registers. A small complaint: a strap button pre-installed at the heel might annoy those who like to linger up the neck.
The DRS1 has an articulate, lively sound not commonly heard from a guitar in its price range. With its snappy bass, ample midrange, and crystalline treble, it is excellently balanced, and the sapele seems to add a hint of sweetness to the sound. While not quite the cannon in terms of volume that some more-expensive Martins are, the DRS1 has decent headroom and projection, to say nothing of a bit of the warmth that is typical of many guitars using mahogany or similar woods for their tops. To put the DRS1 through its paces I first tried some basic bluegrass runs and Carter-style strumming, and the guitar responded with an agreeable bark. It was similarly responsive to some Travis-style fingerpicking, and I was even able to coax from the guitar some Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt–style swing lines.
A good test of an acoustic guitar’s performance is how it reacts when subjected to alternate tunings. When I got into some common tunings, open G and D A D G A D, and strummed open-string chords and natural harmonics, the guitar sounded shimmering and resonant, with no loss of richness in the bass. The DRS1 also sounded great in a tuning I’d call open Cmaj9 (C G D G B E)—in which the sixth and fifth strings are lowered a third and a second, respectively, from standard—without the low C turning to mush.
Onboard Fishman Electronics
The DRS1 comes with Fishman Sonitone electronics that include an undersaddle pickup and a preamp housed inside the soundhole on the bass side. Powered by a nine-volt battery, the Sonitone preamp is easy to operate, with just two rotary controls: tone and volume. While the Sonitone offers little in the way of tonal shaping, I found the sound to be just right when I set the tone control to a neutral position and plugged into a Fender Acoustasonic amp. The pickup and preamp are relatively noiseless and the sound is organic, without the tubbiness sometimes associated with acoustic-electrics.
Quality Affordable Dread
Martin’s Road Series DRS1 is a smart new solid-wood dreadnought for the cost-conscious guitarist. It has a top-quality build and a fine sound to match. While the guitar does include a few laminate and composite elements—a Stratabond neck and Richlite fingerboard and bridge—it has a traditionally handsome appearance. Add to that the plug-and-play Fishman electronics and you’ve got an unbeatable value.
SPECS: Dreadnought body. Solid sapele top, back, and sides. Stratabond neck. Black Richlite fingerboard and bridge. 25.4-inch scale. 1 11/16-inch nut width. 2 1/8-inch string spacing at saddle. Satin finish. Chrome enclosed tuners. Fishman Sonitone electronics. Martin SP Lifespan phosphor-bronze medium strings. Made in Mexico. Left-handed version available.
PRICE: $949 list/$699 street.
MAKER: C.F. Martin and Co.: (610) 759-2837; martinguitar.com.