From the April 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY PETE MADSEN
Introduced in 1916, Martin’s Dreadnought—named after a British battleship, the HMS Dreadnought—is a guitar design that has withstood the test of time. The dreadnought’s large and deep body projects warmth and volume, making it irresistible to bluegrass, folk, and rock players. Martin’s iconic D-18 and D-28 models have been played by many heavyweights of 20th-century music, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Tony Rice.
Even today, when smaller-bodied guitars are the talk of the acoustic world, the trusty dreadnought accounts for about 80 percent of Martin’s production. All of this adds up to its being the most popular acoustic design the world over. So what can Martin do to update a guitar that has already captivated guitarists for a century?
To answer that question, we looked at two new instruments that point to Martin’s present and future: a recent update to the hallowed Standard Series D-28 and the Model America 1, made with all-American woods. Both guitars nod to the past while featuring thoughtful updates, adding to the pantheon of Martin dreadnoughts.
Model America 1
In an era when tropical tonewoods such as mahogany and rosewood have become increasingly regulated and scarce, it makes perfect sense to make a guitar entirely from North American woods. The Model America 1 is based on the stalwart D-18, but with tonewoods that can be found in Martin’s—or maybe even your own—back yard. Instead of the typical mahogany back and sides, we have sycamore; in place of a Sitka, Italian, or German spruce top, we have Adirondack spruce. Martin also used cherry for the neck and walnut for the fingerboard, bridge, and headplate. The Model America 1 is offered as a limited-edition member of its Standard series. Are they testing the waters? Based on my impressions of playing this guitar for several weeks, I’d say it deserves to become a regular production model.
NOT QUITE A D-18
Visually, the Model 1 is modest, except for the sycamore back and sides, whose prominent figuring reminds me of maple or koa. The Adirondack top has a wide grain and the use of aging toner gives off a vintage vibe. The one visual cue that seems a little off to my eyes is the walnut fingerboard. Maybe it’s because my eyes are attuned to the darker colors of rosewood or ebony, but I found myself slightly thrown off by the walnut’s lighter hue. The rest of the Model America feels like a standard D-18, with vintage-style open-geared tuners, tortoise pickguard, and black binding. The Model America 1 also sports a gloss finish on the back and sides and satin finish on the neck.
With Martin’s high-performance taper and modified low oval shape, the Model America has a feel identical to the revised D-28. The 1-3/4-inch nut translates into even string spacing that makes the neck easy to play from nut to 14th fret. The rounded neck profile feels comfortable in my hand even though I favor the soft-V shape of the vintage models. I know a few fingerstyle players—Kelly Joe Phelps, for one—who prefer the big sound of dreadnoughts, but both new Martins I tested work well as fingerpicking guitars. This is in part due to the 2-5/32-inch string spacing at the saddle—ample room for pickers to feel at home.
I played some fingerstyle blues in dropped-D tuning (D A D G B E), and could hear that the Model America 1 has a sound profile similar to what I might expect out of a D-18 or a 000-18: snappy and immediate. Compared to the D-28’s warm tones, the Model America 1 has a crisp sound that makes faster picking styles stand out. I played a few original ragtime pieces on the Model America, enjoying the immediate response.
I sat down with local SF Bay Area bluegrass picker Jim Nunally (from the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience) and his corral of vintage Martin dreadnoughts, including a 1946 D-18, to do some comparing and contrasting. I really appreciated Nunally’s thorough knowledge of dreadnoughts, as well as his perspective as a flatpicker and his bluegrass savvy.
The 1940s-era guitars that survive today are sometimes quite different in play and feel from guitar to guitar. Nunally’s older Martin had a thicker neck that some players might find a bit uncomfortable. He explained to me that his guitar was something of an anomaly. When he visited the Martin factory a few years back to have some repair work done, the technicians told him that whoever shaped the neck had not used the standard jigs of the day and hence his D-18’s chunky neck is a unique feature.
But with the more uniform standards of today’s guitar manufacturing, the guitar you play in your local shop should feel identical to the review guitars I tried. The Model America’s neck, with its modern profile, will fit a variety of hand sizes and shapes and should translate to smooth playing up and down the fretboard.
Another difference between the older D-18 and the Model America was the setup. Nunally prefers his action a little high, with some relief between the fifth and ninth frets, so he can dig in a little harder for bluegrass-style runs. By comparison, the Model America’s factory-set action was pretty low, which worked well for many styles we played on the guitar.
Hearing the Model 1 from a listener’s perspective was a revelation: This guitar is a cannon, loud and pronounced in a way that seems to project more volume than Nunally’s 1946 Martin. Nunally was also impressed with the sound of the new guitar, and we both felt that it will really open up with a bit more playing time. It’s truly a great addition to the Martin dreadnought line.
Many consider the D-28 the Holy Grail of dreadnought guitars—especially those made between 1944 and ’46, whose Brazilian rosewood back and sides and non-scalloped, forward-shifted bracing project a warm tone that is hard to equal. The 2017 refresh of the D-28 takes its cue from the revered age of guitar making but nods to other eras as well. This new guitar features vintage appointments, aging toner for the top, and a neck with a modern profile; something for everybody.
Martin started using Indian rosewood in the mid-1960s, after the Brazilian government stopped allowing the exportation of “log” or timber and began selling only pre-sawn wood. The situation was unsatisfactory to Martin and hence the change to East Indian rosewood, the same species used on most new rosewood Martins, including our test D-28.
VINTAGE STYLE AND MODERN FEEL
The Indian rosewood back and sides present a dark coffee-colored hue that offsets the light-colored and tight-grained Sitka spruce top with simple elegance. The ebony fretboard and bridge are a classic complement for the rosewood back and sides. Simple appointments such as black-and-white rosette and binding, tortoise pickguard, and vintage-style open-gear tuners complete the picture.
The slim neck with 1-3/4-inch nut makes this D-28 easy to navigate from the open position to 14th-fret neck joint. I tried some bluesy single-string runs and found the D-28 easy to play, even though I’m used to playing shorter-scale guitars (24.75-inch) that provide less tension than the longer, 25.4-inch dreadnought. The D-28 comes with medium-gauge strings, which can make string bending a challenge. Of course, many dreadnought players prefer the bulky feel of heavier strings with a little bit of fight to them.
The new D-28 features forward-shifted non-scalloped bracing, a nod to the post-1946 dreadnoughts. From 1934 to 1946, Martin used scalloped bracing, but there was some concern that pickers using heavy strings—namely, bluegrass players of the 1940s—might not be getting enough top stabilization, so Martin started making the guitars with non-scalloped bracing. How does this affect the sound? Some say non-scalloped bracing lends a punchier midrange and provides a better balance. If the tester D-28’s low midrange is any indication, I have to agree with this generalization.
The new D-28 has a strong bass with a good balance between all the strings. However, I noticed when I tuned to open D (D A D F# A D) that the bass overpowered the treble. To a certain extent, bigger, bassy overtones are the nature of rosewood, but the best rosewood guitars achieve a good overall balance. When I tuned back to standard, I was very happy with the sound, which was warm but not overly bass-saturated. In fact, back in standard tuning, the D-28 appeared to be in its sweet spot.
To benchmark this newly updated D-28 against a few vintage models, Nunally brought out his 1944 and 1978 D-28s. Some may quibble that it’s not fair to judge a vintage guitar with a new example, but since the new D-28 aims to package the best of different-era guitars in a new model, it’s worth it to see what we have learned and where we have improved. For instance, the neck has a modern feel—a little slimmer than the earlier models—that should appeal to a wider group of players, including singer-songwriters and those transitioning from electric guitar. Martin calls the neck taper “high performance,” which had me imagining laps around the Daytona Speedway. When Nunally played the guitar in standard tuning, navigating the fretboard with aplomb, I was impressed with the overall balance of the D-28’s sound. Nunally played bluegrass runs from the third position up to the ninth fret that sounded crisp and articulate.
When Nunally asked me if I sang, I was scared he was going to ask me to belt out “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” but he was actually trying to make the point that singers often gravitate toward the D-28 over a D-18. The increased warmth of the rosewood guitar is often a better match for the human voice. I understand this might be true if you are playing solo or in a duet, but in an ensemble setting (e.g., bass, banjo, fiddle), the D-18 might blend better with the other instruments. I only mention this as it is a variable to consider when buying your next guitar. You might also keep in mind that tonal qualities will vary from guitar to guitar, so it’s worth it to play a number of instruments to find the one that speaks to you.
As D-28s go, this new take on an old favorite is a fine specimen. Whatever your expectations of a D-28 are, you should be able to find it in this revised version. It’s got the looks and classic sound, but with a more modern playability.
Model America 1
BODY 14-fret dreadnought; solid Adirondack spruce top with aging toner and forward-shifted scalloped X-bracing; solid sycamore back and sides; black walnut bridge with 2-5/32″ string spacing; gloss finish
NECK 25.4″-scale cherry neck with black walnut fretboard and modified low oval shape; 1-3/4″-wide bone nut; Grover Sta-Tite 18:1 tuners nickel open-gear tuners with butterbean knobs, satin finish
OTHER Martin SP 92/8 Phosphor Bronze strings, medium gauge (.013–.056); hard-shell plywood case; left-handed available
PRICING $3,499 (MSRP); $2,799 (street)
MADE IN USA
BODY 14-fret dreadnought; Sitka spruce top with aging toner and forward-shifted non-scalloped X-bracing; solid Indian rosewood back and sides; ebony bridge with 2-5/32″ string spacing; gloss finish
NECK 25.4″-scale select hardwood neck with ebony fretboard and modified low oval shape; 1-3/4″-wide bone nut; nickel open-gear Grover Sta-Tite 18:1 tuners with butterbean knobs, satin finish
OTHER Martin SP 92/8 Phosphor Bronze strings, medium gauge (.013–.056)
PRICING $3,299 (MSRP); $2,629 (street)
MADE IN USA
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.