Ask the Expert: What’s the History Behind Solid Headstocks and Banjo Tuners on Guitars?
Q: Having seen the 1930 Martin 000-45 Deluxe in the September/October 2020 issue, I’m curious about a few things: Why and when did Martin switch to a solid headstock, and was Martin the first to use this design? What was the deal with the banjo tuners on the earliest OMs, and were any other makers using them? —Melody M., via email
A: It is often said that early Martin guitars with 12-fret necks typically have slotted pegheads similar to classical guitars, while those with 14-fret necks only have solid pegheads. But this does not, in fact, correspond to the reality of Martin history.
Christian Frederick Martin, Sr. and his family were from Markneukirchen, a town in what is now eastern Germany, near the border of the Czech Republic. Prior to emigrating to the United States in 1833, Martin had worked for about a decade in Vienna, Austria, in the workshop of Johann Georg Stauffer, which produced high-quality instruments that were sought after by professional musicians. As is typical of the guitars of that time, most had a neck joining the body at the 12th fret.
Many of the Stauffers featured pegheads with six tuners on a side—remarkably similar in shape to Fender’s electric-guitar design of 150 years later. Solid pegheads with friction pegs were standard for most guitar designs from the Renaissance through 1800, before the advent of geared tuners. The technology for producing geared tuners was very different from the skills of a luthier. A set of Stauffer-designed gears—which were also used on some of the earliest Martins made in the United States—could cost more than a mid-priced guitar with friction pegs.
From Martin’s founding in 1833, the company offered Stauffer-style designs, with friction pegs on a solid headstock, or geared tuners on either a slotted headstock (three tuners per side, like on a classical guitar) or the six-on-a-side configuration.
As early as 1824, Spanish virtuoso guitarist Trinidad Huerta performed in New York, and by 1840 players such as Philip Benedid and Madame de Goñi traveled from Spain to New York and other East Coast cities, where they were very well received. New York City teacher and guitar dealer John B. Coupa was one of Martin’s best customers and strongly urged the company to adopt Spanish designs. Martin’s famous squared-off peghead shape and peghead volute were not unique, nor was Martin the first to utilize this design. The Spanish instruments that were influential at that time—primarily made in and around the city of Cádiz by luthiers such as Antonio de Lorca, Jose Recio, and Joséf Pagés—utilized virtually identical shapes, which were prominently featured by the Spanish players touring the United States.
It can be said that Martin imitated the peghead and body shapes, headstock volute, and three-ring soundhole rosette of these luthiers. But Martin refined their designs, incorporating a Germanic diamond-shaped peghead graft and creating guitars with highly sophisticated workmanship, graceful designs, and X-bracing patterns as early as 1843. Their sound and playability offered a new level of sophistication, prompting de Goñi to use and endorse Martin guitars rather than the Spanish originals. [Martin briefly offered a replica of a guitar de Goñi played—the Size 1 De Goni Authentic 1843—the earliest model of its size, as well as the first to use X-bracing. —Ed.]
The designs introduced and refined by C.F. Martin, Sr. during the 1840s and ’50s remained remarkably unchanged through the mid-1920s. Martin’s original customers were primarily classical and parlor music players who used gut strings. It was not until the 1920s, when Hawaiian songs became popular, that Martin began offering instruments specifically designed for the steel strings required of this music. The transition may have been further prompted by the fact that during the 1920s, Andrés Segovia toured the United States and introduced a new style of classical-guitar playing, made possible by Spanish Torres-style instruments, which he claimed made the earlier gut-string styles of Cadiz and Martin instruments to be obsolete. Martin needed to adapt to a changing market.
During the late 1920s, Martin slightly increased the thickness of its tops to withstand the tension of steel strings. In late 1929, Martin introduced the OM-28 Orchestra Model, the company’s first six-string guitar with a 14-fret neck. The OM prototype featured a slotted peghead, quickly changed to an old-style solid peghead with geared banjo pegs. Although Martin can rightfully claim that the OM-28 was the first flattop steel-string guitar to feature a 14-fret neck, it should be noted that the Gibson L-5 archtop guitar, which debuted in 1923, featured a 14-fret neck, while Gibson’s Style 0 artist model guitar, with its fancy mandolin-style body scroll, incorporated a 15-fret neck and a solid peghead as early as 1908. It should also be noted that Gibson guitars featured solid pegheads as far back as founder Orville Gibson’s work in the 1890s.
Most of these instruments utilized tuners mounted three on a plate, similar to the type used on guitars with slotted headstocks, but the L-5, as well as some Gibson flattops, briefly featured the option of banjo pegs starting in 1929. The banjo pegs featured a much lower gear ratio than guitar players preferred and were ill-suited to the tension of guitar strings, so both Martin and Gibson soon discontinued utilizing banjo pegs on steel-string guitars, although the former continued to use them on OM models through mid-1931. The Grover company introduced individual guitar gears designed for steel-string guitars with solid pegheads in 1930. These gears soon became the industry standard.
George Gruhn is the founder of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.