Few musicians are as iconic and esoteric as Bob Dylan, who has been at the forefront of popular music for six decades. Dylan has assumed many roles over the years, from the folk-singing activist of his early work to the Nobel Prize-winning poet and Great American Songbook interpreter as of late, but a constant fixture has been his quietly inventive guitar work.
Throughout his career Dylan has played a lot of acoustics, mostly Gibsons and Martins, with some exceptions. And while we’re all aware of the infamous “Judas!” electric guitar debacle, now looking back it’s easy to appreciate the full oeuvre of Dylan. His work spans folk, country, rock ’n’ roll, poems, paintings, protests, ballads, even acting in post-modern psuedo-biographical arthouse films; and his influence on culture is unmeasurable. Here, we take a close look at the acoustic guitars of Bob Dylan.
Martin 1949 00-17
Dylan’s first acoustic was a 1949 Martin 00-17, an all-mahogany guitar. As he says in his bestselling memoir, Chonicles: Volume I, “First thing I did was go trade in my electric guitar, which would have been useless for me, for a double-O Martin acoustic. The man at the store traded me even and I left carrying the guitar in its case. I would play this guitar for the next couple of years or so.”
Dylan bought the guitar in Minneapolis the fall of 1959 and held onto it until 1961. In the late ’50s, Woody Guthrie was playing 00-sized Martins, and it’s widely assumed Dylan’s purchase was inspired by Guthrie. These small-bodied guitars are very comfortable to play and have a big, big sound.
Around this time Dylan also played a massive Gretsch Rancher.
Dylan’s second acoustic was a 1940s Gibson J-50. It’s the guitar he’s holding on the cover of Bob Dylan, and if you look closely you’ll notice the image was flipped (check the strings!), so the headstock would not obscure the Columbia Records logo.
The only difference between the Gibson J-50 and the best-selling “workhorse” J-45 is the natural finish. Like other dreadnoughts from the era, Dylan’s 1940s J-50 had a full, balanced sound—warm, with a very resonant bass that suited the dynamic flatpicking style on the album.
Gibson Nick Lucas Special
Dylan bought his 13-fret Nick Lucas special at Fretted Instruments in New York in 1963. He played it live from the end of 1963 through ’66, and it was used to record Another Side of Bob Dylan and Bringing it All Back Home. The Nick Lucas flattop guitars were deep, just over four inches at some points, and had tremendous volume and richness. Dylan’s Gibson Special was made some time between 1929 and 1933 and by the time he bought it, the bridge had been replaced and the top was refinished.
At the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan played a Washburn 5250, with its slotted headstock and trapeze tailpiece.
One year before plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan performed on a Martin 0-45 12-fret that he borrowed from Joan Baez. The small-bodied guitar sounds super punchy and clear in the video below (even with some wind blowing in the background).
As seen on the cover of Nashville Skyline (1969). Dylan got his Gibson SJ-200 from George Harrison and would later create a “Bob Dylan SJ-200 Player’s Edition” in collaboration with Gibson. He also performed with the SJ-200 at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and at Isle of Wight in 1969.
The Gibson Super Jumbo is a big, fancy, and most importantly, loud guitar. The floral pickguard and mustache bridge make it Dylan’s most adorned guitar to date, which is interesting considering he used it for this album, a stylistic departure from folk into country.
Towards the end of the ’60s Dylan started playing a 1963 Martin D-28. He toured with it for about ten years, including at the Concert for Bangladesh. Then in 1977, he sold it to guitar repairman Larry Cragg. The guitar was recently sold at auction for $396,000!
Dylan used a Martin 00-21 to record Blood on the Tracks, then toured with it, playing acoustic sets with The Band.
A Dylan departure! In 1978, on his Budokan World Tour, Dylan started playing a pair of Yamaha acoustics; an L-6 and an L-52.
In the early ’80s, Dylan switched it up again and started playing some Washburn acoustics, a trio of EA-20s: one sunburst, one black, and one white.
Dylan posed with a Martin 00-18 for a photo that would later be used on the February 1998 cover of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
For his MTV Unplugged appearance, Dylan used Cesar Diaz’s Martin HD-28. Longtime Martin archivist Dick Boak writes about this guitar in his book Martin Guitar Masterpieces: “Bob took a special liking to one of the HDs and played it for several years—or at least long enough for a dark stain to develop at the edge of the guitar where he rested his leather-jacketed arm while playing.”
The Photo Negative Martin
More from Dick Boak: “Dylan’s new guitar tech, Tom Morrongiello reached out to say Dylan had seen the AG 10-Year Anniversary black & white guitar and wanted one. Since both guitars were unavailable, we offered to make another pair for Bob.” (Ed. note: This guitar was featured in our Acoustic Guitar Auction in April 2020)
Martin added a second cream-colored pickguard for Dylan’s pair and swapped the AG logo for a torch inlay.
Want to sound like Bob Dylan? Here are some guitars that will get you part of the way there.
In an interview with American Songwriter, Martin archivist Dick Boak offered the following shopping tips for those wanting to get the Dylan Martin sound:
“We make a model called the 00-15M, which is very, very similar [to Dylan’s first acoustic, the 1949 00-17]. The finish is slightly different. But the 00-15M is quite similar to the ’17. There’s a slight difference from the bindings. [The] older style 17 guitars will be bound in wood or tortoise color nitrate—a slightly higher binding appointment level than the ’15, which is quite plain.”
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