From the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By James Rotondi
C.F. Martin & Company has certainly modernized its time-honored approach to guitar form factor and design over the last few decades, but the iconic Nazareth, Pennsylvania, brand has been poised—some might say overdue—to make a truly transformative statement with a radical new instrument. Martin has most decidedly done so with the unique, highly playable, versatile, and affordable new SC-13E, which boasts the kind of fresh, out-of-the-box redesign—even flying in the face of Martin’s usual insistence on a traditional glued dovetail joint—that will no doubt leave some old-school purists scowling, while getting many Martin newbies talking.
Let Me Hear Your Body Talk
In terms of size, the dimensions of the SC-13E, with its unique offset S-shape cutaway body style, are akin to a gently stretched OM. The beautifully grained, gloss-finished top is solid Sitka spruce, with back and sides made of a mahogany core topped with a stunning koa veneer. The iris-style rosette, which evokes the aperture of an antique camera, features a contrast of celestial blue acrylic and a white acrylic pearl-like inlay, as does the bullseye motif at the 12th fret.
The cutaway, looking less like a traditional horn than a chin, drops away and slightly back from the neck at the 17th fret. Compensating for the lost resonant space is an enlarged lower bout—which calls to mind the offset shapes of Rick Turner’s Renaissance models and even the iconic Fender Jazzmaster. In theory, the offset is meant to increase the guitar’s headroom, by reducing some of the woofy low-mids typical of, say, a full-sized dreadnought.
The ebony sloped modern belly bridge has been redesigned for the SC-13E, with the edges softened and the size scaled back, making it a more natural base for palm-muting and other electric-guitar-inspired techniques. White binding, double-lined purfling, and a modified teardrop tortoise-pattern scratchplate round out the attractive top, which uses asymmetrical X-bracing with treble side scalloping; heck, there’s even an unscalloped X-brace on the inner side of the SC-13E’s back, visible through the soundhole, and criss-crossing a new-era Martin nameplate that suggests the label on a classic vinyl LP. If you’ve forgotten who invented X-bracing, the SC-13E serves as a stylish reminder.
No Pain in the Neck
As striking as the offset Sitka top may be, it’s the SC-13E’s innovative new dovetail/bolt hybrid neck joint that is sure to garner the most attention—and perhaps controversy. Let’s start with the Low Profile Velocity neck itself, which players accustomed to a modern C-shaped profile on, say, a Strat or Tele, or the Vintage Deluxe necks on Martin’s own Modern Deluxe Series, will find remarkably familiar, and similarly comfortable, though with notable differences.
The neck is, by all appearances at least, a bolt-on style (more about that in a minute), so it never broadens out at the body into a conventional heel. With the heel removed, Martin has even sculpted the neck joint to remove excess bulk where the neck joins the body, so your fretting hand moves freely up past the 12th fret to where the upper bout meets the neck at the—wait for it—13th fret, rather than the traditional 12th or 14th frets. This means your thumb and fingers can be in a naturally aligned grip position for scales and chords at even the 13th fret, and your thumb can be reasonably anchored for moves and lead figures right up to the 20th fret.
Martin’s high-performance neck taper affords a bit of extra meat on the treble side in the cowboy-chord zone, gradually reverse-tapering to a more slender treble side and chunkier bass side starting at around the tenth fret. Players accustomed to electric guitar, or who simply want more ease for lead figures higher up the neck—and more support for those higher-range chords—are going to be pleased. Made of satin-finished select hardwood—often sipo, a tonewood similar to African mahogany—with an ebony fretboard, the neck is roomy and relatively flat: a 12-inch radius and a 1-3/4-inch string spacing at the nut (2-1/8-inch at the 12th fret) make for a generous feel for electric players, as well as acoustic fingerpickers. Indeed, the SC-13E affords plenty of fretboard room for larger hands, easy rest-stroke facility, and a velvety bass response over the soundhole.
Describing the neck joint, Martin’s gifted young design manager, Rameen Shayegan, explains, “The Sure Align system combines elements of a traditional dovetail with the ease of adjustment that previously would only be possible with a bolt-on neck. Essentially, the neck slides onto a dovetail in the neck pocket, which allows the leading edge of the neck to sit on an elevation plate. You get all the surface area contact and tonal transference of a dovetail, while allowing an authorized service tech to adjust the neck angle quickly and easily.” Martin also integrated a simple set-screw method for tweaking the overall scale length for intonation micro-adjustments, as well as a removable, interchangeable shim insert that allows for easy neck-angle adjustment. Both appear at the soundhole end of the neck, along with a simple truss rod cavity that requires a 4mm Allen wrench.
Classic Martin Tone
In a purely acoustic setting, the SC-13E offers a surprising amount of volume for its size, and, especially when strummed or plucked over the soundhole or upper reaches of the neck, an excellent overall projection balance string to string, with a rounded, compact bottom-end, detailed and bronze-y highs, and the warm, woody, coppery quality one associates with, well, a Martin.
I was likewise very pleased by the level of detail and string dynamics the Fishman MXT onboard pickup system delivers. The tone control (essentially more of a mid-scoop dial) is effective both for feedback control and tone-shaping. I ran the SC-13E direct into a Fender Acoustasonic Junior amp, as well as a Fender 1965 Deluxe Reissue, and the mid- and high-end detail was stunning; I even felt compelled to dial the amp’s treble and mids down to under 3. With a dash of digital plate or analog spring reverb, the overall sound was open, punchy, detailed, and even somewhat sweet.
Plugged direct into my Universal Audio Apollo Twin interface, I did detect a hint of that telltale piezo quack when recording the Fishman MXT to my DAW, but it was hardly a deal-breaker. Even better, the SC-13E recorded very nicely when miked with a Rode NT1-A large diaphragm, which translated the guitar’s tight midrange structure, bronze-y top and woody ambience really well, with very little extra EQ required. In fact, it would be fair to say the miked SC-13E sounded downright expensive.
The SC-13E certainly diverges significantly from traditional Martin design—it’s both a risky and a necessary step for the American guitar giant. That said, it’s unlikely you’ll pick up the SC-13E and feel you’re playing something brainy and futuristic. Instead, close your eyes and simply move your hand up the satiny, slim, tapered neck and around the neck joint, and the effect isn’t techy or novel, but organic. Like the broad string spacing and balanced, detailed acoustic and electric tones of this very un-Martin-y Martin, there’s a blend of tried-and-true Martin values and an added technical empowerment that comes with its ability to be fine-tuned around each player’s individual needs. With the structural innovations of the SC-13E, your Martin’s setup can actually evolve as your playing style does. You evolve; Martin evolves. Not a bad deal, I’d say.
BODY Asymmetric with 13th-fret neck junction and cutaway; solid Sitka spruce top with Tone Tension X brace; koa fine veneer back and sides; ebony bridge with compensated Tusq saddle (2-1/4″ string spacing); brown tortoise pattern pickguard; gloss finish on top and satin finish on back and side
NECK Select hardwood neck; ebony fretboard; 25-2/5″ scale length; 1-3/4″ Corian nut; nickel open gear tuners; satin finish
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OTHER Martin Authentic Acoustic Light strings (.012–054); soft case
MADE IN Mexico
PRICE $1,499 street
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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