Visiting the Martin Guitar Museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, is an immersive experience. Located inside the same building as the Martin factory, the museum tells the history of the company through an extensive collection of prized instruments. Starting with the first guitars that Christian Frederick Martin ever built, in the 1830s, the collection works its way up to the company’s modern era by including what seems like every variation of a Martin guitar, from standard production models to one-offs and prototypes and instruments used by artists from Hank Williams to Kurt Cobain.
As visitors cycle back to the beginning of the museum, the final display is a temporary exhibit that changes annually. The current presentation, “The Evolution of the D-28,” which opened in March, tells the story of this iconic guitar, favored by musicians such as Clarence White, Neil Young, and Michael Hedges. On display are 13 instruments, from the earliest examples to the most recent incarnation. Martin archivist Jason Ahner says, “Last year we reimagined the D-28, so we thought it was important to tell its story from where Style-28 guitars began, to where the model itself comes in, up until now, to show the changes that took place throughout the history of that style of instrument.”
Standing in front of the display cases and taking it all in, it’s easy to witness the dynamic nature of the D-28’s history and that of its predecessors. The exhibit begins with a pair of 0-28s, built in 1880 and 1912, respectively, and a 1914 000-28. These early models exemplify the basics of the Style-28 specs—rosewood back and sides, spruce top, herringbone trim, and a 5-9-5-pattern soundhole rosette.
Martin first built the dreadnought body style for the Oliver Ditson Company, from 1916 until 1930. These guitars featured extra large, elongated bodies, meant to produce a louder sound with more bass response. In 1931, Martin brought the dreadnought under its own label, selling four model D-2s to the Chicago Musical Instrument Co. that year. On display at the exhibit was the first D-28, essentially identical to the D-2, featuring a slotted headstock, 12th-fret neck junction, and sloped shoulders. It’s exciting to see this remarkably well-preserved 1931 example, having just a few finish cracks and wearing a hangtag with its original price, $100.
The story of the D-28 continues as the instruments display changes that may seem subtle from model to model, but these gradients make for dramatic results from one end of the timeline to the other. Noticeable variables—such as the introduction of the 14-fret neck and the change to more square shoulders, both exemplified on a pristine 1937 model (also $100)—sit alongside less obvious updates, such as the bracing variations and slimmer nut found on a lightly worn 1941 example ($125).
At the center of the exhibit is a well-checked 1966 model ($375) that Chris Martin, the company’s CEO, refers to as an example of his grandfather’s and father’s D-28. Shortly after this guitar was built, the D-28 went through a round of changes, including the introduction of a black pickguard and a change in binding material, from ivoroid to white Boltaron. The last two guitars in the exhibit—both made in 2017—show how Martin’s update of the Standard series has recently transformed the D-28 model. The new re-imagined Standard D-28 (see a review in AG’s April 2018 issue) features aging toner on the top, open-gear tuners, a faux tortoiseshell pickguard, and antique white binding, all of which evoke a more vintage feel and make the new D-28 stand in contrast to its more brightly appointed Standard Series sibling.
In creating “The Evolution of the D-28,” Martin has done a fine job not only of conveying the instrument’s development, but of placing it in a historical and cultural context. The exhibit features a parallel timeline of events, like the Dust Bowl and World War II, as well as ephemera such as a 1967 copy of TV Guide with Star Trek on the cover, a poster for the 1990 movie Home Alone, and even a publicity photo of the rapper Vanilla Ice. Ahner says, “We wanted to show how the country and the world were evolving along with the instruments that Martin was building.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.