For the seven limited-edition models of the CEO series, which debuted in 1997, Martin’s chief executive officer, C.F. Martin IV, has designed new guitars that merge the company’s time-honored construction and materials with notable departures from tradition. The dreadnought-size CEO-2 (1998) featured a solid-spruce top, but laminated Macassar-ebony back and sides, while the CEO-3 (1999), also a dreadnought, had a laminated Brazilian-rosewood body and the type of gold-top finish usually reserved for electric guitars. With its Adirondack-spruce top and mahogany back and sides, the new CEO-7 is a bit more traditional than its predecessors. And the short-scale, small-body guitar is winner in all regards.
In a sense, all of Gibson’s flattop guitars are indebted to Martin designs, but with the CEO-7, Martin tips its hat to Gibson. Inspired by a mid-1930s L-00, this CEO is a no-frills flattop with distinctively sloped shoulders, a 14th-fret neck-to-body junction, and a sunburst soundboard finish. It’s built from a traditional selection of all-solid tonewoods—tightly grained Adirondack spruce for the soundboard and mahogany for the back, sides, and neck. (The Martin literature specifies the neck wood as “select hardwood.” In the event it becomes too difficult to source mahogany, an appropriate substitute, such as Spanish cedar, will be used.) The bridge and fingerboard are made from the traditional Martin choice of ebony, as opposed to the rosewood Gibson used on the L-00.
Other traditional details on the CEO-7 include a dovetail neck joint, which requires a great deal more handwork than the mortise-and-tenon joint found on some contemporary Martins. A peek inside the CEO-7 reveals 1/4-inch, scalloped X-bracing made from solid Adirondack spruce and cloth reinforcement strips on the sides—period-correct specs also found on models in Martin’s Golden Era and Vintage series.
Like its vintage counterparts, the CEO-7 has a handsomely Spartan appearance with a minimum of embellishments. The instrument lacks back and end strips—ornamentation is limited to ivoroid binding on the body and an ivoroid heel cap, plus a simple black-and-white rosette. On the fingerboard, the “old-style 18” inlays start at the fifth fret and get progressively smaller as the frets ascend. The headstock’s ebony cap sports the old-fashioned script Martin logo, and off-white plastic buttons on the open-geared tuning machines lend a nice vintage effect, though it’s slightly goofy that the metal aspects are aged, while the rest of the guitar looks so shiny and new.
As expected of a new Martin, the craftsmanship on the CEO-7 that I reviewed was tip-top. The 20 frets were smoothly crowned and polished, without any roughness, and the bone nut and saddle were precisely notched. The body’s nitrocellulose lacquer finish has been rubbed to a faultlessly even gloss, and the soundboard’s sunburst pattern is perfectly shaped, though perhaps wanting for a greater range of variation in color as it progresses from dark brown to warm orange.
Light & Loud
When I first removed the CEO-7 from its hard-shell case, I was wowed by its lightness—a mere three pounds, 11 ounces—and its perfect balance between neck and body. The neck has a modified-V profile and feels substantial, but not cumbersome. Its short scale, at 24.9 inches, makes it easy to play stretchy chords and travel swiftly up and down the neck, while the relatively wide nut, 1 3/4 inches, allows plenty of room for the fretting fingers and fingerpicking. The neck was comfortable in all regions and somehow felt broken-in.
The CEO-7 has a sound to match its fine playability. It is loud with great projection for such a small, light guitar, perhaps owing to the Adirondack top. The bass is uncommonly tight and robust, while the overall sound is lush, with crisp fundamentals and rich overtones as well as excellent sustain and natural reverb. While the guitar might look like a Gibson, it most definitely sounds like a Martin—and a fine one at that.
Because small-body guitars, especially the old Gibsons the CEO-7 is modeled on, are often used for fingerstyle blues, I played through some Robert Johnson and Blind Blake transcriptions. The CEO-7 fared well in this context—the sound was well balanced between the registers, and the guitar was responsive to fretting- and picking-hand nuances. It sounded just as good in standard as it did in open-E and open-A tunings, which Johnson used. Fingerpicked improvisations in slackened tunings like open-C also benefited from the guitar’s rich resonance and impressive bass.
Back in standard tuning, I scared up a plectrum to see how the CEO-7 performed as a strummer. Playing a tune in heavy rotation with my children, Cat Steven’s “Moonshadow,” with its open-position cowboy chords, the guitar had a commanding, rhythmic voice. It is also harmonically rich, making it satisfying to strum even the most basic material.
It also sounded excellent for a little jazz comping and chord-melody playing.
The CEO-7 is a cleverly conceived guitar that uses a golden-era Gibson design as the inspiration for a vintage Martin that never existed. It is a highly playable and excellent-sounding little guitar whose voice is suitable for a range of applications.
At $2,999 list, the CEO-7 is not cheap, but it is a bargain relative to other small-body Martins with vintage features, like the $3,599 00-18V or the $4,499 000-18 Golden-Era 1937.
A peach of a guitar, the CEO-7 begs for inclusion as part of Martin’s standard line.
BODY 14-fret 00 body. Solid Adirondack spruce top with scalloped bracing.
BODY Solid-mahogany back and sides.
NECK Select-hardwood neck. Black-ebony fingerboard and bridge. 24.9-inch scale.
NUT 1 ¾-inch width.
SADDLE 2 5/16-inch string spacing at saddle.
TUNERS Golden Age Relic Nickel 2517 tuners.
PRICE $2,999 list/$2,299 street.
Available left-handed. Made in the USA.