As an oenophile friend handed me a ruby-red glass of 1985 Cos d’Estournel, a vintage Bordeaux of particular note among wine experts, I rolled my eyes a bit. At over $300 a bottle, surely this was mainly a status thing, right? Was it actually going to be 20 times better than a perfectly good $15 bottle of French red from Trader Joe’s? “Just close your eyes and take a sip,” the friend advised, knowingly. That’s when time stopped. The Cos d’Estournel, it turns out, wasn’t 20 times better than a $15 bottle of wine—it was a thousand times better.
I recalled this story while popping open the latches of the hardshell case containing a brand-new Martin D-45 Modern Deluxe, whose five-figure street price makes the term “sticker shock” sound quaint. This is, for most of us, not merely expensive, but impossible to consider. Still, like the other Modern Deluxe that arrived with it—the petite and lovely 012-28, a relative steal at roughly $4,399!—there’s simply no arguing with the overwhelming quality and class of the materials and craftsmanship, or the remarkable complexity, character, and depth of the sound. As the old saying goes, you do get what you pay for.
This Is the Modern World
Modern Deluxe designates Martin’s contemporary new high-end line of guitars, which, contrasted with the similarly top-end traditional Standard Series, opts to balance the company’s legacy designs with the kind of key features pitched at active working players. These specs include natural protein glue construction, Liquidmetal bridge pins, VTS torrefied Sitka spruce tops (though, in a curious decision for guitars this high-end, not the preferred Adirondack spruce), slightly asymmetrical neck shapes, and composite carbon fiber bridge plates—all providing enhanced playability and projection, according to Martin.
But it’s equally important to note what traditional elements haven’t changed in the Modern Deluxe series: This D-45 and 012-28 both boast Martin dovetail neck joints and stunning East Indian rosewood backs and sides. The aesthetics are classic Martin, right down to the 1930s-style script logo and gold open-gear tuners on the 012-28’s headstock, as well as the lavish abalone inlay work throughout and the inlaid pearl torch logo on the D-45’s headstock. To the eye and to the touch, there is no mistaking the status and pedigree of these fine instruments.
While the visual appeal may be striking, the beauty is not just skin deep. The build quality on both guitars is exceptional, from the premium materials to the obvious attention to detail. I was particularly struck by both the rock-solid construction and beauty of their headstocks—European flamed maple binding on the D-45, and an immaculately slotted construction on the 012-28. The body chambers on both are spotless, and the fingerboard edges smooth as silk. Still, does all that quality necessarily lead to a great tone and timbre?
Yes. Struck with the right force and combination of nail and fingertip, each individual note on these guitars presents a complex balance of frequencies and overtones, figurative colors from copper to blue, an astoundingly rich natural reverb from the body, and a sustain that seems to have several dovetailing stages as it crests and falls. If that sounds like hyperbole, then you’re getting the point. These are concert-grade instruments, not designed merely to be consumed as pricey trophies or bits of flash—though, if that’s your jam, they will serve admirably.
The bass response, EQ contour, and warmth in both are rich and undeniable, even in the diminutive 012-28. And that amazing bass response is still there whether you play directly over the soundhole or back by the bridge. The midrange is never harsh or nasal on either, but full, defined, and robust; the highs are absolute velvet, with brilliant bronze overtones for days but never remotely shrill.
And how do they play? Well, while the slightly asymmetrical design of the neck is certainly not visible, it has a noticeable impact on one’s playing; it’s comfortable, refined, and smooth, and even friendly for notes past the neck joint (fret 14 on the D-45 and fret 12 on the 012-28). With its mahogany neck and ebony fingerboard, I find the D-45 has a bit more of the stiffness expected from a dreadnought with medium strings, but it excels for flatpicking single-note lines and double-stops, strumming full-bodied open chords, and for ushering in rich tonal characteristics and overtones in tunings like DADGAD and open D.
Perhaps owing to its shorter 24.9-inch scale length and more generous fretboard width, 2-1/4-inch at the 12th fret (compared to 2-1/8 on the D-45), the neck on the 012-28 is simply irresistible, almost addictive, to play. It has an elegant, measured feel that will remind you of one of those knockout prewar Martins. And its generous nut width and compact size also make it a natural for classical-style solo guitar repertoire, open jazz voicings, old-timey music, and more. You can certainly use a plectrum with the 012-28, but its true soul lies in the way it sounds with simultaneous moving voices.
The Final Analysis
Now, every guitar has its downsides, right? And surely, as appealing as these two Martins are, their price tags may give one pause. The irony is, though, that given how well Martin guitars hold or even appreciate in value—and how investing in a fine instrument is a worthy act, especially for a pro player—the cost is hardly outrageous. Also, consider that buying a vintage Martin in comparable condition will nearly always cost significantly more.
In the final analysis, you’ll be hard pressed to find two guitars that exude the kind of extraordinary class and distinction as the Modern Deluxe D-45 and 012-28, while also being elite recording and concert guitars. The only other caveat? These are definitely not meant for outfitting with a $100 piezo pickup system and schlepping down to open-mic night at Paddy’s Pub & Grill on a Tuesday night. But then again, you probably wouldn’t drink a $300 bottle of Cos d’Estournel down at Paddy’s, either.
D-45 Modern Deluxe
BODY 14-fret dreadnought; solid torrefied Sitka spruce top with forward-shifted X-bracing; solid East Indian rosewood back and sides; ebony bridge with compensated bone drop-in saddle; 2-5/32″ bridge string spacing; carbon fiber bridge plate; Liquidmetal bridge pins with abalone dots; gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish
NECK 25.4″-scale mahogany with ebony fingerboard and asymmetrical taper; dovetail neck joint; 20 frets; 1-3/4″ bone nut; snowflake fretboard inlays; European flamed maple neck and headstock binding; gold open butterbean tuners; gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish
OTHER Martin Authentic Lifespan 2.0 Medium strings (13–56); optional Fishman or L.R. Baggs electronics; hardshell case; available left-handed
MADE IN USA
PRICE $10,499 street
012-28 Modern Deluxe
BODY 0-12 fret size; solid torrefied Sitka spruce top; forward-shifted X-bracing; solid East Indian rosewood back and sides; ebony bridge with compensated bone drop-in saddle; 2-1/4″ bridge string spacing; carbon fiber bridge plate; Liquidmetal bridge pins with red acrylic dots; gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish
NECK 24.9″-scale mahogany with ebony fingerboard and asymmetrical taper; dovetail neck joint; 20 frets; 1-13/16″ bone nut; diamonds and squares fretboard inlays; slotted headstock with gold open butterbean tuners; gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish
OTHER Martin Authentic Lifespan 2.0 Light strings (12–54); optional Fishman or L.R. Baggs electronics; hardshell case; available left-handed
MADE IN USA
PRICE $4,399 street
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.