By Adam Perlmutter
It’s a bit disorienting to open a Martin case to find an ebony, slope-shouldered guitar: An instrument more closely resembling a 1930s Gibson than any guitar Martin produced in the era. But playing a few strums and runs on this new offering from the 17 series reveals a voice that is unmistakably Martin. It’s got the impressive mids and overall warmth of a good 14-fret 00 in spades, and it just feels solid and reliable.
Built for Comfort
The 00L-17 is comfortable in all aspects. The test model weighs just three pounds, 11 ounces and is well balanced between the neck and the body. It sits nicely on the lap. And though the instrument’s satin finish is obviously done to keep production costs down, it feels sumptuous; it’s so thin—in a good way—that you can see and feel the grain of the mahogany back, sides, and neck.
The neck, described in the Martin literature as a modified low oval with high-performance taper (formerly performing-artist taper), feels slender, but not overly so. With a 1.75-inch nut, it’s generous in the open position, while the relatively narrow width at the 12th fret—21/8 inches as opposed to 21/4, like on a traditional Martin neck—makes it feel sleek to visit the guitar’s upper regions.
The guitar’s short scale, 24.9 inches, makes it easier to play chords requiring big stretches than the standard 25.5-inch scale. And, with perfect low action, free from buzzing, it’s really easy to zip around the neck.
Not surprising for a modern Martin—the company is making consistently great guitars at all price points—the 00L-17 sounds every bit as awesome as it feels. It’s got a lovely, uncluttered sound, heavy on fundamentals but with shimmering overtones and a nice natural reverb. The string-to-string balance is excellent, as are the projection and sustain. It’s definitely a more powerful instrument than would be expected of one of its size and scale length.
The guitar is a sensitive player. When I gently fingerpick a series of major-seventh chords, it sounds lush and dulcet, but when I dig into the strings on a country blues–inspired improvisation in E, it responds with a terrific bark.
The 00L-17 takes just as well to picks—specifically, a Red Bear Classic II and a BlueChip TP50—as it does to the fingers. It’s a great guitar for strumming, lacking the booming quality of a dreadnought and having just enough bass. And, thanks to its good clarity and focus, it works equally well for basic triads and extended/altered chords alike: all good assets when it comes to recording.
The 00L-17 obviously tips its hat to the small-bodied L-series Gibsons that were popular in the 1930s, and which are now being reappraised by musicians and guitar makers, as well as the Gibsonesque 2013 Martin CEO-7. It’s available in Black Smoke, as reviewed, or in Whiskey Sunset, with a sunburst-finished top and no pickguard.
The Black Smoke edition is attractive. Tuxedo-like, the black finish contrasts nicely with the ivory-colored binding, pickguard, and tuning-machine buttons. A general lack of ornamental details like a heelcap and back strip make the instrument feel like a real workhorse, while helping keep it relatively affordable—under two grand, street price.
The test model boasts exceptional craftsmanship. The fretwork and nut and saddle slots are impeccably done, as is the spare inlay and binding work.
Looking inside the box—which bears no evidence of the manufacturing process, like excess glue—you get a sense that whoever put in the kerfing and shaped the scalloped X-braces takes great pride in their work.
There are many makers, luthiers and companies, making slope-shouldered guitars inspired by 1930s classics these days. Not only is the 00L-17 one of the most nicely executed examples I’ve come across, it pulls off the neat trick of referencing this decidedly non-Martin design while maintaining Martin’s basic essence. This welcome—and fun—addition to Martin’s catalog is highly recommended to steel-string guitarists of all stripes.
14-fret 00 body with sloped shoulders
Solid mahogany back and sides
Black satin finish
Golden Age Relic Nickel tuners
Bone nut and saddle
SP Lifespan 92/8 Phosphor Bronze Light strings (12–54)
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$2,299 list/$1,859 street
Made in the USA