From the February 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM PERLMUTTER
Strum an open-E chord on the CS-Bluegrass-16, a new dreadnought model by Martin & Co., and the comparison between this body style and the revolutionary 20th-century battleship after which it’s named is clear. When driven, the CS-Bluegrass-16 can be loud and aggressive, almost as if amplified, and it vibrates mightily—you can feel the pulsations in both hands. Its sound is nicely split between robust fundamentals and shimmering overtones. It’s everything a fine dreadnought should be—and then some.
The CS-Bluegrass-16—which is limited to 100 instruments, to commemorate the Martin dreadnought’s centennial—is a vintage-inspired example. It’s built with hide glue, the animal protein used on prewar instruments, more difficult to work with than a modern adhesive, but thought to better transfer sound. Its soundboard is made from Adirondack or red spruce, used commonly on older guitars, but far more seldom on newer models, due to limited supply—the guitar boasts Martin’s Vintage Tone System (VTS). Its soundboard and scalloped bracing, also Adirondack, are thermally cured—aged through a carefully controlled heating process, so that it resembles old wood in terms of resonance, stability, and appearance. The soundboard is made to look older still through the use of an antique toner, a pigment added to the lacquer finish that simulates the amber glow of a mature guitar.
The CS-Bluegrass-16 has a fast response, a consistently brawny voice, and a brilliant resonance in all registers. It’s a sound that fills a room.
The top has an oversized soundhole—a nod to the late Clarence White’s iconic 1935 Martin D-28, which was passed on to Tony Rice. The edges of the soundhole on this guitar were damaged and so it was enlarged, possibly at White’s request, to smooth things out. Some builders now offer a large soundhole as an option, as it’s thought to be beneficial to a guitar’s tone. Other details borrowed from the Clarence White/Tony Rice guitar include a faux tortoise pickguard with a Dalmatian pattern and a bound fretboard. When the original instrument needed a new fretboard, instead of an unbound Martin replacement, it received what the repair tech happened to have on hand, a Gretsch fingerboard, bound and overly long, extending over the soundhole. The CS-Bluegrass-16’s fretboard, though, stops just shy of the soundhole.
The craftsmanship on the guitar is of the highest order, as I’ve seen on all new high-end Martins. There’s no sloppiness to be found in any of the details like the bracing or neck joint, no unwanted artifacts of the manufacturing process inside or outside the box. Its Vintage Gloss finish, made from Martin’s original 1900s recipe, is desirably thin and absolutely flawless. Thanks to a PLEK (computerized) setup, the frets are leveled perfectly and then finished by hand to smooth perfection.
A Sleek-Fast Neck
Despite its vintage styling, the CS-Bluegrass-16 has a decidedly modern neck profile—Martin’s modified low oval with high-performance taper, wide at the nut, and relatively narrow at the 12th fret. It feels sleek and fast, supportive of barre chords and single-note runs, and the taper makes it easier to play notes past the 12th fret.
The CS-Bluegrass-16 was clearly designed with the modern bluegrass and country picker in mind, and it performs incredibly well in these contexts. The bass notes are highly defined and powerful, but not overpowering, and the trebles are clear and singing. When subjected to boom-chuck and Carter-style accompaniments, the guitar sounds rich and lively, a perfect choice for accompaniment in a bluegrass jam. It will definitely hold up well to a banjo or mandolin.
Our CS-Bluegrass-16 handles single-note lines equally well. From bass-note fills to open-G runs to modal soloing high up the neck, the CS-Bluegrass-16 has a fast response, a consistently brawny voice, and a brilliant resonance in all registers. It’s a sound that fills a room. But the guitar also delivers the goods for situations outside of bluegrass. It feels dynamic and responsive when fingerpicked in standard tuning as well as open-G and DADGAD, and it’s inspiring to use the instrument for situations not commonly associated with dreadnoughts, like playing jazz standards. And for the songwriter, the instrument really feels like it’s got some tunes in it.
These days there are plenty of great options, both modern and vintage, when it comes to dreadnoughts. The CS-Bluegrass-16, with its dazzling sound and easy playability, is among the best of them, old or new. The limited availability and unique style only sweeten the appeal of this awesome dreadnought.
At a Glance: Martin CS-Bluegrass-16
14-fret dreadnought size
Adirondack top with VTS (Vintage Tone System)
Guatemalan rosewood back and sides
Vintage gloss finish
1 3/4-inch bone nut
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This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.