Dudley is a long-time member of SWBA and mandolin player who has been writing interesting and informative articles for The Soundboard, the association’s bimonthly newsletter, for many years. This article originally appeared in the October-November 2001 issue.
Martin Dreadnought guitars are the overwhelming choice of bluegrass players and have been since Lester Flatt played a D-18 in the early 1950’s. Wherever bluegrass players congregate, the loudest and sharpest sounds seem to come from a Martin.
Martin has been building guitars since 1833 and began producing louder instruments in the 1870’s to compete with the banjo. It introduced the Size 00 and then a louder 000.
The quest for loudness reached a peak in the 1920’s when guitar players found themselves sitting in the back of the room with their gut-stringed instruments.
Hawaiian music was using steel-stringed guitars and these strings added punch and loudness. In 1931 Martin put’steel-strings on its newly introduced “D” size guitars and guitar players came to the forefront and the bluegrass instrument was born.
According to America’s Music Bluegrass, Martin guitar sizes began with the smallest being size 5 and increased with the numbers 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, 00, 000 and finally the “D” or Dreadnought named after the British battleship HMS Dreadnought.
The importance of the D-line of guitars cannot be overstated. Walter Carter wrote, “In country and bluegrass and later folk music and any other musical setting where the guitarist required power and sustain, Martin dreadnoughts were considered to be without equa1. Gene Autry, a Martin user ‘since I could walk,’ bought a D-18 and then a D-45–actually he bought the first D-45 made by Martin.”
According to Mike Longworth, the dreadnought was originally designed by Frank Henry Martin for the Oliver Ditson Company and came out in a twelve-fret version in 1916. When the Ditson store went out of business in the 1920’s, the model fell into disuse until 1931 when Martin decided to try and find some more business. The fourteen-fret version, which is popular today, came out in 1934. Martin avoided the electrical trend of the late ’40s and kept building fine acoustic instruments and capitalized on the popularity of bluegrass and folk music.
When the folk boom came with the Kingston Trio singing and playing Tom Dooley, Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds and Dave Guard all played Martins. As a result, thousands of folk guitarists chose Martin and the company began to have problems meeting demand which had exceeded 6000 per year. They built a new factory with 65,000 square feet and production jumped to over 10,000 in 1965 and an all-time record in 1971 of 22,637.
There are a lot of guitars made today and some boast mellow sound, others tout playability, some both, but when a loud guitar is desired the Martin Dreadnought is still the most used.