Photo by Justin Tuerk.

26 Jan 2011

Origins: Martin Guitar

by Karen Feridun

Robbie Robertson was inspired by a Martin guitar when he wrote the first line of The Weight. He describes his idea for the song this way. “Listen, would you do me this favour? When you get there will you say “hello” to somebody or will you give somebody this or will you pick up one of these for me? Oh? You’re going to Nazareth, that’s where the Martin guitar factory is. Do me a favour when you’re there.”  He continues, “‘I pulled into Nazareth’. Well I don’t know if the Nazareth that Jesus came from is the kind of place you pull into, but I do know that you pull into Nazareth, Pennsylvania! I’m experimenting with North American mythology.”

Over the years, scores of the world’s best-known musicians have been pulling into Nazareth to help design Martin’s Signature and Custom Artist series of guitars to which they’ve lent their names. Willie Nelson ran into his burning home to save his Martin. Woody Guthrie wrote “This machine kills fascists” on one of his. Janis Ian’s was returned by a Good Samaritan 26 years after it was stolen. Eric Clapton used his when he performed Layla on his Unplugged album. The long list of musicians who play Martins reads like a who’s who list – Hank Williams, Roy Rogers, Elvis, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Peter Frampton, Linda Ronstadt, Nancy Wilson, Beck, Dave Matthews, John Mayer and the list continues to grow. Martins are sought after by plenty of lesser known musicians, too. In late 2003, the company’s 170th year of business in the United States, Martin made its millionth guitar. Just over seven years later in January 2011, the company crossed the one and a half million mark. One of the oldest family-owned business in the United States, it has enjoyed its greatest success under the leadership of C. F. ‘Chris’ Martin IV, the great-great-great grandson of the man who founded the company in New York City before moving to Nazareth in 1838.

The Martin family had long been cabinet makers in Markneukirchen, Germany when young C. F. Martin Sr. started making guitars after an apprenticeship in Vienna with Johann Stauffer, a renowned guitar maker. Cabinet makers frequently built instruments back then. The Martins were no exception. The Cabinet Makers Guild to which the family belonged came under fire by the Violin Makers Guild who claimed  that cabinet makers should stay out of the instrument business. The Cabinet Makers Guild prevailed, citing C. F.’s father, Georg, as someone who had played an integral role in the development of the guitar. It was around the time that Georg Martin was working on guitars that a sixth string was added and the modern guitar was born. Despite his guild’s victory, C. F. decided to move to the United States to escape the limitations that still existed within the guild system. He was not fond of the congestion in New York City, so he took the advice of his wife after she visited Pennsylvania and made the move to Nazareth.

The earliest Martin guitars were completely handcrafted by artisans. Today, they’re made on an assembly line, but the manufacturing process is far from being completely automated. There are over 300 stations along the line, many of them manned by skilled technicians who have mastered the manual operations they perform. The entire process of making one guitar can take up to six months. Visitors can tour the factory and watch the process first-hand. In 2005, Martin added a museum and gift shop. All of Martin’s higher end guitars are made in Nazareth, but not all Martins are made in the USA. Martin created the lower-priced Sigma series of guitars in 1970, named for the Greek symbol that resembles a sideways M that, from the perspective of the person playing, becomes an upright M signifying Martin. From 1970 to 1983, Sigma Guitars were made in Japan. Operations moved to Korea where Sigmas were made from 1984 to 1993. From 1994 until the line was discontinued in 2007, Sigmas were made in Taiwan. The guitars were inspected and adjusted at the Nazareth plant and at Levin Guitars in Gothenberg, Sweden. Martin acquired Levin in 1973 to serve as its European headquarters. Some Martins were made there before the company was sold in 1982. In 2004, Martin announced that they were moving production of their DXM series to Navojoa, Mexico. A press release announcing the facility’s 15th anniversary the same year explained that it was the manufacturing site for “Martin and Darco strings, the new LXM "Little Martin" guitars, the SO and HSO ukuleles, as well as the popular Backpacker guitar and mandolin models.” According to Chris Martin, the DXM move was made in response to “a combination of rising costs and greater competition in guitar-making overseas.”

While expanding the distance between manufacturing locations is never good for a company’s carbon footprint, the greater environmental challenge for Martin, as well as other guitar makers, is the dwindling supply of the sometimes rare woods, or tonewoods, used to make fine quality instruments. In response, Martin and the others have joined the Music Wood Campaign created by Greenpeace. The Forest Stewardship Council started by Greenpeace and other organizations in the 1990s has developed certification standards for sustainable forest management. In the first phase of the Music Wood Campaign, Greenpeace and its partners are working in Southern Alaska to bring forests up to FSC standards and bring an end to the clear-cutting that has severely diminished the supply of Sitka spruce needed to create soundboards for pianos and guitars. There is no better wood for soundboards than the Sitka spruce, yet it has been clear-cut for use in construction and in the production of disposable pulp and paper products. Greenpeace’s audit of the timber market revealed that over 80 percent of the Sitka spruce was being sent to Asia for construction.

In August 2006, Nick Colesanti, Martin’s Director of Supply Chain Management, joined representatives of guitar makers Fender, Gibson, and Taylor for a Greenpeace-sponsored tour of Southeast Alaska’s rainforest. Colesanti reported that the highlight of the trip was the meeting with the Board of Directors of Sealaska Corporation, the largest landowner in Southern Alaska and sole supplier of Sitka spruce, wherein the company agreed to consider complying with FSC standards. Bob Taylor, President of Taylor Guitars, was in that meeting. He later told Guitar Player magazine, “It takes only about 120 to 150 logs a year to supply all the guitars that are made in the United States. I know this because I’m friends with the guy at Pacific Rim Tonewoods—which is the company that buys the logs from Sealaska, and cuts tops for everybody in the North American market. To put a further perspective on that number, a typical sawmill can cut 120 logs into 2x4s in a single shift.” According to the FSC, Sealaska is still considering going for certification. Meanwhile, the company is the subject of a controversial bill that would allow it to select land from the Tongass National Forest for its operations.

Of course, Sitka spruce is just one of the woods that give Martins their signature sound. As part of their affiliation with the FSC, Martin undergoes annual compliance audits. In 1999, Martin collaborated with Sting to produce the Limited Edition Certified Wood Sting Signature guitar and bass which are comprised of about 70% certified wood. Their D Mahogany, introduced in 2009, was one of the first acoustic guitars made entirely of FSC certified woods. Martin is also a member of the Rainforest Alliance whose SmartSource program helps the company responsibly manage its supply chain. All-synthetic Martins, like the OOCXAE, are now in production, sparing wood entirely.

Martin’s commitment to the environment extends beyond the materials they use to make their instruments. As part of the ecological policy the company formalized in 1990, wood dust is compressed into briquettes so it can be burned for energy at a cogeneration station, a reflective thermoplastic polyolefin membrane takes the place of the traditional roof, and a redesigned finishing room minimizes energy use. These and Martin’s many other environmentally-conscious improvements make one wonder if Jimi Hendrix had it right when he said, "If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music."


Peter Viney on The Weight, 2005 revision of original article published in Jawbone magazine

From the Vault: Willie Nelson (2000), The Country Weekly, June 25, 2010 

Official Woody Guthrie website

Official Janis Ian website

Unplugged (Eric Clapton) Wikipedia Entry

The 1,000,000th Martin Guitar: one family's 170-year tradition of guitar making is distilled into a single commemorative instrument--arguably the most elaborate guitar ever built. Sorry, it's not for sale. Music Trades, February 1, 2004. 

Martin Produces Their 1,500,000th Guitar, Guitar News Daily, January 17, 2011

Guitar Maker Tunes Up with Metalcutting, Manufacturing Engineering, September 2008

The History of Sigma Guitars, Thomma Grindstaff,, September 28, 2010

Levin Guitar Wikipedia Entry

Press Release, Martin & Company website, March 18, 2004

C.F. Martin & Co. Inc. -- more commonly known as Martin Guitar -- boasts it has been crafting its trademark instruments in the United States. That's about to change. Martin plans to ship production of its DXM series to its plant in Navojoa, Mexico, later this year, Guitar, February 5, 2004.

Martin and other guitar makers go green, Mother Nature Network, September 2, 2010

Greenpeace’s Music Wood website

Saving Sitka Spruce, The Sounding Board, January 2007

The Troublesome Truth about Sitka Spruce, Jimmy Leslie, Guitar Player, June 2007

Critics Target Sealaska Bill’s Environmental Impact, part 3 of a 6 part series, Casey Kelly, KCAW-FM (NPR Affiliate), January 19, 2011

Advancing Sustainability through Research and Innovation, Accomplishments Report, Pinchot Institute for Conservation, February 2010

The Rainforest Alliance website

Responsible Guitar Building in the 21st Century, Martin company pamphlet, April 2009

Sting and Martin Collaborate on Unique Certified Wood Signature Editions, Martin website

Commitment to the Environment, Martin website