The History of C. F. Martin Guitars

The History of C. F. Martin Guitars

C. F. Martin Guitars is easily one of the most well-known and respected instrument manufacturers in the world. For decades their instruments have been considered the best of the best, used by groundbreaking artists such as Hank Williams and Bob Dylan to make landmark records. 

But you don’t go from a small shop to the most iconic acoustic guitar maker in the world overnight. Martin has a long and storied history that dates back to the early 1800s, filled with ups and downs. It took well over a hundred years for Martin to get where they are today, and it’s a story every guitarist should be familiar with. 

So for this article, let’s go all the way back to the beginning and see how Martin became the industry titan they are today. 

Guitar and Guilds in Germany

The Martin story begins in Germany, years before the Martin company was officially established. Christian Federick Martin was born in a small German village in 1796, coming from a family of woodworkers and cabinet makers.

At 15, C. F. Martin was already an apprentice in Austria under Johann Stauffer, a well-known guitar maker of the time. After his training, he came home with the intent to build guitars. However, things would soon get needlessly complicated. 

Craftspeople still worked via a guild system at the time, and guilds were very protective of their respective industries. The guitar was a relatively new instrument at the time. Most guitar makers were members of the cabinet makers guild (including Martin), but the violin makers guild insisted guitar making should be their job since guitars are instruments.

This led to a legal battle that the cabinet makers’ guild eventually won, opening the path for Martin to keep making guitars. But he decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle and instead decided to go somewhere without a convoluted guild system—New York City.

Courtesy of Future / Olly Curtis

New Beginnings in New York City

In 1833, C. F. Martin arrived in New York City, ready to make a name for himself as a guitar maker. He quickly opened a guitar shop on Hudson Street and started selling. 

The guitars Martin made at this time are not what we think of as a Martin these days. Being an apprentice of Johann Stauffer, his guitars were very similar. The guitars had six on-a-side tuning pegs, a curving bridge, and a neck adjusted by a key in the heel. 

The guitars sold during this period were also often sold under various names. Martin needed help with distribution, and a whole group of teachers and wholesalers helped him. So many Martins made prior to 1840 are labeled as “Martin & Schatz” or “Martin & Coupa” after those distributors. His main distribution partner was Zoebisch & Sons, who were also based in NYC. Martin continued to work with them until 1898. 

The move to NYC was successful for Martin—too successful. Struggling to keep up with demand and wanting to focus strictly on manufacturing, Martin decided the company needed to move. And in 1839, Martin officially relocated to Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

Courtesy of C. F. Martin Guitar

Nazareth: A Place to Call Home

The move to Nazareth, a relatively small town around 100 miles from NYC, was a risk for Martin. He built a factory on the corner of Main and North Streets, with the hopes the move would pay. And thankfully for Martin, it did. 

By 1850, Martin needed to expand the factory to accommodate the demand. His guitars were changing as well. Over the years, Martin slowly abandoned the older Stauffer-style guitars in favor of newer concepts. Rectangular bridges and slotted pegheads became standard, and Brazilian rosewood was being used for the back and sides. 

However, Martin couldn’t run the company forever. Martin was in his 70s by 1867, so he decided to bring on his son—C. F. Martin Jr—as a business partner. And with his father’s passing in 1873, C. F. Martin Jr took control of the company. 

Around this time, Martin started using official model numbers to designate their guitars. Early examples include the Style 17, Style 18, and Style 27. The company continued to grow under Martin Jr’s leadership, but he sadly didn’t get much time at the helm. 

C. F. Martin Jr unexpectedly died in 1888, leaving his son—22-year-old Frank Henry Martin—in charge of the company. Soon after taking control, Martin ended up in a dispute with their longtime distributor Zoebisch & Sons. 

For some unknown reason, Zoebisch & Sons refused to promote Martin’s newly introduced mandolins. They were a popular instrument at the time, and the sales were a boon for Martin. But Zoebisch & Sons had some odd issues with promoting them. In the end, Martin decided to take control of their own distribution. 

With a new home, a bigger factory, young leadership, and control of their own distribution, Martin was ready to move forward to the 20th century.

Courtesy of Robert Corwin

Martin Guitars in the 20th Century

In the early 20th century, Martin began operating with a focus of “quality over quantity.” With more and more guitar manufacturers entering the market, Martin knew they had to remain competitive—Gibson in particular being their main competitor. 

However, they didn’t fall into the trap of chasing trends and changing too much. They focused on making high-end instruments, only occasionally responding to Gibson directly. While this didn’t yield sales as high as other manufacturers, they were able to hold their own. 

Oddly enough, ukuleles helped Martin during the early 1900s. They were cheaper, more affordable, and more portable. Though their first ukes were a bit too high-end for widespread appeal, they made a couple of changes and quickly became a hit. Martin sold almost twice as many ukuleles in the 1920s as they did guitars. 

Though the early 1900s weren’t the best years for Martin, they managed. And in the years to come, they would have to weather even more hardships. 

Tumultuous Times

As is true for many companies, the late 1920s and early 1930s were not kind to Martin. Sales director and brother of C. F. Martin Jr, Herbert Keller, died in 1927. And just two years later in 1929, the Great Depression would hit. Combined, this put Martin in a tight spot where they focused more on survival than boosting sales. 

Martin sales dropped by 50% between 1929 and 1931. They even switched to a three-day workweek because demand was low, and they simply couldn’t afford a regular schedule. They also resorted to making wooden jewelry and violin parts to keep money coming in. 

While the Great Depression hit Martin hard, they managed to survive. And soon Martin would finally escape the darkness and see the light.  

14 Frets and Dreadnought

In 1929, a banjo player by the name of Perry Bechtel would change the future of Martin and acoustic guitars forever. Martin guitars at the time had 12 frets before joining the body, but Bechtel’s banjo had 15. He challenged Martin to do the same with their guitars. 

The result of his challenge was the 14-fret Orchestral Model (OM), designed to replace the banjo in jazz bands. This ended up being such a popular change that all Martin models would get the 14-fret necks, and it eventually became the standard for American acoustics. To many, the OM is considered the first modern acoustic guitar and one of Martin’s most important instruments. 

Around this time, Martin would also lock onto another important design—the dreadnought. Dreadnoughts had been around since 1916, but Martin fully incorporated them into their lineup in 1931. And luckily for Martin, the timing was just right. 

While electric guitar was beginning to take off in the 1930s, less was happening in the acoustic world. However, a renewed interest in folk music helped the dreadnought takeoff. Country music was also gaining popularity at the time, and the Martin dreadnought quickly became a key part of the era’s country music. 

Gene Autry famously used a Martin D-45, and he set an example for other country artists. Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Red Foley, Lester Flatt, and more would adopt Martins as their go-to guitars. This helped establish Martin as one of the brands for acoustic guitar. 

That said, it still wasn’t quite time for Martin to reach their full potential. World War Two limited Martin’s production capacity and supplies. They had to make some changes to keep things going, such as abandoning herringbone wood marquetry and scalloped bracing. But soon Martin was ready for their best era yet. 

Courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Folk and the Martin Boom

Things would change for Martin post-war. Frank Martin died in 1948, again leaving the company in new hands. This time it would be C. F. Martin III taking over, and he was ready to take Martin to new heights. 

In the 50s, Martin was fueled by the folk revival. With countless people picking up the guitar to play folk music, Martins were an obvious choice. Martin saw a huge increase in demand. While the folk boom was good to Martin, it came with problems. 

Martin III was frustrated with the long delays caused by their lack of production capacity, worried they’d lose customers. To combat it, he decided to build a new 62,000-square-foot facility in 1962 that could keep up with demand.

By the end of the 60s, just about every singer-songwriter had a Martin. It was almost expected of you as a professional musician. They were the acoustic, and just about anyone playing acoustic music professionally had one. 

To put things into perspective, 507 dreadnoughts were sold in 1961. That number had jumped to 5,466 by 1971. Martin made 22,637 guitars in 1971, which is a staggering number compared to the years prior. 

As the 70s rolled on, Martin continued to grow. They bought other brands and diversified into other areas, such as strings, banjos, and drums. They even introduced a budget brand of foreign-made guitars known as Sigma

By the end of the 70s, Martin was on top of the world. They had expanded their facility again, had unprecedented sales, and were seeing success that the original C. F. Martin could only dream of. 

MTV Unplugged and C. F. Martin IV

The 80s were largely much of the same for Martin. They continued making guitars and selling well. They indulged in the flashier side of guitars a bit more, but Martin was largely doing what you’d expect them to. 

In 1986 though, C. F. Martin III died. His grandson, C. F. Martin IV, took control of the company. Martin IV is still in charge of Martin today. And like those before him, he was ready to usher Martin into the next era. 

The 90s were a surprisingly good decade for Martin. MTV Unplugged inspired generations of guitarists, many of whom may not have been interested in acoustic guitars, to buy a Martin. With Eric Clapton and Kurt Cobain both using them for their performances, it’s no shock that they inspired lots of sales. 

With the 90s in the rearview, Martin IV was ready to usher Martin into the new millennium. 

Modern Martin

Since the 2000s, Martin has struck a balance between tradition and modernity. They still make the classic Martins you’d expect using many of the same methods, but they’ve also worked to expand and incorporate new technology. 

For example, the Martin X series—introduced in 1998—uses HPL (high-pressure laminate) tops and richlite fingerboards. This allowed them to make a lower-end guitar that was more affordable but still sounded great. 

A more recent innovation is their Martin Vintage Tone System, which aims to recreate the sound and feel of the coveted pre-war Martins. 

They’ve also made numerous expansions to the factory, including one for string production. They now produce some guitars in Mexico as well, such as the D10E. That guitar in particular is a good example of their conservation efforts; it’s made of sapele, a wood very similar to mahogany that is much more sustainable. 

Martin, under Martin IV’s guidance, has been exploring new ideas, methods, and concepts. This has pushed them even further to the forefront of the acoustic guitar world. And with their classic Martins still in the line-up, it doesn’t look like Martin is going anywhere anytime soon. 

C. F. Martin: an American Success Story

Everyone knows about Martin guitars, but fewer know the company’s rich history. From the guild feuds in Germany and C. F. Martin’s first shop to the multitude of expansions and leadership changes, Martin has a long and storied history that tells a classic American success story. 

So next time you pick up a Martin or listen to a record made with one, take a moment to think about the company’s history and how that guitar came to be. You may end up with a newfound appreciation for Martin, their instruments, and their story.