There are few things more iconic in music than a Martin acoustic guitar. When most people think of an acoustic guitar, they picture a Martin dreadnought. CF Martin & Companys’s instruments have been heard on countless classic records, seen on stage played by the greats, and filled the dreams of many budding guitarists (myself included). The sound, the look, the history—Martins have it all, and their guitars are revered by players.
But there is a specific era of Martin guitars that is particularly desirable; pre-war Martins are some of the most sought after and expensive guitars in the world. Carter Vintage Guitars currently has multiple pre-war Martins on their website, ranging from $8,500 to $65,000. They are the “holy grail” or “Moby Dick” for many players, but most of us can only dream of owning one due to the cost.
So why are pre-war Martin guitars so expensive? Is it the sound? Playability? Are people just caught up in the name and hype of pre-war guitars? Let’s take a deeper look at pre-war Martin guitars and find out why exactly they are so expensive.
Editor’s Note: There aren’t many pictures of Pre-War Martins in the public domain, so the pictures in this article are sadly not actual Pre-Wars.
History of CF Martin
While CF Martin is an American company, their roots are in Germany. Christian Friedrich Martin was originally a German guitar maker, but his competitors worried the guitar would overtake the violin. They attempted to have him banned from guitar manufacturing in the country. Thankfully, he was able to beat the court cases and continue making guitars. However, he needed somewhere to make guitars freely, without the constant threat of being shut down by jealous competitors.
In 1833, Martin moved to New York City and set up a guitar store. He continued to run this store for many years, working with various distributors. Martin labeled these guitars differently from later ones, bearing the name of the distribution partners as well, such as Martin & Schatz or Martin & Coupa.
These guitars were also very different from the Martins of the pre-war era and beyond. Martin had studied with Vienna-based guitar maker Christian Stauffer, and the guitars of this era are based heavily on Stauffer’s designs. They included six on a side tuners, a curved bridge, a neck adjustment system operated by a key, and more. However, both these designs, and the New York shop itself, wouldn’t last for long.
Martin moved to Nazareth, Pennsylvania in 1839, and Martin guitars are still made there to this day (side note: the Martin museum and factory tour in Nazareth is a must for Martin fans). In the years following the move to Nazareth, Martin began changing his designs and got closer to the guitars we all know and love today. Some of these changes include x-bracing, rectangular bridges, Brazilian Rosewood back and sides, and more ornamentation.
The original Christian Friedrich Martin died in 1873, passing the business to his son, Christian Friedrich Martin Jr. CF Martin Jr. was the first in a long line of family members who would take CF Martin’s dream and continue manufacturing high-quality guitars. While the history of Martin during the Civil War-era is a fascinating read unto itself, it’s time for us to fast forward to the pre-war era when Martin made their most iconic instruments.
The Pre-War Era
First off, let’s talk about what the pre-war era even is. The war in reference is World War II, which the US entered in 1941. As the US shifted its manufacturing output to support the war effort, it became harder to make things like guitars. Labor and materials were scarce, forcing instrument manufacturers to change their designs and production processes.
That shift is what defines the pre-war era. Before the war, manufacturers had plenty of resources to make incredibly high-end instruments. During it, they had to make do and make changes to their process (see the construction section for more details).
It is also worth noting that there is no hard distinction between pre-war and wartime guitars, and many people pick a different year to mark the transition. It ultimately comes down to when materials began to get scarce and when Martin had to change designs, but that is a bit complicated.
Martin made tweaks to the design from 1938-1941, before the war had even started. Some people consider design changes during this time, such as shifting the bracing and moving away from red spruce tops, to signify the end of the pre-war era. Others consider all guitars made up until December 1941 pre-war.
Just keep in mind that the exact year of the distinction is a bit arbitrary. The important part to remember is that as the US entered World War II, Martin had to make changes to their instruments that resulted in design cues from the 1930s being left behind. Now, what exact changes did Martin have to make, and how did they impact the sound of their guitars?
Construction Changes in Wartime
One of the biggest construction differences between pre-war and wartime/post-war Martins is the bracing. Put simply, bracing is wood placed on the inside of the guitar to reinforce the top and back, as well as to help shape the guitar’s sound. Bracing has a big impact on how an acoustic guitar sounds, and Martin changed their bracing in the early 1940s, leading to, well, different sounding guitars.
Before the war, Martin used scalloped bracing. As the name suggested, the braces would be scalloped (carved into a curve) by hand before completion. This reduced the weight of the bracing, and according to some, allowed the guitars to resonate more freely. During wartime though, Martin shifted to tapered bracing and stopped using scalloped bracing for years. Many players believe this is the main reason they prefer pre-war Martins, and it is arguably the most consequential change they made.
Another big change was using ebony to reinforce the neck instead of the traditional steel. Steel was a hot commodity for the war effort, so Martin had to use ebony for their neck rods instead (a technique borrowed from classical guitar makers). Ebony is much lighter than steel, making the guitars significantly less heavy. However, ebony is predictably quite a bit less strong than steel as well, so the necks of guitars from this period can be more vulnerable to warping and bending.
Martin also made a multitude of smaller changes in this period that may or may not contribute to the sound of the guitars. Tuning pegs became plastic, the neck became narrower and thicker, herringbone and abalone were gone, and more. While they may or may not change the sound, these changes certainly impacted the playability and aesthetics of wartime guitars. They just didn’t have the “wow” that pre-war guitars had with their consistently high-quality parts and stunning ornamentation. So, what did they sound like? Did the change in construction actually have a difference?
Pre-war Martin Sound
Right from the jump here, I think it’s important to mention that sound is largely subjective. Without doing extensive audio analysis to properly compare pre-war and wartime/post-war guitars, it is impossible to make definitive statements about their sound. And even if a researcher did those studies, which is “better” is still subjective. So keep that in mind while reading this section.
With that out of the way, in general, pre-war Martins are a bit more bass heavy, likely due to the bracing position. They also tend to be a bit louder, though I am not aware of any side-by-side decibel comparisons that can prove this. Many describe the sound of a pre-war Martin as magical or heavenly. These guitars just seem to have that “it” factor; they feel tonally balanced and almost seem to play themselves.
Wartime guitars on the other hand often have the same “it” factor—for some players at least. Players commonly say they are balanced, project well, and easy to play. Many even prefer wartime guitars to other Martins. They are less bass heavy, again, likely due to the shift to tapered bracing. They still seem to retain that fullness and clarity players search for in vintage Martin guitars, yet they aren’t valued the way pre-war guitars are.
Another important note is that every guitar is a bit different, both because these are handmade instruments, and because the changes Martin made for wartime were gradual. Martin made changes as they had to, year by year, so not all wartime guitars have the same specs.
This all means that it is hard to make generalizations about the wartime guitar sound. Because they were handcrafted and had different features over the years, it really depends on the specific guitar—there are wartime guitars that sound nearly identical to pre-war guitars, and others that sound totally different.
Famous Players of Pre-War Martins
Just for fun, here are a few well known pre-war Martin players and the stories behind their beloved guitars:
Hank Williams/Neil Young
Hank used his 1941 D-28 for years up until his death. After his death, the guitar eventually ended up in the hands of Tut Taylor, who sold it to Neil Young. Neil regularly uses the guitar on tour, and he has lent it to friends like Bob Dylan.
Tony Rice played his 1935 D-28 throughout his entire career. Roland and Clarence White had bought the (ratty, at the time) guitar at a pawnshop for $25. After using it for years, Clarence shot it with a BB gun and sold it. Eventually, Tony Rice purchased the guitar and the rest is history.
Hank Williams/Johnny Cash/Marty Stuart
Another Hank Williams guitar (supposedly) that ended up in other hands, Johnny purchased this D-45 from Tut Taylor and used it for years. He reluctantly traded it to Marty Stuart for another guitar, and Marty has continued using the guitar on stage and in the studio ever since.
So why are Pre-War Martin Guitars so dang Expensive?
First and foremost, these guitars represent a peak of Martin’s guitar making. The attention to detail and ornamentation on these guitars is unmatched, even compared to modern guitars.
They are also truly iconic instruments. Many of us guitar players grew up listening to pre-war Martins, so they hold a special place in the hearts of players. With icons like Hank Williams, Tony Rice, Bob Dylan, and more playing them, it is no surprise that they are sought after.
Also a big piece of their pricepoint is owed to the fact that they are incredibly rare. These guitars are nearly a century old at this point, so a large number of them have been lost to time. Any somewhat useful piece of gear that is that old and rare is going to be valuable, and since pre-war Martins also sound great, that is doubly true.
Lastly, there is just something special about pre-war Martin guitars. It’s hard to put into words, but but by all accounts there is something magical about picking up a 1930s Martin and strumming a chord (or so I hear, I have yet to have the privilege personally…). Whether it’s the bracing, the materials, or something else entirely, these guitars have “it.”
To sum it up, pre-war Martin’s are so expensive because they are incredible instruments with an iconic history that have become rare over the passage of time. Whether or not the difference in sound is worth the price—that’s up to you. But one thing is for sure: pre-war Martins are some of the most well-made, iconic, and expensive guitars in the world, and they aren’t making any more of them.