“I don’t play guitar,” C.F. “Chris” Martin IV, sixth-generation member of the family that owns Martin Guitars, admitted near the start of his talk Friday night at Replay Guitar Exchange in Tampa.
The recently retired CEO of the legendary guitar manufacturer may not be a proficient six-string slinger. But he probably knows more about the art of making fine guitars than anyone else you might name. Martin, sharing stage time with singer-songwriter and guitarist Craig Thatcher, proceeded to relate a fun and fascinating history of the company, which was launched 190 years ago in New York City.
Martin’s forebears were originally known as cabinet makers and woodworkers in Markneukirchen, Germany, and in 1839 his great-great-great-grandfather, Christian Friedrich Martin, relocated the business from NYC to Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Martin’s headquarters remain in Nazareth, as does the Martin Musem, which is open to the public; guitar devotees can also take a factory tour.
Along the way, the company’s designers and artisans devised a variety of innovations, all driving the development of guitars that in many cases would be more durable, more expressive and capable of creating a greater volume of sound than their European predecessors. The biggest innovation was the X-bracing system, whereby struts and braces formed a cross across the soundboard below the top of the sound hole. “The bracing system is largely responsible for the distinctive Martin tone characterized by bright treble and resonant bass,” according to Guitar.com.
The Martin roadshow is hardly just a history lesson. Thatcher, who opened with a short set of his own finely honed acoustic folk and blues tunes, demonstrated a variety of signature guitars by treating the attentive crowd to snippets of songs by artists associated with those instruments.
Playing a colorful David Crosby model made in collaboration with the late singer and the Rock the Vote nonprofit, Thatcher offered a bit of “Long Time Gone.” Also on the program: Joan Baez‘s “100 Miles” (credited to Hedy West); Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train”; Jimmy Buffett‘s “Pencil Thin Moustache”; Eric Clapton‘s “Malted Milk; Stephen Stills‘ “Treetop Flyer” and “Love the One You’re With”; and Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly.”
Martin and Thatcher also showed off some gorgeous guitars, with arty, unusual design features, issued in celebration of the two millionth and two-and-one-half millionth guitars (replicas of the originals, which don’t leave the Martin Museum).
The latter (left), released in 2022, is an eye-popping instrument, its blue top embedded with gemstones arranged to resemble the look of the starry sky on the night that Martin’s founder stepped off the boat in New York. The palladium pickguard is etched with a map of NYC showing the location of the original Martin shop.
It was all enough to make a bass player with rudimentary guitar skills — for instance, like me — go away with a bit of guitar lust in my heart.