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Like so many of the delicious twists in the history of innovations, the dreadnought acoustic is the product of fate, unexpected convergences, and a great idea. But it’s also true that the most popular guitar design in the world could have just as easily faded into obscurity—or never happened at all.
In the beginning, the notion of a dreadnought wasn’t even a dusty rattle in the halls of Martin’s Nazareth, Pennsylvania, headquarters. The concept—if not all the engineering know-how—was the brainchild of the Oliver Ditson Company, which operated music stores in Boston and New York. Ditson wanted to satisfy the clamor from dance-band guitarists desperate for more volume, so the company approached Martin about making their design idea reality. In 1916, the first dreadnought—a slotted-headstock, 12-fret instrument bearing the Ditson brand—made its debut. But the strangest part of the story is that Martin remained skeptical, or least relatively indifferent to the to the guitar’s potential, for years afterward. There wasn’t a dreadnought with the Martin name until 1931, and the 14-fret version we know and recognize today didn’t see the light of day until 1934. Needless to say, the gang at Oliver Ditson was on to something. By the late ’30s, the dreadnought was one of Martin’s most successful instruments. And in the decades to come, artists from Gene Autry and Bill Monroe to Neil Young and Jimmy Page would help make the dreadnought among the most popular and ubiquitous musical instruments in the world.
The five dreadnoughts reviewed here are all still very much the children of that first Martin-built Ditson. And their sonic merits, while varied, are rooted in the same qualities sought in that very first model—volume, projection, and authority. Of course, there’s a lot more to a dread than sounding big, and one of the coolest things about the five dreads profiled here—which can all be had for between $750 and a grand—is the range of feel and tone color among them.
Guild built its first dreadnoughts in the early ’60s—just in time for a cultural earthquake that would find half the kids in America clamoring for a 6-string. Fortunately for Guild, the company nailed its first attempts. The mahogany-and-spruce D-40 and rosewood-and-spruce D-50 were beautiful, well-built, and balanced guitars, and they became fixtures on the ’60s folk and rock scenes. The D-150 reviewed here is a Chinese-built interpretation of the legendary D-50, and it does a noble job of delivering on the sonic promise of the D-50 at a more accessible price.
At a fast glance, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the D-150 and its US-built brother. The D-150 has a black pickguard instead of the D-50’s faux tortoiseshell guard, and the D-150’s bridge is rosewood rather than ebony. The D-150 also lacks some fancy touches, like a headstock inlay. Overall, though, the D-150 is a carefully crafted guitar. Bracing and kerfing are all tidy and relatively clean, save for a few very small glue smudges on the back bracing. There’s also some uneven finish work at the end of the fretboard closest to the soundhole. The materials all have the look of first-rate stuff, however. The solid rosewood on the back and sides is dark and rich in appearance, and the spruce top has a tight, even grain pattern. A motherof- pearl rosette adds a deluxe touch to the Guild’s otherwise streamlined and elegant outward demeanor.
The D-150 feels great in hand. The satin-finished mahogany neck, 1.68" string spacing at the nut, and medium action combine to make barre chords feel natural and easy right up to the 12th fret, although slightly lower action might make the guitar a little better suited for bluegrass and country flatpicking and fingerstyle. However, for heavy strumming, folk arpeggios, and deepdigging blues lines, the guitar still feels very responsive and dynamic.
Sonically speaking, the D-150 fills all the traditional dreadnoughts roles very well. It’s a big-sounding guitar when you strum with a heavy flatpick, with a ton of headroom for Townshend-style aggression, and a loud, warm, full-spectrum tone that kicks with low-mid and midrange content that gives single-note solos a cutting and authoritative voice. If the D-150 lacks anything, it’s the truly robust low end that a lot of players look for in a dread. However, getting it may just be a matter of being patient, for there’s a pronounced new-guitar stiffness in the D-150 that suggests it will open up and breathe as it ages—as is often the case with all solidwood acoustics.
With just enough finery to make it feel special, and a design restraint that enhances the beautiful balance of body lines, the D-150 is a very complete dread. Fast flatpickers will long for lower action, though the guitar as it’s set up here makes it a great vehicle for heavier Neil Young-style strumming. And at right around $750 on the street, it’s a great way to get a well-rounded and, at times, refined dread for a fair price.