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Pre-War Perfection: The Martin D-45


Beautiful bling: D-45s boasted some of Martin’s finest decorative detail. Photo by Ariel Goldenthal.

From the WLS National Barn Dance to the Fillmore
“The boom in interest in D-45s among collectors doesn’t come from country music directly, or from bluegrass,” says Kim Walker. “It stems from folk-rock musicians, in particular Stephen Stills and Neil Young.”

Gruhn agrees. “When Stephen Stills and Neil Young went onstage with D-45s—Young with a 1960s model, and Stills with his vintage pre-war—that had a great deal to do with the popularity of those instruments.”

Richard Johnston—co-owner of Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, California, and co-author of several books about Martin guitars—offers an analogy to some of the most famous (and tragic) rock stars of the 60s: “Like some of the most iconic figures of the 1960s, this model was only around for a few years. Like those rock stars who are most idealized, it died early. If Martin had kept the D-45 in the catalog continuously, instead of letting it disappear for decades, they would still be desirable guitars—but people would not be referring to them as ‘the holy grail.’”

Larry Wexer of New York’s Laurence Wexer Fine Fretted Instruments refers to the D-45 as “the king of flattops” because of its bass, volume, and projection—all of which made it uniquely suited to driving a band.

“When Stephen Stills and Neil Young went onstage with D-45s—Young with a 1960s model, and Stills with his vintage pre-war—that had a great deal to do with the popularity of those instruments.” —George Gruhn

But not all of these “kings” have had pampered lives. Gruhn remembers seeing a D-45 with 50 top cracks. “It didn’t sound like what a real vintage D-45 would have sounded like,” he says. “If you want to know what a pre-war D-45 sounds like, you have to listen to one with its original finish and unmolested-thickness top, sides, and back.”

Pre-war D-45s have passed through the hands of many famous musicians. One instrument passed from Hank Williams Jr. to Johnny Cash and Marty Stuart. Gruhn fills in the details. “Hank Jr. had a pre-war D-45. Some idiot drilled a 3/8" hole for a volume control. We covered the hole with an abalone plaque and engraved ‘Hank’ on it. When Hank traded it to Johnny Cash, we re-engraved it ‘Cash,’ and when Marty got it from Johnny Cash, we re-engraved it ‘Hank’ again.”

If all pre-war D-45s are great, are some greater than others? Kim Walker says, “Even though all D-45s were built to the same pattern and used the same material, they aren’t all the same. You can build two guitars on benches right next to each other and use pieces of wood that came from the same log, and those two guitars won’t be identical.”

All 91 prewar D-45s were constructed with scalloped bracing, Brazilian rosewood back and sides, and spruce tops. But there were still differences. The first two D-45s, as well as #67460—a 1937 custom order—had 12-fret necks. All others were built with 14-fret necks. In 1933, Martin guitars used bar frets and ebony neck reinforcement, but from 1934 on, they used T frets and steel T-bar neck reinforcements. In 1933, all Martin guitars had forward-shifted X-bracing, with the center of the X being one inch below the lower edge of the sound hole. During 1938, the center of the X-brace was moved 3/4" further from the soundhole to compensate for extra stress from heavy-gauge (.014–.060) string sets. And in 1939, the neck width at the nut was reduced from 1 3/4" to 1 11/16", and string spacing at the 12th fret was reduced from 2 1/4" to 2 1/8". The unanswered—and maybe unanswerable—question is exactly how those changes affected the guitars’ sound.

Photo by Ariel Goldenthal.

All in the Braces?
Are guitars with forward-shifted X-braces somehow better? Kim Walker isn’t certain. “During the 1930s, bracing patterns shifted slightly forward and back, but those changes do not account for all the sonic differences among instruments—or for the magical sound. Of course, all the braces were hand-shaped and hand-scalloped by individual craftsmen, so even two guitars with the same bracing pattern aren’t really the same.”

Oster has his own opinion of the differences between the two bracing approaches. “Both bracing patterns can be wonderful, but there’s a deeper, darker, broader sound with forward-shifted bracing. When the X-braces are shifted rearward, the sound becomes more focused and a bit more centered.”

Wait—What About the D-28?
The pre-war D-45 is fancier and rarer than the pre-war D-28—but is it a better guitar? Did the Martin foremen and workers take more care building D-45s? Did they benefit from exceptional materials and craftsmanship?

Oster thinks it unlikely. “I’ve not heard that the D-45 was any more carefully built than the D-28. On the contrary, Martin practiced exceptionally consistent and clean work on all models. I would be very surprised if they put in more time on the inside of a D-45 than they did on the inside of a D-28.”

“The difference between a 28 and 45 is primarily a difference of ornamentation,” says Gruhn. “They picked the prettiest woods for the 45s, but there’s no particular difference in the quality of construction. They used their very best materials on the 45, but does that always translate into better sound? That’s debatable. The forward-shifted bracing is magical, but there are some wonderful guitars made after that.”

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