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September 2014
more... GearAcousticGear PornSteel StringJune 2014Gear HistoryDreadnaughtMartin

Pre-War Perfection: The Martin D-45


Rear view of the Martin Museum’s 1942 D-45. Martin reserved its finest materials—like this beautiful Brazilian rosewood—for their 45 series instruments. Photo courtesy of C.F. Martin Archives.

Johnston’s opinion is equally clear: “Is the D-45 tonally different from the D-28? There’s no evidence for that. Nobody has done even the most elementary blindfold test. It would be great, but we will never get to do that kind of test. It would be impossible to find enough D-45 and D-28 models that were created at exactly the same time by the same people to ensure that the differences heard couldn’t simply be chalked up to the variations often found between near-identical guitars.”

“Martin used what they considered to be their best rosewood on 45 series guitars,” says Woodland. “However, the grading was based solely on appearance, and that changed with every new batch of wood coming in from their suppliers. The wood was air-dried for four seasons before being used for a guitar, but Martin never tap-tested their tops for tone."

One thing you can count on with experts is some disagreement. Larry Wexer says he’s played 20 different prewar D-45s, and he insists the model does have a unique tone: “The D-45 is slightly less boomy and better balanced than the D-28, and has a set of higher chiming overtones that add further dimension to the tone.

“They had the best air-dried woods. They had generation after generation of accumulated knowledge. In the 1930s the availability of the best in materials and that accumulated knowledge were present at one time and in one place.” —Fred Oster

Modifications and Reproductions
In the mid 20th century, the pre-war D-45 was just another used guitar. As collectors and players began to understand its value, so did builders. Since the 1960s, Martin and others have tried to recapture the magic. Have they succeeded?

“The rebirth of the 45-style dreadnought,” says Johnston, “began in the 1960s when Mike Longworth, a luthier and bluegrass musician from Tennessee, began ‘45-izing’ D-28s by adding pearl inlay.” The next step was a collaboration in which Martin sent a couple of unfinished guitars to Longworth, who inlaid the pearl before returning the guitars to Martin for finishing. A well-known example is the D-45 built for Hank Snow. Soon after that, Martin hired Longworth to develop new pearl-bordered dreadnoughts. Beginning in 1968, the company built 229 D-45s with Brazilian rosewood backs and sides.

Since then there have been several D-45 special editions and limited runs, including Gene Autry, Mike Longworth, and Stephen Stills signature models, and two C.F. Martin, Sr., models, one with Indian rosewood back and sides, and the other (a limited edition) with Brazilian rosewood back and sides. In 1978, Stan Jay and Hap Kuffner, better known as the Mandolin Brothers, custom-ordered 91 D-45s with standard scalloped bracing, non-adjustable T-bar neck reinforcement, square headstocks, a vertical C.F. Martin logo inlaid on a mock tortoiseshell veneer, and simulated-grain ivoroid binding. The first five were built of Brazilian rosewood, and the rest were Indian rosewood. All had Sitka spruce tops. But these guitars were built to honor the prewar D-45, not to copy it.

“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.’” —Richard Johnston

Martin—which, in the 1950s, was no more prescient about the future value of pre-war D-45s than anyone else—now builds twoAuthentic D-45 models, each based on a specific pre-war guitar.TheD-45 Authentic 1942, released in 2011, is modeled on the 1942 D-45 (#81578) that was sold to Martin by Fred Oster and Jim Baggett, and is now in the Martin Museum collection. The second is the just-released D-45S Authentic 1936, modeled on the 1936 D-45S on loan to Martin from collector Sten Juhl. Martin’s Dick Boak describes these not as copies, but as “recreations, identical in every possible way to the originals, including the use of solid abalone pearl rather than Ablam (pearl laminate).” They are beautiful guitars, and they sound amazing. But are they the equal of a pre-war D-45?

“Can a contemporary luthier succeed in recreating the features and appearance of a pre-war guitar?” ponders Johnston. “Yes, but we have no way of knowing what that guitar will be like in 50 or 75 years.”

Oster, who says he’s been impressed by the Martin Authentics, agrees:“We won’t know if it’s as special as a pre-war guitar until we’ve played it for 50 years.”

T. J. Thompson—who has repaired and restored hundreds, perhaps thousands, of vintage Martins, and has built more than a few vintage-inspired guitars—offers an automotive analogy: “The 1930 Bugatti Type 41 Royale Kellner Coach was the most expensive vehicle made in the 1930s. Martin’s 45-style guitar was the 41 Royale Coach of the guitar world. The finest materials were quietly set aside for this highly prized model. This often resulted in better-sounding guitars, and invariably the most beautiful guitars to exit Martin’s factory doors. Accurately replicating a Martin-style 45 guitar is nearly impossible. Although I have no proof of this, I’d bet this feature was intentional. It’s clear that other luthiers were unabashedly stealing ideas from Martin very early on. I’m guessing Mr. Martin’s quiet and effective way of dealing with this frustrating phenomenon was to design a guitar that no one else would attempt to build.”