The Guitar

“I had this old Martin that I played on everybody's sessions, because it was just such a wonderful-sounding instrument” —Bruce Langhorne.

That old Martin and its original case are currently in the possession of Maple Byrne, guitar collector, historian, and tech to Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller, among others. Byrne reverently calls himself the instrument’s custodian, rather than its owner. He bought it through Heritage Auctions after it had been on display at Paul Allen’s EMP museum.

“It is a 1920 Martin 1-21,” says Byrne. “Size 1 would have been the standard guitar size in the 1890s. A 21 has slightly less ornamentation than a 28. The “2” in 21 means rosewood back and sides—very rare for that year. This size was prevalent in the 1890s, but you couldn’t put steel strings on those. They are X-braced after about 1908, but even then were not braced for steel strings—people used silk and steel strings. By 1920 they didn’t make many guitars this small, but the ones they did build had modern bracing.”

The modern bracing holds firm under light-gauge flatwound strings like those Langhorne used throughout his career. The flatwounds may have been easier to manipulate with the nubs of his lost fingers, and definitely contributed to the dark tones that make him distinguishable on record, even on those containing multiple guitarists.

Langhorne probably bought the guitar at the Music Inn on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village. This is confirmed by Jeff Slatnick, who has worked there since the ’60s. “Bruce used to come in a lot,” he recalls. “He most likely got the guitar here, since we were the only guitar store in the Village at the time.”

“For a collector—I mean serious guitar nerds like Maple and myself—this piece has it all,” says Steve Earle, “First, it's a size 1 Martin: the model from which all American flattop guitars are descended. And this particular one belonged to arguably the best guitarist living and working in Greenwich Village at the height of the folk boom.”