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The Best Martin Ever?

The Best Martin Ever?
The Best Martin Ever? A 1942 Pre-War Martin D-45—The "Holy Grail" of Acoustic Guitars

A pre-war Martin D-45 is a hallmark of design, craftsmanship, and sound. Learn about its history and watch John Bohlinger demo the 1942 gem.

In 1933, a singing cowboy from Oklahoma plunked down $200 and ordered a new guitar from the Chicago Musical Instrument Company. A few months later, he had the fanciest dreadnought Martin had ever built—the first D-45, serial #53177. Its structural features are familiar to guitar geeks everywhere: scalloped and forward-shifted x-bracing, Brazilian rosewood back and sides, Adirondack (red) spruce top, ebony bridge with ivory saddle, and a 12-fret neck with a slotted headstock.

But that description also applies to Martin's D-28, which was far more numerous in that era and only cost $100. What did the purchaser get for his extra $100? A lot of bling. His guitar had all the style-45 appointments—binding with abalone pearl inlays (on the top, back, sides, and neck heel), “boxed" inlay on the end piece, a completely bound fretboard with pearl inlays, a pearl inlaid rosette (as on the style 42), multicolored mosaic back strip, and an elegant torch headstock inlay by George H. Jones (aka “The Marquetrie Man") of New York. But the guitar also boasted extra pearl binding around the headstock and, inlaid in abalone pearl on the fretboard in script large enough to be seen from the back of the hall, the new owner's name: Gene Autry. Total D-45 production from 1933 to 1942 was 91. Meanwhile, Martin built 148 D-28 guitars in 1937 alone.

At least one other musician was sufficiently impressed by Autry's new guitar to order one. In 1934, Jackie Moore (called "Kid" because he was only 12) ordered a D-45S (the Srefers to its special feature, a solid headstock). You might think that, with two famous players and all that bling, D-45 sales would have spiked. You would be wrong. Pre-war D-45 sales were underwhelming. Martin didn't build any D-45s in 1935. In 1936 they built two custom models, #63715 and #64890, both designated as D-45S—although in this instance the S referred to a different special feature: a 16 1/4" body based on the F9 archtop. In 1937, Martin built two regular D-45s and a custom-ordered D-45S (#67460) with 12 frets and a solid headstock, a guitar that guitar dealer/historian George Gruhn remembers as “a particularly great one." The company built nine D-45s in '38, 14 in '39, 19 in '40, 24 in '41, and 19 in '42—the D-45's last year until its 1968 reintroduction. Total D-45 production from 1933 to 1942 was 91. Meanwhile, Martin built 148 D-28 guitars in 1937 alone.

Today, more than 80 years after Autry's D-45 was built, these 91 guitars are coveted by players and collectors worldwide. I wanted to learn what accounts for the fascination. Is it just their rarity? Are these pre-war D 45s famous only for being famous?

Read more about the D-45's pre-war history here.