One of my students recently purchased from me a very nice Martin dreadnaught, perhaps not in the class of the three I have now but not a slouch by any means. He loves it and I know why although neither of us can define the “it” that most Martins have. After one of his lessons we talked about the Martin sound and he asked me just what it was that I listen for in my quest for the ultimate acoustic guitar.
To be a bit crass and paraphrase a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice when asked his definition of pornography: I can’t tell you what that sound is, but I know it when I hear it! I guess I’d have to say, deep bass that you can feel right through the back of the guitar, well defined mid range notes that bridge that tonality between the wrapped bass strings and the unwrapped high B and E, and crisp, clean, clear “shimmer-y” treble. To find all these things in one guitar is rare, very rare. But that is just the starting point.
My perfect fantasy acoustic guitar needs to be responsive to the softer attack of finger tips – I don’t use finger picks or nails – but also be able to stand up to aggressive playing with a flat pick, both in single note passages and when strummed. What you usually find is one quality or the other. A guitar that is responsive to finger picking often “breaks up” in a confused, harsh sound when strummed with authority. A guitar that handles a flat pick without breaking up even when played hard almost never gives back much when finger picked. I’ve written about the overall tone quality of different types of wood in a pervious entry so I won’t rehash that but to my ear anyway, rosewood almost always beats out mahogany when it comes to complexity of sound (overtones, resonance). But those overtones can come into conflict with varying attack, which makes it that much harder to find that “perfect” guitar.
Now factor in other variables like humidity (or lack of) affecting the wood and changing the tone, the sound of the room you’re playing in (some rooms are very lively sounding but some can all but kill the sound of even a great guitar) and even things like how moist your finger tips are when you play, or the type and thickness of the pick you’re using. The type, gauge and age of the strings have a very significant effect on the sound. I have never heard a good sounding guitar at a Guitar Center store, including some very expensive Martins, for the simple reason that every guitar there has dead strings due to the amount of use they get by potential buyers. This is very sad!
What the nut and saddle are made of makes a huge difference in the sound. I am amazed that Martin still uses plastic nuts and saddles on some of their instruments when using bone would immediately improve the sound. All the Martins I have now have bone. Said it before and I’ll say it again: replacing plastic nuts and saddles with bone is the single easiest way to improve the sound of ANY guitar, expensive or not.
Complicated is my quest, indeed!
So what I’ve ended up doing over the decades I’ve been playing and buying dozens and dozens of guitars is … compromise. After taking into account all the variables I just listed I try to decide what I’m willing to do without. Sad but true.
Which is why I’m so thrilled to be able to play those three Martins that are living in my studio right now. As I said – they are all different. But all three come damn close to perfection, closer than almost any guitar I’ve ever played. My business is to play, teach, and yes, sell guitars. I wonder if Antonio Stradivarious felt remorse when a customer walked away with one of his creations? My guess is yes.
So I guess I just have to say: if you’re looking for a really, really special guitar, I have three. If anyone reading this does decide to buy one, BE NICE TO IT!!
Peace & good music,