I’ve experienced this opening-up with lots of guitars and right now I’m finding that my relatively new Martin M-36 is starting to come into its own. Sustain, depth of sound, resonance, clarity and the oh so Martin overtones are developing nicely. Plus, I’ve always loved the comfortable size of this model, once known as the 0000 series. So for the last few weeks my equally wonderful Martin Custom Shop D-35 Seth Avett model has been a little lonely but I’ll be picking that one up again before long. It’s just too nice to neglect.
Opening up is a phenomenon that occurs with premium guitars, which are all solid wood and less so in inexpensive instruments that have laminate backs and sides. The variables that encourage the opening up are complex but pretty easy to understand. A brand-new guitar has never vibrated much so things like glue and finish haven’t loosened up (for lack of better description) to their maximum. So sometimes it’s difficult to get a clear idea what a guitar will sound like when auditioning it at a music store. But there is a trick to that; more below.
This is why some true vintage guitars cost many thousands of dollars. After 60, 70, 80 or more years of playing a premium guitar reaches its maximum potential sound-wise. That, combined with the natural aging of the wood, which is often of a grade that is no longer available makes the magic that acoustic guitarists dream about. When trying to explain the panache of vintage guitars to students who have done some research in preparation of buying a premium instrument I often use the wine analogy. The subtle but very real attributes of a legendary variety combined with age are very important and worth the money to the true wine lover. Can the average person taste the difference between a 1960s vintage Chateau Lafite Rothschild and a $10 bottle of some California cabernet? Probably, to some degree anyway. But is that Chateau Lafite worth 100 times more? Only the wine enthusiast can decide.
Is a fully opened-up 1937 Martin Herringbone D-28 worth a hundred times more than a stock D-28 made this year? If your pockets are very deep and you are obsessed with sound, maybe. There aren’t a whole lot of those folks out there so I can’t comment on that. I do know after playing a few pre-war Martin D-28’s and D-18’s there is certainly something very special about some (but not all!) of them. I confess that if I ever won Power Ball I’d be making some trips around the country to try a few more out!
So what can you expect from a premium guitar that’s brand new and when – and how much – can you expect it to open up? A really good guitar will sound really good right from the get-go. For quite a while some makers like Dana Bourgeois have been speeding up the opening-up process by “baking” the wood used for the tops of guitars and at least in the case of Dana’s instruments the results are quite extraordinary. Known as “torrification,” the process slowly dries out the wood and what you get it is the sound of a guitar that is quite old and broken-in. I’ve played a few other guitars with tops that have been “baked” and the results were less dramatic than with Dana’s. I briefly owned both a Martin and an Eastman that had torrified tops and neither sounded very good, brittle and almost raspy to my ear.
Many years ago one of the manufacturers made a big thing of advertising their guitars were subjected to some weeks or months of sitting on stands in a big room with music blasting at them from big speakers. They claimed to be a great way to open up a guitar using musical sound waves. I have no idea about the validity of this claim and that process has faded into the archives of guitar history.
I believe that playing a guitar often and for long periods of time when it’s brand new is best way to hasten the opening up process. But here are some variables that will affect how long that process takes.
Humidity, or lack of humidity affects the sound of both new and older guitars (another source of debate on the guitar forums but I stand by my opinion of that!). If a guitar lives in a very humid climate it is difficult if not impossible to get an accurate idea of how good it really can sound. That’s simply because the wood absorbs the humidity and cannot vibrate to its full potential. If you live in such a place, try using a room dehumidifier to give the guitar a chance to dry out. You’ll like what you hear.
If you do as I suggest and play a new guitar often and for long sessions it makes sense to invest in a quite a few sets of guitar strings and change the strings fairly frequently. This will give a more accurate result compared to using old, dead, lifeless strings. One side note here, though. Some people LIKE the sound of old strings, especially Gibson owners who feel the “woody” sound of guitars like the classic J-45 when strummed is heavenly with broken in strings and exactly what guitars are supposed to sound like. I don’t happen to agree, I love the sound of fresh strings and I change my strings often. You’ll have to decide what type of sound you prefer but I think we can all agree that really old, grungy strings do nothing for the sound of a premium guitar.
Some people opt for a device called Tone Rite that is secured to the top a guitar for a few days or longer. It vibrates with a low hum and this is thought to loosen up the glue and finish resulting in a more “open” sound. I had one a while ago and used it on a brand-new Martin OM-28. I left it running for about four days and yes, there was a subtle difference in the tone but nothing particularly remarkable. Some people claim astounding results however. If you do decide to try one of these things, be sure to either suspend your guitar while it’s being used or at least leave it on a guitar stand with as few contact points as possible to encourage maximum vibration. Leaving your guitar in its case while using a Tone Rite will not yield very much if any difference in sound as the case absorbs most of the vibration.
Last week I had another wonderful visit with internationally renowned luthier Steve Connor, who lives only a few miles from me. It’s always an amazing treat to spend time with Steve and see his latest breathtakingly gorgeous creations (he makes primarily classical guitars) and talk guitar geek stuff with him. I brought my D-35 over for him to see and he was very complimentary of its sound and construction. At one point he began tapping on the bridge and said, yeah, that’s about a G. I asked what he meant and he went on to explain the process of “tap tuning,” which string instrument makers have used for centuries to predict what an instrument will sound like before it is completed. All wood vibrates at a certain frequency and knowing that certain frequencies will be more apt to be bass or treble focused lets the builder modify things like braces to accentuate or diminish those tendencies. And checking with Steve’s Peterson tuner app, he was dead-on. I love the sound of that guitar and the next time I’m in a guitar shop I will definitely use this tap method to judge how a brand-new guitar will sound when it opens up!
So, how long will opening up take? Sorry but there is no absolute answer to that. In my extensive experience with new Martins I can say that it may be anywhere from a couple months to a year, taking into account the variables above.
But, sad to say, I may have given up on some guitars too soon. I can’t help but wonder if a few of those Martins I sold because I didn’t care for the sound now are the Voices of the Angels!
Peace and good music,