Martin Guitar: An American Treasure

By Jeff Falk

Given the influence that the guitar has had on music and pop culture, and given the company’s unrelenting pursuit of perfection in the production of the iconic instrument, Martin Guitar’s place in the history of our society is safe.

The Nazareth-born company has ascended to those lofty heights by honoring such timeless standards  as attention-to-detail, hands-on caring, and some little things we like to call pride and love.

Located at 510 Sycamore Street in Nazareth, C.F. Martin and Company is a sixth-generation, family- owned business which has been producing guitars for 186 years. Martin Guitar employs nearly 500 locals.

C.F. Martin and Company didn’t invent the guitar, but it spends every moment of every work day seeking ways to make it better.

“The guitar is portable,” said Jason Ahner, Martin Guitar’s archivist. “It’s played a large role in the evolution of popular music as we know it. The significance of guitars in our culture is immeasurable. It’s a way to help people voice who and what they believe in. With a guitar, anyone can go anywhere and express their opinion.”

“One of the biggest things is that a guitar is a lot lighter and a lot cheaper than a piano,” said Chris Mohler, a tour guide at Martin Guitar. “If there’s one instrument that could come close to a piano’s influence it would be the guitar.”

The origin of the guitar, a six-stringed musical instrument played with both hands through plucking and strumming motions, dates back to 12th century Europe. Martin Guitar was founded in 1833 by German immigrant Christian Frederick Martin, Sr. and today it competes quite successfully with the likes of famous guitar-makers Taylor, Gibson and Fender. Over the years, Martin Guitars has influenced a wide range of musical tastes – everything from rock to country, classical, blues and folk – and have been played by such musical icons as Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, Merle Haagard, Ed Sheeran, Dicks Bentley, John Mayer, Hunter Hayes, Thomas Rhett and Sturgill Simpson, just to name a few. But the guitar’s greatest contribution to our society may be that they’re relatively easy to play and that their sounds appeal to almost everyone.

“There’s got to be millions of people who play guitars,” said Ahner. “You can go to other countries in the world and if you say ‘Martin Guitars’ they know the name. They know the brand. They know the history.

“You’d be surprised by how many people play guitar,” said Mohler. “I think about 40 percent of our guitars are exported. The two largest markets are the UK and Japan.”

What’s striking about the manufacturing of Martin Guitars is that, over the years, innovations have been implemented to make the production of the instrument more efficient, but each guitar is still assembled by hand.

C.F. Martin and Company estimates that it has produced nearly 2.2 million guitars during its history, but  about 1.5 million of those have been made over the past 20 years. Currently, with the help of its sister plant in Navojoa, Mexico, C.F. Martin and Company produces about 130,000 guitars each year.

“Improving on C.F. Martin’s design is a difficult thing,” said Ahner. “He was building the perfect American guitar for his time. But the perfect guitar in 1843 wasn’t the perfect guitar in 1943, and it isn’t the perfect guitar today. We feel we had to update to give modern guitar players what they want. What we’re building today – we have our set styles – the quality is just as good, if not better, than we have in the history of the company.”

Depending upon the quality of the piece and the intended sound of the instrument, most guitars are made out of different kinds of wood – Mahagony, Spruce, Spanish Cedar, East Indy Rosewood and Brazilian Rosewood. The process of constructing a Martin Guitar is painstakingly tedious and includes drying the wood, a lazer operation, binding, bracing, polishing and finishing.

One of the final steps in the process involves employees putting strings on the guitar, testing it and playing it.

“But most of our employees can’t really play guitars,” said Mohler. “We don’t hire musicians. We hire craftsmen.”

“We’re just doing what we’ve been doing,” said Ahner. “We’re trying to build the perfect guitar.”

Price-wise, Martin Guitars can go for as little as $700 and as much as $150,000. It’s ‘bread and butter’ model retails for about $3,000.

“We have something for everyone in between,” said Ahner. “We still hand finish everything, that’s key. You can’t build a good guitar for the same price as a cheap guitar. You’ve got to pay attention to every detail. That’s what we do, and make sure everything’s right.”

“What makes it unique is the hand work,” said Mohler. “They’re not mass produced. Each one is considered an individual piece. We don’t sell seconds here.”

Over the years, C.F. Martin and Company has expanded its factory on eight different occasions, the most recent was in 2005 when the visitors’ center was added.  The informative and entertaining tour, which is offered Monday through Friday, excluding major holidays, is a must-see for music fans,  guitar aficionados and visitors to the Lehigh Valley.

“Martin wanted to showcase what we do here,” said Ahner. “The tours got started in the 1990s and then went to the format of what we do today. But even before that, if there were visitors to the factory, they would give the tour. The passion our employees have for what they do and what goes into the building of a Martin Guitar is really on display.”

“It went from one person to what it is today,” concluded Mohler. “The owner of a guitar decides the genre of music, and tastes have changed. But guitars are still going strong.”

The future awaits.

Visitors to C.F Martin should set aside a half day for Nazareth, which is also the childhood home of auto racing car legend Mario Andretti. Nearby Easton and Bethlehem offer many choices of accommodation.

For additional information go to www.martinguitar.com