There’s something about a Pre-War Martin. Legend has it, they come with songs buried deep waiting for their next owner to uncover. This D-28 is 81 years old so there’s no doubt this has some stories to tell. Connoisseur goes digging for the Holy Grail...
Reviewed: 1940 Martin D-28
Every time a pre-war Martin comes through our doors there is bustle of sorts that ripples through the showroom as the members of the staff perk up and slowly form into a small congregation while the questions trickle in: ‘Is that a herringbone?’, ‘What’s the year?’ While everyone in the huddle has had the chance to play the majority, if not all of Martin’s vintage models from various years, the novelty never wears off because every vintage instrument has a different story to tell.
That is not to say that quality control is in question. On the contrary, Martin’s German engineering and precision produced incredible consistency that has stood the test of time. The reason each one is unique lies in the varying paths their journeys took them on. The way they were stored, maintenance and repairs, and even the notes that were played contribute to the timbre of their voice.
While every model Martin produced has distinctive, valuable characteristics that suit a multitude of different players and styles, it is the D-28 that is the most celebrated. The cocktail of a large body, a long scale length, scalloped bracing, and Adirondack spruce over Brazilian rosewood create a wide tonal palette that serves as a template for the majority of modern builders to either start from or aspire to.
Pre-war magic from the D-28
To understand the importance of a 1940 14-fret D-28, it is first necessary to understand its purpose. Before the early 20th century, guitar was largely considered a parlor instrument meant for small, personal gatherings, and not generally suitable for large performances.
As music styles evolved and guitar became a more integral part of the ensemble, the demand for a louder instrument with better access to the fingerboard become necessary. Similar to the way Ramirez adapted the classical guitar for Segovia, or Stradivarius standardized modern violin dimensions, the dreadnought was meant to give more power and control to the player.
To this day, it remains the golden standard in terms of raw power. While pushing air may not be the most important part of a guitar’s performance for many of us, there is something to be said for an instrument that will give back no matter how hard you push it.
When a tool is built to handle the most aggressive situations, it creates a feeling of limitless possibility. There are many modern dreadnoughts that do this as well, so what makes the old ones so desirable?
The Holy Grail of dreadnoughts
In the violin world, a 100-year-old instrument is considered relatively new. There is a rich history of building philosophies that have been passed down for generations with little to no change in the structure or design.
M any of these instruments have existed over multiple lifetimes, and there are many players who believe that it takes decades for one to realize its full potential. The guitar world has no such luxury. The steel string alone is little more than a century old, and received numerous, important changes early on. The argument is often made that the design was not perfected until the 1930s, and their price tags seem to support it. While many consider guitars from that period to be expensive, and no doubt they are, a violin from its respective heyday can go for up to ten times more.
The reason is that even with all the modern innovations we have at our disposal, there is no replicating the sound of age. Many attempts have been made to emulate a seasoned instrument, whether it be using old wood, or baking the moisture out of new wood, but side by side, there is no sound that compares to a guitar that has gotten used to being a guitar.
Moreover, there are very few makers from that day and age who built guitars well enough to last. Today, we live in a world where exceptionally fine guitars are made regularly and, while these may be every bit as well-made as a vintage Martin (in some cases even more so), none of us will be alive by the time it is fair to properly compare them.
That sought-after sound
So, what is that sound, and how does it happen? A lot of great information has been written about the process by people with much more authority than I, so I won’t attempt a scientific explanation here.
Instead, I will walk through a brief explanation of what typically happens to guitars as they open up and mature. After an instrument is completed and strung up for the first time, it is in its infancy. It is a box of natural resources contorted into an unnatural state, and thus every part will be fighting to get back to its previous state.
This means that even the most well-constructed instruments can sound tight and muted as each piece of wood vibrates at a different pace. Playing the instrument is crucial to its maturing process because it gives the instrument a guideline to how it is supposed to move. Anyone who has owned a properly made instrument over a long period of time will attest how it has changed over time, and even how some have closed up after sitting in their case for too long. It stands to reason that the longer an instrument is played, the better it is going to be at vibrating as a single unit rather than multiple segments.
This information is important to think about when taking a look at a vintage instrument because it can have a huge effect on the sound, and in the case of this 1940 D-28, it truly has. This guitar has a history and has been played extensively over the years.
Like many road warriors, it has had some parts changed and some touch-ups that keep it from being a museum piece, but the best sounding guitars are not meant to be behind glass. They are meant to be in the hands of a player who will continue to show it the right way to vibrate.