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Published in PM February 2008
Reviews : Guitar: Acoustic
Founded in 1833, CF Martin & Co. of Nazareth, Pennsylvania USA, are the longest-established and best-known family-owned acoustic guitar manufacturing company in the world. Does their reintroduced M-38 model live up to the heritage?
Martin's current fame and popularity is founded primarily on the extraordinary success, over the last 70 years or so, of two of their ranges of basic guitar body shapes — the OM/000 from 1929, and the D from 1934. If you look around the mammoth range of flat-top, steel-string acoustic guitars that is available today from hundreds of manufacturers, large and small, you will be more than lucky if you can find a single one that (even if it isn't either an exact or semi-exact clone) doesn't derive core elements of its shape, strutting and construction from one or other of these two Martin models. This simple reality reflects the fact that Martin wrote the book on steel-string acoustic guitar construction, in much the same way as Leo Fender and the Les Paul/Gibson collaboration did for solid-body electric guitars.
However, unlike the individual tour de forces that gave us the Telecaster and the Les Paul, neither the 000 nor the D body shapes, along with their 14-fret necks, were actually conceived by Martin, but were originally developed in response to custom orders from their customers. Incidentally, if you are interested in exploring this fascinating aspect of acoustic guitar history, you'll find plenty of information on the web, both on the story of the development of these body shapes and on the history of the CF Martin company.
In something of a contrast, the story of the Martin M-style begins with one of Martin's few failures. In the 1930s, Martin decided to get into the archtop guitar market, dominated at that time by Gibson and Epiphone. Sadly for Martin, their guitars, introduced in the roundhole C and R models (1931) and the F-hole F model (1935), were never really competitive, as they lacked the size and power of their competitors. And by 1941, all had been discontinued.
Although not a commercial success in their day, both the C and F models came back to influence the guitar world. A C-3 owned by renowned English luthier Stefan Sobell inspired his approach to instrument building, and it lies at the root of Sobell's singular design philosophy. The highly successful conversion in 1964 of a damaged F-9 by New York repairer Mario Martello into a flat-top guitar for Marc Silber of Fretted Instruments in Greenwich Village led, in 1967, to a similar conversion by repairman Matt Umanov for New York guitarist David Bromberg.
David Bromberg was (and still is) an extraordinarily talented musician with an incredibly wide stylistic range. Growing up in New York, he dropped out of studying musicology to take up music full-time, and before long he was playing and/or recording with the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, Al Kooper, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, John Hartford, Gordon Lightfoot, George Harrison and a multitude of other top artists. Bromberg launched his solo career with an amazing appearance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, and over the next 10 years, toured constantly, releasing eight albums. His live shows were legendary for their excitement and spontaneity, and his band of multi-instrumentalists covered styles as diverse as folk, jazz, country, bluegrass, blues, R&B, stax and motown — sometimes seemingly within one tune. In 1980, Bromberg retired from touring to concentrate on raising a family, building up his violin business and on the way becoming one of America's leading authorities on violins.
During his touring days, Bromberg's converted F model Martin became his trademark guitar. Inspired by his success, in 1977 Martin dug out the old F model templates and, with Bromberg acting as a consultant, introduced the M-36 and M-38 models. Although the guitars had some success, with stars like Arlo Guthrie and Tom Paxton becoming converts, they were discontinued in 1997, but, renamed as 0000s, seemingly continued to be made as custom guitars for an independent US retailer. In the meantime, the body outline lived on in the deeper-bodied Martin J series guitars.
In 2007, Martin took advantage of Bromberg's return to performing to create a limited edition signature model. All 83 of the M-42 David Bromberg model guitars are essentially copies of his original converted F-9, and Martin have now reintroduced the M-36 and the M-38 to the regular production Standard series — which brings us, some 40 years on from the original Matt Umanov conversion, to the Martin M-38 being reviewed here.
Looking at it
The Martin M-38 sits at the top of Martin's Standard range of Grand Auditorium or 0000 guitars. The 0000 designation comes from the fact that the width of its lower bout is 16 inches, as opposed to the 000's 15 inches. Unlike the J models that combine the M series outline with the body depth of a D series dreadnought, the M-38's body has the shallower depth of a 000. This means that, compared to a dreadnought or a J model, the M-38 has a quicker decay and a more even tonal balance. In the studio, this results in the M-38 being very easy to mic up, and on stage, it is less prone to feedback, especially at the lower frequencies.
The woods used on this M-38 are of very high quality. The top, although not the select Italian spruce of the David Bromberg signature M-42, is made from solid quarter-sawn sitka spruce that shows extensive 'silking' across the narrow grain, confirming both its quality and that it has been cut right on the quarter. This superb top has been finished in vintage toner for that aged appearance. Personally, I'm no great fan of vintage toner on new guitars, as I rather like watching a guitar top develop its colour over the years, but I understand the instant gratification that comes from using toner, and on this M-38, the vintage toning is very well done indeed. The top bracing, again in sitka spruce, follows the scalloped, forward-shifted pattern of Martin's golden era, and contributes greatly to the responsiveness of the M-38.
The back and sides are of solid, very high-quality East Indian rosewood, and are among some of the best sets that I have seen. The neck is made from one piece of what Martin describe as 'Select Hardwood', and which looks very like some kind of mahogany to my eyes. Again, this is a good piece of wood and is beautifully straight-grained. The M-38's neck has a modern, low-profile shape and has Martin's distinctive, diamond-shape volute carved on the underside of the neck to headstock transition. The headstock has the old-style, square-cornered, tapered shape and is faced with East Indian rosewood surmounted by the 'CF Martin & Co. Est. 1833' gold foil logo. The machine heads are chrome Gotohs with large, Schaller-style knobs.
The nut and bridge saddle are made of bone, which, in my view, brings no small benefit to the tone of the guitar. Intriguingly, while the fingerboard is solid black ebony, the bridge is made from East Indian rosewood. Although this combination is normal in the classical guitar world, on a Martin you'd usually expect to find them both made of the same wood, and perhaps this harks back more to the original archtop F-9's fingerboard/bridge combination, rather than being of any great tonal benefit.
The pickguard is made of a tortoiseshell-coloured plastic and is in the standard Martin shape. The soundhole rosette is in the 45-style of abalone surrounded by four concentric white and black rings. The top is bound in an eight-ply black and white combination, with the innermost layer black and the outermost layer white. The sides, back, headstock and neck are bound in a three-layer, white/black/white combination. The same white material (a synthetic called Boltaron) is also used around the sides of the neck joint and as the end block insert.
This expanse of white binding looks a bit incongruous sitting next to the vintage toner finish on the top. Personally, I'd have liked to have seen the somewhat yellowier colour of grained ivoroid binding with that particular top finish, but perhaps I'm in a minority, as a couple of folk who saw the M-38 while I had it here for review were most complimentary about its appearance.
Finally, the whole thing comes in a TKL-manufactured, Geib-style, plush-lined hardcase that also features one of the most comfortable carrying handles you'll ever come across.
Straight out of the box, this Martin M-38 was set up very well indeed for both fingerstyle and flatpick playing. Fitted with light gauge strings, the action is set at what I'd describe as just on the high edge of low, with plenty of height left on the saddle so that a simple setup could bring it down considerably. Personally, although the M-38 is eminently playable as it is, I'd have the action dropped just a little to fit with my personal preferences, and I've no doubt that the action would happily go even lower than that.
With the Martin standard nut width of 1-11/16 inches and the normal Martin scale length of 25.4 inches, the M-38 feels instantly familiar under your fingers, and the fast, satin-finished, low-profile neck just adds even more to the comfort factor. This playing comfort is further enhanced by the shallow body depth that effectively disguises the 16-inch width of the lower bout, which makes you think that you're holding a much smaller guitar. An unexpected benefit of the narrow body depth was that, due to the shallow heel, it was pretty easy to play an F chord shape at the 12th fret without having to do the usual heel-avoiding stretches with my thumb.
This Martin M-38 is an extremely easy guitar to play, whether with fingers, flatpick or a combination of the two. David Bromberg, as well as being a consummate fingerstylist, is also a ferociously talented flatpicker, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the M-38 coped with the transition between the two styles. Quite often, you'll find that a guitar that works really well with a flatpick is less successful when played with fingers, and vice versa. The M-38 seems to be equally happy with both approaches, and by the time that I put it down, I could really see why Bromberg has stuck to this style of guitar for the last 40 or so years.
Sound-wise, this Martin M-38 is quite a special guitar. Rosewood-bodied Martins (of which I've had a few) usually fall into two distinct camps. The big, dreadnought-bodied D series are generally characterised, to my ear, by a big, warm, bottom-heavy sound with a relatively clear middle and treble that works really well for flatpicked backup, but that can tend to be a bit muddy for lead work or fingerpicking unless you are one of these players that really digs into the guitar to produce your sound. If you're one of those players, then you'll have no trouble balancing up the sound of almost any D-28. Having said that, I've played a couple of great 1950s D-28s and a truly exceptional early '60s D-21, all of which were so well-balanced that even I, with my relatively light touch, could produce a very even, balanced sound from them, especially in the recording studio.
The other Martin camp is exemplified by the 000 series, where, in general, I find that the bottom end is much drier, and as a result, the middle and treble sound relatively clearer and sweeter so that they make tremendous fingerstyle guitars. However, when it comes to flatpicking a 000, the guitar works well for single-string lines, but on chords, can tend to sound a bit jangly in comparison to the dreadnought, especially when driven hard.
The Martin M-38 seems to be able to combine and deliver the best of both worlds. As I mentioned earlier, the combination of a dreadnought-sized top with the shallow body depth of a 000 and the forward-shifted, scalloped bracing results in a very responsive guitar with an exceptionally well-balanced sound across all the strings and in all positions on the fingerboard. I've not played many guitars that had the responsiveness of this M-38, and I've played even fewer that had its exceptionally even string-to-string balance. Its bass is warm without being overpowering or muddy, and combined with its clarity in the mid and treble ranges, this makes the M-38 a great all-round guitar, equally good for playing backup chords, lead lines or fingerstyle.
You can really hear the M-38's responsiveness in the way that any note, once struck, seems to swell slightly in volume before starting to die away. Furthermore, a single struck note is accompanied by a number of resonances from sympathetic vibrations in other strings, all of which gives this Martin M-38 a glorious voice. If you get out of standard tunings into something like DADGAD or open G, the M-38 really shines, and the build up of ringing open strings and fretted notes is really inspiring to sing over.
As it didn't have a pickup fitted, I couldn't give this M-38 an on-stage workout, so instead I took it into my home studio and recorded several pieces, both flatpicked and fingerpicked. I tried various microphones in various positions and found it pretty difficult to get a sound that I didn't like from any of them. My favourite mic setup was an AKG 414 facing into the neck/body join at about two feet away from the guitar. This gave me a superbly balanced sound with a nice amount of presence that was just ideal for solo pieces. Close-miking with an AKG C451/CK1 combination aiming over the fingerboard just in front of the soundhole gave a drier sound that was ideal for rhythm tracks and backup. These results confirmed my already high opinion of this guitar, and I'd have no hesitation in recommending one to any studio guitarist. Given its tonal balance and even response, I'd think that, if it were fitted with a good pickup system, the Martin M-38 would make a great stage guitar — and the fact that David Bromberg used this model on stage for so long would seem to bear that out.
Ultimately, I judge the quality of a guitar not only by its sound, but also by whether or not it inspires me to play things that I've never played before. I found this Martin M-38 to be one of those inspirational guitars where its resonances and the harmonic content of its sound led me into exploring chordal areas that I'd either never explored before, or that I'd managed very successfully to forget.
Undoubtedly, this particular Martin M-38 is a very, very good guitar indeed. It is extremely well built, is made of very high-quality woods and compares very favourably to other guitars at its price point, both from other brands and from Martin themselves. Martin guitars nowadays are of an extremely consistent high quality, and I am certain that any Martin M-38 that you come across in your favourite guitar store is going to be a very good guitar.
Mind you, it isn't a cheap guitar, and at its suggested retail price of £2599, the Martin M-38 is a serious investment and is up against some stiff competition, not only from manufacturers both large and small, but also from individual boutique luthiers — and, of course, from other Martin models. However, if you are thinking of buying a steel-string acoustic guitar at anything approaching this price point, the Martin M-38 is a guitar that you really need to check out, preferably at a specialist store where you can make meaningful comparisons between it and other guitars of a broadly similar quality and price. Luckily for my finances, I'm currently extremely happy with my main acoustic guitar, otherwise I might well be keeping this Martin! 0
Published in PM February 2008
Martin M-38 £2599
The Martin M-38 is a great-sounding, high-quality guitar with a very even response and tonally well-balanced voice. It works very well for flatpicked lead lines and chords, and is also a great fingerstyle guitar, especially in open tunings. Although not inexpensive, it offers superb value for money and should be auditioned by any player in the market for a seriously good acoustic guitar.
Body size: M (0000) 14-fret.
Solid sitka spruce top.
45-style abalone rosette.
Standard 'X' scalloped, forward-shifted bracing pattern.
Solid East Indian rosewood back and sides.
'Select Hardwood' one-piece neck.
Solid black ebony fingerboard.
Solid East Indian rosewood bridge.
25.4-inch scale length.
Nut width: 1-11/16-inch.
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