Martin Guitar History

Martin Dreadnought Guitar History

What is a Dreadnought

Why is this site called Dreadnought Guitars and what is a Dreadnought?  The Dreadnought Guitar is perhaps the most famous american guitar design and synonymous with Martin.  A Dreadnought guitar is a large bodied guitar with louder bolder tone than most other guitars. Martin introduced the Iconic guitar in the 1930’s during the middle of the depression and was probably saved by the success of their Dreadnought guitar.  To understand the history of the Dreadnought it’s important to understand the history of Martin itself.


Martin History and Facts – Pre Dreadnought


C.F. Martin and Company guitars was founded in 1833 by Christian Fredrick (C. F.) Martin.  He was the son of a German cabinet maker and guitar builder. After studying as a guitar maker he apprenticed for the highly respected Stauffer company. He immigrated to New York in 1833 and quickly opened a retail musical instrument store which imported and sold various musical instruments including trumpets, trombones, flutes and violins. He also offered build to order guitars. Early Martin guitars feature a tall curved headstock with all tuners on a single side, a style he was familiar with at Stauffer.


In late 1839 Martin purchased land near Cherry Hill Pennsylvania and soon moved his family and workshop to rural Pennsylvania to focus on guitar manufacturing.  Early guitars we known as “Parlor guitars” because of their small size.  Martin’s guitar designs saw a gradual evolution in the decades to follow. He soon replaced the tall Stauffer style headstock with a simpler more rectangular design. The bridge was also simplified and the upper bouts were narrower making the shape very similar to modern Martin guitars however these early guitars were quite small by modern standards with the modern “dreadnought” guitar dwarfing popular models of the time.


By the mid 1850’s Martin had earned a reputation for superior quality and tone. In 1859 Martin moved his factory to Nazareth PA.  In 1867 C. F. Martin senior formed a partnership with C.F. Junior and a relative, C. F Hartmann which caused Martin to change changing guitar labels from “C.F. Martin to today’s “C.F. Martin and Co”.  Martin guitar design continued to evolve with designs featuring a narrow waist and smaller upper bout becoming more common.  C. F. Martin Sr. passed away in 1873 leaving Martin’s future in the hands of C.F. Junior. In 1885 C.F.  By the late 1880’s C.F. Junior added steam powered machinery to the factory which provided improved production efficiency and capacity.  In November 1888 C.F Junior passed away at the age of 63.


FH Martin and Growth: C.F.’s  young son, 22 year old Frank Henry (F.H.) Martin was now in charge.  Things were not going well when F.H took control.  He was an inexperienced owner facing stiff competition, stagnant sales and changing customer preferences.  A prolonged depression starting in 1893 causing Martin to rethink distribution strategy. One bright spot in Martin sales strategy was the result of rapid expansion in the Western United States.  Martin had been using one primary distributor who preferred to sell in the East at the expense of sales in the rapidly expanding west.  Martin changed distribution by moving to  direct sales to musical instrument dealers which resulted in tremendous western sales growth the previous distributor had ignored.  Martin also changed the brand name from “C.F. Martin & Co. New York” to “C.F. Martin & Co. Nazareth Pa.” It’s not clear why the waited so long to change the name as they have been producing guitars in Nazareth for quite some time.  


The late 1800’s saw an American fascination with the Mandolin. In an attempt to capitalize on the fad Martin introduced their first Mandolin in 1895.

Martin also simplified the product line, eliminated coffin cases, added serial numbers to guitars (1898) and streamlined the business.


Introduction of the 000 Body: In 1902 the “000” body style was introduced. This was Martin’s largest bodied production guitar.  In 1906 Martin returned to a distributor model using Buegelesin and Jacobson of New York as his North American distributor.  Martin continued to look for ways to lower costs and introduce simpler models in a effort to compete with Gibson and other new guitar companies.  


New Markets and introduction of the “OM” Orchestra model:  In 1915 a Hawaiian music craze swept the nation and ukuleles were becoming wildly popular. . Martin was well positioned to leverage this trend and enjoyed significant growth.  In addition to entering the Ukulele market Martin also decided to make private label guitars for some of their larger dealers. This will become an important step in the evolution of the Martin Dreadnought.

Buy 1928 the ukulele fad had subsided and martin realized growth would come from the increasingly popular steel string guitars. In late 1929 Martin introduced the 000-28 Orchestra model or simply the “OM”. A variation of a private label 14 fret steel string guitar (all previous six string Martin guitars had necks with 12 frets clear of the body), the “OM” Orchestra guitar which was an instant success and the model name was shortened to “OM-28”. A less expensive Mahogany model, the OM-18 was introduced in 1930 and quickly began to outsell the more expensive rosewood OM-28.  


Finally Enter the Dreadnought D Series Guitars:  The Great Depression put considerable pressure on Martin as well as many other businesses. As the depression spread, Martin sales began to fall. Martin had been making private label guitars for the Ditson company however In 1931 the Ditson company was sold. The design for a large Martin built Ditson guitar was re-introduced by Martin and nicknamed the “Dreadnought “ which was also the nickname for a new class of large modern heavily armed battle ships of the time.  Sales were slow at first however guitarists of the time were looking for a deep bold bass tone and the Martin Dreadnought was just what they wanted.  Popularity grew and sales were increasing. Despite the growing success of the Dreadnought the worsening depression continued to take it’s toll on Martin.  By 1933 Martin only had half the workforce of a few years earlier and at one point they reduced the work week to 3 days.  As luck would have it in 1933, Gene Autry, a popular western cowboy singer ordered two of the largest fanciest Martin guitars available, the result was the first two D-45 guitars and increased awareness of the large Dreadnaught bodied guitars.   Country performers were flocking to the dreadnought.  Dreadnought sales took off in 1935 and never looked back.  By the beginning or WWII Martin had survived the Great Depression and emerged as the United States premier manufacturer of acoustic guitars. Today the Dreadnought makes up the majority of martin’s annual production and continues to set the standard in large bodied acoustic guitars.


We’re proud to offer Martin guitars and appreciate the history and innovation behind this iconic American brand.  

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