The History of C.F. Martin Co.

(Extracted from the C.F. Martin official site)

This website is not affiliated with the C.F. Martin guitar company.

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The Martin guitar company was founded in 1833 in New York City by Christian Frederick Martin Sr. and has been under the continuous leadership of six family generations.  Born in 1796 in Markneukirchen, Germany, Christian Frederick took up the families cabinet making craft until the age of 15, when he left his hometown and traveled to Vienna to apprentice with Johann Stauffer, a renowned guitar maker.  After marrying and bearing a son, he returned to his homeland to set up his own shop. However Martin found himself in dispute with the Violin Makers Guild who protested that a cabinet maker should not be allowed to craft musical instruments.  Concluding that the guild system severely limited opportunities in Germany, he made the decision to emigrate to the United States, and on September 9, 1833, he left his homeland for New York City.

On arriving in New York, he set up shop at 196 Hudson Street on the Lower West Side. Martin’s first establishment on these shores was a far cry from the company’s current 84,000-square-foot factory staffed by nearly 500 employees. His modest storefront housed a limited guitar production set-up in the back room, as well as a retail store selling everything from cornets to sheet music.  To augment the sales of his retail store, C. F. Martin entered into distribution agreements with a variety of teachers, importers, and wholesalers, including C. Bruno & Company (operating today as a subsidiary of Kaman Music Corporation), Henry Schatz, and John Coupa. Consequently, a number of Martin guitars manufactured prior to 1840 are labeled "Martin & Schatz" and "Martin & Coupa."

C.F. Martin and his young family longed for the pastoral rolling hills of their homeland and in 1936 left New York City and purchased a tract of land on the outskirts of Nazareth where he spent the remainder of his life and where the this day the Martin Guitar Company calls home.  In the subsequent years Martin hired on a dozen craftsman and expanded sales into Boston, Albany, Philadelphia, Richmond, Petersburg, Nashville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and New Orleans. In 1850 he embarked on an expansion to the factory capacity in Nazareth.  The early Martin guitars were totally hand-crafted products, with little standardization. However, there were a few features that commonly incorporated in most of C. F. Martin’s instruments. Until the mid-1840s, Martin guitars were characterized by a headstock that had all the tuning keys on one side. Martin acquired this design from his teacher in Vienna, Johann Stauffer. The headstock design with all the tuning keys on one side was discontinued by Martin and went unused until Leo Fender resurrected the design in 1948 with his Telecaster guitar.  The 1850s also witnessed one of C. F. Martin’s major design innovations, the "X" bracing system for the guitar top. Still in use today on all steel-string Martin guitars, the bracing system is largely responsible for the distinctive Martin tone, characterized by brilliant treble and powerful bass response.

C. F. Martin, Sr., died in 1873, leaving to his family and the musical world a fine tradition of guitar making. Succeeding him at the helm of the young company was his son, 48-year-old Christian Frederick, Jr.   In 1859, an expanded plant was constructed on the corner of Main and North Streets in Nazareth. Having undergone numerous expansions, the North Street plant is still used today as a warehouse and shipping location for strings and accessories.   In 1888, C. F. Martin, Jr., died unexpectedly, leaving the business in the hands of his 22-year-old son, Frank Henry.  During the 1890s, with the massive immigration of Italians into the United States, the mandolin (an instrument of Italian origin) became increasingly popular. Frank Martin enjoyed a tremendous boom in the sale of mandolins. In 1898, Frank Martin’s personal records indicated that the firm produced 113 mandolins of various styles. Production in the previous year had totaled a mere three units. Given that the company’s guitar production for the previous three years had been approximately 220 units per year, the addition of mandolins to the product line represented significant growth for the company.  

The 1920s were booming years for the Martin Company, as the ukulele captured the fancy of the American public. The first Martin ukuleles were not well received. They were made much like a guitar, with too much bracing in the body, particularly in the top, which was of spruce. The excessive bracing and the spruce top gave the instruments a dead and lackluster tone that failed to appeal to the buying public.

Recognizing the shortcomings of its initial ukulele design, Martin went to work at producing an acceptable uke. By reducing the amount of bracing and substituting mahogany for spruce, Martin quickly garnered a large share of the ukulele market. The demand for the products was such that Martin was forced to double the capacity of the North Street plant with an additional wing and increase in the work force. Guitar production in 1920 totaled 1,361 units; records of ukulele production were not kept, but Christian Frederick Martin III estimates that the company turned out nearly twice as many ukuleles as guitars during the ’20s.

During the decade of the ’20s, sales of C. F. Martin instruments increased every year, and by 1928 annual guitar production stood at 5,215 units, over four times the output of 1920. With the advent of the Great Depression in 1929, national economic hardship forced the Martin family to discard aspirations for increased sales and concentrate on plain survival. With millions out of work and thousands of businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, selling guitars proved increasingly challenging.

Striving to stimulate depressed sales, Martin launched an active product development campaign during the Depression. During this period, the company added new designs to the product line, altered existing products, and explored numerous features in hopes of finding a product that would bolster lagging sales. While many of the products conceived during this period had a short life span, two major developments emerged that had a lasting effect on the company: the creation of the now famous "Dreadnought" guitar and the invention of the 14-fret neck.  According to C. F. Martin III, the 14-fret neck was developed in late 1929. Prior to the period, guitars were generally equipped with a 12-fret neck. As the story goes, a renowned plectrum banjoist of the day, Perry Bechtel, suggested to Frank Henry Martin that he make a guitar with a 14-fret neck. Bechtel reasoned that the longer neck would increase the guitar’s range and make it a more versatile instrument. Following Bechtel’s advice, Martin introduced a guitar with the longer neck and dubbed it an "Orchestra Model."   The 14-fret neck was so well received that Martin eventually extended the feature to all models in its line. In short order, it became the standard design for the American guitar industry.

The Dreadnought guitar, named after a large class of World War I British battleships, has become something of a trademark of the Martin Company. The original Martin Dreadnought models were designed by Frank Martin and Harry Hunt, manager of Chas. H. Ditson Co., a leading music retailer with stores in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. A shrewd judge of the market, Hunt reasoned that a Dreadnought guitar, with its large body and booming bass, would be ideal for accompanying vocals. The first Dreadnoughts, introduced in 1916, were sold under the brand name of "Oliver Ditson & Co., Boston, New York." At first the instruments were not very well received simply because there were not many singers using guitars, and solo players felt that the bass on the Dreadnought was overbearing. However, as folk singing became increasingly popular, sales of the Dreadnought picked up. The Ditson Company went out of business in the late 1920s, and in 1931 Martin incorporated the Dreadnought into its line of guitars. Today, the model is a dominant factor in the Martin line, and virtually every maker of acoustic guitars, both domestic and foreign, has introduced a version of this original Martin design.

Frank Henry Martin died at the age of 81 in 1948, and C. F. Martin III assumed the presidency of the company, which continued to enjoy worldwide recognition for its guitars of uncompromising quality. Post-war prosperity, coupled with a growing interest in guitars and folk music, made the years 1948-1970 an unprecedented era of growth for C. F. Martin. Demand for Martin guitars increased at a far greater pace than did production capacity, and thus by the early ’60s the company was back-ordered as much as three years. While some might have felt that Martin’s back-order situation was enviable, C. F. Martin III recounted that it was a frustrating time. "When someone walks into a music store with several hundred dollars and asks for a Martin guitar, he wants it then, not three years later. Our lack of production capacity at the time cost us sales and strained our relationships with our dealer family."

Thus, C. F. Martin III, with the aid of his son, Frank Herbert Martin, who joined the company in 1955, made the major decision to build a new larger plant. In 1964 the North Street plant, with its multi-story construction and numerous additions, was no longer adequate to service the demand for the company’s product. "The North Street plant was not the best production facility, but running up and down four flights of stairs constantly every day probably contributed to the longevity of Martin family members," quipped C. F. Martin III.

Production methods at the new Sycamore Street Martin plant have evolved slightly from methods used at North Street. Hand craftsmanship was and remains the trademark of the Martin guitar. However, with the building’s efficient one-story layout, Martin has been able to improve the flow of materials and work in progress and thus gradually increase output without sacrificing quality.  Under the direction of Frank Herbert Martin, who succeeded his father, C. F. Martin III, as president in 1970, Martin began a period of acquisition. In 1970, the company purchased the renowned Vega Banjo Works of Boston. Months later, it acquired the Fibes Drum Company, makers of a unique fiberglass drum. The year 1970 brought still another acquisition, that of the Darco String Company, owned by John D’Addario, Sr., John D’Addario, Jr., and James D’Addario. Another addition in the early ’70s was the A. B. Herman Carlson Levin Company of Sweden. Levin made a variety of classic guitars as well as the steel string type. In subsequent years, Vega, Levin and Fibes were spun off; however, the manufacture of Martin and Darco strings remains an integral part of the company.

Christian Frederick Martin IV was born in 1955. He attended UCLA, majoring in Economics and in his free time, he helped in the guitar repair shop of Westwood Music in West Los Angeles, and this also gave him a valuable insight into the retail end of the music business.  After the death of his grandfather, C. F. Martin III, on June 15, 1986, C. F. Martin IV was appointed Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, indicating his responsibility for leading Martin into the next century.

Under Chris’ management, the Sycamore Street facility was expanded, the successful Backpacker travel guitar was introduced, and the limited edition guitar program was expanded to include signature models of significant artists like Gene Autry, Eric Clapton, and Marty Stuart as well as unique collaborations like the 1996 "MTV Unplugged" MTV-1 guitar. Perhaps the boldest new direction that Chris took was the development and introduction of the patented "1 Series" guitars, which thoroughly re-examined the way guitars are designed and constructed. Through the use of innovative processes combined with computer aided manufacturing, the "1 Series" models offer an affordable acoustic guitar without compromise of tone or craftsmanship.

(extracted from the C.F. Martin official site)