C.F. Martin Guitar Company Still Making Music and Money at 175 Years Old

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Pat Bodnar. And I'm Bob Doughty. This week we visit one of the oldest, successful family-owned companies in the United States.  The C. F. Martin and Company guitar maker in Nazareth, Pennsylvania is one hundred seventy-five years old this year.


That is musician David Bromberg playing on his signature Martin guitar. A signature guitar is made to order.  The Martin company works directly with a musician to create a special guitar based on what he or she needs.  When the instrument is finished it is named after the artist.

All Martin guitars are acoustic, or non-electric.  They are the instruments of choice for many of today's leading guitarists and songwriters.  Former Beatles member Paul McCartney is one such fan.  He composed this song, "Blackbird," on a Martin guitar.


The story of C. F. Martin and Company began in Markneukirchen, Germany on New Year's Eve, in seventeen ninety-six.  That is when company founder, Christian Frederick Martin, Senior, was born.  He came from a family of furniture makers.  But Christian left home as a teenager to study under a man who made guitars.

When he completed his studies he returned to his hometown.  He tried to open a guitar-making shop but met resistance from a local union.  Mr. Martin moved to the United States with his wife and child in eighteen thirty-three.  He opened his  guitar shop on the lower West Side of Manhattan in New York City.


Company official Dick Boak says the Martin family was not happy in New York.  So they moved the business to Nazareth, Pennsylvania.  Mr. Boak says the Martin family found Nazareth to be like their hometown in Germany. And he says the move was good for C. F. Martin, Senior in another way.

DICK BOAK: "In Nazareth, he really found his style of guitar making, and the guitars that C.F. Martin, Senior, built really came to define the instrument."

One early element of his style was to put all the tuning keys on one side of the guitar neck.  C. F. Martin, Senior also made guitars with necks that could be moved up and down.  Both of these elements came and went.  But his most famous improvement to his guitars continues to be used to this day.  Martin guitars are built with an "X bracing" system across the top of the instrument. This is what guitar lovers say give Martin guitars an exceptional sound.  You can hear it in this Steve Earle song, "Sparkle and Shine."


Over the years, the Martin family company made hundreds of thousands of the instruments.  In two thousand five, C. F. Martin announced the completion of its one-millionth guitar.  It is made from four beautiful woods with inlays of seashells, white and yellow gold, and jewels including diamonds, rubies and sapphires.  There are images of babies with wings, a golden eagle and company founder, C. F. Martin, Senior.

But as pretty as a Martin guitar may be, it is how it sounds that really matters.  The guitar is basically a tool for a musician, Dick Boak says.

DICK BOAK: "And in their purest sense that is all they are…we start with the Martin sound and build a box around it."

Making that "box" is a complex process. There are about three hundred steps in the production process from start to finish.  The final step?  Inspection. Dick Boak explains.

DICK BOAK: "What they are doing is checking every note.  They have to be able to do that quickly and they have to be able to identify whether a particular note is not playing correctly. It has to be perfect when it goes out."

The work takes place in the Martin factory.  It is a big change from the little workshop of eighteen thirty-three.  The modern factory was built in nineteen sixty-four.  It covers more than eighteen thousand square meters.  About five hundred people work there.  They manufacture about two hundred guitars every day. Prices start at about three hundred dollars.  But custom-made guitars can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

British rocker Sting asked C.F. Martin and Company to design a custom guitar for him to play on his album "Sacred Love."  Dick Boak says Sting wanted a little guitar strung in a special way to provide a "shimmering" sound effect.  Here is "Dead Man's Rope" from that album."


The C. F. Martin and Company factory is open to the public Monday through Friday, except for some holidays.  Company employees guide visitors through the building.  Many tours are free.  There is also a guitar museum inside the factory building and a gift shop.

The old factory is also open to the public. But, now it is a store called The Guitarmakers Connection.  It sells tools and new and used parts for making or repairing guitars. Across the street is the old home of C.F. Martin, Senior and family. It holds a visitors center.   

Christian F. Martin, the fourth, is the current leader of C. F. Martin and Company.  He was named chairman of the board and chief executive officer after the death of his grandfather in nineteen eighty-six.  Chris Martin was thirty years old at the time.  There has been a lot of growth in the company during his time as its leader. But Mr. Martin also has had a lot to worry about.  The use of costly, and perhaps, endangered woods is chief among his concerns.

In the past, the company has used beautiful Brazilian rosewood and ebony, or old growth woods.  But, as Mr. Martin told the New York Times last year, "If I use up all the good wood, I'm out of business."  He said he wanted his daughter to have the materials she would need to carry on the business when she grew up.

So the company says it respects the directives of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  It says it uses traditional materials responsibly. And it seeks other wood materials, like those from trees that can be replaced more quickly.


This program was written and produced by Caty Weaver.  I'm Pat Bodnar. And I'm Bob Doughty.  Transcripts and MP3s of our programs are at voaspecialenglish.com.  Join us next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  We leave you now with David Bromberg and his Martin guitar performing "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Lot to Cry."