NAZARETH, Pa. – German immigrant Christian Friedrich Martin began shaping wood into guitars in Nazareth in 1838. He had come from Saxony to New York City a few years earlier but migrated with his young family to this central Pennsylvania community of Moravians in the Lehigh Valley. He said the rolling green hills reminded him of home.
The original Martin workshop still stands in the small town whose population of 5,000 is about what it was a century ago. The company’s large current facility went up in the 1950s and is situated in the northern edge of town. Martin employs 500 workers, most of them woodworkers and craftsmen.
Remarkably, the company is still in the hands of the Martin family. C.F. (Chris) Martin IV, now 64, is the sixth-generation grandson of Christian Friedrich.
Song writer/musician David Crosby is a huge fan of Martin acoustic guitars, calling them “the best factory-made guitars in the world and the global standard.” “Martin,” said Crosby in a 2017 video, “is a national treasure that Americans should be very proud of.”
There are other American guitar makers – Gibson, Guild, Taylor – but among artists Martins stand out for full, sustained sound and piano-like definition. Martins are at the high end of the market, with the mid-range D-15 selling for $1,700 and the famous D-28 “dreadnought” for $3,300. A custom John Lennon D-28 sells for $4,400. Lower-priced Martins are produced at the company’s Navojoa, Mexico, plant.
Martins cut across genres. Jimmy Buffett plays a Martin, as did bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and Gene Autry. Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Roger Waters have played Martins. Joan Baez in the late ‘60s performed with a classic 1880 Martin.
Visitors are welcome at Martin. A very complete 65-minute factory tour is free of charge and offered weekdays every 30 minutes during working hours.
During my October visit, talent specialist Joel Zingone was a compelling host. We started in the museum, adjacent to the lobby and store. Here we inspected a carpentry tool kit like the one used by the first C.F. Martin and saw a remarkable collection of guitars. There’s a photo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney strumming Martins 50 years ago during their pilgrimage to India. Joel tells me that Paul wrote, among others, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” on a Martin.
There are several customized dreadnoughts, the trademark large D-sized guitars, on display. Developed in the 1920s and named after British “big gun” battleships that revolutionized naval warfare, dreadnoughts made Martin famous and remain an acoustic guitar standard.
Walking the factory floor is the tour highlight. Visitors watch guitars coming to life. This modern-day workshop is a blend of old and new – the latest high-tech laser cutters and robot sanders alongside craftsmen and women working with tools little changed from two centuries ago. This is where thin sheets of spruce are cut, chiseled, sanded and lovingly finished into instruments of beauty and precision.
The sound boards – the tops – of Martin guitars are mainly Sitka spruce. Why spruce? Because when aged it develops rich, enduring resonance.
High-end Martins have rosewood sides, and therein lies a tale. Last year an international convention took effect severely limiting trade in rosewoods, produced mainly in Brazil and East Asia. To protect the trees, the convention curtails logging in tropical rain forests. Over 100 Martin models have sides made of small amounts of rosewood.
Guitar makers complain that the threat to tropical forests comes not from them but from a ravenous Chinese appetite for using rosewood to make furniture. China is by far the biggest consumer and its imports of rosewood soared 5,000 percent in the past decade.
U.S. guitar makers have been hurt by the trade restrictions. Permits are required for importing rosewood and confusion over the regulations has generated long delays in getting product. U.S. acoustic guitar exports are down 28 percent. C.E.O. Martin, an avid environmentalist, is frustrated by the restrictions. He says guitar builders and players recognize the depth and richness of sound in rosewood and no alternative has yet been found.
Visitors to C.F. Martin should set aside a half day for Nazareth, which is also the childhood home of auto racing car legend Mario Andretti. Nearby Easton and Bethlehem offer many choices of accommodation.