Add Martin Guitar Factory to Your Bucket List

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In the lobby of the Martin Guitar Factory. Photo by the author.

I live in Minnesota, my family in Pennsylvania. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in the ABE airport, a.k.a Allentown-Bethlehem-Emmaus, flying back to Minnesota after a visit home. Like airports everywhere, ABE has a number of displays showcasing sites to see in the area. One of the sites advertised here is the Martin Guitar Factory in nearby Nazareth. Though I always expected it to be special, I had no idea how special their factory tour and museum would be.

Every business has a story, a starting point and a history. Martin Guitars just happens to have a story that leaves none of us untouched. That is, anyone for whom music or pop culture has been a part of their lives, this company’s products have produced sounds that enhanced your life.

It began in Germany where a young man named Christian Frederick Martin, born to a long line of cabinet makers, left his home to go to Vienna to become an apprentice making guitars. Unfortunately, upon returning to Germany he found himself wedged between his dream and the realities of the guild system there. C.F. Martin left his homeland and came to America.

New York was bustling, but business there had its challenges. Someone told him that there was land in Pennsylvania and an abundance of Germans there. In 1838, after five years in the big city, he bought a tract of land on the outskirts of Nazareth. Eventually it became a factory for hand-crafted guitars. By the time he passed away in 1873 he’d already created a legacy for fine guitars.

Two decades later an influx of Italian immigrants led to the introduction of mandolins to the product line. Distribution, however, was an issue for many years and things weren’t always coming up roses.

In the 1920’s there was a ukulele craze and the third generation Martin was on it. Their initial entry into the uke market was lackluster due to the over-braced design. This was soon rectified and Martin eventually became the dominant ukulele in this arena. As the Roaring 20’s roared, so did Martin Guitars. As with all market cycles, the 30’s challenged everyone, including the Martins.

There’s more than one way to respond to hard times. Some companies fold, others, innovate. The Martin Guitar Company chose the latter path. To their credit, they survived. Fans of all forms of American music have been beneficiaries.

One of the innovations of this period was the Dreadnought, so named after a large class of World War I battleships. (In case you were wondering where that name came from.) It had a large body, booming bass and seemed a perfect accompaniment for vocals. In eventually proved to be the perfect instrument for the folk music scene that would soon evolve.

In the post-WW2 boom, the big challenge for Martin Guitars became keeping up with demand. In 1955 a decision was made to build a larger plant and really get serious about the business. The one constant throughout their history has been an adherence to high standards.

This is a brief introduction only. If you play guitar at any level, you’ll want to add “a visit to the Martin Guitar Factory” to your bucket list. You’ll discover things about guitars that you’d never considered before. That sheen you love, for example, is the result of a process that includes nine coats of lacquer. The selection of woods, adhesives and strings are all part of the equation. You’ll discover how they authenticate their guitars so that you know you have the real deal when you pay for your guitar. It’s all there, not only the what but also the why.

The museum, too, is killer. You’ll see the history expressed in the form of those who love the products they produced.

The who’s who of Martin guitar players includes some of our most legendary names. Gene Autrey, Roy Rogers, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan, who played a Martin D-28 at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, and a Martin 00–42 there in 1964. Dylan, a fan of Martins in the Sixties famously played a 1963 Martin D-28 at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. That Martin, which Dylan purchased for $500 sold for near $400K 46 years later.

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The presentation model from 1837 showcases Martin’s craftmanship. Photo by the author.

Here are a few quotes that give you a sense of the value here.

“I still play that guitar. It’s a Martin D-18 with a clear pick guard. I’ve played that guitar on and off my TV shows for nearly 50 years. “
— Andy Griffith

“My favorite guitar now is my Martin HD-7 because it’s got everything. It’s got the jingle-jangle thing from the twelve string, it’s got the flexibility of the six string, and the bass notes where you can do bass runs and that sort of thing.”
— Roger McGuinn

“I only had time for one trip back in [to my burning house]. I grabbed my two prized possessions, a pound of marijuana and my Martin guitar.”
— Willie Nelson

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Bird’s-eye view of a table in the lobby. Photo by the author.

As you enter the lobby the Martin Guitar Museum is just off to your left. It gives you a sense of the history. Then there’s the factory tour, and you see the great care with which the guitars are made. Both the museum and the tour are free. My iPhone battery was out of juice, to my dismay, by the time we got to the factory tour. It was exceedingly rewarding and I will likely return.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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