John G. Whitacre Published June 30, 2009
Two guys with guitars across the way were having a good old time, drinking beer and singing old rock songs as we set up our tent. Neither was a great player or singer, and one even said, “You know what — we suck,” but still I wished I could join them.
I often take an instrument on vacation, but most times I play it too little to justify leaving it in the car for hours and worrying about it while we’re off touring. This time I came close to taking my guitar, but I left it behind, and all week I ached to play thanks to our tour of C.F. Martin & Co.
We began our June vacation in eastern Pennsylvania visiting family, and my nephew suggested a tour of the C.F. Martin factory in Nazareth. The C.F. stands for Christian Frederick, who came from Mark Neukirchen, Saxony, (now Germany) in 1833, setting up a music shop in New York City after studying the making of violins and guitars under Johann Stauffer of Vienna.
Herr Martin operated a full-line music store, importing and wholesaling instruments, strings and sheet music. C.F. disliked the big city and longed for the wooded hills of his homeland, so in 1839 he sold his business and moved to Bushkill Township, near Nazareth. From then on, the Martin Company focused on building instruments and in the early 1900s developed the dreadnought, the guitar that dwarfed its 19th-century predecessors and set the standard for American guitars.
The lobby of C.F. Martin is shaped like a large guitar, the receptionist’s round desk in the place of the sound hole, and to the left is a gift shop. In the back, off to the left of the upper bout of the lobby-guitar, several real guitars hung on hooks for visitors to play, and better guitars at the back of the gift shop in a locked room could also be played by asking to be let in. I tried several of the better guitars in the locked room and corrected the tuning of a 12-string in the open playing area, but that was my only contact with musical strings the whole week.
Our tour guide was an entertaining machine shop employee named Keith who repeatedly declared his loyalty to the company, stressing Martin’s attention to detail and quality. We wore headphones and clip-on cordless receivers to pick up Keith’s narration, making it easy to hear in a factory that is often noisy. The first stop was at the plastic guitar manufacturing area, where guitars made from laminate are assembled. Afterward the tour followed the building of wooden guitars and ukuleles, starting with shaped sides and moving on to fronts and backs, necks and headstocks and finishing with a huge robotic polisher that grips the guitar in a large metal arm and rotates the instrument to place all surfaces against a large polishing wheel. Most work is still done by hand, but this time-consuming and tedious step has been replaced by a machine. Finally, technicians play and study finished guitars to set the correct string height and make other adjustments.
At the end of our tour Keith gave each of us a round spruce soundhole cut-out, and as he was collecting our sound kits and distributing our soundholes, CEO C.F. Martin IV walked by. I recognized him from photos at Wildwood Music in Roscoe Village, and Keith mouthed “There he is!”
After the tour, I bought a few things in the gift shop and finished the museum tour I had begun while waiting for the factory tour. The museum takes the visitor through the history of the Martin Company, showing the early 1800s guitars that look like toys compared to their large dreadnought descendants. Photos of Eric Clapton, who helped repopularize the acoustic guitar in 1992 with his “Unplugged” MTV concert, are everywhere, and Keith stressed that all artists who play Martins do so because they like the guitars. CF IV refuses to give guitars to anyone, preferring to avoid the entanglements, so the company is proud that the likes of Clapton, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Gene Autry and dozens of others have played Martins over the years.
After that total immersion in guitar history I began to desperately need a guitar, that need only magnified when the guys across the camp street at Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware played those songs I learned decades ago. Had I had my guitar, I would have joined them, but I didn’t, so I didn’t.
To paraphrase the song “Dark As a Dungeon,” the guitar long ago formed as a habit and seeped into my soul, and all week I craved my guitar “like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine.”