Martin D-17M Review
Mahogany has long been one of the most common tonewoods, valued for its warm, mellow sound and used by virtually every manufacturer of acoustic and electric guitars. But in 1906, when anything but rosewood would have been considered a questionable tonewood for the backs and sides of guitars, Martin made an unconventional move in introducing the entry-level style-17 line of guitars with mahogany backs and sides and spruce tops. The 17 series was supplanted in 1918 when Martin began making style-18 guitars with mahogany backs and sides, and it reappeared as an all-mahogany guitar in 1922, around the same time that Martin began offering steel-string models. A century later, Martin’s new 17 series revisits the original line, which are set apart cosmetically from other Martin models by featuring shaded spruce tops. Two models, the D-17M, a 14-fret dreadnought, and the 000-17SM, with its 12-fret neck-to-body junction and slotted headstock, boast mahogany back and sides and a handsomely vintage appearance. We checked out the D-17M, a sweet cannon of a guitar.
Fine Tonewoods, Elegant Vintage Styling
Martin used an undeniably nice selection of mahogany for our D-17M. The back has a lovely reddish-brown color and a hint of curl when viewed at certain angles, while the sides and neck have a fine, regular grain pattern. At a glance the Sitka spruce top could be mistaken for mahogany on account of its darkly tinted finish. Though the natural color is, of course, obscured, the spruce appears to be of high grade, its tight grains free of any obvious visual defects.
While the D-17M’s headplate is fashioned from the customary solid East Indian rosewood, the belly-style bridge and fingerboard are made from solid morado (also known as caviuna, Bolivian rosewood, or pau ferro). Though not a true rosewood, this species closely resembles East Indian rosewood, and the wood used on the D-17M has an even texture and lovely variegated coloring.
Like its much older style-17 predecessors the D-17M is distinguished by an attractively austere appearance. The guitar has very little in the way of ornamentation. Its delicate diamonds-and-squares fingerboard inlays, which extend only from the fifth to the ninth fret, are so subtle that they almost get lost in the fingerboard. The single-ring rosette is similarly inconspicuous, as is the deep-brown tortoise binding that adds a hint of definition at the perimeter of the soundboard. On the top, the shaded gloss finish—an understated sunburst—completes the guitar’s old-school vibe, though the satin finish used on the back, sides, and neck are a decidedly modern touch.
The craftsmanship on our D-17M is every bit as good as on Martin’s much costlier offerings. The 20 medium frets are perfectly crowned and polished, completely smooth at the edges, and the bone nut and saddle precisely slotted. On the soundboard, the gloss finish has been polished to a faultlessly smooth luster. A peek at the guitar’s interior revealed that the kerfing and bracing have been sanded to perfection and applied without a hint of excess glue.
Top-Notch Playability, Outstanding Voice
Described by Martin as a “modified low oval,” the sleek neck on our D-17M has a contemporary feel. It’s easy to manage in all registers, whether for barre chords played for extended stretches or athletic single-note soloing. The relatively narrow (1 11/16-inch) nut makes it comfortable to thumb-fret notes on the sixth string, while giving the other fretting fingers plenty of room to move about, and the factory-set low action also contributes to the guitar’s excellent playability.
From the initial strum of an open-E chord, it is clear that the D-17M is one fine-sounding guitar. While the bass register is powerfully responsive, it doesn’t overwhelm; all the members of the chord ring with great clarity and harmonic depth. A natural harmonic played at the 12th fret on the low E string really highlights the guitar’s impressive sustain. Overall, the guitar has a sweet but stentorian voice, likely owing to its mahogany-and-spruce build.
Given its robust bass, the D-17M responds superbly to country accompaniment approaches like boom-chuck, Carter strumming, and Lester Flatt–approved G runs. The instrument fares equally well on everything from more urgent Pete Townshend–style rock strumming to flatpicked, ringing arpeggios of complex jazz chords, with a hint of natural reverb. In all of these settings, the guitar feels efficient to play—I didn’t need to dig in as hard as on some other guitars to get a decent amount of volume. The D-17M has a crisp treble that, like a good dreadnought ought to, lends itself nicely to bluegrass soloing. But the guitar can also muster enough burliness for blues and rock improvisation. And, given its warmth, jazz lines from swing to bebop and beyond also sound great on the instrument.
While many fingerstyle guitarists would prefer a guitar with a 1 3/4-inch nut, the D-17M was quite hospitable to being played with the fingers of the picking hand. When I played the Beatles’ “Julia,” with its Travis-picking patterns and sweet chord progression, the guitar felt very responsive and the notes rang together in a beautifully shimmering way, just as it did for a couple of Nick Drake songs in nonstandard tunings: “Bryter Layter” (double dropped-D) and “Pink Moon” (C G C F C E). The D-17M was even satisfying when fingerpicking through what is conventionally regarded as nylon-string territory, a book of Renaissance pièces arranged for solo guitar.
Mahogany Dreadnought Value
In the new D-17M, by all but avoiding the ornamentation found on its fancier models, Martin has created a guitar with a respectfully old appearance and a classic dreadnought sound, at a price that will put this finely crafted instrument within reach of many working players. With all that going for it, plus outstanding playability, the D-17M is worthy of serious consideration from any player—flatpicker or fingerpicker—who is in search of an all-solid, mahogany-body flattop.
SPECS:Dreadnought body. Solid Sitka spruce top with A-frame/X hybrid bracing. Solid genuine mahogany back and sides. Solid genuine mahogany neck. Solid morado fingerboard and bridge. 25.4-inch scale. 1 11/16-inch nut width. 2 1/8-inch string spacing at saddle. Shaded gloss finish on top and satin finish on back, sides, and neck. Open-gear Grover tuners with butterbean knobs. Martin SP Lifespan phosphor-bronze medium strings. Hard-shell case included. Made in USA. Left-handed version available.
PRICE:$1,999 list/$1,499 street.
MAKER:C.F. Martin and Co.: (610) 759-2837; martinguitar.com.
TEJA GERKEN: Easily mistaken for an all-mahogany instrument at first glance due to its dark stained top, the D-17M leaves little doubt that it’s closer to a D-18 than a D-15 at heart. The guitar has a great dynamic range and the stereotypical openness and clarity that Martins are famous for. The guitar was able to produce a complex tone with very little effort, and as a result, sounded very nice when played fingerstyle. Its neck profile leans decidedly toward the rounded modern shape, rather than the bulkier vintage-style designs found on some Martins. The combination of all these factors made for a friendly playing partner, and if you’ve been looking for a no-frills Martin dreadnought, the D-17M should definitely be on your list to check out.
SCOTT NYGAARD: With its shiny, stained spruce top and matte-finish mahogany back and sides, the Martin D-17M doesn’t really look like any other Martin dreadnought I’ve seen, but its “austere” look is, in fact, quite attractive. And a few strummed G chords and bass runs instantly reveal its lineage. Our review instrument has a big, lively sound, with a meaty low end and complex midrange that make it sound like an oft-played veteran. And while the treble was not as mature-sounding as the rest of the guitar—a little bright for my tastes, but not harsh or unpleasant—the D-17M would be an asset for a guitarist in any acoustic roots-oriented band.
Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar August 2013