Player's Choice Guitar of the Year: C.F. Martin D-28

CF Martin D-28

Posted by Mark Segal Kemp

When they started playing, he leaned over and whispered in my ear. “See that guitar?”

I nodded.

“That’s a 1969 Martin D-28. Hear me when I say if I had to choose between a beautiful girl and that guitar, I’d choose the guitar. Natch.” 

He took a huge gulp of water, clearly affected.

“Naturally,” I whispered. “It could be why you’re still single.”

—Laura Anderson Kurk, Perfect Glass 

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The year was 1972. I was 12 years old and seated with friends in the front row of the only movie theater in our small Southern mill town, watching my first rock flick,The Concert for Bangladesh. Bob Dylan was on the screen, bigger than life. His hair a shaggy mess, he wore blue jeans and a denim jacket, and had a shiny harmonica holder around his neck that looked like some strange orthopedic device. Pressed close against his chest was a giant Martin D-28. I’d never seen an acoustic guitar from such a huge perspective, and was mesmerized. As far as I knew, there was no other kind of acoustic in the world.

I wasn’t alone. By the 1970s, the D-28 was already an icon—the quintessential American guitar. It’s no surprise that the instrument consistently scores high in AG’s Player’s Choice Awards, and this year is no different. In the Guitar of the Year category, Martin tops the list, and the D-28 is the model of choice, easily beating the others.

Pretty much anybody who’s ever played an acoustic guitar has at least strummed a few chords on a D-28. Scores of notable artists have regularly played D-28s at some point in their careers, including Dylan, Hank Williams, Lester Flatt, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Tony Rice, the dazzling flatpicker who tracked down and acquired his hero Clarence White’s pre-war D-28 (serial number 58957) two years after the former Byrd and Kentucky Colonel’s death in 1973.

Rice had first met the guitar in 1960, when he was a 9-year-old prodigy living in southern California. He was backstage at one of his earliest public performances, and White was there, too. “I saw that old D-28, and it didn’t have a name on the headstock,” Rice recalled to Fretboard Journal in 2007. “So I asked, ‘What kind of a guitar is that?’ And Clarence said, ‘It’s a Martin.’” Rice had never seen a D-28. “The only thing I knew was that it looked like hell, but it sounded like a million bucks to a 9-year-old kid.” Fifteen years later, Rice would own the guitar.

But what is it about the D-28 that’s so attractive, so compelling—so seductive that budding acoustic guitarists would choose this instrument over the companionship of another human being? Martin historian Dick Boak has an idea—and there’s nothing particularly magical about it. “The romance comes from the fact that it’s a great guitar at a pretty reasonable price,” he says. “And for that reason, a who’s who of legendary performers have used the D-28 in their music. It’s the warhorse of the music industry.”

Bigger is Better

C.F. Martin & Company began making its D-series guitars in the early 1930s, naming the big square-shoulder instruments after the uncommonly large dreadnought battleships of the early 20th century. Like those nautical behemoths, Martin’s dreadnoughts were much larger than earlier guitars, and they projected a louder, more bass-heavy sound. The company didn’t much care for the instruments initially, but country string bands fancied them. It seems that when string-band guitarists played the giants alongside banjos and fiddles, the projection was a big plus. The bands could use a Martin dreadnought, and its loud, bass-heavy sound would be heard over the other instruments.

But why did the D-28, in particular, become the most popular dreadnought? It wasn’t, at first. By 1937, three years after Martin began actively marketing its D series, the D-18 was its best-selling dreadnought. While the D-45 was notable for its flashier design elements and higher price, the differences between the D-18 and D-28 were fairly minimal. Both instruments had spruce tops; both were rather plain-looking, although the D-28 added a subtle herringbone-pattern trim; and while Martin used rosewood for the D-28’s back and sides, it used mahogany for the D-18’s.

Over the years, as Martin continued modifying and evolving the dreadnoughts’ bracing and weight, the D-18 and D-28 remained pretty much neck-in-neck in terms of popularity. Two elements that may have nudged the D-28 ahead of the pack in terms of popularity were the herringbone trim and scalloped top braces, which the company had dropped in the 1940s, making the earlier D-28s hot items among guitar aficionados. In 1976, when Martin began producing the old-style D-28 again, it became the company’s best-selling model.

Much of the D-28’s popularity may also be its sweet tonal qualities. The guitar shares the tonewoods of its pricier cousin, the D-45, giving it a warmer, richer, and more resonant sound; the D-18, by contrast, has a brighter, clearer, and crisper sound.  “The D-28’s warm tones make it an ideal instrument for songwriting and living-room play, and also for vocal accompaniment,” Boak says. “The D-18 is more appropriate for the studio because of its treble response.”

Back to the Future

Bob Dylan played lots of different brands and models of guitars in the years before and after I saw him with that D-28 in The Concert for Bangladesh. His first guitar was a 1949 Martin 00-17, but when he went into the studio in 1961 to record his debut album, he’d moved on to a Gibson J-50. His most famous guitar was the 1930s Gibson Nick Lucas Special he used on Another Side of Bob Dylan and Bringing it All Back Home.

By 1969, Dylan was playing the Gibson J-200 pictured on the cover of Nashville Skyline, but he still liked Martins, and in the early ’70s was regularly playing several different double-0 models. In the decades since, he’s played a mix of Gibsons, Martins, and the occasional Washburn. But in 1999, Dylan saw another D-28 that blew his mind—in the pages of Acoustic Guitar, of course. It was an odd-looking creature—a photographic negative of a normal D-28, in which the body was black and the pickguard and other typically dark parts white. 

Two of those guitars had been custom-made for Acoustic Guitar’s 10th anniversary special issue—one went to AG reader Clarence “Leo” Roehl and the other remains in our office—but Dylan wanted his own. So, he commissioned Martin to make him one (Martin asked AG if was OK, but who says no to Bobby D?). Dylan’s was slightly different: It had two pickguards instead of one.

Late last year, when I arrived at this magazine, one of the first things I did was pull out that Martin Acoustic Guitar 10th Anniversary Special D-28 and strum the opening chords to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” It felt as though I had come full circle. In this case, at least, there really was no other kind of acoustic in the world. 

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