Monday, July 13, 2009

Martin guitars--an amazing coincidence!

A few minutes ago, just as I was finishing up the blog below, my eyes fell on the silent TV screen (volume turned down while I worked) to see . . . two men discussing guitars, including a Martin! The until-that-point unwatched show flickering in the background was the popular Antiques Roadshow, and by sheer serendipity, one of the items being appraised was nothing less than the subject of the entry below!

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This is the first of a series of posts based on music features from the VOA YouTube channel. One that particularly caught my attention was Susan Logue's fine piece on C. F. Martin and Company, probably the world's best known manufacturer of steel-string acoustic guitars, and the manufacturer of my first guitar, which I obtained as a teenage aspiring guitarist in 1957.

I can still remember not only the feel in my hands of that finely crafted instrument--the top-of-the-line Martin classic guitar, with nylon strings--but also its fragrance: the eternally captivating scent of richly seasoned rosewood. As I look at e-Bay prices for vintage Martin guitars today, I now regret to some extent that I sold that gem after obtaining an equally fine José Ramírez, in the Flamenco style, from Spain as a surprise high school graduation present from my late mother. (But how many unplayed guitars can one keep around a small row house already crowded with recordings and books and a range of Indian musical instruments . . . ?)

At the risk of being repetitive for those who know the instrument, guitars come in two varieties: acoustic and electric. The former, like traditional violins and cellos, are designed to be played without direct electric amplification, and can have either steel or nylon strings. Steel string guitars tend to be used more commonly for popular music and the blues (see my earlier posting on the latter subject), while nylon string guitars are the exclusive vehicle for classical music, and for much of traditional folk music (though steel string guitars are also popular in much of country and "old time" music. Most popular musicians, and a majority of jazz guitarist as well, play the steel string version, usually electrified.

That introduction out of the way, the C. F. Martin and Company has set the standard for American-made acoustic guitars for well over a century. Founded in the early nineteenth century by a German immigrant to New York City, Christian Frederick Martin, it is still the most popular steel-string acoustic guitar among musicians performing in a wide range of genres, with the Gibson brand being a distant second.

Susan Logue's VOA feature gives us an introduction to the company, and the Martin Website is a source for a wealth of information about the wide range of guitars currently being manufactured. The lead item in a quick perusal of eBay moments ago under the citation of "Martin guitars", skewed in order of "highest price first" price, brought up a limited edition D-100 in Brazilian rosewood for a whopping $109,999 (from the eBay merchant WeBuyGuitars), with an additional five instruments with prices over $10,000 available on line!

It goes without saying that the better the instrument, the better a musician will be able to play. To my thinking, the instrument maker shares equal importance with the performer in giving voice to musical ideas. The better the instrument--both in construction (for ease and precision of playing) and in acoustic quality (for superior sound production)--the better the music that can be created. Two breeds I know very well--guitarists and sitarists--tend to be understandably obsessive about the quality of their instruments, with a few makers standing out far above the others, and historical instruments being particularly prized. I'll write at a later time about sitars and sitar-makers.

This is not to say that superior guitars can be obtained only from a manufacturer such as Martin. There is a wide range of custom guitar builders in the U.S.--and around the world--for that matter, who can produce truly outstanding instruments. In the specific category of the nylon-stringed classical guitar, Herman Hauser III stands in a prominent position; according to a page on the Website DreamGuitars, this master produces only 17 instruments a year, with a five-year waiting list. Hauser's grandfather, Hermann Hauser Sr., made the guitar played in his later years by Andrés Segovia, who established the classical guitar as a front-rank concert instrument, and who is arguably still the greatest master of that instrument, which is now widely heard in concert halls around the world. (See Wikipedia for concise articles on the history and construction of the classical guitar.)

The DreamGuitars Website lists a host of other custom guitar builders, with elaborate and detailed descriptions, as well as a range of sumptous photos, of their instruments. A random click on a name I had never heard before turned up a "pre-owned" (i.e., used) 1987 acoustic "Thomas Humphrey Millenium guitar" for the estimable price of $24,495, discounted 10%-- possibly because of the economic downturn!

Browsing the glorious color photos, I'm reminded (allow me a tangent here) of a splendid book I obtained some years ago, La Guitarra Española, which is a catalogue of an amazing exhibition I was fortunate to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1992. The book (following the rare instruments displayed in the museum) traces the origins of the instrument from the middle ages--again, with color photographs depicting instruments of stunning beauty, either in simplicity or elaborate decoration.

By sheer coincidence, having more or less finished this posting, I just glanced up at the silent TV screen to see--AMAZING!--a Martin guitar featured in a segment of the popular series, Antiques Roadshow, on WETA (one of our local PBS television stations)! This being near the end of my workday, I'll cease writing an admittedly somewhat rambling entry to watch the show, and will subsequently post a link if the TV segment is available on the Web.

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