• Guitar Department

    April 18, 2018

    Top Ten Martin Dreadnoughts! A buyer’s guide

    Martin’s dreadnought guitar, introduced under the Ditson brand just over 100 years ago and reaching its classic modern form in 1934, is probably the most iconic acoustic guitar design of the 20th Century. From Elvis to Johnny Cash, from the Louvin Brothers to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, from Johnny Marr to Kurt Cobain, the roll call of musicians who have played these fine instruments is unparalleled. It’s also the most copied acoustic guitar design, with dreadnought guitars offered by almost every major player in the acoustic guitar market. Martin themselves offer dozens of variants on the design including replicas of the classic 1930s D18 and D28.

    In this blog we’re going to delve into Martin’s range of Dreadnoughts and take a look at ten that should be on any shopping list if you’re looking at these fine instruments.

    The D-28 2017 Reimagined

    The D-28 is the Martin design that you’ve heard on thousands of bluegrass and country records from the 50s to the present day and it’s a wonderful beast. They’re phenomenally loud, with a pumping bass that responds beautifully to flat picking and rich, sparkling harmonics that add a long, shimmering sustain. Martin changed the design of the D-28 many times over the model’s 80 years and there are now multiple versions in the range – it’s a little confusing to navigate but once you understand the subtleties of the models you’ll appreciate the chance to select the perfect D-28 for your tastes. We’ve gone with the D-28 Reimagined as our choice of D-28 - it’s still relatively affordable, and this newly redesigned guitar offers great value for money.

    The Reimagined series began in 2016 with the D-18 and expanded to the D-28 last year, with the remaining models following suit in the course of 2018 – essentially Martin have upgraded their Standard series guitars to feature vintage style appointments previously reserved for the Vintage series such as the open gear tuners and an aging toner in the nitrocellulose lacquer. The bracing is now forward shifted, which gives the newer D-28 a bassier tone than the previous incarnation, and it’s very close to the character of a vintage D-28. There are more authentic recreations higher up in the Martin range but the D-28 Reimagined offers a great balance of relative affordability and outstanding sound.

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    The DX1AE

    One of the great thing about Martin guitars is that you don’t need to spend a fortune to get your hands on one. The DX1 is made in Martin’s Mexican facility and uses a few clever design features to make this one of their most affordable Martin branded guitars ever.

    The back and sides are made from a patented HPL (or High Pressure Laminate) material that reprocesses wood fibres into a strong, durable material and the neck is a multi laminate that makes for an extremely stable neck. Some X series Martins also have an HPL top but we find the DX1, where the top is a rather more traditional piece of spruce, to be a much better sounding guitar and it’s literally only a few pounds more. The top is also braced with a slightly simpler pattern than the US guitars designed to give them a lively, booming sound. We’re not going to pretend a DX1 is going to sound exactly like a D28 but there is a distinctive tonal signature particular to Martin dreadnoughts and we’re very impressed with how these entry level designs capture that quality – perhaps not with quite the nuance and detail of the American guitars but the DX1 is very much a Martin guitar.

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    The DR Centennial

    The Centennial debuted in 2016 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ditson dreadnought, and it’s one of the more unusual dreads in the Martin range but also one of our favourites. The aesthetic is very stripped back in comparison to the D18 and 28 variants. It utilises some of the features of the cheaper 16 series with a simple dovetail neck join (in place of the traditional dovetail of the D18) and catalysed lacquer in place of nitrocellulose, but the DR-Centennial’s secret weapon is its top, which is made from spruce taken from the Adirondack mountains and gives the guitar a unique flavour. Adirondack spruce was used as standard by most of the US guitar manufacturers up to the Second World War, when large quantities of the wood were used by the airplane industry and restrictions were put in place to preserve the remaining forests. A small amount of Adirondack spruce becomes available each year through naturally falling trees and companies such as Martin are always first in the queue – but the DR Centennial is the only way to hear it in a new Martin unless you’re prepared to spend several thousand on an Authentic series model so it’s great model to check out. The Centennial has an impressive tone, inevitably similar in signature to the D-28 but to our ears it’s a little smoother and more refined than the Reimagined D-28.

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    The D15M Streetmaster

    Now for something a little different! The Streetmaster is a variant of the long running 15 series guitars, which were stripped back instruments with very little in the way of cosmetic embellishments, so they lack the binding and gloss finishes of the Standard series guitars but still offer a solid wood, American-made Martin to those who are on a tighter budget and can live without the cosmetics. In addition, the original 15 series used Mahogany for the top wood as well as the back and sides which is a much tougher wood than Spruce and, with no binding to protect the edges of the guitar, was better able to withstand the inevitable knocks that a much used guitar will have to endure in its lifetime. However, Mahogany being a stiffer material than Spruce, it also has a very different sound and the 15 series has developed a devoted following over the years of those who prefer the more subdued bass and better balance of the mahogany guitars.

    The Streetmaster version we’ve picked for the top ten is a cool looking addition to the 15 series that adds a randomly shaded finish to give the guitar a cool antique vibe without going fully down the relic route, and it comes with a heavy duty gig bag – so for a great guitar you won’t be afraid to travel with it’s hard to do better!

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    The DRS-1

    The DRS-1 and 2 – collectively known as the Road series are probably the best selling models of the Martin range here at Forsyths, and they represent the entry level point for a Martin with all solid woods. They are made in the same Mexican plant that produces the cheaper X series guitars and, like the X series, are slightly simplified in construction compared to the US made guitars, but retain that distinctive Martin character. We’ve chosen the DRS-1 for our top ten, which is essentially a Mexican made version of the 15 series with Mahogany top, back and sides, and like the D-15 it has a slightly subdued bass compared to its Spruce topped sister model, the DRS-2, but carries itself with a sweet, well balanced tone that makes for a very pleasant playing experience.

    Unlike the X series you also get a proper Martin hard case with the Road models, which further justifies the step up from the X series version, and like the X series they have an undersaddle pickup fitted as standard.

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    The Atkin White Rice

    Ok, we’ve been a bit naughty here – but one of our favourite Martins currently in the shop is a guitar that has never been anywhere near the Nazareth factory. Atkin guitars are hand made in a small workshop in Canterbury and are the product of years of studying vintage Martin and Gibson guitars with a view to building replicas that could pass for a real vintage guitar. His guitars are flawlessly executed and feature an aging process that recreates the look of an 80 year old guitar with a wonderful patina. Best of all they sound exceptional, very close to the sound one might expect from an old, well played in dreadnaught.

    This guitar is a replica of a well worn and much modified D-28 owned first by Clarence White and Tony Rice - hence the White Rice nickname - and is made with input from Clarence White’s daughter, herself a successful musician. Aside from it’s unique appearance it’s chief practical difference over a standard D-28 of the era is the soundhole, which was enlarged prior to White acquiring the guitar. It’s hard to know exactly how this impacts the sound, but the White Rice seems to have a slightly janglier sound than Alister’s straight D-28 replicas.

    There’s no question Martin make great guitars and any of the options in this list have their strengths but don’t be afraid to give this outlier a go too – it might just be your perfect dreadnought.

    We’ve written about this guitar previously so if you’re interested in the full story on this guitar you can check it out here.

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    The D18

    From a quick straw poll of the guitar department, we decided that our favourite of the Martin Dreads is not the flagship D-28 but it’s slightly cheaper cousin: the D-18. Whilst the rosewood D-28 is often spoken about as the ultimate Martin design, the D-18 has quietly found its way into the hearts of many thousands of players who prefer the model for its clarity and quick. The guitar on the iconic first Elvis album is Elvis’s much loved D-18, and if your musical tastes are a little more modern a D-18 called Grandpa was famously used by both Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith. To our ears the sound of the mahogany 18 is a little less busy than the 28 and it works very well as a recording guitar, and there’s certainly no lack of volume for acoustic sessions.

    The Standard series D-18 was recently overhauled to include features from the Vintage series version, so the model now has a lovely amber colour to the lacquer and the open gear tuners of the more expensive versions.

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    The Custom Shop

    One of the great things about Martin is how willing they are to deviate from the standard models, and their Custom Shop works overtime to create the most spectacular musical works of art you can possibly imagine. When we were over at the Martin factory last year - when we finally managed to tear ourselves away from the guy that was inlaying a precious stone condor into a diorama of the Grand Canyon, to make up the fingerboard of a phenomenally expensive customer order (true story!) - we were able to order a couple of Custom Shop pieces that weren’t significantly more expensive than the mid level Standard series guitars. The nature of custom ordering means we haven’t picked an individual guitar for this top ten but the Custom Shop is something Martin are rightfully very proud, and we feel the option to spec out your own dream guitar is well worth mentioning. So, if you have an idea for that once in a lifetime instrument, give us a call and we’ll see what Martin can do.

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    The M-36

    Our penultimate entry isn’t a dreadnought but bear with us… the Martin dreadnought sound is truly iconic and we fully understand wanting to chase that sound – but they’re big guitars and not everyone feels comfortable with them. So, what do you do if you want that sound but find them a little hard to wrap yourself around? The M-36 has its roots in an ill fated attempt by Martin in the early 20th Century to break into the market for archtop jazz guitars. Unlike the majority of archtop builders who used cello style construction for their instruments, Martin tried to stick to what they knew and only the tops were carved – the back and sides were made the same way as their flat tops. Although nice instruments, Martin were never very successful in this market and most of the guitars found themselves abandoned until the vintage market began to gather pace in the 70s and 80s, when luthiers began to notice that those unloved old archtops had high grade Brazilian Rosewood back and sides – so began a cottage industry of converting them into flat top guitars. The archtop models were dreadnought sized but tighter in the waist, a little like a 000 size on steroids, and Martin have now introduced this larger size as a model in its own right. So, why is it in our Dreadnought list? The great thing about the M-36 is that the overall volume of air inside it is very much like a dreadnought, so it gives you a very full sound with a powerful bass that is similar to a dreadnought in sound, but because the waist is much tighter the guitar sits a little lower on your lap and is therefore a bit less of a hurdle to get your arm over. We feel the M size sounds a little smoother overall than a dreadnought so there’s definitely a subtle difference, but we’re very fond of this model and it’s well worth considering if you like the idea of a dreadnought but are struggling to feel comfortable with one.

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    And the Forsyth Favourite: The DTSG

    New for 2018, the DTSG was designed with the recent decision by CITES to require a permit to ship instruments with Rosewood components across international borders for commercial purposes. Although not all Martins have Rosewood back and sides, Martin has used a Rosewood headstock veneer on all of their more up market models for many years: on the DTSG the headstock veneer is made of faux-tortoise shell. It also avoids woods that are likely to come under scrutiny such as Ebony and Honduras Mahogany, so for the DTSG the usual Ebony parts (fingerboard and bridge) are Richlite and the back and sides Sepele.

    Of course, if you’re buying this guitar locally and hopefully you’re not planning on selling it any time soon so, whilst it’s interesting to know why Martin made it, we probably need to give you a better reason why it’s on the list. The DTSG is essentially a D-18 in terms of spec. The Sepele is a common substitute for Mahogany as it looks very similar – it’s a harder wood than Mahogany but tonally the two species are in a similar ballpark. As with the DR Centennial the DTSG has a simple dovetail and a modern finish, and you can choose between this gloss version or the DST satin model depending on your finish preference. What the DTSG has that sets it apart from the standard D-18 is the bracing, which is both scalloped and forward shifted. The bottom end on this guitar really is lovely – it has the clarity and liveliness of a D-18 but also a very rich fullness to the low end that makes it an absolute power house of a guitar. It also has great dynamic range retaining clarity even at very low volumes and, unlike some of the other models on this list, it feels as though you can get the full range of the guitar without requiring a plectrum to drive the top. We’ve put this guitar through it’s paces playing everything from ragtime fingerstyle to heavy bluegrass picking and it never fails to impress.

    As with the DR Centennial, the DTSG is a Martin design that looks and feels familiar yet throws in a twist that sets it apart. It’s a beautiful instrument that could hold it’s own in terms of sound quality against much more expensive guitars. Simply sublime!