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Now On View: Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin

Jayson Dobney, Associate Curator and Administrator, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin

«Last week the Department of Musical Instruments opened the exhibition Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin, on view through December 7, 2014, in the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments. Christian Frederick Martin is best known as the founder of the C. F. Martin & Co. guitar company, which has been building guitars for 180 years and is still family owned and operated in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.»

The exhibition features thirty-five instruments, most of which were made by Christian Frederick Martin in the years after he moved to the United States in 1833. Born in 1796 in the town of Markneukirchen, Saxony, Martin learned to build guitars in the Viennese tradition, exemplified best by the guitars of Johann Georg Stauffer. In 1833, due to a long-running dispute between the furniture-maker and violin-maker guilds about who controlled the craft of guitar making, Martin moved to the United States, where he first set up shop in New York City; by 1838 he had relocated to Nazareth.

Thanks to recent scholarship by researchers, collectors, and curators, the book Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C. F. Martin and His Contemporaries has been published, and there is a new appreciation for the innovations of Martin. When he first arrived in New York City, Martin was building instruments in the style of the Viennese makers, but he soon encountered guitars from the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. The popularity of the Spanish guitars, which were used by traveling virtuosos as well as teachers and students in New York, led Martin to begin copying those models. Eventually, through a process of experimentation, Martin established his own ideas for a guitar that drew from both the Viennese and Andalusian traditions. His design was a uniquely American guitar that would influence generations of builders and musicians that followed.

Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin features the largest number of guitars by Christian Frederick Martin and his contemporaries ever assembled. Events scheduled in conjunction with the exhibition will provide many opportunities to hear Martin guitars from all periods.


  • Susan Barocas says:

    I remember a ride to Nazareth, PA. When I was a senior at Bayley Ellard in Madison, NJ. My dad and I were on a quest for my graduation present. I remember the visit, the walk through the workshop and the bowling trophies proudly displayed in the entry way. That was way back in 1963. I cherish the memory andI I cherish my Martín even moré!!

    Posted: January 23, 2014, 5:29 p.m.

  • P J Ostrander says:

    I enjoyed the new exhibit on Martin Guitars. Great to view these historic old Martin Guitars. Some suggestions that would help those visiting. It's not clear initially when entering the exhibit area that the exhibit is on both sides of the entrance. The lighting is very low in exhibit area. Generally not an issue but the signage was hard to read as the signage (containing much useful and interesting information) is placed down at your feet at the bottom of each guitar. The combination of low light and low placement makes it hard to read. For those not familiar with guitar construction it would be helpful to include in the exhibit a guitar top and back showing an actual X-bracing construction and tone bars. The X-brace is the major invention that CF Martin invented and designed. This same design is still used to this day in flat top guitars and that makes flat top guitars able to with stand the tension of steel strings.

    Posted: January 26, 2014, 1:36 p.m.

  • Walt Semke says:

    I have been to the factory 4 times over 40 years. The instruments are exquisite examples of American craftsmanship. Martin guitars are an American institution that has endured and evolved over 180 years. It merged art in craft and music, beautiful to hold and beautiful to hear.

    Posted: September 14, 2014, 6:31 p.m.

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About the Author

Jayson Dobney is an associate curator and administrator in the Department of Musical Instruments.

Follow Jayson on Twitter: @JayKerrDobney

About this Blog

The Museum's collection of musical instruments includes approximately five thousand examples from six continents and the Pacific Islands, dating from about 300 B.C. to the present. It illustrates the development of musical instruments from all cultures and eras. On this blog, curators and guests will share information about this extraordinary collection, its storied history, the department's public activities, and some of the audio and video recordings from our archives.