C.F. Martin & Co., Inc.
C.F. Martin & Co., Inc.
Sales: $60 million (2000 est.)
NAIC: 339992 Musical Instrument Manufacturing
C.F. Martin & Co., Inc., also referred to as The Martin Guitar Company (the name of its chief subsidiary), makes what are generally considered to be the finest acoustic guitars in the world. Prized by musicians for their durability and tonal quality, Martin guitars have been used by legendary performers such as Jimmie Rodgers, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, and many, many more. The company’s offerings range from budget-priced composite material instruments to custom-built models that can cost $20,000 or more. Martin also makes ukuleles, guitar strings, and other accessories. Located in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, since 1839, the company has been run by the same family for six generations.
Martin traces its beginnings to Mark Neukirchen, Saxony (later a part of Germany), where in 1796 Christian Frederick Martin was born. Martin’s father was a furniture and guitar maker, and the young man was sent to Vienna at 15 to learn instrument making from Johann Stauffer, a master guitar builder. After working his way up to foreman in Stauffer’s guitar shop, Martin returned to Mark Neukirchen to build guitars on his own and raise a family. He soon found himself caught up in a battle between the area’s furniture makers and the Violin Makers’ Guild, which sought to bar those who were not members from building guitars. Though the Guild ultimately lost its case in local courts, Martin felt his opportunities would be limited by the Guild system, and he decided to immigrate with his wife and two young children to the United States.
Soon after their arrival in New York in the fall of 1833, Martin opened a shop on the lower east side of Manhattan where he built and repaired guitars and sold sheet music and other instruments. In the early days Martin accepted bartered items such as clothing and wine for his wares, as well as money. He soon found several parties who were willing to distribute his guitars outside of the city, which helped boost sales.
Unhappy with the overcrowded living conditions in New York, Martin and his wife decided to move to Pennsylvania, where they purchased eight acres of land near Nazareth in 1839. The small town was in an area that reminded them of the rolling hills back home in Germany, and in fact many of the town’s predominantly Moravian inhabitants spoke German.
Although Martin initially made all of the guitars himself, the popularity of his finely crafted instruments soon brought greater demand than he could handle alone. In 1859 a factory was built at the corner of Main and North Streets in Nazareth to house the company’s now dozen-plus employees. Guitars made during these early years were shipped to eastern cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and as far away as Nashville, St. Louis, and New Orleans.
The early Martin guitars were entirely handcrafted, and no two were exactly alike. Models built until the mid-1840s had their six tuning keys all on one side of the guitar’s headstock, as well as an adjustable neck which allowed the tension of the strings to be changed to suit individual users. Both of these features were discontinued after a time. A major innovation came around 1850 with the introduction of the “X” bracing system behind the face of the guitar. This feature strengthened the instrument and also enriched the tonal quality of Martin’s guitars. At this time the firm’s instruments were typically built from imported Brazilian rosewood, with a birch or maple neck, a spruce top, and an ebony fingerboard. They had an understated, elegant appearance, with a minimum of ornamentation, although this varied with customer preference. Retail prices ranged from $36 to $90.
In 1867 C.F. Martin retired, leaving the company in the hands of his son, Christian Frederick Martin, Jr., and a cousin, fellow Mark Neukirchen immigrant C.F. Hartmann. C.F. Martin, Jr., then in his 40s and himself a master guitar maker, saw the company through the post-Civil War years, where for a time sales were hurt by a national currency crisis. Martin weathered the storm, however, and the company built an addition to its factory in 1887, where steam-powered woodworking machinery was installed. When C.F. Martin, Jr., died unexpectedly in 1888 (the company’s founder had passed away in 1873), the firm was left to his widow and his son, Frank Henry Martin, then only 22 years old. Partner C.F. Hartmann had by this time given up his stake, though he remained with the firm as an employee.
Taking Control of Distribution; Success with Mandolins
Frank Martin faced serious challenges almost immediately, as he took control at a time when Martin’s output was hampered by a sluggish distribution system. The firm’s principal sales agent, C.A. Zoebisch & Sons, was not pushing Martin products as strongly as the company wished, and was also not interested in distributing mandolins, which Martin felt would find favor with the growing number of Italian immigrants entering the United States. Ultimately Frank Martin decided to terminate the company’s longstanding relationship with Zoebisch to handle sales on its own.
After taking on this major new responsibility, Frank Martin became the company’s primary salesperson, visiting music dealers throughout New York State and New England on lengthy annual trips. The company was still small, with annual production of less than 300 guitars. Martin soon introduced a line of mandolins, and sales of these instruments jumped to 150 per year and even came to surpass guitar production between 1906 and 1909.
During the early years of the 20th century the company also experimented with other instrument styles, along with production of guitar strings, though the latter were discontinued after a time. Martin’s success with the mandolin led to the manufacture of such related instruments as the mandola and mando-cello, and in 1915 the firm began making guitars for sale under the labels of other companies, which led to a contract with the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston. At Ditson’s request, in 1916 Martin began producing a new oversized guitar that was named after the largest class of British warship, the Dreadnought. Though relatively few of these were made, this guitar design would later figure heavily in the Martin legend. Around the close of World War I, Frank Martin’s Princeton-educated sons Christian Frederick III and Herbert Keller Martin also became involved with the business, with Herbert handling sales and Christian in charge of manufacturing.
In addition to mandolins, the growing company capitalized on crazes for Hawaiian guitars and ukuleles, becoming one of the leading makers of the latter, after retooling an early design that sounded dull. A Martin ukulele became the first musical instrument to cross the North Pole, when a plane bearing one flew above it. In 1922 the company also introduced its first standard guitar model designed for use with steel, rather than gut, strings, which required additional internal bracing. The steel-strung guitars, which were louder than gut models, were a hit, and their sales grew steadily. Martin also dabbled in banjos, though these were only produced from 1923 to 1926 before being abandoned.
The company’s reputation for quality was now well known, and its instruments were purchased by celebrities including author Mark Twain, silent film comedian Buster Keaton, and country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, whose custom Martin guitar had his name inlaid in pearl on the fingerboard. By 1928 annual production of guitars had reached 5,215, up from 1,361 just eight years earlier. Ukulele production was more than double this figure. To keep up with the growth, the company’s factory was enlarged in 1925 and again in 1927.
Surviving the Depression
From the time it hit in October 1929, the Great Depression had a dramatic effect on makers of leisure goods. At Martin, guitar production dropped by nearly half between 1929 and 1931. Struggling to stay afloat, the company cut wages and even adopted a three-day work week for a time. Martin also began producing other wooden products to keep its craftsmen busy, including violin parts and wooden bracelets. Efforts to stimulate guitar sales with new designs were made as well, which led to production of a number of different styles, including what would turn out to be some of Martin’s most famous instruments.
One new design was the 14-fret neck (frets being the bars on the guitar’s neck which determine musical tones when a string is pressed against one and plucked). Prior to 1929 most guitars were built with only 12 frets extending away from the guitar’s body, but when banjo player Perry Bechtel requested a new guitar design with more frets and a better-braced flat top for steel strings, Martin created the “Orchestra Model” (OM). The new 14-fret design proved immensely popular, and soon was taken up as the standard format for almost all U.S. guitars.
Our Vision: Be the best fretted instrument and string manufacturer in the world, providing the highest quality products and services for our customers while preserving and enhancing our unique heritage. Our Mission:
Concentrate on the profitable manufacture, distribution and service of the highest quality fretted instruments, strings and related accessories. We will investigate and develop new and improved products, methods, markets and channels of distribution .
Another major Martin success of the 1930s was actually an update of a design from 1916. In 1931, after the Ditson Company went out of business, Martin started producing Dreadnought guitars under its own nameplate with bracing added for steel strings. The improved guitar found favor with solo performers, who could more easily reach the ears of a large audience with the boomier sound produced by the instrument. A special top-of-the-line Dreadnought, the D-45 model, was also custom-made for well-heeled artists such as Gene Autry. It featured a generous amount of mother-of-pearl inlay and often had the musician’s name inlaid on the fingerboard. In contrast to standard industry practice, Martin did not provide guitars to celebrities free of charge to help promote the company’s name, but nonetheless received many paid orders for them from stars who were impressed by their quality. The 91 D-45s made before World War II later became something of a “holy grail” to guitar collectors, with the 70-plus surviving examples typically valued at more than $125,000 by the late 1990s.
Martin’s efforts to remain afloat during the Depression were successful, and the company began to prosper once again following the war as the United States entered a period of economic growth. In 1948 Frank Henry Martin passed away, leaving the firm in the hands of Christian Frederick Martin III (his brother Herbert had died in 1927). Frederick Martin, as he was known, took as one of his first tasks a pruning of the catalog, which had seen a profusion of different instrument styles added during the 1930s. In 1955 his son Frank Herbert Martin also joined the firm.
The year 1958 saw C.F. Martin & Co. introduce its first electric guitar, an acoustic model with added electrical pickups. The instrument did not find favor among musicians, however, and later attempts to make solid-body electric guitars and amplifiers were also unsuccessful.
The 1960s Folk Boom
The folk music revival of the early 1960s, exemplified by Martin-playing artists The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, and Johnny Cash, gave a tremendous boost to the company’s sales. For a time customers faced a wait of up to three years for certain models. A new factory on Sycamore Street just north of Nazareth was completed in 1964, and its single-story design (compared with the 1859 plant’s four stories) increased efficiency and production, which reached 10,000 for the first time in 1965. In 1968 Martin hired Mike Longworth, a Tennessee guitar customize^ to resume the practice of putting pearl inlay on the company’s top-of-the-line instruments at its factory. Longworth, also a guitar historian, later published the first book-length history of the firm in 1975.
In 1970 CF. Martin Ill’s son Frank Herbert began to take increasing control of the company from his father (he was named president the following year), and for the first time Martin began to make acquisitions. During 1970 Vega Banjo Works, Fibes Drum Company, and Darco String Company were all purchased. Several years later a drumstick manufacturer and the A.B. Herman Carlson Levin Company of Sweden, a guitar maker, were also acquired. By the early 1980s all save Darco were sold off or folded, however. Martin also began importing inexpensive Japanese Sigma guitars to compete with the tide of Martin knockoffs that were flooding the market, and built a new sawmill behind the company’s plant in 1974.
Many of these changes did not sit well on the factory floor, where some employees had worked for decades, and their parents and grandparents before them. In 1977, after a series of new management directives caused increasing friction, newly unionized Martin workers went on strike. Nine months later they returned to their jobs, but an air of distrust lingered for some time to come.
Hitting a Sour Note
Frank Herbert Martin’s management of the company was turning out to be a disaster. In addition to the failed acquisitions and the worker strike, Martin’s reputation and quality were in decline, with the company even briefly rescinding the lifetime warranty it had always offered on its guitars. Frank Herbert had also sold some of his shares in the company to help pay for his four divorces, and management of the firm was now overseen by a board of directors.
- C. F1. Martin arrives in New York City from Germany, opens a guitar shop.
- Martin moves his business to Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
- “X-braced” guitar design, which improves strength and tone, is introduced.
- Martin opens a new factory on North Street in Nazareth.
- Martin’s son CF. Martin, Jr., takes control of the company from his father.
- Frank Henry Martin takes reins upon death of CF. Martin, Jr.
- Firm begins handling its own distribution, starts building mandolins.
- Fourteen-fret Orchestra Model guitar is introduced; format is soon adopted as industry norm.
- Production of Dreadnought guitar style begins under Martin nameplate.
- Frank Henry Martin dies; CF. Martin III assumes control of company.
- New factory opens on Sycamore St. in Nazareth.
- Frank Herbert Martin is named CEO, begins round of unsuccessful acquisitions.
- Martin employees begin a nine-month strike.
- Frank Herbert Martin is forced out; CF. Martin III reassumes control of failing company.
- C. F1. Martin IV is named chairman and CEO upon his grandfather’s death.
- First Martin signature-series guitar debuts; low-cost Backpacker model is introduced.
- Company spends $6.5 million to expand factory by more than 85,000 square feet.
By 1982, a general decline in sales for acoustic guitars brought the company’s instrument production to less than 4,000, down from 22,637 in 1971. Unwilling to allow the 150-year-old family business to perish, octogenarian C.F. Martin III returned from retirement to try to pull the company back from the brink. In May 1982 the firm’s board voted to fire Frank Martin and replace him with his father. The company continued to struggle, however, and by 1985 the directors began to contemplate liquidating Martin’s assets.
An impassioned appeal from a new, young member of the board helped stave off this fate, however. It came from Frank Herbert Martin’s son Christian Frederick Martin IV, known as Chris. Following his parents’ divorce, Chris had spent a great deal of time with his grandfather C.F. III, from whom he began to learn about the family business. After studying economics and business at UCLA and Boston University, Chris began working at Martin in a variety of departments to learn the company from the ground up. In 1985 he was named vice-president of marketing, in addition to serving on the board, and he became CEO and chairman the following year when C.F. Martin III passed away.
Chris Martin quickly began to put his own stamp on the company. He was particularly interested in reaching a new generation of guitar players, and oversaw introduction of several less-expensive models including the scaled-down Backpacker travel guitar and the “1 Series” model built with computer-aided tools. Martin Backpackers later became the first guitars to ascend Mt. Everest and to travel into outer space, with a Backpacker played in orbit aboard the space shuttle Columbia in March 1994. The Backpacker, along with the Darco string line, was produced at a factory in Mexico that employed 50. A number of reissued versions of classic Martins were also being built, including a reproduction of the famed D-45 Dreadnought that sold for $18,000.
Martin also began to make limited-edition “signature” model guitars named after such luminary performers as Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, and Gene Autry. Part of the price of the instruments, which sold for between $3,000 and $10,000 depending on the design, went to a charity designated by the performer While some sold quickly (including an extra-special $22,000 Clapton model), others proved difficult for dealers to move.
By 1996 sales topped 23,000, a new company record. Martin’s renewed focus on its core values coincided with a revived interest in acoustic guitars, partially due to the “unplugged” phenomenon introduced by MTV (which featured rock performers performing on acoustic instruments). Another development which helped sales was a new generation of microphones that gave a clean, distortion-free sound in amplified rock band settings which had largely been off-limits to acoustic guitars.
In 1998 construction began on a new $6.5 million, 85,000-square-foot addition to the Sycamore St. factory, which had seen a $2.2 million addition less than a decade earlier. Completed in 1999, the space also included room for a Martin museum. The company was now more aware of its history than ever, and had begun buying up prime examples of its older guitars as well as offering daily factory tours to visitors. Martin’s customers now included nostalgic baby boomers flush with cash from the strong economy of the late 1990s, as well as young guitarists interested in a quality instrument with a long tradition behind it. At the turn of the century the company courted the latter with its least expensive guitar ever, the composite-material DXM model which sold for less than $600. Annual production by the year 2000 was over 40,000, nearly double the record-setting figure of just four years earlier.
Revitalized under the guiding hand of Chris Martin IV, C.F. Martin & Co. was in its healthiest shape ever as it entered the 21st century. Its reputation for quality was once again high, its annual output of instruments was growing rapidly, and, perhaps most importantly, Martin guitars continued to be favored by a wide range of musicians, from beginners purchasing a DXM model to top stars who could afford the very best the company had to offer.
The Martin Guitar Company; Darco Strings.
Taylor Guitars; Gibson Guitar Corp.; Jean Larrivee Guitars Ltd.; Takamine Company; Alvarez Guitars.
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