Acoustic trip to the Martin Guitar Museum

Visitors can take an instrumental journey to Nazareth, Pa., to see rare guitars, ukuleles and mandolins

October 28, 2007|By Geoff Gehman | Geoff Gehman,Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call

NAZARETH, Pa. -- Ten reasons for liking the Martin Guitar Museum, a marvelous raft over a three-century-old river of acoustic music:

10. The inviting atmosphere

Visitors are greeted by a two-way display case shaped like a guitar sound hole and a wall quote from Martin acolyte Eric Clapton saying that he'd like to be resurrected as an OM-45. The feeling of a homey history factory, an idea lair, is accentuated by warm lights and comfortable colors, zigzagging display cases and intriguing coves (a re-creation of an old workshop, a pickin' parlor for playing instruments).

Even the benches are engaging. They were made by fabled woodturner George Nakashima, who transformed walnut logs cut by Martin into comb-backed slab sculptures.

9. The fine-tuned timeline

Information is admirably balanced between company history and music history, clients famous (Bob Dylan) and not so famous (Elizabeth Cotten), craft and style. Photographs, letters and graphic panels are intelligently spaced and paced. They smoothly steer viewers through Martin's pivotal role in the guitar mania of the 1830s, the ukulele craze of the 1910s and '20s, the country stampede of the '40s, the folk revival of the '50s, the folk-rock boom of the '60s, the "MTV Unplugged" windfall of the '90s.

8. The great-looking instruments

One of the many treasures is a 1942 D-45 purchased two months ago for $270,000. It's valuable because (a) the D-45 series is fabled, launched in 1933 as a custom order for Gene Autry, then America's most beloved singing, acting cowboy; (b) only 91 D-45s were made before World War II; (c) this D-45 is made of Brazilian rosewood and other rare materials, and (d) it's a happy marriage of expert engineering and aging.

"From everybody's perspective, it's the best sounding guitar in the building," says Dick Boak, Martin's manager of artist relations, the museum's archival curator and chief tour guide with chairman and CEO Christian F. "Chris" Martin IV, who decided the company needed a true showcase/visitor center. "People refer to it as the Holy Grail."

7. The funky-looking instruments

Who knew that Martin made small guitars named tiples, harp guitars and a guitar that turns Felix the Cat into a "Where's Waldo?" game?

6. The fun accessories

Boak regularly sprinkles what he calls "fortifications" throughout the display cases. Here you'll find everything from items such as a baseball signed by Autry (sent by a museum fan who thought it deserved to be placed by a re-creation of Autry's D-45). And you'll see a bobblehead doll of legendary folk-music radio-show host Gene Shay. (He's a dead ringer, by the way, for musician Tom Paxton, a Martin favorite who performed during the museum's 2006 dedication.)

5. The fascinating facts

A koa ukulele owned by seaman Dick Konter, a crew member of Admiral Robert Byrd's first North Pole expedition, is signed by Thomas Edison, Charles A. Lindbergh and other pioneers. (Note: It's on loan to an exhibition of historic ukuleles.) Andy Griffith's love affair with Martins began after he rescued a D-18 abused in the film A Face in the Crowd. The fretboard of the Jim Croce commemorative guitar contains a dime from 1973, the year he died and a reference to the operator keeping the change in his song "Operator."

4. The sly humor

In a room of collectibles owned by Chris Martin is woodturner Michael Brolly's "Martian" guitar, an upside-down model with green paint, LED dots on the fingerboard and eye holes.

3. The warts-and-all approach

Unlike other companies with in-house museums, Martin admits setbacks and step backs. It confesses its '60s electric guitars looked and sounded square in a psychedelic era. It acknowledges the bad years of 1971-1982, when yearly production plummeted from 22,637 to 3,153 because of everything from rising oil prices to the rise of cheap Japanese guitars.

"I don't see much point in not telling the truth," says Boak, author of a 2003 book on Martin limited-edition and custom guitars. "I think the truth is more interesting than some cooked-up story."

2. The interactive future

Boak envisions audio tours led by himself and Chris Martin. He's also lobbied "A Prairie Home Companion" guitarist Pat Donahue to play museum artifacts, including that $270,000 D-45, when the radio variety show plays Lehigh University's Zoellner Arts Center in December.

1. The motto

Frank Henry Martin, the company's head from 1888 to 1945, decided that "Non Multa Sed Multum (Not Many But Much)" nicely illustrated devotion to quality over quantity. Because Martin is much more prolific but still dedicated to excellence, the motto has been modified -- jokingly, says Boak -- to "Many and Much." Either slogan suits a museum crammed with inspiration.

Geoff Gehman writes for the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call.



Showcase for the Nazareth, Pa., luthier's pivotal role over three centuries of acoustic music


Martin Guitar Co., 510 Sycamore St., Nazareth, Pa.


8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; closed major holidays and between Christmas and New Year's Day

How much:

Free, individuals; nominal fee, group tours



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