Acoustic Snapshots #2 1943 Martin D-18

by admin on October 12, 2010

Greetings. Welcome to another installment of Acoustic Snapshots, where I bring you information, hopefully interesting, about Martin guitars and Gibson mandolins. Mostly we’re talking vintage instruments here, and we’ll be, you know, of course getting into all kinds of periods, but today I want to talk to you about this guy here.

This is an instrument that is very dear to my heart. It’s a 1943 D-18. Now, the D-18 is actually Martin’s least expensive dreadnought and largest-selling model. These guitars came about in the 1930s, at least with this particular variety, which has what we call – you know, it’s slope-shoulder dreadnought, it’s a standard dreadnought where you have 14 frets clear of the body.

And this guitar, this style, came about in 1934 – this particular trapezoidal-shaped body in its modern design – and it’s still used today. It’s undergone very little changes, at least as far as the shape; the dimensions are identical to what they were in 1934 even on the newest Martin dreadnoughts.

And the style 18, the D refers to the body size, which means dreadnought, you know, sort of a name that came about sometime before 1920 when they were building a guitar for the Oliver Ditson Company. And it was a big mahogany jumbo guitar that the Ditson Company ordered. And somebody mentioned that – it was so big, they referred to it as a dreadnought, which is a type of very large ship at the time.

But, the style was basically kind of tabled for quite a while, and in the early 1930s, reemerged. And I’ll be getting into that style at some point, but this particular instrument is in a period which is considered pretty much in Martin’s golden age. There’re a lot of collectors that really prefer the period about 1935 to 1937, but I think that’s slicing the bologna a little too thin. There are some other great periods that fall into that period up to about 1945. And I’d say every decade has its great guitars.

But, this one is from 1943, and so it’s a World War II era one, and it varies slightly from the ones from the 1930s, a slightly thinner neck. The 1943 guitars had an ebony bar reinforcing the neck rather than steel, because there were restrictions on how much steel could be used in World War II. The tuners on this guitar, of a type, a replica type that was used in the 1930s, but the original buttons, which I still have, are plastic. They have plastic buttons, and really rather cheesy pot metal. And they’re kind of interesting, but didn’t work very well. They were falling apart, so I had to replace them with modern units because I play this instrument a lot, it’s not just a wall-hanger or a collectible instrument.

This instrument is all original, except for the tuners, and the bridge has been replaced. This is a modern replica, at some point you may be able to see these marks on the top where at some point long before I owned the instrument, a large bridge was installed, an oversized one, God only knows what it was from. I have no idea what kind of bridge would extend out this far. Maybe somebody even made it themselves, I don’t know. But, it’s structurally faithful to what this guitar was when it was original. It’s got the original finish.

Now, the styling team, I was saying, the D refers to the body size, the numbers, like 18, 21, 28, refer to the appointments, the wood, the inlays, you know, that type of thing, just the detailing of it. So, style 18 will denote mahogany back and sides.

And this is a very plain, austere guitar. These were not considered the fancy ones. The style 28 is more ornamented, and then style 42s and 45s were, you know, laid in with pearl, but very tastefully, as was Martin’s typical practice. They weren’t just overloaded with all kinds of mother of toilet seat or anything, it was just a tasteful pearl border around the edges of the body.

But, the style 18 is basically bang for the buck. It has a huge sound. A lot of players prefer mahogany to the more expensive rosewood counterpart because it has a real snappy, immediate, responsive sound. I know tone is very subjective, but it’s a very clean sound, it’s a less complex sound than rosewood. It’s probably not quite as much sustain and a little less rumbly, but, you know, generally easy to record and mic.

One of my flatpicking heroes, Norman Blake, when I saw him many years ago, he was playing a D-18. And at that time, I thought a D-18 was a guitar that you would buy if you couldn’t afford a D-28, but that is not so. D-18s are every bit the guitar a D-28 is, they’re just simply made of a less, you know, costly wood. But, the tone of mahogany is really pretty much unparalleled.

And so, I’m not sure what else I can tell you about this instrument. It’s got a tortoise-shell binding around, a colored binding, not real tortoise shell, just celluloid that looks a lot like tortoise shell, and an Adirondack spruce top, and Honduras mahogany back and sides. This pickguard is of a celluloid material, not tortoise shell. Ebony bridge and fingerboard.

Another thing I should mention was that when I had this neck reset almost 20 years ago, I did have to replace the fingerboard. And I have non-standard inlays on here; I’ve got slotted diamonds instead of the little dots that would’ve normally been here. And the typical silk-screened C.F. Martin head decal is on here, which has been a feature on Martin guitars since the early 1930s.

And this guitar, when it was new, sold for $83, and so it was pretty much a bargain. At the time, a D-28 was about $115. So, the D-18 was sold in large numbers. Times were hard, people didn’t have a lot of money to spend, and you could get a great-sounding guitar for under $100, and it’s hard to imagine today. These guitars are worth a great deal of money to collectors now. They’re very, very highly sought after. And I was fortunate enough to pick this one up in 1976, so I’ve managed to hang onto this one. I’ve had other ones that I wish I hadn’t let get away.

But, this guy is my staple guitar. It’s very special. It has, in the interior is what is called scalloped braces, which I’ll be getting into. It’s the type of braces Martin was using at the time, which were a little more ornately carved than the straight, tapered braces that they were using after World War II.

So, very popular, very highly sought-after model guitar, still made today and still replicas of these are being made by companies, Santa Cruz, Callings, Bourgeois. Other makers have taken the Martin construction and kind of put their own spin on it, but they’ve generally been very faithful to the type of wood and appointments.

So, anyway, what does it sound like, at least in the hands of this player? I’m going to play a little bit, and we’ve enjoyed this particular vignette. I’ll be bringing more instruments in, and there’s almost too much to cover. I’ll probably bring this guy back for another round, because there’s more to tell about it, this wonderful mahogany guitar. It’s all mahogany on the back; neck, back and sides. And so I’ll play you a little something, and we’ll see you down the road on another incidence, episode of Acoustic Snapshots. Mike Mullins, thank you.

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Vince Principale March 25, 2011 at 5:59 am

I am the original owner of a Martin D-18 which is registered with the Martin company. I was 17 years old when I bought the guitar and paid $75. for it in 1943. I am now almost 85 years of age, but am still playing guitars including my D-18 which I absolutely love — more now than ever before. I have played many other acoustic guitars, but I have yet to find one that can compare. The deep sounding E and A strings cause a sound from the aged wood on this light weight guitar to resonate with an incomparable profundity. The guitar is all original including its tuners and has had some repairs over the years by experienced luthiers. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would think it rates a probable 8 1/2 cosmetically and a 10 structurally. I have no intentions of ever selling the guitar, but at my age I may not have that many years ahead of me. I will leave it to the family although no one knows how to play guitar.

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