Working Man’s Dread: Martin’s D-35 Turns 50

March 12th, 2015

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This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Bob Seger, Dean Gordon Guitars, the guitars of Night Ranger’s Brad Gillis, Jon Haber, James Hetfield’s incredible Black Pearl Kustom car and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at our online store.

The D-35, Martin’s youngest legendary dreadnought model, turns 50

By Alan di Perna

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. A perfect example of that maxim is the Martin D-35 acoustic guitar. Born in 1965 of an impendingz shortage of Brazilian rosewood, it quickly became one of the most enduringly popular models in the Martin line. While it may lack the cachet of classic pre-war Martin dreadnoughts such as the D-18, D-28, and D-45, the D-35 has made a niche as a workhorse instrument, with a rich tonal balance that lends itself to a broad range of musical styles.

“It’s everyman’s guitar,” says Martin chief product officer Fred Greene. “It’s very much a blue-collar piece.”

Nonetheless, D-35s have found their way into the hands of many legendary musical artists of the past 50 years. Bruce Springsteen played one on many of his hits. Johnny Cash’s black D-35 was one of his iconic instruments. Judy Collins is closely associated with the D-35 in both its six- and 12-string iterations. Elvis Presley owned a couple, including Martin’s 1976 American Bicentennial commemorative edition of the model, the D-76. D-35s have also found their way into the music of artists as diverse as David Gilmour, Neil Diamond, John Mayer, Steve Miller, and Van Morrison, among many others.

D-35-Brazilian-50th-Anniversary_insetTo celebrate the model’s 50th birthday this year, Martin has created the D-35 Brazilian 50th Anniversary Limited Edition. With a production run of just 100, the instrument is destined to become a collector’s item. Back in the Seventies, Martin stopped using Brazilian rosewood to craft the D-35’s sides and distinctive three-piece back, but the company is reviving the coveted tone wood for the Anniversary Edition, which will combine a Brazilian rosewood center back wedge with Madagascar rosewood sides and back wings and a European spruce top. In addition, every standard production-model D-35 made in 2015 will have a 50th Anniversary logo etched into the body block, along with a paper label identifying it as belonging to the instrument’s anniversary year.

“I said, ‘Let’s do something with every D-35 we make this year,’ ” Martin CEO Chris Martin recounts. “ ‘And let’s do something more durable than just a paper label, because paper falls out.’ That logo etched on the block will still be there a hundred years from now.”

Like many iconic musical instruments, the D-35 was the product of historical coincidence. Back in 1965, the folk-music boom of the decade’s earlier years crested into a massive wave of folk rock. As a result, there was a huge demand for acoustic guitars. Unfortunately, 1965 was also when Brazilian rosewood became increasingly difficult to obtain. And this was the wood that Martin had long used to craft the two-piece backs on popular models such as the D-21, D-28, and D-45.

“We were really busy in ’65,” Chris Martin says. “We had just moved into a new factory, and we couldn’t make enough D-18s and D-28s. Then someone had the foresight to come up with the idea for the D-35. It was almost like taking a sow’s ear and coming up with a silk purse.”

That someone was Bob Johnson, Martin’s vice president at the time. “Martin would inspect woods, which of course was Brazilian rosewood at the time,” says Dick Boak, director of the Martin Museum, Archives, and Special Projects. “Often, there would be a knot or some defect in the back that would cause it to be put on the second-quality pile. Eventually, that pile grew to be a rather large stack of wood. As it became evident in the mid Sixties that Brazilian rosewood was getting increasingly difficult to acquire, Bob Johnson said, ‘Why don’t we make a back out of three pieces instead of two?’ It seems to be an idea that they liked.”

The D-35 back design consists of a center wedge that’s broader at the bottom bout than the upper bout, flanked by two sidepieces. Because each piece of wood was narrower than what would be required to make up half of a two-piece back, many of the rejected sheets of rosewood could be trimmed down to salvage a usable portion of the wood. “The sheets would tend to get cracked or weird around the edges,” Fred Greene explains, “but you’d get some of that good heart wood in the center.”

“They made a prototype, called the X-35, but it didn’t sound good,” Boak recounts. “It was made with standard D-28 unscalloped bracing with D-28 back bracing, plus an extra brace on the back center as a support for the three-piece back. But this, as well as the peculiar dynamics of the way the three-piece back vibrates, caused the tones to be overly bassy.”

Martin experimented with three more generations of prototypes—known as D-35s A, B, and C—progressing toward an increasingly thinner and lighter bracing scheme. “Every time you brace a top thinner, you’re going to get better sound, as long as you don’t compromise the structure,” Chris Martin explains. “That’s always the give and take with every acoustic guitar: how far do you push delicacy before you end up with a thing that collapses on itself? We had had enough history with the 000 bracing that we said, ‘We can use this. It’s a little bigger top, but we can take a chance.’ ”

“The C prototype, which they ended up going with, had 000-sized top bracing and 00-sized back bracing,” Boak elaborates. “The top bracing was thinner than the dreadnought brace by a 16th of an inch. It’s called quarter-inch-width ‘high-performance’ bracing, which is very thin and allows the top to vibrate more. Martin introduced the D-35 in 1965, with Brazilian rosewood back and sides, of course. The models took off immediately. The D-35 still had a really warm bass response, but the lighter bracing also livened up the tone, so it was really an ideal guitar for vocal accompaniment. It was also fancier than the D-28, with a bound fingerboard.”

The D-35 was also more expensive than the venerable D-28. In 1965, a then-brand-new Martin D-35 listed for $425 as opposed to $375 for a 1965 D-28. Yet, by the mid Seventies, the D-35 was outselling the D-28 and would continue to do so for many decades to come. Being more ornate than the D-28, it made for a slightly flashier stage guitar. Another popular feature was its eminently playable neck. Neither too fat nor too scrawny, it was comfortable for players coming from pretty much any other kind of guitar.

This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Bob Seger, Dean Gordon Guitars, the guitars of Night Ranger’s Brad Gillis, Jon Haber, James Hetfield’s incredible Black Pearl Kustom car and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at our online store.

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