Big-time music from small-town guitars

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The C.F. Martin & Co. factory is off the beaten path. It's in an out-of-the-way town in Pennsylvania named Nazareth, and it's not even on the main street.

The products coming out of that factory, however, have taken center stage all over the world.

Martin is one of the world's top makers of acoustic guitars, and no doubt you've seen some of the company's models in the hands of a famous person. Willie Nelson has a Martin. So do Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Vince Gill.

The factory is open to the public for free tours, and it's such an interesting spot that Paul Simon, Stephen Stills and Leon Redbone have come to see where their instruments were made.

But you needn't be a musician, a woodworker or a machinist to realize that this is one fascinating place.

"I bet you'll walk out of the tour saying, 'The people that make those guitars like what they're doing,' " said C.F. Martin IV, the great-great-great-grandson of the company's founder. "And that would be inspirational for people who think America can't compete anymore, that people don't take pride in their work."

Pride in workmanship is possible at the Martin factory because most steps in the guitar-making process are done by hand. Many are done with such precision or with such finesse that visitors marvel aloud. Watching a neck being fitted to a body, for example, would make most amateur handymen envious of the skill involved, not to mention the sharpness of the chisels.

A million guitars

The first Martin guitars were built in New York City in 1833 by C.F. Martin Sr., a German immigrant. He moved his shop to Nazareth, Pa., in 1839, and the company has had its headquarters there ever since. From its modest start as a one-man operation, the company now employs more than 700 people. This year, it produced its one-millionth guitar and plans to break ground for an enlarged visitor center.

C.F. Martin IV, the company's chairman of the board and CEO since 1986, is keenly aware of the history. He has seen his ancestor's first models, and a guitar built in 1834 is in the company's museum.

"We're not doing anything different today," he said. "We're just doing more of it.

"We can't survive making 50 a year like he could," he added, referring to the founder. "But we can survive by making a lot of what he made, in a more modern way."

Martin, 48, didn't spend all his time at the factory as a boy. He did visit often during the summers, and his first job was packing guitar strings, six at a time, into little boxes.

Later, he helped on the production line. Laughing, he recalls a task he had at age 8, assisting a worker who operated a band saw. "My job was to take a pusher stick and push the falloff into the garbage," he said. "Today, of course, OSHA would say, 'We don't care if he's the boss's kid, get him out of there.' "

By the time he reached high school, Martin began to think about joining the family business. "I lived with my grandfather for a while and worked ... in the shop. He spent a lot of time with me, talking about the philosophy of what it means to run a company where you make a thing that's the best of its kind."

Martin takes pride in the fact that his company has encountered economic downturns in its history but has continued its production in Nazareth for so long.

"The thing that bugs me," he says, "is companies that, as soon as their earnings drop a little bit, their strategy is to lay people off. Anybody can do that. If earnings drop, and you don't lay people off, that's more artful."

When Elvis Presley shook up The Ed Sullivan Show, you might not have been able to see his hips, but you could see his Martin model D28.

Johnny Cash played a Martin. So did Roy Rogers, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams Sr. and Jimmy Rodgers. Jim Croce, John Lennon and Rick Nelson all owned Martins, as did Jerry Garcia, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.

Bonnie Raitt plays a Martin. So do Dolly Parton, the Indigo Girls, Sheryl Crow, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Shawn Colvin.

Musicians' pilgrimage

The word "Nazareth" makes most people think of a place in the Bible. Among guitar players, it inspires a different kind of reverence.

My wife bought her Martin guitar in 1980 while living in California. She can't think of any other possession she's had for so long, or that she cherishes so deeply.

When it came time to have her beloved "Sadie '80" repaired and adjusted, her first thought was to take it back to the factory.

Martin maintains an extensive dealer network and steers most repair work to its authorized repair centers. Some musicians, however, won't settle for anything but the original birthplace of their guitars, and that's how we found ourselves one summer day in Nazareth.

We were met by a friendly staff member named Lon Werner, who quickly analyzed the instrument. He peeked at the serial number inside, checked to make sure the guitar had been registered and then uttered two magical words: "Lifetime warranty." This is a company that stands behind its work.

The repair shop is part of the factory tour, and Martin has fixed its share of mangled instruments. The only complaint that most musicians have is that they can't bear to part with their Martins long enough to have them fixed.

My wife's reunion with her guitar, three months later, was a very happy day.

Except for a couple of spots in the finishing area, which must be kept dust-free, there are no Plexiglas partitions along the Martin factory tour, and no video presentations. The person leading the tour is almost always one of the people who works some part of the assembly line.

Although you're not allowed to handle things in the factory, understandably, there are wall-mounted displays so you can touch sample pieces and see cutaway views.

The most interesting part of the tour, though, is to see the craftspeople at work. You can observe such tasks as bending the sides (which is done over hot iron), fastening the wooden parts, finishing and polishing, and even the final testing. Many of the workers don't mind if you ask them a question while they work, although in some cases they appeared so focused on their tasks that visitors were afraid to interrupt them.

Exacting process

It takes three to four months to produce a guitar. Many hands touch each one, and production techniques vary widely. One piece of equipment, still in daily use, is more than 100 years old and was built from old railroad parts. Other equipment is computer-controlled.

Every guitar is played before it's shipped, and the company doesn't sell any seconds. If an instrument doesn't sound right at the end of the production line, technicians check to see what went wrong and if the problem can be remedied. If it can't be, the guitar is cut up.

Alas, woodworkers, you're not allowed to shuffle through the factory's dumpster, even though it may contain scrap pieces of prized Brazilian rosewood, ebony or mahogany.

Looking ahead to when such rare woods may no longer be obtainable, the company is making some models from renewable species.

"The cherry we buy is from a tree farm," Martin said, "and comes with a certificate from the Forest Stewardship Council that says this is a sustainably harvested product."

Some of Martin's guitars aren't made of wood at all. There are now models made from high-pressure laminate and models with a brushed aluminum face. These cost less, but the company works hard to ensure that they sound similar to the wooden models. Though there's no such thing as an inexpensive Martin, having a line of mid-price models makes sure that the company is not known for producing "guitars for rich doctors and lawyers," Martin said.

At the high end of the spectrum are the company's "signature models" -- limited-edition guitars designed or inspired by famous artists and usually featuring unique inlays. Andy Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Clarence White, Jimmy Buffet and Graham Nash are among the current featured artists. The company also makes ukuleles, acoustic basses and a slim "backpacker" guitar.

Outside the factory floor is a large wall that contains hundreds of CDs and LPs recorded by artists using Martin guitars, many of whom are pictured with their instruments on the cover. Follow that hallway, and you'll find the company's museum, with many vintage and specially decorated models behind glass.

Though much has changed since 1833, today's Martin guitar has a lot in common with the first models.

"C.F. Martin Sr. defined the company by making great guitars," Martin said, "and all we need to do is just make more of them. That's really our lot in life."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

When you go

Getting there: Nazareth, Pa., is north of Bethlehem, Pa., about 160 miles from Baltimore. Driving, take I-95 north to Philadelphia and then I-476 north. Near Allentown, take Route 22 east and then Route 191 into Nazareth.

C.F. Martin & Co., 510 Sycamore St., Nazareth, PA 18064

610-759-2837

www.martinguitar.com

Free tours are offered Monday through Friday at 1 p.m., except during holiday periods.

Nearby attractions: The area has many other attractions, including:

Dorney Park and Wild Water Kingdom, in Allentown: Amusement park with more than 50 rides, including a roller coaster with a 205-foot drop. 610-395-3724, or www.dorneypark.com.

Bushkill Falls, Bushkill, Pa.: Eight waterfalls known as the Niagara of Pennsylvania, accessible by hiking trails and bridges. 888-628-7454; www.visitbushkillfalls.com.

Nazareth Speedway, in Nazareth.: Motorsports on a 1-mile oval speedway. 610-759-8000; www.nazareth speedway.com.

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