LEWISBURG — A Pennsylvania family has struck a sweet chord at the intersection of tradition and modernity.
The Weis Center of the Performing Arts will host events throughout the day Saturday celebrating C.F. Martin & Co. Inc., commonly known as Martin Guitar.
Founded in 1833, Martin Guitar has spanned six generations and hand-built more than two million guitars. At its home in Nazareth, located about 15 miles northeast of Allentown, more than 500 employees assemble about 240 guitars each day in a factory the size of three football fields.
“We cover the most valuable, best-sounding guitars in the world,” said Dick Boak, director of museum, archives and special projects for Martin Guitar.
New Martin guitars fetch between a few hundred to several thousand dollars
depending on size and build. Customers can select from a guitar series, which offers popular choices or options hand-picked by famous guitarists, or they can choose their own design to be built by the custom shop.
Regardless of the customer’s choice, the guitar is largely built by hand with immense precision. Employees work at their own stations, giving the factory a Santa’s workshop vibe. Boak said the employees receive about three months of training on a task before they work independently.
In one area of the factory, Martin Guitar hosts its own parts shop, where pieces like the guitar neck are cut from wood blocks by machinery. Each of these pieces are refined by hand by an employee — the necks
are chiseled at one station by two employees in a process that takes about a half hour. In other areas workers bend the wooden guitar sides, sand excess lacquer and hand-place pieces of shimmery shell inlay.
At each station, employees take measurements to ensure precision and accuracy for each piece. Boak said even the slightest inaccuracy can mean problems with tone. He considered attaching the neck to the body to be the most difficult step because of the number of ways the pieces can shift, causing the strings to lay unevenly.
A series guitar takes several weeks to build while a customer guitar can take several months. Lacquering is a two-week process because Martin Guitar uses several cycles of applying, drying
and sanding to cover the wood with a refined finish that is as thin as a strand of hair.
“The finish on a guitar has to be very thin for tone,” Boak said. He compared a guitar to a drum, the top vibrating to make sound while the sides hold the instrument together.
Much of the precision required at the factory centers on the need to keep the body of the guitar thin, yet stable. At one of the few stations that uses robotics, the guitars are polished using electronic monitoring that ensures evenness across the body to avoid affecting tone.
Boak said besides thickness, the wood used to build the guitar has the biggest affect on sound. More expensive guitars are
made from more beautiful, perfect cuts of rarer woods.
“The type of wood has a huge impact on the tone,” he said. “If you’re picking for look, you’re more of a collector than a player.”
At the Weis Center event, Boak said K&S Music, a Martin Guitar dealer, will provide a variety of guitars for players to try so they can hear the different tones.
Bluegrass musician Del McCoury said in his headlining performing he and his band will feature several different Martin Guitars. McCoury said his two sons, who play in his band, typically play mandolin and banjo but will switch to Martin Guitars for the event.
“We’re going to give them a little variety of sounds with these guitars,” he said.
78, said he has acquired many Martin Guitars over his decades-long career. He has two from 1936, and many dating to later years. He is also the namesake of two signature models, which he helped design.
“Martin Guitars, they just really talk to me,” McCoury said. “The tone, something about the tone in a Martin Guitar, it just suits my ear.”
McCoury’s signature model is based on Martin Guitar’s most popular model, the Dreadnought. Boak said the 14-fret Dreadnought was invented in 1916 when Martin Guitars sought to find a way to create a louder guitar. The increase in size from a 12-fret guitar provided amplification to produce a bigger sound, he said, and the guitar was named for a classification
of large battleships produced by the Royal Navy.
The Dreadnought style now makes up about 80 percent of Martin Guitar sales. According to Boak, the Dreadnought is the best-selling instrument in the world, overtaking the piano in annual sales about 20 years ago.
The Weis Center series was formed around the celebration of the 100th year of the Dreadnought. The documentary, “The Ballad of the Dreadnought,” will be aired at noon in the Weis Center auditorium, followed by a panel featuring Boak and Pen State Professor Jerry Zolten.
Martin Guitar is also celebrating the 100th year for the Martin ukulele, which are built alongside guitars and mandolins in the Nazareth factory.
“The same amount of work goes into the little baby ukuleles,” Boak
A special display on Martin ukuleles ó which includes the ukulele Tiny Tim was playing when he died ó is on display at the Martin Guitar museum which, like the factory tour, is open most days and is free.
Having the museum on-site allows the factory workers access to historic models, which comes in handy when attempting to design guitars with a “worn” look. The oldest guitar in the museum is from 1934, one year after Martin Guitar’s inception. When Boak strummed the guitar, it produced a warm, mellow tone.
Martin Guitars typically increase in value as they age because the wood becomes seasoned, producing better tone, Boak said.
“We can’t promise guitars will out-perform the stock market, but most guitars have done very well,” he said. “Our own guitars are our biggest competition.”