In search of lost guitars
Updated 12:51 pm, Friday, March 25, 2016
NEW CANAAN — Prized, limited edition replicas of two historic Martin guitars have quietly turned up in a local music shop, but, given the price tags, they are definitely not for everyone.
Tucked away from street view down an alley off of Elm Street stands the doorway to New Canaan Music. Inside is a narrow showroom lined with guitars, ukuleles, banjos, keyboards and assorted other instruments with which musicians of all ability levels can find a proper fit.
But toward the rear of the store, there is a smaller room that caters to the rarefied tastes of the most experienced players and collectors of guitars. In the room, owner Phil Williams keeps his most valuable, sweetest-sounding guitars — a mix of vintage Martins and custom builds made by local luthiers, most with four-digit price tags. Among them are two of the store’s most unique items: a Martin D-28 Dreadnought Vintage 1941 acoustic guitar, valued at $8,599, and a Martin D12-35 1965 50th Anniversary Dreadnought, valued at $5,999.
Both arrived at the store just before the new year.
“Being the only authorized Martin dealer around here, we get a pretty good selection of guitars from them,” Williams said.
The D-28 is particularly fascinating because of the lavish attention to detail with which it was conceived and crafted.
“Martin took the best-sounding D-28 they could find to the Smithsonian Institution and put it in the CAT scan machine so that they would know the exact thicknesses, tolerances, where the bracings on the soundboard affect the sound,” he said.
Down to the tiniest detail, the instrument was hand-constructed, using hide glue to connect the solid mahogany neck, the deep-red Madagascar rosewood sides and back and the Adirondack spruce body.
“You have a classic vintage guitar with all the structural integrity of something new,” Williams said.
The Adirondack spruce is particularly rare because the wood had been over-forested by guitar-makers. Martin is now allowed to use it only in small quantities. The wood is also responsible, according to Williams, for the guitar’s superior sound quality.
“The Adirondack spruce makes the sound more open. It’s freer. It just sounds better,” he said, strumming the D-28, and then a lesser model, to demonstrate the former’s acoustic preeminence.
Across the room from the D-28 and also making its case for back room supremacy is the Martin D12-35. The 12-string has a tighter-grained body, made of Sitka spruce, than the D-28 and back and sides made of East Indian rosewood. It is one of only 183 made by Martin in celebration of the instrument’s 50th anniversary based on what they call a torrefaction system.
“Basically, they bake it at a very high temperature without oxygen so that it doesn’t catch on fire. It’s pre-aged,” said Williams, clearly pleased with the sound being produced as he strummed. The wood used to build a guitar, he explained, becomes more resonant as it ages. The point of the torrefaction system is to pre-age the wood to get the best, most historically accurate sound out of the instrument from first play, though Williams says it is too soon to say whether or not the method is totally effective.
“It’s a new process that they just started last year, so the verdict is still out,” Williams said.
The system already has its advocates, such as Williams’ colleague at New Canaan Music, Jim O’Neill.
“That’s the best 12-string guitar I’ve ever heard or played in my life,” said O’Neill, who appeared less impressed with the sound quality of the D-28, though not with its singularity.
“The D-28 will probably be viewed as more of a collector’s item down the road. Collectors look for something unique, and unlike the other D-28 Authentics Martin is making now, this one is not torrefied. So that may increase its value.”
O’Neill added, “It’s kind of a subjective thing, though. For someone looking for a guitar that sounds exactly like a 1941 Martin D-28, it might be the most beautiful sound they’ve ever heard.”