A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York promises to unlock the true history of the American guitar like the sound of an A-440 pitch from the tines of a tuning fork.
Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin is not only about the works of art, beauty and music that this 19th century Viennese immigrant and artisan created.
It's also the story of how he changed the trajectory of handmade guitars in America.
"He studied in Vienna, and his early instruments looked very Viennese," says curator Jason Dobney. "He got in the middle of a guild war there, and came to New York in 1833 for the freedom to get rid of the guild system."
In Manhattan, he discovered the Spanish guitar -- and began to make history with a handmade hybrid with Viennese, Italian and Spanish influences.
Popular music in America would never sound the same.
"He did it with the woods and the way they braced the guitar," says Richmond, Va. guitarist and collector Ashby "Bridg" Allen. "The "X" bracing system that C. F. Martin came up with is still in use today -- everyone was forced to compete with him to sell instruments."
It's that "X" bracing behind its flat top, rather than the traditional ladder bracing, that gives the Martin its distinctive, booming sound favored by aficionados worldwide.
"For most of its history, Martin set the standard for acoustic flat top guitars," says London-based musician/writer/guitarist Richard "Duck" Baker. "And to a large extent, they still define certain guitar sounds, like the dreadnaught sound of bluegrass pickers, and the very sweet tone of the old OM's and 000′s for fingerpickers."
Allen's collection of guitars includes a 1965 Martin 000-18 model, purchased new when he was 14. Though he's bought, sold and traded many guitars over the years, he won't let go of that one. "It's got a sweet sound -- there's something magical about it,'" he says. "There's a very focused tone with deep, woody basses and a lyrical, singing treble."
The show at the Metropolitan features 22 Martin guitars built by C. F. Martin, and an additional 13 created by the five generations of Martins who've followed him. Five of the guitars came from the Martin company in Nazareth, Penn., with the rest on loan from museums and private collections. Among them is the oldest on record, made in 1834.
Among them is a 1939 Martin that Eric Clapton played on MTV's Unplugged series in 1992.
"The exhibition really shows the basic route of the American guitar," says curator Dobney. "Martin altered popular music for everything that came after, building guitars with ivory fingerboards and bridges, and proportions that were beautifully created."
The exhibition runs through Dec. 14, 2014.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com, where portions of this post appeared first.