This factory keeps on strumming

A Pennsylvania firm invites visitors to see how it makes its famous guitars

I was coming back to the guitar after more than 25 years, visiting my local music store time and again, picking up instruments and strumming the E chord central to my extremely limited repertoire, which dated back to when I played in teenage garage bands.

From the literature I'd gathered, I read that many of the finest acoustic guitars are made in the United States: Gibson in Montana, Taylor in California. But it was the Martins, made in eastern Pennsylvania, that sang to me.

C.F. Martin & Co. has been in the hands of one family since 1833. Clearly there was a reason for this longevity. Over the years, the Martins had produced a great product, the choice of major performers who helped bring the guitar to the forefront of popular music, especially from the 1960s on: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary), Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds (of the Kingston Trio), Eric Clapton unplugged (that definitive performance on MTV), Willie Nelson (yes, that battered instrument with its famous cavern), and on and on.

The list is virtually endless. If a famous musician played guitar, he or she played a Martin at some point. Even Roy Rogers and Gene Autry played Martins.

So I determined to take one of the free tours C.F. Martin & Co. hosts at its factory in Nazareth, Pa., to see how craftspeople put together these instruments.

The factory is easily accessible via state highways north from Interstate 78 or south from Interstate 80 in eastern Pennsylvania, just west of the New Jersey border.

On the tours, which leave at 1 p.m. on weekdays, guides walk visitors through an operation that produces 220 instruments daily, from $600 models made principally of composites to special editions of classic rosewood, mahogany, ebony, and spruce that cost upwards of $10,000.

Immediately apparent is a level of care that transcends the price of the instrument. Some work is computerized, but the vast majority is done by hand. With a sense of wonder, I observed the meticulous care of these craftspeople.

"It takes three months to make a guitar," the guide said, pointing out, for example, that every time a step in the process called for gluing - which was often - the instrument had to sit for 45 minutes before it could be worked on again.

Craftspeople serve as quality controllers for the work done before reaching their station, then carefully check the quality of their own work before passing it on.

There are processes for heating and bending the wood for the sides, bracing the soundboard, cutting the sound hole, meticulously placing mother-of-pearl pieces in the rosette that circles the sound hole, fitting and gluing the edge bindings, lacquering, buffing, and so on.

"When visitors see all the personal care that goes into making a Martin guitar, they understand why they cost what they do," says C.F. "Chris" Martin IV, the latest in the line of descendants who have run the company for about 170 years.

Christian Frederick Martin Sr., the progenitor of the line, emigrated to New York in 1833, when a dispute among crafts guilds in the Saxony region of his German homeland prevented him from plying his craft.

In 1838, Martin relocated his operation from New York's Lower East Side to the rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania. The company moved into its present facility on the outskirts of Nazareth in the mid-1960s, when the American love affair with the guitar had reached new heights.

Many innovations were born at C.F. Martin & Co. - some were nuances in design, others dramatic. Perhaps the most notable was the development of the "dreadnought" design. Named for a class of World War I battleship, the first of these instruments were produced during that war, and were considerably larger and deeper than guitars produced before them. Their shape was less an hourglass than predecessors, and this became the design that is now most associated with the acoustic guitar.

Far and away the company's biggest seller these days is its least expensive model, "Backpacker," a paddle-shaped instrument trimmed of its "zaftig" sides, but widely popular for its durability and portability. More than 100,000 have been sold. Ideal for slinging over one's shoulder, small enough and durable enough to stuff into the overhead rack on an airplane, this go-anywhere machine has journeyed to Mount Everest and even into the heavens aboard space shuttle Columbia in 1994.

While the company's fortunes would seem tied inextricably to the public's taste in music, the market for the high-end instruments is, to a great extent, a mature one, and the aging baby boomers are precisely the demographic that grew up with those sounds of the '60s.

Further, when their children get serious about playing, "they want to find out where their parents' music came from," says Chris Martin. "Then they end up with Bob Dylan; Crosby, Stills & Nash; and those other great performers who defined modern guitar music. In my travels, I see a lot of young people carrying acoustic guitar cases. It has a huge advantage over other instruments because you can take your music with you. There is that great social component to the instrument."

A small museum on the premises recounts the company's history and displays some of its vintage instruments. A store sells books, clothing, and accessories, but don't expect a variety of guitars, or even "seconds" for sale. Only the Backpacker can be purchased at the factory where it's made.

The Martin factory is located at 510 Sycamore Street, Nazareth, Pa. For more information, call (610) 759-2837 or see www.mguitar.com.

Music and more

If you want to see a lot of guitars in action, the time to visit the Martin Guitar factory (see story above) is in early August, when Musikfest, known as America's largest outdoor music festival, takes place in nearby Bethlehem, Pa.

Musikfest showcases many types of acts, from solo artists playing one of those Martins to sultry jazz singers, folk troupes, knock-your-socks-off blues and rock bands, polka bands, even South American string and flute groups. The festival is divided into 16 indoor and outdoor venues, each named with a "platz" suffix, in deference to the region's German heritage.

Headlining the event this summer will be Melissa Etheridge, O-Town, Martina McBride, and the Beach Boys. They will be joined by 300 other performers - more than 1,000 free musical performances in all, in genres ranging from reggae to classical.

While you're in the area, take a cultural walking tour of Bethlehem, which highlights the town's 18th-century history. (For more details, go to www.historicbethlehem.org.) And don't forget the littlest members of your party. Younger children will enjoy seeing how crayons are made at the Crayola factory in Easton, Pa. See www.crayola.com/factory.

Musikfest 2003 will be held Aug. 1-10. For more information, call (610) 332-FEST, or visit on the Web at http://fest.org.

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