Earlier this month the world première of Martin Guitars' documentary, Ballad of the Martin Dreadnought: An Icon Turns 100 was shown at FACT cinema, Liverpool.
A live Q&A was hosted via Skype after the screening where the audience were able to ask Martin Guitars’ CEO Chris Martin IV, Martin Historian Dick Boak and Amani Duncan, Martin's Vice-President their burning questions about their favourite guitar brand.
HOW DID THE IDEA FOR THIS “BALLAD OF THE MARTIN DREADNOUGHT” FILM COME ABOUT?
Amani Duncan:It started out as something completely different, back in 2014 we were putting together a video, a short video to commemorate the 50th anniversary of our D35 and as I was getting the footage back and we were reviewing it with the team we kind of had an Aha! Moment because the footage was so great and we knew we were coming up to our 100th anniversary of the iconic Martin Dreadnought. So we kind of put a pin in it in the 50th anniversary video and we decided to move forward in this new direction and actually make our own documentary. So it started off as something different and then turned into something you’ve just watched a few minutes ago. It took quite some time, I mean we’ve been working around the clock for a year and a half on this project and my biggest take away was experiencing the graciousness and the passion and the love from all the participants that were involved. I mean so many people showed us such kindness and basically lent us their time and opened the doors to their homes and gave us access without any fee or charging us really anything. It’s really just a testimony of the strength of the brand and how people truly love the Martin Dreadnought Guitar.
WHY DO YOU THINK ACOUSTIC GUITARS ARE STILL SO POPULAR TODAY?
Chris Martin IV: Two things that I always talk about, in the museum, I start with the showcase in the museum that has instruments from the time when my great, great, great grandfather came to America and even back then the advantage the guitar had was it sounded great all by itself and it was portable.
Dick Boak: Yes Chris always likes to say that you don’t see them carrying their pianos around or jamming on the Obo! Well you know it’s the sound of wood, it’s a natural, wooden, wonderful, pure sound and you can plug it in. You take your Fenders and your Gibsons, oops!, and plug them in and it’s just not the same, it’s not the pure beautiful sound of wood and that’s what we love.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE MARTIN PLAYER EVER?
DB: I like the pearl inlayed guitars because they have the best wood and the most labour, and that’s not to say the non pearl guitars get bad wood, they all get great wood but we do divide it into 8 different levels and it’s true the pristine style 45 pearl inlayed guitars really are the very best of what we do. But your grandfather was coming from a different position were he liked the plainest, like the style 21 guitars, which he thought were the most tone for the least amount of money and there’s something very pure about the style 28 and 18 guitars that don't have any fluff at all - they just have great tone.
CM: Well look at how simple the original dreadnought were, they were really basic guitars.
AM And for me, since I’m a new player my favourite is the 0028. I’m not quite able to wrap myself around a dreadnought unfortunately, but I’ll work my way up to it.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN TO US YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FISHMAN? YOU SEEM TO WORK VERY CLOSELY TOGETHER, FOR INSTANCE, WHEN IT COMES TO ADDING ELECTRONICS TO THE DESIGN IN A SUBTLER WAY.
Yes always, I mean with us it’s very subtle you know we test something new against what's worked in the past and if it makes sense we’ll embrace it. We probably won’t be the first people to do it, you know we’re not on the bleeding edge of technology but when it makes sense we’re certainly willing to incorporate it into our product. It’s hard to beat what we did in the period of time, from the 1920’s through to the 1940’s - the so called Golden Age. But one of the recent technological advancements I suppose, is the VTS, the Vintage Tone System, which is the artificial ageing of wood to give it a more open sound from day one. So that’s the technology we’re using right now to create a older open sound.
AD: We just recently introduced some new electronics with our partners Fishman, they’re the Aura VT Enhanced, and the electronics are actually inside the sound hole instead of on the side of the instrument and the body of the instrument, and its control that you the player can actually control the volume and tone control and it’s based off of our already popular Aura system. So those have been introduced at the Winter NAMM trade show in January in Anaheim and they are in our new standard series cutaway models. You can expect [the Aura VT Enhanced electronics] to be expanded across the product line in the near future.
WHAT'S YOUR BIGGEST MARKET OUTSIDE OF THE US?
AD: It's been back and forward between Japan and the UK but I think the UK has it and that’s because we have Westside distribution, which is the best distributor in the world!
Japan is probably our second largest export market and they love the traditional Martin Guitars. They’re not so much into cutaways or acoustic electric guitars, they want the traditional standard lines and the customs. We do a lot of custom signature editions with them and believe it or not, Country Americana music is huge in Japan, which serves us well.
DB: I’ve been over there five times and my friends always take me to a place called Rocky Top, which is hard for them to say believe me! And this is a little bluegrass bar, and the musicians don’t speak any English at all but they get up on stage and they say “Good Ole Rocky Top, Rocky Top Tennessee” in perfect southern English. They’re singing American songs and they have all these clubs all over Tokyo for all the different genres of American music and it’s just amazing.
DID YOU EXPECT TO WIN A FILM AWARD FOR THE MARTIN DOCUMENTARY?
AD: We have been submitting the film to every film festival worldwide. We’re proud to say that it’s been selected by five film festivals to date and we’re still waiting on several other notifications.
We went into this with no expectation it would even win one and to be able to say that it’s been awarded five has exceeded our expectations and we’re so very proud. The film will actually be available via our website on May 5th, at 9am Eastern Standard Time. So we’ve been promoting this film for months now and there’s a lot of anticipation around it and we just can’t wait for everyone worldwide to be able to view it, so please direct your customers and friends and families to martinguitars.com as of May 5th and they can watch the full length feature, just like you did.
DB: And you’re among the first people in the world to actually see this film.
DICK, WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE TONEWOOD?
DB: You know I look at tonewood as kind of like different flavours of ice cream because you could like chocolate and you could also like vanilla and strawberry.
Mahogany I think is a fantastic tonewood for its brilliance it's crisp glassene treble response and powerful bass. Rosewood conversely is a much thicker, deeper resonance sound, and those are the kind of two polarities of tone and many of the other woods fall in between. So, it’s hard to say that one thing is favourite. Personally I tend to think that Mahogany is extremely underrated as a tonewood. It’s not as fancy as rosewood but it sure has just a very clean, crisp, clear sound.
I HEARD CHRIS MARTIN IV DOES NOT PLAY GUITAR, IS THAT TRUE?
DB: I think he got forced into it as a child and forced to take guitar lessons from a very stayed guitar teacher that made him play perfect classical form of guitar and it wasn’t fun for him. I have to confess that I went through the same thing with piano, my parents forced me into it, and I wanted to be out playing [American] football with my friends. So the thing that Chris brings to the table (by the way, he is a guitar player), is that he’s just terrible at it!
What he brings to the table is a complete and thorough knowledge of the instrument from a design, from an aesthetic and from a process of making these instruments that you’d be hard pressed to find anybody that knows more about the actual physical guitar than Chris does. And I think that’s true of many of the people in his family. Not many of the Martins were adept at playing the guitar but they certainly knew the instrument inside and out from every angle except for the players angle. And it was C.F. Martin III, Chris’ grandfather, that actually was somewhat adept as a player but he was very humble about it and would never have told you that himself.
I HAVEN'T BEEN INVITED TO THE MARTIN GUITAR OWNERS CLUB EVENT SINCE 2003, ARE THERE ANY PLANS TO GO BACK OT THE ORIGINAL WAY OF INVITING PEOPLE TO VIP MARTIN EVENTS?
AD:It became bigger than we could manage to be quite honest. The Martin Owners Club originally was not exclusively for Martin Owner Club members. So that needed to be changed in, in of itself and then with changing schedule and priorities it just became bigger than we could manage to be quite honest. So the collective decision was to scale it back, make the event only for members and not the general public because members, we felt would be getting exclusive privileges that they weren’t necessarily getting with the big more company wide block party style event. So we scaled it back to a manageable number and we rotated by invite only. It’s just by random people just by registering and then we randomly pick people. Then if you were picked one year you would go into a separate list so can’t attend the second year so that we can rotate through all of the members and make it as fair as humanly possible.
We’ve received such a great response from this because the members who have attended, and this is only our third year now of doing it in this new format, they really feel that they are getting a unique VIP experience. It’s really up close and personal. Chris is there. He pretty much talks and touches everyone there and they walk away with what we believe is a more enriched experience. We truly value our Martin owners and the people who are involved in the club, they are what we consider our greatest loyal enthusiasts, they are the ones that should be given an above and beyond access to Martin Guitar. So we’ve scaled it back and made things a little more up close and personal. People get to interact with each other in a more intimate way and we’re still looking to improve. So we’ve tried this out, I think back in 2011-12 we took a break and year off to kind of reassess and then we reignited it, but we’re still looking to change and fine-tune so if there are any suggestions please email us and let us know. We constantly want to improve and make sure we are providing the best Martin Experience to all of our enthusiasts worldwide.
DB: I hope some time in the future, there are so many Martin owners, there are two millions Martin owners now and I think with that many people who love your product I think there are opportunities to do things on many different levels. We could almost have our own NAMM show you know, we could just have the Martin Show but buying free lunches for two million people might get a little expensive for us.
HOW MANY DIFFERENT TYPES OF TONEWOODS HAVE YOU USED MAKING MARTIN GUITARS?
DB: Almost as long as I’ve been here, and I’ve been here now for forty years, we’ve always experimented with every single tonewood that comes to our attention and I think it’s safe to say that we have prototyped more than one hundred and twenty different species wood in the last forty years and almost every species has some viability as a tonewood. They fall within different ranges. Walnut for example has a darker tone than mahogany, colewood seems to fall between rosewood and mahogany. Cherry is a little more reflective, a little less absorbent than mahogany. Every wood brings something different to the table. I think there are a lot of domestic woods that are sustainable and replenishable that are all good candidates and then there are the traditional tonewoods, and with the traditional tonewoods or the figured woods that are so beautiful, we’re acquiring everything we can, we have to use legal means 100% of the time. But we’ve been acquiring everything we can that is viable for musical instruments.
DO YOU THINK THE RISE OF POPULARITY IN EDM MUSIC WILL SEE SALES IN ACOUSTIC GUITARS FALL?
AD: We talk about this all the time. I’m always the one in the room who’s like “yes, it’s going to change”. I spent seventeen years working on the other side, in the recording music industry side and I worked at record labels EMI, Capitol Music Group, Virgin and so forth and so forth, and we watched trends carefully, we knew that one year pop music was going to be big and then the next year country music was going to be big and then perhaps, you know R’N’B. So we prepared and we built our release schedules based around these trends. You can look at something like Mumford and Sons, they had an amazingly successful acoustic album and then on this last release they basically decided to go electric. Things change and we always have to watch trends and be prepared for whatever new trend is going to happen. EDM music is big, will it take over? Mmm I don’t know, probably not. Who could listen to it for more than five minutes? But there are people who love it!
We have to be hyper aware and know that musical trends and genres, they rotate it’s cyclical but the beauty is that you see the younger generation of players picking up the acoustic guitar and that's something that's really important to us to really nurture those new players. We have a great partnership with Ed Sheeran, who has done wonders for our brand in respect to exposing the Martin guitar brand, a brand that has 183 years of amazing brand equity to an entirely new consumer that may not have been intimately aware of the brand simply maybe because of price point or exposure. There could be a millions reasons but now when I would go to shows to see Ed, fans queued in lines for hours on end and they have there little Martins on their backs. I go up to there parents and I ask them and they tell me their daughter or there son wants to play acoustic guitar because of Ed. We need more of those stories, because we need to pay it forward, we need future generations of people that love the acoustic guitar and want to make music on the acoustic guitar as much as we do. I think it’s an industry issue, I wouldn't say it’s an issue, but I think it’s industry-wide and we should all be paying close attention to this because genres do go in and out of fashion.
DB: Where is Ed Sheeran from?
AD: He’s from the UK.
DB: Over here we have Americana it’s kind of a fairly new genre, but over in the Uk i was wondering if you have Britannica or something. It seems to be a singer/songwriter orientated acoustic leaning genre and I think you have it there and we have it here and I think it’s alive and well.
AD: Country music is huge in the UK, so many of our Martin ambassadors tour here. Jason Isbell and Dierks Bentley was just in the UK. I was really surprised that country music is so popular here.
DB: Country music has taken a turn from the twangy you know “you broke my heart” kind of music. It’s become broader.
WOULD YOU EVER LEND A MARTIN GUITAR TO QUENTIN TARANTINO AGAIN?
DB: Well I’m not sending him Christmas cards, let’s just say that. Actually you know I will say that someone told me a couple of weeks ago that the guitar in its current condition is possibly worth more as a piece of movie memorabilia and ephemera. It’s kind of a sad statement, isn’t it, but we’re moving on. We can make some more.
WHAT ARE YOU PLANNING ON BRINGING OUT NEXT?
DB: It’s all top secret!
AD: One thing we can share, that’s really big and it’s common knowledge is that it's our 2 millionth. A company with 183 years of brand equity, we’re celebrating all the time. We can have year long celebrations about things but a huge milestone in 2017 is that we will actually make our 2 millionth guitar, and that’s something that we are so proud of because not too many manufacturers can say that in this day and age. So that’s something that's big and we’re constantly innovating. Our team are really aggressive as far as keeping one foot in the future and staying true to our routes and being authentic so lots of new items will be uncovered in 2017 at the winter NAMM Show.
DB: You know we did the John Lennon guitar on the 75th anniversary of his birthday which was an edition of 75 guitars and now in edition that is a slightly simpler version of that first model. It’ll be open for three years and that’s a huge thing. If you see McCartney walking down the street could you just remind him of that because we would like to do a McCartney model too. We’d have to make it left handed at no additional charge!