Strings on Martin Guitars
"Built for Steel"
The first question one asks about a vintage Martin guitar is often "was
it built for steel strings?"
We should make a distinction here between "built for steel", "shipped
with steel strings", "regulated for steel", and "capable of handling
The Martin Style 2-17 Guitar
Thanks to extensive research in the Martin archives by John "Woody"
Woodland, we now know that Martin began the process of shipping their
standard (as opposed to Hawaiian) guitars, with steel strings as
standard equipment, with two Martin Style 2-17 guitars, #16879 and
#16887, shipped to the John Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia
on March 27, 1922.
This is #16879:
The Martin Style 2-17 sold for a price of $25 each retail, $12.50
wholesale, with canvas duck cases selling wholesale for $2.38 each.
The 0-17 and other Style 17
Martins followed, by shipping
with steel strings as standard equipment soon after in 1922
Martin announced the style 18
as shipping with steel strings as
standard equipment on January 1, 1923
The Style 28
was shipping with steel strings as standard
equipment by 1926
Martin did not speak of "bracing" their guitars for steel strings, and
the dates that Martin began shipping guitars with steel strings do not
necessarily correspond to changes in bracing.
So Martin guitars shipped with steel strings can not be identified by
measuring features such as the bridge plate and top thickness or
bracing. In fact, "X braces" were a feature of gut string Martins
that preceded steel strings by some 80 years.
Martin increased the durability of bracing not in the year steel strings
were first shipped, but incrementally, each year, for a number of years
after steel strings were introduced. Martin thickened the bridge
plate in 1927, after they had already been shipping their guitars with
steel strings for several years.
Martin did speak of "regulating" for steel, by setting proper string
height and cutting grooves in the nut to fit the width of the string
Once Martin began shipping guitars with steel strings as standard, they
often shipped guitars with gut strings on request by taking a steel
string Martin from stock, complete with braces designed to be capable of
handling steel strings, and "regulating" the guitar for gut before
So perhaps the clearest physical difference that can be used to identify
guitars regulated for steel is the width of the grooves in the nut,
provided they have not been altered. Unfortunately, most dealers
and repairers of Martin guitars don't yet have an understanding of such
The capability of any Martin guitar to handle steel strings is also
highly dependent on the condition of the individual guitar in question.
Martins made before 1922 and not built for steel strings may be able
to handle extra light gauge steel strings, or silk and steel strings,
but should be evaluated with extreme caution.
Most Martins built after 1934 should be capable of handling medium
gauge steel strings.
The exceptions to the above are the "C" and "G" model Martins, which
were specifically built for nylon or gut strings, and the NY models
built in the '60's, the earliest of which shipped with nylon strings,
and most of which shipped with silk and steel strings, but all of
which were built to handle light gauge steel.
As the year the guitar was built is no guarantee that any individual
guitar is in the optimum condition required to handle the recommended
strings, any Martin should be evaluated with care, and a top that
lifts significantly in the bridge area is a sign that lighter strings
should be used, or that the guitar is in need of attention by a
qualified repair person.
While some consider it sacrilege to put steel strings on a guitar
intended for gut, the issue of whether or not to put steel strings on
a guitar built for steel has been addressed well by Eric Schoenberg,
guitarist and proprietor of Schoenberg Guitars in Tiburon, California:
"The way I see it, Martin had the wrong bracing for gut strings. By
pure serendipity, their X happened to be a phenomenal structure for
steel. Classical players abandoned the Martins as soon as the first
European, post-Torres fan-braced guitars showed up over here in the
early 1920's I believe. These are a lot lighter than the average early
Martin. A friend has a fairly early 00-28 that happens to sound
unbelievable with nylon strings, but in general, these guitars, though
they were the consummate American gut-strung guitar in the 19th
Century, don't make it compared to the newer technology of the modern
classical guitar. However, properly set up with steel strings, they
can be the best sounding steel string guitars ever. You might not be
able to play them as hard as a modern heavy guitar, but that modern
guitar will not have the certain extra-special beauty, sweetness,
fulness and relative power as a good early small bodied Martin with
steel strings. One thing I've been feeling recently is that the extra
light construction needs the proper gauge - too heavy a string can
overpower it tonally, and each guitar will be different. Light gauge
on some of these, even if the guitar can handle them, may be
overdriving a body that vibrates freely in every square centimeter of
it's body, giving a strained tone without the richness of a
As far as structural integrity, Extra-Light (.010-.047) has very
little tension. And if that happens to be too much, the Earthwood Silk
& Bronze (actually made exclusively for them by D'Addario) come in
three gauges, the lightest of which I don't think could hurt a flea."
As luthier John Arnold notes:
"Too much torque on the top can cause it to stiffen up, reducing the
vibration. That is especially noticeable in the bass response. There
is an optimum tension (sweet spot) for a given guitar, based on the
structure and the string height above the top."
Personally, I would only put nylon or gut on smaller, earlier, and fan
braced Martins, but agree with Eric that X braced Martins work best
with light tension steel. I've had good luck with extra lights, and
especially like the Ernie Ball Earthwood 2045 "Silk and Steel Soft" on
my rosewood Martins of this size, and from this period. This
combination can really sing like nothing else you've heard.
Opponents to the idea cite the number of early Martins with destroyed
tops as evidence of the danger of putting steel strings on guitars
intended for gut.
Remember, most old Martins damaged from steel strings were damaged
years ago, not from modern strings, but from a time when steel strings
rivaled the trans-atlantic cable. According to Eric: "Most if
not all steel strings those days were heavy gauge—that's heavier than
our current medium."
Strings for Hawaiian
Style Martin Guitars
It should be noted that the
first Martin guitars to be designed for steel strings were guitars
designed for the Hawaiian Style of music as early as 1916.
Guitars Made for the Southern California Music
In July of 1916, with Hawaiian music all the
rage, the C. F. Martin Co. shipped six samples each, of Hawaiian koa
wood guitars with appointments generally similar to
Martin's styles 0-18, 0-21, and 00-28, to
the Southern California Music Company of Los Angeles, a chain of
Southern California music stores, and one of Martin's largest
accounts. SoCal provided Martin with the koa
wood from Hawaii, and asked that the trim on
these guitars, designed for playing in the
Hawaiian style, be as close as possible to
those of SoCal's popular ukuleles. To appeal to the Hawaiian
market, SoCal asked that the Martin stamp be replaced with the
Southern California Music Company stamp, and affixed decals on
the headstocks bearing the name "M. Nunes & Sons, Hawaii"
and labels inside with either the name "M.
Nunes & Sons" or "Rolando". These
early samples had koa wood back and sides and tinted spruce tops,
but after seeing the samples, SoCal decided to offer all koa
guitars, and to market the three models as the 1350, 1400, and 1500.
The first of the new SoCal models was shipped in November of
These guitars, and those Hawaiian guitars designed
at about the same time for the Oliver Ditson
Company, were the first Martins to be built for steel strings.
And while Martin had previously used fan bracing only for
their gut string guitars in the Spanish Style, and had since
switched it's production to X-bracing, Martin curiously decided to
build these early heavier steel string guitars with braces in the
shape of a fan. The Model 1500, however, for reasons we may
never know, has X bracing.
The first "Hawaiian" Martins were actually not made specifically for
Hawaiian playing, with high nuts and flush frets. Those features
were only added in 1925.
From the time they were first made in the teens, "Hawaiian" Martins
were cataloged with "steel strings and nut adjuster for Hawaiian
playing. Suitable for regular playing with nut adjuster removed."
The "H" models, with high nut and flush frets, were first produced
after the change, in the late 20's.
As you'll see in the new Longworth book (p.234), "Unlike later
Martin Hawaiian models, the Ditsons had conventional raised frets."
The same was true of the early Hawaiian models made for the Southern
California Music Company, the precursors to the "K" models. As the
new edition of the Longworth book says (p. 245) "Although called
Hawaiian models, the guitars had raised frets and were often played
as regular guitars with steel strings, with a metal "nut adjuster"
used to convert the guitar for Hawaiian style playing."
1916 Model 1400 #28,
1919 Model 1350 #14001, 1917 Model 1500
#181, and 1916 Spruce Top Sample with no
C.F. Martin Guitars Hawaiian Guitars Made
for Oliver Ditson & Co.
The "Standard" size Ditson Model 1-21, "Concert" size Ditson
Model 11, and "Extra Large" (Dreadnaught) size Ditson Model 111
Model" guitars, with their wide waisted body shapes
reminiscent of early European guitars, were made expressly for the
Ditson Stores and came in three sizes, Standard, Concert, and
The Extra Large
model, requested by Harry Hunt of the Ditson Company, and designed
with the help of Martin shop foreman John Deichmann, became known
as "the Dreadnaught", and was the first Dreadnaught guitar
The Ditson Models had their own model designations, and unlike
other Martins, their trim level was designated as 1, 2, or 3, but
their size was designated by the number of digits,
ie. 1, 11 or 111.
While fan bracing is generally associated with lighter guitars
made for gut or nylon strings, the Ditson models have the same
style of fan bracing as seen on the koa wood guitars made for the
Southern California Music Company, which were originally made to
be played with heavier steel strings in the Hawaiian style.
The Model 111 was revived in 1923, and 19 more were
made between then and 1930, with standard Martin X bracing replacing
the earlier fan bracing.
C.F. Martin 1918 000-42
Serial Number 13364
In 1918, Martin made their first two Style 42 guitars in the
relatively new and larger 000 size. While one of the two was a
rather conventional Style 42 in the 000 size, this 000-42 was special
ordered by the Ditson Company in 1918 in the style of Ditson's new
Dreadnaught guitars, which were built for Hawaiian style playing with
steel strings. That makes this guitar a rare example of an
extremely early 000 size Martin built for steel strings, as well as a
rare example of a Martin built for steel strings with an ivory pyramid
style bridge. As was true of the early Martin Dreadnaught, and
all of Martin's early Hawaiian steel string guitars built for both the
Ditson Company and The Southern California Music Company, this guitar
was built with fan braces. This guitar was also special ordered
with a cloud shaped pickguard inlaid into the top.
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