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Tone Hunting: Inside the Martin Custom Shop Wood Room

Scott Engel • Posted on 11/16/2018 • 6 min read

The Martin Factory tour is an amazing experience that we implore any guitar fan to experience at least once in their lives. At the 2018 Winter NAMM show, we sat down with our neighbors from Martin to discuss bringing some of our friends and customers through the factory for more than just your average tour. We decided to invite a handful of customers and friends on a party bus up to Nazareth, PA for some VIP treatment and a unique experience in the wood room of the oldest guitar company in the world. We sifted through stacks of the best of the best in exotic woods from all over the globe. 6 months later we have a pile of mind-blowing acoustic guitars that beg the question, “When are we going back for more?!”

Factory Tour

Whether it’s your first trip to the Martin Factory or your hundredth visit, you are immediately overwhelmed with excitement and nostalgia the minute you pull up to the front door. Step inside and it’s clear that you’re in the middle of a bustling working guitar factory. Employees, fans and customers are mingling in lobby with a shared excitement that bonds all guitar junkies. From that lobby, through the factory floor, there is an overwhelming sense of family at Martin Guitars. It doesn’t feel corporate or cold, it feels more like high school friends hanging out and working together. Everyone says hi to the tours walking through, some visitors even get a chance to drag a rasp across a neck!

Martin Factory Exterior

Since we had a group of unrivaled guitar nerds with us, we were looking for something a little deeper than your standard fair factory tour. Russo Music had rough plans for a handful of customs and who better to ask for help than our friends and customers. The goal was to build beautiful guitars that sounded as good as they looked.

Mark in the wood room was just as excited as we were to dig through piles of the good stuff. He explained the wood selection process for the Custom Shop. Bookmatched sides and bookmatched backs are meticulously paired for coloration and grain. These exotic woods come in so many hues and patterns, sorting and matching them requires years of experience, heaps of patience and a careful eye. Mark showed the group some tapping techniques used to determine the tone and timbre one could expect from a set of wood.

Martin Wood Room

Wood Selection

We had an idea of what we were looking for, premium and alternate versions of the traditional revered tonewoods we all know and love. The wood room did not disappoint as we dug through stacks of specifically organized sub-sects of material.

Sinker Mahogany

Mahogany is one of our favorite traditional tonewoods. It has a more balanced EQ than a rosewood guitar with a more pronounced mid-range. It works great for all musical styles with its tone often described as “woody” and “organic”.

Sinker Mahogany is a very interesting variation on this staple of the guitar industry. About 200 years ago, when the British were cutting mahogany forests in Central America, they would float the logs down rivers for transport. The densest specimens would occasionally sink and get stuck in the riverbed. Fast forward a couple of hundred years and when you rescue these woods from the depths of the Belize river systems you end up with some of the most beautiful mahogany you’ll ever see. Since these trees were about 200 years old when they were cut, and then slept on the river bottom for another 200 years, what you end up with here is a 400 year old, riverbed aged Mahogany. Colors range from a golden straw to specks of the darkest sediment and everything in between. The lacquer brings out all of the visual nuance of the wood. The runout reflects amazing figure in both directions when you flip it back and forth in the light. Sinker Mahogany is truly a special example of one of the most revered guitar materials.

Riverbed Mahogany

We chose a couple of sets of sinker and built them into a 000 and the unsung hero of the Martin line, the 0000/M body. The 000 is built to be a workhorse, based on the 18 aesthetic with High Altitude Swiss Spruce Top. The ultra-tight grain on the HA Swiss is a result of its extremely slow growth at a higher altitude than any other spruce species. Ornamentation was intentionally kept low on this model, allowing this premium wood selection to live in a lower price point than one might expect.

Martin Custom 000-18 14 Fret High Altitude Swiss Spruce Top

The 0000 is Martin’s “Jumbo” body and only has presence with one model currently in the production line. All we needed was a set of sinker large enough to make into a back for this beast and we eventually found it. The Adirondack top compliments the larger body, but the narrow waist drives more focus than one would expect a dreadnought body shape.

Martin Custom M14 0000 Adirondack Spruce

Cocobolo

Cocobolo is quite possibly the all-star of acoustic guitar tonewoods. It has a natural mid scoop with a strong emphasis on both low end bass response and sparkly top end. Its color palette ranges from deep browns, to all shades of red and bright orange!

Like our Sinker Mahogany, Cocobolo is another Central American tonewood. It is part of the rosewood (Dalbergia) family and has very similar characteristics to the fabled Brazilian Rosewood. However, Cocobolo is one of the densest woods in the family. As a result, it needs to be thinned out to a much higher tolerance in order to bring out its best tonal characteristics. Martin Custom Shop shoots for a spec of .095” for a Cocobolo back to guarantee it shines through. We found two sets of Cocobolo so stunning that we couldn’t resist either. One was large enough to make a big dreadnought out of so we paired it a stiff Adirondack top like you would see on a pre-war cannon. The other became a 00-28, with a top quality Engelmann Spruce top. The softer top allows the concert body to hit maximum velocity on a lighter touch, while the stiff Adi top on the dread ensures maximum output volume when you hit it like a hammer.

Martin Cocobolo

Martin Custom D-28 Adirondack Spruce Top
Martin Custom 00-28 Engelmann Spruce Top

Wild Grain East Indian Rosewood

East Indian Rosewood is one of the most popular guitar woods on the planet. It became one of the natural alternatives when it was clear the Brazilian Rosewood had been exploited beyond repair.

Like other rosewoods, it’s pronounced on the low end and top end frequencies, with a nice mid-scoop and tons of clarity.

“Wild Grain” is a term that Martin uses to distinguish between standard EIR and cream of the crop figure. We selected a piece that looks like nothing else we’ve ever seen before to support a 12 Fret 000-28. The 000-28, like the famous Eric Clapton model, is a wonderful small bodied instrument, great for both fingerstyle and flatpicking. The 12 fret design shifts the body/neck joint to the 12th fret as opposed to the standard 14th fret. While this limits some upper fret access, it shifts the geometry of the guitar, putting the bridge further into the center of the top between the soundhole and bout. The end result is more vibration transferred to the top since the bridge is furthest from all of the stiff points of the structure. This is paired with a slotted peg-head for a stiffer break angle behind the nut as well. All the good stuff is being driven into the top as efficiently as possible for maximum tonality.

East Indian Rosewood

Martin Custom 000-28 12 Fret High Alt. Swiss Spruce

Premium Grade Koa

Hawaiian Koa grows on one island in the entire world. It’s well guarded on the Big Island of Hawaii, as it’s never cut down or farmed intentionally. When a tree falls naturally, that’s the only way it can be sold, milled and prepared for products. As you can imagine, this puts quite a limitation on the world’s Koa supply, and rightfully so. Koa is a stiff wood with strong mid-range and a very bright top end. Once Koa guitars break in, low end frequencies start to bubble up and over time they will develop a wonderful warmth and roundness to compliment that top end.

We found some really great pieces of Premium Grade Koa in the pile with beautiful figure and sapwood. The natural symmetry of the bookmatched tops and back is pushed to a whole new level with figure like this Koa.

One of our good friends selected some Koa matches for a back and top of an all Koa dreadnought masterpiece. We’ve never seen a guitar quite like this one and it sounded excellent to boot.

Premium Koa Back Premium Koa Front

We decided to pair a set of that sapwood Koa on a smaller body 00-42 12 fret. Again using the 12 fret geometry for tone, but pairing the figured Koa with a highly bear-clawed Spruce top pushed us towards putting together a real “full-dress” concert body. The 42 treatment combines abalone purfling around the top including the fingerboard extension. Also dripping in abalone are the peghead inlay, snowflake fingerboard inlays, and the rosette. Every collection needs a showstopper, right? This is the Russo Music Select Winter 2018 Collection “pièce de résistance”!

Martin Custom 00-42 12 Fret Bearclaw Spruce

We are very fortunate to have our stores so closely located to such an important place in guitar history, present and future. To be able to take advantage of our proximity in this fashion is priceless. Want to join us on our next trip to Martin Guitars? Drop us a line.