Martin Week: Birth of the Dreadnought

Published on 05 September 2019

Dreadnoughts are like TV, cars, unreliable politicians and Batman.

They are so ubiquitous nowadays, it’s difficult to imagine a world before them even existing.

As we know, though, all things have a beginning, and this is true of the Dreadnought, too.

When did it begin? And why is it called that?

All answers are forthcoming...

Before the Dreadnought

Guitars, like most musical instruments, evolved slowly across the centuries. We can see some strongly ‘guitar-like’ stringed instruments coming out of Spain in the 16th century, often with less than six strings and with a deeper, narrower body shape than today’s guitars. These, we believe, were mostly tuned to C-F-A and D, nothing like a guitar! They often had ‘courses’ of strings, too: pairs of strings like you’d find on a 12-string guitar.

Standard concert tuning as we accept it now is just over two hundred years old. Gut frets (yes, made from the guts of animals, gadz) made way for ivory and then metal frets: the strings were still gut, however, and on classical guitars that lasted right up through the Victorian period and into modernity. Guitar makers like Antonio Torres and Christian Friedrich Martin (that’s C.F. Martin to you and I!) in the 19th Century brought the concept of steel strings in alongside gut. Laterally, steel-strung guitars such Hawaiian guitars became fashionable, played with a metal slide, of course. Steel strings slowly became the norm.

All over the world, folk musicians took up the guitar for its versatility, portability and ease of use. C.F.Martin had been using X-Bracing, as per the German style that he’d learned before moving to America, to make his guitars. That X-Brace proved to be instrumental (sorry) in the development of guitar as we know it.

You see, the problem was that guitars sounded beautiful and were full of rhythm, especially when played with a plectrum, but they were pretty quiet. Banjos in particular were significantly louder, drowning out the gut-string guitars and rendering them pointless as an ensemble instrument. Steel strings sorted that out! Steel strings are louder by quite a margin, and they added a top-end brightness that brought the guitar forward sonically in a group. The X-bracing we mentioned earlier was necessary to counteract the extra pounds of tension of the new steel strings.

So it was, with steel strings and X-bracing, that Martin started to make a name for themselves.

In the time preceding the Dreadnought, guitar shapes took inspiration from earlier lutes and violins, with back angled headstocks and f-holes. The following styles varied but many followed a vaguely ‘parlour-ish’ train of thought. That is, the bodies were smaller, more compact and had a narrower aspect. As players took up in ensembles and the steel strings brought more treble and volume, there became a need for an even bigger sound. Guitarists wanted to play their instruments to ever bigger audiences.

Volume was required.

The Birth of the Dreadnought

Martin invented the Dreadnought guitar as we know it in 1916. They developed a larger, more boxy, square-shouldered body, in order to bring the extra volume and projection required by contemporary players. These first instruments were made for the Oliver Ditson company, who’d marketed previous acoustics by the company. These guitars had Oliver Ditson printed on the headstock (not Martin & Co) and were a slightly different shape to the widely accepted dreadnought shape.

They didn’t sell.

Perhaps the size was too much for guitarists of the time? We take the dreadnought for granted today but that doesn’t mean it was met with instant approval or even understanding back then. Oliver Ditson discontinued the model, and that was it for Dreadnoughts until 1931 when Martin revised the shape and released the D-1 and D-2 Dreadnoughts. The D-1 had a Mahogany body, whereas the D-2 was made with Rosewood.

These models found popularity with Folk, Country and Bluegrass musicians, who quickly took to the power, projection and body of these ‘D-style’ guitars. In addition to the large low-end sound, there was a degree of quality treble to be had, making the instrument very balanced sounding and great for both accompanying other instruments and for taking the lead.

A legend was born.

And yes, the term ‘dreadnought’ definitely does come from the British Battleships! These ships were, at the time, the largest and most impressive boats in the water, something Martin obviously felt with their newest creation.

One way of sizing up the potential tonal properties of an acoustic guitar is to eyeball the body’s silhouette. It gives away clues! The narrower and more pinched the ‘waist’, the less midrange there will tend to be. The same accordingly goes with the upper bout (closet to the neck) in terms of treble, and indeed the lower bout in terms of bass response. Looking at a dreadnought, you’ll see that the waist is not particularly pinched at all, meaning the midrange response is strong. The overall size means there should be plenty of volume, and the shape denotes a great degree of balance.

Of course, this is only part of the story: materials used in the body (Rosewood is more ‘scooped’ and exaggerated, generally, whilst Mahogany is warmer and more mid-heavy) and the inner X-bracing also play major roles in tone production.

 

The Martin Dreadnought

From that point on, not too much changed in terms of this classic pair of instruments. The neck, which had originally joined at the 12th fret, was changed to a 14th fret join, something which has become the norm ever since. The only other change was in their name: the coding changed and the D-1 became the D-18, whilst the D-2 became the D-28. Herringbone inlaid D-28s came around in the 30s, too, further cementing the Martin legend.

Martin created the world’s standard in acoustic guitars with their dreadnought design. Every bit the classic that the Stratocaster or Les Paul is, the dreadnought is also one of the most copied. From budget beginner models to high-end handcrafted instruments, almost every single company who makes acoustics guitars offers a dreadnought. The versatility and rich, balanced sound is just too good a deal to pass up.

However, Martin’s original design, now over a century old, has proven to be the original and best. They offer a wide range of dreadnought models today, both vintage reissues and modern models. In the case of the D-Series guitars (of which all American-made Martin Dreadnought are code-named), the higher the number, the most decorative the guitar.

However you prefer your dreadnought, Martin have a model for you.

 

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