Hands-On Review:Martin Guitar's Responsible Guitar-Making Initiative

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Tonewoods in the 21st century and the new GPCPA Mahogany

By Jon Chappell
Senior Editor, Harmony Central

Martin Guitar's Responsible Guitar-Making Initiative

Like many conscientious companies, Martin Guitar has taken steps to reduce their energy footprint. Throughout their plant they've installed energy-efficient windows, better insulation on their roof and exterior walls, and automated controls to turn off the lights when no one's in the room. In addition, they've undertaken such industrial measures as filtering returned air from their dust collection system to reduce cooling and heating costs and installing sophisticated power-conditioning equipment on the larger motors in their factory to facilitate more efficient operation.


But Martin's biggest challenge in lessening their environmental impact has been to maintain their core business—guitar-making—by adapting to two of the world's biggest crises: the rapidly diminishing supply of tonewoods, and the ever-tightening regulation regarding these endangered natural resources. "It's been harder and harder to acquire traditional tonewoods from certified sources—especially mahogany and spruce," says Martin's Dick Boak. "And one by one, the traditional tonewood choices will all become regulated, restricted, or possibly rendered unavailable completely."


Martin works closely with the agency that certifies wood, the Forest Stewardship Council. "The FSC audits the process of responsible wood-harvesting, from the cutting of the tree all the way to the finished product," explains Boak. "They monitor every step. They come to our factory to ensure that every piece of certified wood is correctly accounted for. They check that the quantities match the invoice. And they make sure the loggers are doing the same thing, and that every step in the chain is on the up-and-up.


"The future of musical instruments lies in responsible forestry," continues Boak. "We need to educate guitarists so that they will be more open-minded when considering new instruments made with certified woods."


In moving ahead, Martin is also looking to alternative woods in preparation for the new generation of guitars. "We've tested dozens and dozens of tonewoods to identify what properties make a good guitar so that we're prepared for these eventualities," says Boak. "The onus is on guitarmakers to do our homework and do whatever it takes to make great guitars with the materials available. Our biggest challenge then is educating the public in how viable these alternatives are. Martin is actively moving forward to produce guitars from strictly North American wood species, such as certified cherry from Pennsylvania, and we're constantly looking for other solutions. The trick is to experiment, and Martin has been experimenting for 25 years."

The GPCPA Mahogany—a grand performance cutaway

It's important to remember that while Martin looks to new materials for the 21st century, they continue to build instruments from traditional tonewoods adhering to responsible guitar-making standards. One of their newest models is the "GPCPA Mahogany," from the highly successful Performing Artist Series. The GPCPA Mahogany features the Grand Performance body, Martin's newest shape, with a rounded cutaway for full access to higher frets, and sports Martin's high-performance neck, which is 1-3/4" at the nut, 2-1/8" at the 12th fret, and whose string width is only 2-3/16" at the saddle. This allows the strings to be more parallel than in most other acoustic guitars, fanning out less at the bridge. In other words, the strings are wide enough for fingerstyle but not too wide for flatpicking. This narrow width, near-parallel string spacing, and high-performance qualities of a fast and comfortable feel are ideal for electric players or performers who already play acoustic-electrics but are looking for a more traditional acoustic playing experience.


The neck, back, and sides are crafted from certified mahogany while the top is certified European spruce (ironically, no American-grown spruce is FSC certified yet). The mahogany body is stained with a tasteful reddish color that lends a hint of a vintage cherry finish—a nice blend of the browner mahogany with a suggestive hint of a rosewood variety. But the GPCPA Mahogany is definitely a mahogany guitar, and produces all the qualities for which that wood is famous. "The unique combination of mahogany with the GPC body shape produces a tremendously powerful tone," offers Boak, "at once breathier, airier, lighter, and more crystalline, but not tinny."


The Fishman® F1 Aura is the latest in acoustic-guitar amplification systems, a state-of-the-art technology that combines an undersaddle piezo pickup with digital microphonic imagery. Co-developed by Martin and Fishman and currently appearing only on Martin guitars, the F1 Aura features just two small knobs and an LED display, subtly installed on the side of the guitar. The knob closest to the guitar's soundboard is the volume control. Hold it down for a couple of seconds to invoke the chromatic tuner (good for alternate as well as standard tunings). Touch the knob again and it's restored to volume operation.


The other knob also serves double-duty as a blend control between the pickup sound and the Image sound, or as a selector that allows you to choose among nine onboard acoustic models or Images—studio recordings of the GPCPA using classic high-end microphones that are captured modeled, and stored as onboard settings. The Images included for the GPCPA are actually the guitar itself as it is miked in different configurations. Using the blend control allows you to sculpt a sound that takes the best of both worlds—the fullness and realism of an Image with the punch of a piezo.

A mahogany model for today's performing artist

More focused than a D-18, the GPCPA is perfect for fitting into a multi-instrument live ensemble or a complex mix. The fast and comfortable neck will be welcomed by performers who want to play all night without fatigue, and the F1 Aura ensures you get the purest, most accurate re-creation of your guitar's acoustic tone into your system. And all the playability and great tone of a GPCPA Mahogany is yours to enjoy with a clear conscience.