TME Journal

A Guide to Buying Your First Vintage Martin

No matter how far you spiral into the vortex of vintage purity, remember this: don’t sleep on the sixties. 

Andy Cambria | January 9, 2023

So, you’ve entered the wormhole, read the poetic diatribes on the forums, watched dozens of videos of Tony Rice coaxing jaw-dropping tone from his 1935 Martin D-28, and decided that the sound of the guitar you’ve been playing is no longer inspiring you to pick it up. You want to hear the angels singing, even if you’re just sitting in the kitchen strumming open chords in the first position.

You need a vintage Martin. Welcome to the club.

Now begins the hunt for the heralded “herringbone,” the moniker applied to a Martin D-28 made between 1934 and 1946 because of its now-instantly-recognizable top purfling patterned after a diminutive fish skeleton. They only very rarely come up for sale. It appears one or two sold recently, for about the cost of a starter home in most of the United States.

Well, maybe a D-18 will suffice. After all, it’s essentially the same guitar, made with mahogany back and sides instead of Brazilian rosewood. There are a few gorgeous 1930s D-18s on the market; those will only set you back about as much as that new Tesla Model S.

On second thought...maybe you don’t need a vintage Martin after all. 

That’s right: maybe you don’t need a vintage Martin after all. None of us “need” them. A little bit of self reflection is in order when contemplating beginning a search. Foremost, ask yourself if you can live with an instrument that isn’t cosmetically pristine. Remember, these guitars are almost a hundred years old. They’ve usually had several owners and often multiple repairs. They’ve got scratches, cracks, checked finish, grain runout, replaced parts, and divots in their fingerboards.

If you prefer a move-in-ready guitar, it may be best to focus on vintage-inspired modern instruments: a new Martin D-28 or D-18 “Authentic” will get you most of the way there as far as tone is concerned, and it’ll arrive with no baggage. But if you can’t get that sound out of your head—the open, dry, woody-yet-complex, throaty-yet-warm, rich, full, clear & crisp wondrousness that characterizes a great old Martin guitar—and, very importantly, if the idea of owning a vintage Martin holds great appeal, read on.

No matter how far you spiral into the vortex of vintage purity, remember this: don’t sleep on the sixties

A recipe for 'the' sound

Before we talk about why you should consider a guitar from the early 1960s if you’re ready to buy your first vintage Martin—weren’t we just talking about guitars from the 1930s?—let’s briefly discuss the elements that make up that sound. There’s a more microscopic level of dissection that can be applied to all the forthcoming elements of the “pre-war” Martin voice, but we’re going to stick to the generally accepted elements used by most modern builders interested in replicating vintage guitars.

What exactly does “pre-war” mean? For the purpose of this analysis, let’s say it means Martin flattop guitars produced between 1930 and 1944. (Yes, confusingly, "pre-war" in this sense extends well into WWII). What happened in 1944 that brought the pre-war era to an end? Martin stopped using Red spruce as soundboard material, and they stopped scalloping the braces on the undersides of those soundboards. 

So, the top two elements that contribute to the pre-war Martin sound are a Red spruce top and scalloped braces.

Red spruce, Picea rubens for the botanists among us, is now commonly referred to as “Adirondack” spruce because of the American region in which it has historically grown densely. Martin prized Adirondack for its color and cosmetic appearance first and foremost, but, assuming it is well sawn, its terrific stiffness-to-mass ratio tends to produce the powerfully clear and bell-like sound associated with the most sought after Martin guitars.

1943 Martin D-28 w/Red Spruce Top

To understand what “scalloping” a guitar top’s braces does to sound, first visualize what a brace is: a thin piece of wood attached to the underside of a soundboard, supporting it once string tension is applied. Braces start their lives in rectangular form, and the more wood that’s removed from them (i.e. “scalloped” or chiseled away) the lighter and more inclined to flex they become. Translation? A scalloped-braced guitar will have a top that moves more once its strings are struck.

The takeaways, as they relate to sound, are more bass, more overtone content, more high-end fatness and shimmer, and a softer, more pillowy midrange than a comparable non-scalloped guitar. 

Scalloped Braces; Photo courtesy of marklundguitar

Next on the list of factors contributing to the pre-war sound are Brazilian rosewood and hide glue.

Admittedly, we’re focusing on rosewood instruments, meaning anything with a number “21” or higher in its Martin style designation. We can boil the pot down further to the style “21” and “28” guitars, since most people making a first foray into the vintage game likely won’t take the plunge with a pearl-trimmed style “40” (or higher), and these guitars were no longer in production by the early sixties.

Beautiful chocolate brown color aside, Brazilian rosewood’s appeal resides in its density, which hits a miraculous sweet spot for guitar backs and sides. Brazilian is heavier than Indian rosewood, which was adopted as a substitute after Brazilian rosewood inventory became scarce and international conservation efforts forbade further harvesting and shipment of the prized Dalbergia nigra. There’s a glassy, balanced sound, alongside improved low-end clarity, and a very particular low-mid fullness that characterizes a Brazilian rosewood guitar. These sonic attributes are some of the reasons a Martin D-28 has traditionally been the guitar of choice in a bluegrass or country rhythm section.

Hide glue? Glue can affect the sound of a guitar?

It most certainly can. And it greatly affects the responsiveness too. Hide glue, made from reduced animal protein, dries and crystallizes in a unique way, which seems to impart easier resonance between the parts of an instrument made with it. Why wouldn’t every instrument maker use it? It has to be kept liquid at a high temperature, then worked with quickly lest it dry before parts are properly fitted and aligned. It wouldn’t be a good choice in a production environment where speed and quotas count, but it does contribute a looseness of feel to a guitar built in the style of a pre-war Martin. 

If you’re a mahogany guitar fan, we’re not excluding you from the party. If anything, your ticket is less expensive: Martin was using beautiful, straight-grained, old-growth Honduran mahogany for their style “18” guitars in the 1930s, and they were still using it in the 1960s.

Martin D-18

A D-18 or 000-18 from the early '60s can be a great first vintage guitar, and it will still contain the last item on our list: a small maple bridge plate.

OK, I don’t even know what a bridge plate is!

Well, the bridge plate is the only reason the strings on your current guitar haven’t chewed holes through the top. It’s a thin piece of extremely hard wood (Martin used rift-sawn maple up until the later 1960s) that anchors the ball ends of the strings against the bridge pins. Working in concert with the bridge, this is where the resonance of an acoustic guitar begins.

Keeping the bridge plate as thin and skinny as possible maximizes a guitar’s ability to vibrate, and thereby ring, sustain, and, well, make music. A wider bridge plate, such as the rosewood examples put in place after Martin moved to its new production facility in 1965, keeps a larger area of the top underneath the bridge flatter. That area of the top will move less, and that instrument’s fundamental power will be somewhat reduced. 

Bridge Plates; Photo courtesy of TJ Thompson


If you’re still interested, it’s safe to say that you’ve got the dedication it takes to enter the vintage marketplace.

So let’s bring it back to our original idea: when considering the purchase of your first vintage Martin, a guitar from the early '60s is a fantastic choice. Note that we’ve said “early” '60s. If you’re actively shopping for a vintage Martin, your line of demarcation should be 1964, when Martin moved to their new factory in 1965 and upped their production numbers. Around that time, they made several significant changes to their construction process that resulted in a different tonal footprint.

Here is a list of some of the most salient changes:

Hide glue was phased out by the end of 1964. They began using a shorter “drop-in” saddle in 1965, as opposed to the thicker “cut-through” saddle seen on guitars produced theretofore. Black plastic pickguards appeared in 1966, and while those don’t affect tone, do you really want a guitar with a black plastic pickguard on it? Hollow steel tubes replaced solid steel T-bars as neck support in 1967; the accompanying decrease in neck mass is a big detractor as it relates to a guitar’s resonance and sustain. Large rosewood bridge plates appeared in 1968. Indian rosewood back & sides appeared in late 1969.

By now you know what those choices mean for the tone of an instrument. 


Let’s briefly remember what these 1960-1964 Martins are not: they’re not pre-war guitars, and they won’t have the same sound. They don’t have Red spruce tops or scalloped braces, but they do have everything else (hide glue, Brazilian Rosewood on style-21 & 28 guitars, and small, maple bridge plates).

They will sound different from anything else you’ve got, and they present an arguably more rewarding depth of tone and playing experience. Remember that a guitar made in 1962 is now 60 years old, and it will do things no new guitar can do. Time and air circulation have an undeniable positive effect on wood: when a guitar dries slowly and naturally, its entire structure gets stiffer and less prone to dampening acoustic resonance.

Consider price point, perceived value and a “mystery” factor as well. A great early '60s D-28 may command approximately $12,000—that’s less than a tenth of what a comparable guitar from the late '30s or early '40s commands, and it gives you three out of the five factors we’ve highlighted here.

Older is always perceived as better in the vintage marketplace. There’s certainly logic related to build structure and break-in time that makes that theory sound. But Martins made in 1961 aren’t significantly different from Martins made in 1959. And what’s more, a small number of Martins made between 1957 and 1962 were built with European spruce tops (dubbed “mystery” tops by some uber-fans because of their honey-amber color and corresponding bright tone). These guitars are admittedly rare, and finding one can be a daunting task, but they’re gold nuggets on the riverside of the vintage landscape, often overlooked because they’re “just” a '60s guitar.

When you discover vintage guitars, the hunt can seem like half the fun. But believe us, the joy their revelatory sound can bring is the real reward. So if you’re ready to start your search, focus your gaze on Martins made between 1960-1964. And rest assured that the instrument you’re acquiring will continue to accrue value, even as it revitalizes your personal appreciation of what a guitar can be.

1961 Martin D-21 (SN: 177906)

Martin D-21 (1961)
Martin D-28 (1961)
MARTIN D-28 (1969)