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Musical Icon Turns 100

By Mark Johnson: April 19, 2016

During the early twentieth century music became more accessible to the public with the first commercial radio broadcast being aired ca. 1919-1920. At the same time came an increase in public performances with bands playing in theatres to large audiences. Before that period, acoustic guitars were generally played for private performances in the parlour of one’s home. Early acoustic guitars had smaller bodies that are still referred to today as “parlour” guitars.
For a guitar to be heard by these new large audiences it was necessary to redesign it to increase the projection of the instrument – C.F. Martin & Co.’s answer to this challenge was the large and powerful Dreadnought.

Brief History

The Dreadnought was introduced by C.F. Martin & Co. at the beginning of 1916, originally manufactured for the Oliver Ditson Company – a music publishing firm based in Boston who had a chain of stores. When it was first introduced it wasn’t very popular at all in fact they hardly sold any. In 1929 the great depression hit America and one of Martin’s best customers, Oliver Ditson, went out of business and the only guitar in the line Martin decided to keep on was the Dreadnought which was previously known as the D-222. As the 1930’s progressed the big band scene was becoming hugely popular and a need for guitars with more volume meant that sales of the Martin Dreadnought increased dramatically and as a result it became the most copied acoustic body shape in history.

Like with any long-standing successful product the Martin Dreadnought has gone through some significant changes over the years. The first Dreadnoughts made for the Oliver Ditson Company were very different from the Dreadnoughts being produced today. The bodies were elongated to accommodate the wide 12-fret neck and included slotted headstocks. All of the Ditsons produced had spruce tops with mahogany back and sides like the modern D-18s, but unlike today’s D-18s they had different inlays, rosettes and no pickguard. 1931 was the first year that Martin produced a Dreadnought with their name on it – the D-1 and D-2. Another pinnacle point in the Dreadnought’s history came in 1934 when the D-28 and D-18 were officially offered with a 14th-fret neck joint which is now standard today. Other changes to the dreadnought that have taken place over the years are too numerous to mention but include different bracing patterns, materials used and binding.

Why the name ‘Dreadnought’?


The name ‘Dreadnought’ comes from a family passion for history and in particular an obsession with HMS Dreadnought – the largest, most feared British battleship on the seas at that time which gained legendary status as being the only battleship in history to ram and slice in half a submarine; in this case, a German U-29 U-boat. Across the Atlantic, C.F.Martin & Co. had created the biggest six-string guitar ever built so what better and more fitting way to honour this legendary British battleship than to name their Goliath of a guitar ‘Dreadnought’.

This history is commemorated in the MARTIN LE-HMSD 2015 DREADNOUGHT (pictured)

Stuff of legends

Over the decades there have been some truly inspirational moments involving the Dreadnought. In 1933 cowboy star Gene Autry requested a guitar similar in appearance to Jimmy Roger’s 000-45 but in the new larger body style and so the ornate Martin D-45 was born. In 1954 Elvis Presley burst onto the scene playing his 1942 D-18 which he used on all of the famous Sun Session recordings. The Martin Dreadnought has played a singularly unique role in shaping the sound of popular music whether it’s country, folk, bluegrass, rock or pop, artists from Gene Autry and Hank Williams to Doc Watson and Peter Rowan, from Johnny Cash and Jerry Garcia to John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, from Bob Dylan and Beck to Joni Mitchell. Noel Gallagher even purchased a modified Martin HD-28 from Guitar Village which has been used on numerous Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds performances. The Gov’nor also has a very rare pre war Martin D-28 in his own personal collection. When you look at the history of guitar music and band performances it’s easy to see why the dreadnought has been so successful and why it is probably the most copied acoustic guitar in history.

View some of our range of Martin Dreadnoughts HERE.



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