Iconic Guitars: the History of the Martin D-28

October 19, 2018 3 min read

Iconic Guitars: the History of the Martin D-28

There are plenty of acoustic guitars out there that’d we’d describe as “classic.”

“Iconic?” that’s another thing entirely.

In our book, truly “iconic” guitars are few and far between. Often, when that term gets used to describe a six-string, it’s more marketing man hyperbole than true fact.

But, the Martin D-28 is an undisputed icon. With a classic sound, and an instantly recognizable design, it’s theAmerican acoustic instrument.

It could have been very different, though. A mainstay now, Martin’s first attempts at “dreadnought” style guitars weren’t exactly hits when it launched in the late 1910s. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until 1935 that the D-28 finally took off.

Today, we’re looking at the D-28; how it came to be, why guitarists were skeptical of it in the first instance, and what changed to make it the acoustic mainstay. 

Enter the Dreadnought

Martin introduced their first ever “dreadnought” style guitar in 1916. Named after a class of World War 1 era Battleships, these instruments were much bigger than the more common “standard size” guitars of the era.

Those first dreadnoughts weren’t sold with the Martin name on them, though. The company manufactured them for the Oliver Ditson Company – a publishing firm based in Boston, Massachusetts. Marketed in New York under the Oliver Ditson name, these guitars didn’t feature a Martin serial number and were markedly different from their modern Dreadnought counterparts. They featured elongated bodies, designed to accommodate a custom, 12 fret wide (12 frets clear of the body) guitar neck and slotted headstock. 

Martin went on to produce their own dreadnoughts in 1931: the D1 (later to become the D-18) and the D-2 (later to become the D-28). These instruments initially featured the 12-fret neck of the Ditson design; the now-standard 14-fret neck was not introduced until 1934.

But neither model exactly set the world on fire upon release. Guitarists of the early 1930s were accustomed to smaller instruments. The Dreadnought, living up to its namesake, seemed bulky by comparison. Sales, as a result, were initially slow, and for the first four years of its release, the D-28 was something of a sleeper.

Martin, however, realized that there was potential in the new instrument. Tonally, it offered something that standard sized guitars didn’t. Characteristic to the D-28 was a deep bass response – distinct from the clear trebles of standard sized guitars. Standard sized guitars might have been tonally more balanced, but the bassiness of the D-28 made it perfect for use in country music, backing up vocals, fiddles, and banjos in lieu of a bass instrument.

Embracing the unique tonal properties of the D-28, Martin changed tack when it came to advertising. In their 1935 catalogue, they listed the D-28 – somewhat bizarrely in today’s parlance – as a “bass guitar,” putting the sonic characteristics of the instrument front and center: 

"This is the famous 'Dreadnaught' bass guitar, originated by Martin in 1917 and now modernized for the plectrum style of playing. The extra wide and very deep body produces a tone of great power and smoothness, especially fine for broadcasting or recording. Rosewood body, spruce top, ivoroid edges, re-enforced mahogany neck, ebony fingerboard and bridge, wide frets, polished lacquer finish. Dark top on special order at no extra charge."

It was a successful strategy. Guitarists, particularly those on the country scene, began buying D-28s like never before. Four years after its release, the guitar started selling, and, in the following decades, it was established as theacoustic guitar for country players and beyond. At one point during the 1950s, D-28s were sopopular that the waiting time for one was two years

Do you play a D-28? What’s your favourite kind of dreadnought guitar? Share your stories in the comments.



Also in Fingerboard Stories

You can do that in pop-punk?!
You can do that in pop-punk?!

July 19, 2024 3 min read

While punk and pop-punk are arguably defined by stacks of power chords and clean guitar passages, incorporating capos benefits the genre.

They can make some things more accessible to play. In interviews, Mike Ness of Social Distortion said he has a Gold Top Les Paul tuned down from E standard to Eb standard and capos the guitar at the second fret. This is to make playing certain things more accessible and comfortable, accommodating an old injury on his fretting hand. Thanks to capos, Ness can play in different keys.

The Wisdom of Guthrie Govan
The Wisdom of Guthrie Govan

July 10, 2024 4 min read

While he can imitate the greats, his voice on the instrument is also distinct, blending virtuosic technique, great tone, incredible musicality and a healthy dose of humour. All of that has made him an in-demand clinician and very busy player, recording and touring with Asia, Dizzee Rascal, Steven Wilson, Hans Zimmer, and his project, The Aristocrats.

One does not travel this world without gaining experience and wisdom, which Guthrie has shared with many through the years. Without further ado, here is some of the knowledge he has passed on over the years.

The Guitar and American Pop Culture
The Guitar and American Pop Culture

July 02, 2024 2 min read

The guitar has been a game-changer in American popular culture, turning into both a musical powerhouse and a cultural icon. Its influence cuts across genres, decades, and social movements, weaving itself into the essence of American life. From the early days of folk and blues to the electrifying rise of rock 'n' roll and beyond, the guitar has been central in expressing the nation's values, struggles, and triumphs.