A Tale Of Two Guitars

by Steven Stone

Reprinted by permission from
Vintage Guitar Magazine On-line Archives

Which is more important, heredity or environment? Scientists have been arguing about this as it relates to humans for over 100 years.   But what about guitars?  How much can different environments change the way a guitar sounds?

Perhaps far less than we thought.   Maybe it’s more important where a guitar comes from than what’s been done to it.

Twins on Display
Arguably, the most fascinating display at last Fall’s Arlington guitar show was a pair of 1942 Martin D-28s with consecutive serial numbers. 

Finding consecutive serial number guitars is unusual, but not impossible (see page 147 of Martin Guitars by Washburn and Johnson).  What was fascinating and truly amazing is these were in ridiculously similar condition.  Both had all their original parts, neither had a neck reset, and both had the same wear in all the same places.  You’d swear they were owned by the same picker who used one on even days, the other was pulled out odd days.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Since they’d left the factory they had been separated by at least 1,500 miles for over 55 years!

History of 82048
Martin D-28 serial # 82048 was made late in the Fall of ’42.  Sent to a store in Kansas, it was purchased by a young man who regularly played dances in the area accompanied by his brother on fiddle.  A year later he enlisted in the Army to fight in World War II.  He was severely wounded in late ’43 and died of his injuries sometime in ’45.  The guitar went to his brother, who moved to Michigan after the war and continued to play dances. Sometimes he loaned the guitar to the guitarist in his band, but mostly the guitar stayed at home.  In 1975 he died and passed the instrument to his son, who did not play at all.  For the next 24 years, the guitar lived under beds and in closets all over the U.S. until it settled with its owner in Seattle.  In 1998 it was consigned to Dusty Strings Dulcimer Company, where it was sold to Richard Orchard, Republic, Missouri.

History of 82049
Martin D-28 serial #82049 had a happier if less eventful life.  It was purchased from the O.K. Houck Piano Company, Memphis, in December of ’42.  Its original owner had it for 56 years, during which time it was mainly used at his home.  It never left Memphis until he sold it to Orchard.

When Orchard got #82048 from Seattle, the first thing he noticed was how similar it was to another D-28 he’d recently purchased from a “...good ‘ol boy in Memphis.”  The grain on their rosewood backs was eerily similar.    “Since they were both from 1942, I suspected their backs might have come from the same board,” Orchard said.

When he bought #82048, he didn’t realize his other D-28 was its sibling.   If you examine them side by side, it’s almost impossible to believe they were not kept in similar environments.  Neither has cracks in the body or on the pickguard.  You would assume they were kept well-humidified.   Spending its entire life in Tennessee, #82049 obviously was sufficiently damp, but #82048 (from Kansas and Michigan) was not.  Only in the last couple of years did it live in the moist environment of Seattle. Their backs are so similar it’s difficult to imagine they do not come from the same log, and quite possibly adjacent cuts.   Even their neck profiles, setup, action, and saddle height are nearly identical.

If all this doppelganger detail isn’t enough, the most astonishing aspect of their similarity is how they sound.  We spent quite a bit of time playing both, and have never heard two guitars that sounded more similar.  How close to each other did they sound?  We’ve experienced greater differences on one instrument with two different brands of strings than between these Martins.  We couldn’t tell them apart.

Orchard conducted blindfolded listening tests and couldn’t do any better than random chance when he guessed which guitar was which.   What is most amazing is that while #82048 has been virtually unplayed for the last 25 years, #82049 has had regular exercise.  So much for the well-worn theory that regular use effects a guitar’s sound.

How did they rate overall?  Both are among the finest sounding Martin D-28s you’ll ever had the pleasure of playing.  Not only do they have superb open-bass response, but their overall tone is even with a typically rich Martin midrange and fine upper harmonics.  Neither sounds tight or underplayed. Both rival any pre-1940 Martin in terms of volume, responsiveness, and clarity.  The term “portable piano” certainly applies.

Myths Debunked
What can we learn from these two D-28s?  Just as with human twins separated at birth, we can see their heredity has a greater influence on their current state than does their environment.  The fact neither has needed a neck reset while both have maintained excellent playability says a great deal about the quality of wartime Martin construction and design.  Perhaps the combination of scalloped bracing with non-advanced X construction was (and is) the best combination for both top stability and excellent sound.   These guitars sounded identical though one was played regularly while the other was not.  Perhaps the common lore that a guitar must be “played in” over time to sound its best is just so much malarkey.  And while going so far to say a guitar’s environment has no effect on its state, these two make a strong case that a guitar’s sonic quality and structural stability are functions of its birthright, not its individual history.

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About the Author
Steven Stone
is a writer for Stereophile Magazine and Stereophile's Guide to Home Theater.  He was a contributor to The Absolute Sound for 10 years prior to his contract with Stereophile.  He has also done work for Creem and Spin Magazine.  He is also a recording engineer specializing in capturing the sound of symphony orchestras using purist recording techniques.  For relaxation, he plays and collects guitars.  He currently has 27 instruments he caresses regularly, including a '44 Martin D-18 and a '37 Gibson L-5.