My pastor’s father brought his guitar to church last Sunday and let me take it home with me. It is a 1938 Martin R-18. He bought the guitar just after World War II.
This is an arch-top model, a style that is not considered C. F. Martin’s strong suit. It has a carved spruce top with a sunburst finish. The back and sides are mahogany. The neck is mahogany with a bound ebony fingerboard. The headstock is solid and looks similar to a modern Martin. The tuners are original open Grovers. The neck is nearly straight, with a negligible amount of concavity. The action is higher than I would prefer, and the bridge is adjusted as low as it will go, so this guitar is a candidate for a neck reset. There is a spot on the top just below the fingerboard where it appears that a solvent has dissolved some of the finish. There is also a screw in it that appears to have been related to a now-missing pick-guard, although I can’t find any photos of this model which show a pick-guard. Otherwise, the guitar is in amazingly good condition for a 70 year old instrument.
After playing it a couple of times, I called the owner and got his permission to put a new set of strings on the guitar. The strings were dead, and the tone of the guitar was not very good. There wasn’t much bass and all notes sounded pretty thin. He confirmed that the guitar had not been played for many years, and that the strings were ancient. He told me I could replace the strings. I put a set of D’Addario Phosphor Bronze mediums on it, hoping that new strings would wake the guitar up a bit.
The new strings helped, but not as much as I had hoped. There was a little bit more richness, but compared to my Taylor 710ce, the old guitar sounded like a ukulele. The spruce top of this guitar is much thicker than the tops of good flat-top guitars. I would bet that the top is 3/16 of an inch thick. I think that this thickness diminishes the responsiveness of the top. Overall, the guitar produces a thin tone which lacks harmonics and volume. It just doesn’t sound good. I’m not enough of a vintage aficionado to guess how much the sound of the guitar would improve if it was played a lot. I have read that playing improves the responsiveness of the wood, but I have no idea the degree to which this is true.
I am impressed by this guitar as a piece of craftsmanship. It has had strings on it for 70 years, and withstood the pressure. I’m disappointed in the sound, but Martin arch-tops were never very popular and that was probably on merit. It may be that this guitar didn’t sound very good on the best day it ever had.
Pictures are here , here and here . If anyone has any comments or questions, fire away.
Wow - really cool-looking guitar, Crotalus. What’s interesting is that it looks more like a Kay or Harmoney archtop vs. a Gibson or D’Angelico. In other words, it looks more like a low-end, affordable guitar vs. a Super 400 Gibson or D’A New Yorker which were quite expensive even back in the day. I know some of that is the fact that is in a Martin “18” model which was one of their lowest price points back then, but still.
I love the finish and am sorry to hear it isn’t playing well. I am sure you are right about thick top - they used heavier-gauged strings and it was meant to be really banged on to be heard playing jazz chords in a combo, so I bet they felt a need to have a strong top. I wouldn’t be surprised if they sacrificed tone responsiveness for the sake of loudness/projection.
Having said that, I wonder about the neck reset - if the neck has shifted, it can throw the guitar’s “system” off which would affect tone; by the same token if the neck joint is not rock solid, some tone can be lost since the joint isn’t vibrating properly. I got a vintage guitar’s neck reset a decade ago and it cost me a few hundred bucks - it might make sense for the owner to have that done here and see how it sounds…
Martin made some higher quality arch-tops, like the F-7 and the F-9 . The R-18 appears to be a pretty plain guitar compared to them. The top of the R-18 is carved, as opposed to bent. I know that some arch-top makers used thin top woods and bent the wood over curved braces rather than carve the top. Does anyone here know which was considered the best method?
Do you, or the guitar’s owner, have a chance to play it a lot for the next month or so? This is pure speculation, but if it hasn’t been played much in the many years, maybe the top has dried and stiffened up a bit. Hell, I’ve stiffened up over the years and I’m only 46. Maybe just some good hearty vibrations going through the top will improve the tone. Has anyone else had a chance to play a 70 year old guitar? I know I haven’t, and I’d love to.
And even if it never plays (or played) that well, what a beautiful looking axe! That must be worth a couple of hundred bucks.
Martins are funny, price-wise. A lot of us assume that any really old Martin is worth a fortune, but there are only a few models from a few time spans which go for huge amounts. My 2008 Vintage Guitar Guide says this guitar is worth between 2 and 3 thousand dollars. My friend WordMan, who knows quite a bit more than I do about these things, says that my guide is probably understating the value by a couple of thousand.
The owner is elderly and doesn’t play at all anymore, so I don’t think this guitar will get played enough to loosen up the wood any time soon. I think he has arthritis. I will be returning the guitar to him at church on Sunday. I’m happy I got a chance to play it.
When the owner passes away, I wouldn’t be surprised if his son (my pastor) asked me to help him sell it. Maybe I’ll be able to warm it up then, but I’m not eager for that time to arrive.
More than just combo work, the typical use for an archtop in the 1930s was playing percussive, staccato rhythm chords in a dance orchestra, usually 9-15 pieces with a lot of horns. Chonk chonk chonk chonk, right on the beat with a piano, drum and bass. So loudness definitely won out over tone, especially since in the pre-amplified days it was a very rare band guitarist who got to play a solo, except on occasional recording dates. The string action was purposely set very high then, too, which helped the volume but also assured that only the very best and strongest players could do much with the instrument.