Five days a week, guitar players and enthusiasts make the pilgrimage to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, to visit Martin Guitar. The longtime family-run company, officially called C. F. Martin & Company, makes guitars for popular current favorites like John Mayer and Ed Sheeran. Elvis, three-quarters of the Beatles, Tom Petty and many others have played their instruments. And with a visit to Martin Guitar’s museum and a factory tour, it’s easy to see just why these expertly crafted instruments are so coveted.
Roughly an hour and a half from both New York City and Philadelphia, for an out of towner it can seem like the Martin factory is in the middle of nowhere. But it’s worth the trip — and it’s a great day trip if you’re in the neighborhood.
The History of C. F. Martin & Company
Today, C. F. Martin & Company continues to be a family-run business. The current chairman and CEO is the sixth generation to operate the company. But it all began when Christian Frederick Martin, Sr. immigrated to New York City from Markneukirchen, Germany. Located in the central eastern German state of Saxony, along the Czech border, the town is part of a region rich in instrument making.
Martin himself came from a family of cabinet makers. But apparently he felt the pull of guitars. He apprenticed with Viennese guitar maker Johann Georg Stauffer. But it was a dispute between the Cabinet Makers’ Guild and the Violin Makers’ Guild — both claimed exclusivity on manufacturing guitars — that drove Martin to move to the United States.
He settled in NYC’s Lower West Side in 1833 before eventually moving to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and its large German community in 1838. The company has called the town home ever since.
Martin Guitar Technology
Martin Guitars are known not only for being a highly regarded hand-crafted instruments. There are a few technologies that they feature.
For one, Martin & Company is credited for developing the X-bracing system. By placing wooden struts in an X-shaped pattern on the inside of the front of the guitar, it offers greater support and strength than traditional fan bracing.
Martin is also known for popularizing the dreadnought guitar body shape which is now the most common.
Touring the Martin Guitar Museum
While the factory tour is likely the main draw for most visitors, the Martin Guitar Museum shouldn’t be missed. Be sure to make time to stop in either before or after your tour.
The museum is modest in size but a veritable who’s who of popular music for the last fifty-plus years. Displays give a high level overview of the company, starting with founder C. F. Martin’s roots in Germany, and progressing to current day. Current chairman of the board and CEO C. F. Martin IV even has his own gallery showcasing his varied personal collection of art, instruments and artifacts. The dozen or so displays are absolutely full of guitars owned or played by notable names. There’s really no shortage of instruments to admire.
The Martin Guitar Factory Tour
Martin Guitar’s factory tour isn’t an “experience,” it’s a genuine on the factory floor tour. And, it should be noted, an immaculately clean factory floor. (It’s a fact my husband, who has worked in medical manufacturing, kept repeating.) From a catwalk over the woodshop, where the company mills their own wood, all the way to buffing and polishing the final product, the tour takes you from start to finish.
Our tour guide Devon was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about Martin Guitar. Numbers, statistics, he knew it all. The tour is also surprisingly rich in details about the company’s process. Then again, it would be difficult to hide any secrets with as open and transparent as the factory floor is. You’re literally inches from workers. Some will take the time to look up, smile and say hello while others focus on the task at hand.
The process, in general, is still remarkably and refreshingly very much by hand. That’s part of what allows Martin to stand out from its competitors.
At approximately an hour in length, Martin seems to have considered just about everything for the tours. They hand out wireless headsets so you can hear your guide. On a sometimes noisy factory floor, it’s really helpful. But the one problem is that tour groups are too large. At some stops on the tour, like at a workstation in the custom shop, I found not everyone could see and nothing was done to circulate visitors past so that everyone had a look.
Tips for Visiting Martin Guitar
Martin Guitar have put together a great attraction. Both the museum and the factory tour are free of charge.
As if the museum and factory tour aren’t enough to lure you to Nazareth, they also have about a dozen or so guitars (and a ukulele) set out in the lobby. These instruments aren’t just for admiring, they’re for playing. Simply help yourself!
And these aren’t low-end models. During my visit they had a number of brand new models that had only just been unveiled the previous day at NAMM, the world’s largest music trade-only event. Included on that list are the new John Mayer model, worth nearly $15,000, as well as an acoustic guitar (model D-420 — can you predict where this is going?) celebrating California’s proposition 64 legalizing marijuana.
If you’re planning on taking the factory tour, arrive early. You cannot register ahead of time and tours can fill up quickly. Also, be sure to wear appropriate footwear, that is closed-toe shoes with rubber soles.
It’s also important to keep in mind that there is no seating during the tour. Be prepared to stand for the entirety. The museum, however, has benches. But not just any benches. They have several George Nakashima‘s Conoid benches. In a fun local connection, Nakashima, another Pennsylvania local, used to have lumber milled at Martin Guitar.
Martin is located not far off of PA Route 33. There is ample free parking available directly in front of the visitors center.
All photos are my own.