February 28th, 2011

Sostenuto

nancy-80x80In the same way that many New Yorkers have never climbed the Statue of Liberty or attended a concert at Carnegie Hall, I had neglected to visit one of the landmarks of my own community (Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley): the home of the legendary C. F. Martin & Co. guitar factory, located in Nazareth since 1839. Until last week, that is. My sister was here on a rare visit from Arizona, and she said she wanted to take the Martin factory tour. So she and I and our brother made a long-overdue pilgrimage to Nazareth.

To call the Martin facility a “factory” is slightly misleading. “Factory” conjures visions of grittiness and monotonous repetitive motion. Instead we entered along the guitar-neck-shaped sidewalk to find a sparkling visitors center and museum (opened in the 1990s and 2006, respectively), with a modern design that incorporates curvaceous guitar shapes while paying homage to the company’s original Nazareth factory building.

We made a quick scan of the 1833 Shop while waiting for our tour group to assemble. Even the gift selection was out of the ordinary, including items like mouse pads in the shape of guitar picks. Autographed posters of Eric Clapton and other Martin Guitar Signature Model Series artists decorate the wall. Outside the gift shop is a “Play Me” wall stocked with various models of guitars that visitors can pick up and strum. An adjacent soundproof “Pickin’ Parlor” lets visitors try out high-end and limited edition guitars without distractions.

When our tour guide arrived, he passed out headphones and belt-clip amplifiers to make it easier for us to hear him during the tour. We entered the factory through a hallway decorated with display boards showing the various parts of a guitar and where the materials to make each part come from. The guide explained the various hardwoods and their tonal qualities, and briefly discussed the company’s efforts to ensure that all of the wood materials are sourced from sustainably managed forests. Later, I picked up a brochure that explained the company’s forest conservation, waste reduction, and recycling programs. C. F. Martin & Co.  is a member of the Rainforest Alliance (thanks in part to its relationship with rainforest advocate Sting) and maintains Forest Stewardship Council Chain-of-Custody certification to ensure responsible use of forest products. It’s all part of the company’s commitment to the environment. It’s also what gave me the idea for the title of this blog entry (sostenuto is the musician’s Latin term for a note that is sustained).

I was unprepared for what I experienced when we stepped out of the hallway into the main production area. It was much, much bigger than I had expected. And the fragrance! Imagine opening a cedar blanket chest that has been closed for several years. Spruce, rosewood, cedar, maple, cherry…the combination of scents was intoxicating. And the scent was enhanced by the carefully controlled relative humidity of the building, which happens to be perfect for both humans and hardwoods. Compared to the Mojave-like aridity of most buildings in Pennsylvania this time of year, it felt like a pleasure to breathe.

More than 300 steps are required to complete a Martin Guitar. And as this tour makes clear, almost every step is completed by hand. The company has more than 500 employees, and I was pleased to see how many of them are women. No doubt women’s fine motor skills make them better suited to the more delicate processes, such as inserting lengths of striping only a few millimeters thick into the groove surrounding the round opening in the guitar’s body, or skillfully shaving lacquer off the narrow band of plastic that protects the edge of each guitar from dings. A few tasks are performed by robots, but the decision to mechanize those tasks was based on the injuries they were causing to workers. For example, operating a buffer to polish the finish of a guitar body after each of up to nine coats of lacquer was extremely hard on the bodies of humans who were doing it, causing repetitive-motion injuries. So now a robotic buffer grabs each guitar body with suction cups and rotates it to get a perfectly smooth finish on every inch of the instrument. Our tour guide claimed that no workers have been displaced by robots; in fact, more workers were probably needed as the company could fill more orders once the tedious tasks were reassigned to machines.

But make no mistake: Machines are mere tools in this factory, not the masters. The masters are the skilled craftsmen and women who staff each workstation. The factory seems more like a series of workshops, where each artisan fills his or her own niche. Most know how to do more than one task, but all are experts in what they do. During our tour, we watched a man fitting a guitar neck to its body. Each Martin Guitar neck will correctly fit only its correspondingly numbered body, because of the precision with which such workers do their job. The artisan we watched has been with the company for 45 years, and I suspect he would tell you he was still learning his craft.

The corner devoted to Custom Guitars is among the most glamorous. It is here that museum pieces are made. Mother of pearl, abalone, precious gems, and exotic hardwoods are inlaid to create custom designs, often to the specification of world-renowned musicians, such as Paul Simon, Sting, and Steve Miller. Such instruments are, alas, beyond the price range of mere mortals like me.

As our tour left the production floor to return to the visitors center, we passed through a hallway showcasing the many artists, past and present, who have sworn by their Martin Guitars: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Mark Knopfler, Woody Guthrie, Shawn Colvin, John Mayer, Dave Matthews…a virtual Who’s Who of American popular music.

And this was the perfect preparation for what we were about to see next: the Martin Museum. Anyone with an interest in history, music, popular culture, or artistry should visit this museum. Two guitars alone make it worth the trip: the 750,000th and 1,000,000th guitars made by Martin. Jaw-droppingly beautiful, they would make a Fabergé egg envious. Each incorporates hundreds of tiny pieces inlaid with tweezers to form elaborate designs. Here’s a look at the millionth. If you can tear your eyes away from those, you’ll take a trip along a timeline showcasing more than 200 years of stringed instruments, including not just guitars but also mandolins, banjos, ukeleles, and autoharps, along with related memorabilia. A recreation of Elvis Presley’s eponymous tooled leather guitar body sleeve? Check. A fancy embroidered Western ensemble once worn by Singing Cowboy Gene Autry? Check. Dozens of rare photos of guitarists from every musical genre? Check. Showcasing more than 200 instruments, this is one of the finest museums of its kind in the country, if not the world.

If I hadn’t coveted a Martin Guitar before this tour, I certainly did afterward. And thanks to a coincidence, I will make sure I buy it directly from Martin if I do ever get one. The day my family and I were visiting, one of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senators, Bob Casey, was also visiting. But his visit was for more than pleasure. He had come at the request of company owner C. F. Martin IV to discuss the pirating of the C. F. Martin trademark by Chinese manufacturers, who were affixing the trademark to substandard guitars and damaging the brand’s reputation. Besides craftsmanship, I’m sure that these Chinese knockoffs do not adhere to the same environmental standards as the genuine Martin Guitar does, either. So, caveat emptor! If you want the best, only a genuine Martin will do.

[Note: This post was updated 3/1 to correct 750,000,000 to 750,000 and 1,000,000,000 to 1,000,000. Martin has made a lot of guitars, but not quit that many!]

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