It’s Monday—got here before I knew it, it seems! Here’s a slightly belated edition of the Monday Morning Blues!
Our monthly examination of famous blues guitars continues with what may seem at first an odd model to include. After all, while Martin dreadnoughts are highly prized guitars, but they are generally thought of as quintessential bluegrass & country instruments, & secondarily as prime rock/singer-songwriter acoustics. One doesn’t generally associate these large guitars with fingerstyle blues—& yet some great fingerstyle blues players have used them.
Although Martin produced dreadnought style guitars as early as 1916 for sale under the Oliver Ditson Company name, the first actual Martin brand dreadnoughts appeared in 1931. The guitar’s name refers to a large British battleship, the HMS Dreadnaught, & indeed, these guitars are large: the upper bout (the upper flare of the soundbox) measures 11-1/2 inches, while the lower bout measures 15-5/8; the body depth is 4-7/8 inches. This size gives the dreadnought a very “bassy” tone, & as such it’s an ideal rhythm guitar, able to define the underlying harmony & even being able to approximate the role of a bass if one doesn’t happen to be around! When dreadnoughts were first designed, the guitar neck met the body at the 12 fret—this was in fact standard for guitars at the time. The Martin Company made a significant innovation by building guitars on which the neck joined the body at the 14th fret, giving access to higher notes; from what I read, this innovation was particularly aimed at drawing in plectrum banjo players, who are used to much longer necks, at a time when the guitar was seriously beginning to supplant the banjo as a rhythm instrument. However, it’s generally considered that guitars on which the neck meets the body at the 12th fret have a superior tone, simply because the soundbox is longer, so Martin re-introduce the 12-fret neck models in 1967. While the 14-fret models are simply designated by the letter D followed by a number in the Martin classification system, the 12-fret models are designated D, followed by a number, followed by an S.
At least four noteworthy blues guitar players used Martin dreadnoughts: these were Brownie McGhee, whose main guitar was a D-18; & Elizabeth Cotten also played a D-18 along with other Martins & a Gibson jumbo. During the 1960s, Skip James played both Martin D-18s & D-28s, while RL Burnside played a D-28 for much of his acoustic material. So while the Martin dreadnought may not be a “classic” blues guitar like a Stella or National, it sure has found its way into the hands of some great players!
The two videos I included here illustrate that nicely. Brownie McGhee’s “Born & Livin’ with the Blues” is a great example of his clean, melodic & even jazzy playing (accompained as he so often was by the great Sonny Terry on harmonica & whoops), while Skip James’ version of “Devil Got My Woman” from the 1966 Newport Folk Festival is sheer brilliance. Perhaps James—one of the most skilled blues guitarists & singers going on even an average day—was particularly inspired by the presence of Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt & Son House: quite an audience! By the way, while McGhee is playing a D-18, I believe James is playing a D-28; I think I see binding on the guitar, which is found on that model.