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Why “Fingerstyle Guitars” Have Wider Necks

A Reader inquires as to why there are wider necks on “fingerstyle” guitars.

On the Martin site the phrase, “wider hand-fit dovetail neck to accommodate fingerstyle players.” is used. As a fingerstyle player for over 20 years and a person with small hands, I can’t think of a worse thing to say to me about this guitar. Why would I want a wider neck? What does that have to do with finger style guitar?

          – Fergus from Australia

Spoon Replies:

Thank you for your query, Fergus. The simplest answer is, most fingerstylists want wider string spacing for the picking hand, while players with larger hands are most comfortable with a larger neck.

Wider string spacing allows for all that alternate-bass-note thumbpicking and fingerpicking without unintended contact with strings not meant to be played. This is particularly true for those just learning how to play fingerstyle guitar. And often, once a player gets used to wider spacing they prefer it.

But then, allowing the picking hand extra space means the fretting hand is required to take on more extensive stretches to reach those spread-out strings on the wider fretboard.

In other words, it is a trade-off for those of us with hands of average size or smaller.

However, many accomplished guitarists have longer than average bones in their fingers and thumbs, and the string spacing on a narrower neck feels much more cramped and confining for them. While there will always be exceptions, I believe a greater number of professional guitarists fall into this category. Advanced guitar playing comes easier to those with longer fingers, but they prefer wider spacing, while those with larger hands want beefier necks.

Eric Schoenberg was the influential Ragtime and Blues guitarist who convinced Martin to resurrect their OM design in 1969, with the 1-3/4″ width at nut and 2-1/4″ width at the 12th fret. And his guitar shop went on to commission many other guitars made with even wider necks. Otherwise, all those Folkies from the ’50s and ’60s who played the 12-fret Martins with 1-7/8″ necks were simply used to the wider spacing.

After all, Classical guitars have a 2″ width at the nut, which makes the neck feel a mile wide for those used to steel string acoustic and electric guitars.

The original Martin guitars were intended for professional musicians who played the Classical repertoire, but they had a slightly narrower neck of 1-7/8″ at the nut, and 2-5/16″ at the 12th fret. All 12-fret Martins came with that measurement until the modern era, when they were narrowed slightly to 1-13/16″ for the Standard and Vintage Series. Some others have a 1-3/4″ neck.

The first 14-fret guitar invented by Martin in 1929 was a special order for a famous banjoist who wanted a steel string guitar with a longer neck and a narrower fingerboard than Martin was making at that time. This design was used for the first Martin OM models and had a 1-3/4″ width at the nut and 2-1/4″ at the 12th fret, and 2-3/8″ or 2-5/16″ string spacing. They have been considered the quintessential fingerstyle guitar ever since, in terms of 14-fret instruments.

When Martin converted all their body sizes to a 14-fret “Orchestra Model” design in 1934, they got a 1-3/4″ neck and the string spacing was standardized at 2-5/16″.

They moved to the 1-11/16″ neck in 1939, which is 2-1/8″ wide at the 12th fret and has 2-1/8″ string spacing.  But the necks in those days were a lot thicker, to account for the tension of steel strings without an adjustable truss rod, which Martin did not start using until 1985, when they introduced their Low Profile neck shape.

A fatter neck requires the fingers to travel farther out and around to reach their destination. So players with longer fingers and thumbs find modern narrow necks feel even more cramped than older guitars with the same fingerboard width.

This is why Martin’s new High Performance neck has a 1-3/4″ width, even though it otherwise retained the 2-1/8″ measurement at the 12th fret. The area down by the nut felt too cramped for most players when the neck had a shallow profile and 1-11/16″ width, so they made it a little wider down in the “cowboy chord” area to compensate for their shallow Modified Low Oval profile. And the wider nut allowed them to increase the string spacing a little bit as well.

But while Martin was once the trendsetter when it came to things like guitar necks, they were quite late coming to this adjustment, as Taylor and many other guitar makers had been doing this for years. The idea is to have a compromise that will hopefully appeal to the widest population of players who want comfort and just enough space for fingerpicking.

The Martins with traditionally neck widths are there for those who want or need all that extra room and girth. And their Custom Shop will make most any model with any neck size and shape.

I certainly relate to your concerns. I was one of the players who converted from the low, narrow modern guitar necks of the 1970s when I began to develop my fingerstyle technique in the 1990s. The wider string spacing on traditional OMs gave my picking hand the room it wanted, even if the fretting hand faced a greater degree of difficulty, particularly with a vintage-style V neck.

Only in recent years have I returned to the 1-11/16″ Low Profile neck, due to some injury issues and the fact I often have to do all sorts of thumb-fretted Jazz chords. I discovered my fingerstyle technique is disciplined enough these days that I barely notice the lack of space over the sound hole. But my fretting hand is much happier.

While most of my guitars have the traditional OM width, I could never get on with the 1-13/16″ width at nut, and 1-7/8″ is out of the question. I probably should have been playing the narrower 1-11/16″ neck all these many years.

But I am the exception rather than the rule.

There is some irony in the fact that modern alternate-thumb style fingerpicking is named for Merle Travis, who wanted as narrow a neck as possible, because he had short digits and did so much thumb-fretting. But he was exceptional in all regards, including the fact he did all his fancy picking with only his thumb and index finger.

But when you watch Jimi Hendrix play, it is obvious just how long are his fingers and especially his thumb. All the way up the neck he can barre four or five strings with his thumb and still make chord shapes and play lead riffs with his fingers. Richie Havens had one of those thumbs too.

Stephen Stills plays fat Martin necks from the 1930s and makes the basic open C chord with his thumb coming around to fret both the E and A strings at the third position, while his fingers do all sorts of things upon the strings. Leo Kottke’s scimitar-shaped thumbs are so long they look like they have extra bones in them, and we all know how capable is his playing.

I can’t do any of that stuff on even the lowest, narrowest necks made for acoustic guitars.

But once I realized all these guys were actually mutants, I no longer felt bad that I could not play everything they could play as easy as pie. And I also figured out that I need not play wider necks for fingerstyle just because the “rule of thumb” says to.

I just needed to find the neck and string spacing my own hands could play, with the most comfort and facility.

Fortunately, Martin continues to make guitars with necks and string spacing that allow almost everyone to find something that works for them. And most other guitar makers will have some custom shop parameters that can accommodate most of their potential customers as well.

And that is one man’s word on…

Why “Fingerstyle Guitars” Have Wider Necks

 

 

 

Scalloped Bracing vs. Non-Scalloped? – Reader Q & A

A reader asks about scalloped bracing and the tonal differences compared to straight (non-scalloped)  bracing.

I always wonder about straight vs scalloped bracing over time/aging, especially on Martin dreadnoughts made of Indian rosewood and Sitka Spruce.

I read some people saying that over time straight braced guitars will open up and have bigger bass, and it’s just right, not too big, not too tight. (Thinking, for instance, of the D-28). Is this right? What about the scalloped bracing will turn over time? Thank you!

Silanto, in TBA

Spoon Replies:

All such guitars will open up. And the inherent tonal properties of each will increase as time goes by.

I have often been around a 2000 D-28 and a 1990s HD-28, and often in the same room at the same time. It makes for an obvious and enjoyable comparison.

The HD has a much more echoing cavern kind of tone under more precise spider web trebles and a bass E string that has a lot of thunk to it, which seems directly connected to the undertone.

The D-28 had string notes that are more solid and sit up on top of the undertone with a lot of clarity, like each note is a well-shaped log laid out on top of a thick slab with only the underside of each log resting upon that thick undertone cushion.  The undertone presence comes up to them, but does not swamp them. The trebles are thicker relative to the HD spider webs, and the bottom bass string stays very well defined, There is a discernible edge to bass end of the voice, and it does not thunk in the same fat unfocused way the HD does. The HD does not have an edge to the bass end of the voice, but is more diffuse with no clear horizon.

I used to like the straight braced sound, but found the scalloped bracing dread sound too reverby, with notes that did not stand out with the same strength and were embraced too much by the undertone. In fact, I was the original owner of the D-28 mentioned above.

I have come to love the scalloped dread sound a lot. But I really like it best as a solo instrument. I love how the straight braced D-28 has such a uncluttered clarity in ensemble playing, the individual notes are like little pen lights in all that sound of guitar, accordion, bouzouki, etc. The HD sounds more like each note has a warmer halo around it and meshes more into the mix and the low E sounds more bass player throbbing and not as cut and defined.

However, I like them both and love the fact they sound like siblings with different personalities, and they sound best of all when playing together.

Your results may vary.

 

Why 2-3/16″ string spacing, not 2-5/32″? – Reader Q & A

A reader asks why his custom Martin has the string spacing it does.

Leslie in Tennessee writes:

Ok, I guess I’m a guitar geek because I love all of this information! And, it makes me wonder about mine….

Long story short, I played a lot of different Martins, figuring out what I liked. I ended up with a custom, a 000-28, Adi top with 1/4″ scalloped Adi braces, and a 1-3/4″ short-scale mod-low-oval neck.

I did specify short-scale and the 1-3/4″ nut; but I didn’t specify a width for the 12th fret: looking at the build sheet specs, it shows it at 2-1/8″, not a surprise.

But this string spacing is not 2-5/32″, it’s 2-3/16″ (which would be 2-6/32″.)

It’s great, I’m not complaining all, just geeking out, wondering why my custom Martin has wider spacing.

Spoon replies:

First of all, allow me to congratulate you on your taste in guitars.

I have a custom short-scale rosewood 000 with Adirondack top and 1/4″ bracing as well. But mine has the Golden Era neck and 5/16″ string spacing, having been made before all this modern taper business came about.

Your mystery is easily solved. My inner Sherlock Holmes deduces that your guitar was ordered before 2016 and the Custom Shop “starter model” was an OM-28, made with the customizations you requested.

Therefore, it would by default have the High Performance taper and corresponding string spacing of 2-3/16″, which Martin changed to 2-5/32″ in January, 2016.

The change came because the right people in the right places (probably touring professionals who Martin actually listens to) complained that it was too easy to pull the high E string off the frets up near the neck. This is an issue I have dubbed string “derailment.”

According to Tim Teel at Martin, “the difference in spacing is literally the width of a unwound light gauge E string.” But he feels it is enough to correct the issue.

When it comes to necks with a modern taper, Taylor and Collings use 2-3/16″ string spacing, as do other brands. So Martin went with that for their new taper, at first.

I have heard of the derailment issue from Collings and Taylor players, but not players of Huss & Dalton guitars, which actually have even wider string spacing of 2-7/32″ for their standard 1-3/4″ neck taper.

H&D does not base anything on the fretboard width at the12th fret. I called to ask, and Mark Dalton told me the measurement there is 2.184″, a smidge narrower than 2-3/16″. So its wider at the 12th fret on their standard taper than on that of Taylor, Collings, or Martin’s High Performance taper, if not by much.

Personally, I believe it is an issue for any guitar with frets cut at too steep an angle, too far into the fret, regardless of the string spacing or taper. But having the string closer to the edge certainly increases the odds of a derailment happening.

The times I have encountered this issue tended to be specific to a guitar, not a across multiple examples of the same model. And I tend to naturally adjust my playing over time to compensate for the occasional derailment of the string.

Since your guitar has the short-scale neck, the string spacing will not be exactly the same as on a long-scale Martin at any point along the string, except right where it terminates at the saddle and nut. If I remember correctly, the strings widen farther up the neck relative to long-scale guitars.

So you may never experience the derailment issue. Plus, your frets might not be cut as severely as guitars that have the issue.

Martin OMC-Aura – Reader Q&A

A reader seeks information regarding his Martin OMC-Aura

Great Site with informative info. I had opportunity to purchase a Martin OMC-Aura couple of years ago. I liked the sound but didn’t know much about them, and never see any information about them on the different sites. 

Apparently not highly regarded, I would like to know any insight into their history, attributes, faults etc.

Thanks, Charlie D

Spoon Replies:

Hi Charlie, and thank you for the nice compliment about the site. And congratulations on your Martin OMC-Aura.

I do not know if you purchased one of the actual OMC-Aura guitars, or if you acquired a custom that was ordered from a dealer like Guitar Center after the model was discontinued. So this reply is focusing on the original model. Later dealer customs may have more updated technology.

The OMC-Aura and its dreadnought counterpart the DC-Aura suffered some in terms of reputation, mainly because they were new and different. Martin loving traditionalists love Martin tradition. And when the Aura models first appeared they broke with many Martin traditions.

While they were made from the same Indian rosewood and Sitka spruce used on guitars from Martin’s Standard Series and Vintage Series, the Auras had a different neck shape, different neck joint, different bracing, a cutaway body that had fancy, non-traditional appointments, and high-tech electronics inside that protruded to the outside in the way of side-mounted controls, which all added up to a very non-traditional Martin guitar.

Pick your poison, some will disapprove of pearl trim on a guitar not in the lofty 40 Series, others will decry the non-traditional hexagons, even if they are C.F. Martin IV’s favorite fret markers. Some others will not like the way it feels, or sounds compared to other Martins, while others yet will find the very practical electronic controls offensive to their old fashioned sensibilities, not to mention a cutaway that reminds them that they never learned to play a guitar beyond basic cowboy chords.

In practical terms, part of the problem with the appreciation or depreciation of the original Aura models has to do with the technology that is somewhat out of date.

The Mortis and Tenon neck joint was a cost-cutting measure by Martin and has since been replaced by the much improved Single Dovetail neck joint on guitars of this caliber. You can read more about the technical aspects of that through the link below.

At the time, having an M&T meant the Aura models had the same construction as the 16 Series, in terms of the neck joint, neck block, and bracing (which is identical to traditional Martin bracing, but has two extra braces under the upper bought to help the much-smaller neck joint remain stable.) It also means the acoustic voice of the Aura models sounds a little different compared to traditional Martins, having brighter more effervescent fundamentals, especially in the trebles, which get a bit brash and brassy under heavier attack, and more of a separation between that bold top voice and the sympathetic undertone resonating behind it.

But that is all very subtle stuff, since they still sound like Martins compared to other makes of guitar, and they have much more of that resonant Martin bass and wavering undertone than one typically hears in a bolt-on neck guitar like a Taylor or Huss & Dalton.

So, at first glance the OMC-Aura appeared to be a 16 Series Martin dressed up with pearl trim and hallow hexagon inlays, but costing a lot more than a typical OMC-16E from that same era.

But the Aura models had higher grade rosewood and spruce finished in a high gloss, and came standard with the revolutionary Aura electronics, which can be blended into the pick-up signal, greatly increasing the “acoustic guitar sound” compared to undersaddle pickups alone.

When viewed from modern times, the old Aura models have the first generation of the Aura system, which has been streamlined while made more sophisticated in terms of controls and sound quality. But the original version is still very much a professional level system that can sound excellent when dialed in for the particular venue, PA or guitar amp.

But while the Modified Low Oval neck shape was frowned upon by many Martin traditionalists, it has withstood the test of time, and has now been adopted as the main profile in use on modern Martins, appearing on just about every 2016 Martin, except those made with vintage Martin specs.

Your guitar does not have the modern High Performance taper that starts at 1-3/4” at the nut, but tapers to a slender 2-1/8” at the 12th fret. Instead, your Aura model has the traditional Martin OM fingerboard, which measures 2-1/4” at the 12th fret, and has the 2-1/4” string spacing found on the pricey OM-42 and other OMs made before the new taper took over the Standard Series.

That is all I can think of to say today about the Martin OMC-Aura.  If you are happy with your Martin, that is perfectly understandable to me. I hope you may continue to enjoy it in as musical a manner as you are able.

More Reading

Martin’s Simple Dovetail and Other Neck Joints

New 2016 Martins

Martin D-41 VS D-42 – Reader Q&A

A new reader asks about the difference and value of the Martin D-41 vs. D-42

Of splitting hairs and shifting braces

Hi,

I just came across this site a little while ago.

I have the opportunity to buy either a Martin D 41 Standard or a Martin 42 Standard for the exact same price of $4,300.00.

My question is, which would be the better one to buy, in terms of playability, increase in value, sound etc. So far, from what I can tell from reviews, there doesn’t seem to be that great a difference other than about $800 in cosmetics, forward bracing, different tuners, a little more abalone. Is that true or are there other differences?

The price is the same either way at one store the guy offered the D 42 for the price of a D 41. Other stores offer the D 41 for the same price. Both are offered on the net.

Thanks,

K River

Spoon Replies:

Hi K,

If you are talking about new guitars with a full warranty, tax and shipping not included, $4,300 is a good price for a D-42. If not the best price in the country, it is very close. But it is a high price for a new D-41.

Knit One, Pearl 42

When it comes to the specifics of your query, the reason the D-42 costs more (list price $6,999 vs. $5,999) has to do with the pearl inlay more than anything else. No job at Martin takes longer while also requiring the highest paid workers than pearl inlay.  The D-42 gets the snowflake pattern on the fingerboard that was originally used on Style 45 in the prewar era. That takes longer to do than the hexagon blocks used on modern Style 45 and Style 42.

The D-42 also gets the pearl inlaid around the fingerboard extension, or “fretinsula” as my friend Tony dubbed it. That is quite difficult to do perfectly and adds time and wages spent.

Style 42 also gets grained ivoroid binding and aging toner on the top, etc. The whole point of the extra pearl and vintage touches is to make the guitar look like a pre-1939 D-45, from the front. And Martin charges a little more for all that stuff too.

Style 42 does not get all the extra back and side pearl of an actual 45.

A D-41 gets smooth white binding and otherwise is a modern Martin, little different in specs from the HD-28.

Playability

Both guitars have the same neck and string spacing, so they have the same playability, depending upon how they are set up in terms of string height, etc. It is identical to the Standard Series D-28 and HD-28.

Good Wood

Style 42 gets Martins top grade of rosewood, the same as Style 45, the official top of the line. Style 41 does as well, but the very best looking wood is always set aside for Styles 45 and 42.

The spruce top on a 42 and 41 is Grade 7, although some Grade 8 does show up on 42s. From what I have seen the only difference between a top of the line Grade 8 top and a Grade 7 top has to do with how even the coloring is across the top, and sometimes how even the grain lines are. But the differences are minimal when one considers the lowest grade spruce at Martin is still better than half the guitar industry puts on their best guitars.

So, while it is true the 42 officially gets preferential wood over a 41, it is so very close in quality to hardly matter.

Tone and Super Tone

The D-41 is basically an HD-28 with higher grade tonewoods, chosen entirely based on looks, even if some people feel spruce tops that have perfect grain with even spacing can sound better.

Also, many people, like me, feel that the deep wide trench carved into the edge of the top where it anchors to the side and is then filled with uniquely dense abalone shell has an effect on the sound of the guitar, which is why the D-41 doesn’t sound the same as an HD-28. It is a brighter, more complex voice with a lovely, busy shimmer across the high harmonics.

The D-42 has that quality too, but it also gets forward-shifted bracing, which increases the flexibility of the sound board in the center below the bridge, increasing bass response and overall resonance.

To my ear the D-41 has that classic dark Indian rosewood and Sitka spruce undertone, strong ringing fundamentals and complex harmonic overtones, while also being a very lively, clear and defined voice, sunnier and chimier than a Style 28 or Style 35 Martin, with that 40-something shimmer in the highest timbres.

A D-41 sounds similar to a D-45, but it is not as resonant or complex a voice, as the D-45 has that trench cut into the sides and back as well, which allows them to breath more easily than other Martins.

The D-42 is a much more lush, complex version of that, with a rumble in the deeper, darker cellar and more echoy resonance in the higher registers.

A D-42 sounds similar to a D-45V due to the forward-shifted braces, but like the D-41 it is not as complex or resonant for the same reason mentioned above.

Some people find it too complex and thunderous. So I understand why they like a D-41 better, because they want the scalloped braced resonance, but still want tighter, more defined fundamentals and a guitar that is less thumpy and echoy. But the D-42 is one impressive guitar with a huge personality and many people find the wow factor too much to turn down.

But the D-42 also costs a lot more – or should. It sounds like someone is trying to offer you a deal on a D-42 by selling it low, while trying to sell you a D-41 for the price of a D-42. Perhaps they have had the 42 a while and would be happy to sell it for a slight profit.

I make a point of not dwelling on price publicly, as I feel everyone should support and buy from the dealer of their choice, and I do not wish to take bread out of any dealer’s mouth. But it is a fact that Martin dealers are limited to what price they are allowed to advertise a new, non-custom Martin. That price is called the MAP, for Minimum Advertised Price. Many dealers rely on this because they know most buyers are unaware that other dealers will sell Martins considerably below the MAP. But you have to find them and ask them in person for their best price.

Frankly, you can get a D-41 at a better price if you look for it. Where as, a nationwide price hunt for another D-42 might save you $100 tops.

The D-42 is clearly the better deal in your situation, and has the better resale value because of that. That being said, if you play a D-41 that makes you have to buy it at that price, you may not find one at a lesser price that you like as much. But once you get up into the 40s at Martin the consistency of quality is pretty great.

So, unless you have a decided dislike of forward-shifted bracing, the D-42 would be my recommendation given the options you provided.

 

 

Martin 000 vs OM, what’s the diff?

A reader seeks help understanding why Martin 000 guitars in the lower price ranges are not called OM.

I really enjoy the site. Especially the information about Martin Guitar.

Can you help me better understand why Martin uses the “000″ (triple aught) designation for orchestra bodied models below the 18 Series, when “OM” would be a more accurate designation since they have a standard length scale?

Signed,

Jim in Pennsylvania

Spoon writes:

(Updated May 14, 2017)

Hi Jim,

Thank you for your kind words and interesting question.

I am going to answer your question, and then use it as a springboard to address the whole 000 vs. OM issue.

The simple answer to your actual question is, the 25.4″ string scale, known as the “long scale,” became the industry standard for guitars with that body size, so Martin decided to go with the long scale for the sake of direct competition. And the name of “000” for that size was more well known generically than “OM.”

The “short-scale” neck, measuring 24.9″ and used on smaller Martin body sizes, survived on certain traditional 000 models made in Style 18 and above, and is now making a resurgence, thanks to the recent interest in vintage and retro style guitars.

As to traditional Martin 000s vs OMs, the Martin OM and 000 have the exact same body size in terms of shape and depth. But overall they are not the same thing.

The 000s from the late 1940s on up until modern times were made with a short-scale neck that has the 1-11/16″ width at nut, with non-scalloped 5/16″ bracing.

The OMs, which were sold from 1930 to 1933, and did not appear again in the main Martin line until 1990, have a long-scale neck, which makes them louder and more powerful, and 1/4″ scalloped bracing that makes them more resonant with greater projection than a comparable 000.

This major difference remained the case with all Martin 000s and OMs made in Style 18 and higher until quite recently.

** I must confess, only now as I review this posting in March of 2016 do I realize how clearly the previous paragraphs were composed by an OM player, who prefers that design over the traditional 000s. So I shall balance it as best I can by pointing out that the short-scale 000s certainly have their fans, and for good reasons.

The traditional 000s provide a more-intimate experience by comparison to the OMs. They launch a very clear and defined voice of fundamental notes, while also providing the guitarist with a subtler yet expressively reactive character that very much responds to subtle changes in playing, even if that does not shout out to the room in the same way an OM does. But it still inspires the player, and the results still translate to the broader audience, even if that happens in subtler ways.

And, for some players, the most important differences are found in the shorts-scale’s lower string tension and the fact the frets are laid closer together. The looser strings allow them to be bent farther to achieve higher notes, and the condensed fretboard allows guitarists to achieve stretches across more frets than they could otherwise make.**

Also, at the time the decision was made to offer the lower-priced Martin 000s in the long scale, there were actual OM models offered in Style 16 and Style 15, as well as the Road Series and 1 Series. OMs typically differed from 000s in various ways other than scale length, even though they shared the same dimensions in terms of body size. The OM had lighter bracing and wider string spacing than the 000, which made them popular with fingerstylists and players with larger than average hands.

Over the years the lines between the two designations have merged, until it seems arbitrary as to why one guitar is called 000 while a similar guitar is called OM.

But, as usual for Martin history, the facts leading up to it all are not so simple.

For those who might need to know, the “scale” we are referring to is the length of the string from the saddle to the nut, i.e. the part of the string that is played and fretted to make music. The longer the scale, the more string tension and resulting resonant energy, but the wider the space between each fret on the neck.

And it may be helpful to remind folks that acoustic guitar sizes tend to follow this system:

Concert (Martin size “0”)

Grand Concert (Martin size “00” – similar to Gibson size “L”)

Auditorium (Martin size 000 or size OM)

Grand Auditorium (Martin size 0000 aka size M)

Dreadnought (similar to Gibson’s round shoulder Jumbo size, and their square shoulder guitars like the Dove, and Hummingbird)

Small Jumbo (similar to Martin’s Grand Performance size and Taylor’s size 14)

Jumbo (similar to Gibson’s Super Jumbo)

Grand Jumbo, aka Grand J (similar to Guild’s Jumbo)

Read More at: Understand Martin Model Designations

This brief history lesson should help clear up some of the confusion surrounding the whole OM vs 000 conundrum.

1929

From the company’s founding in 1833 up to this point, Martin only made 12-fret guitars with sloped shoulders, similar in shape and look to modern Classical guitars, even though they typically had steel strings by this time. The largest size sold under the Martin brand was the 000. (The mammoth dreadnought size was made only for the Ditson music-oriented department stores, beginning in 1916.)

In late 1929, Martin made a special auditorium-size guitar with a longer neck, for popular band leader Perry Bechtel who wanted to transition from the banjo to the steel string guitar. Basically, they flattened down the shoulders on their standard body shape, which spread them wider while exposing two more frets for playing.

That guitar became the prototype of Martin’s revolutionary Orchestra Models, which were the first Martins designed from the ground up for steel strings, and which offered 14 frets clear from the body. In other words, they were the first modern acoustic guitars, with a direct influence on almost every flattop acoustic guitar that followed.

1930

Martin’s catalog offered for sale the new 14-fret guitars in their largest size, the 000, but the model stamp inside the guitar had the 000 replaced with “OM”, as in OM-18, OM-28, OM-45. The name Orchestra Model was a marketing ploy meant to attract banjoists in dance orchestras, who were converting to guitars, once they were featuring steel strings.

Most people do not know that Martin also offered the 1932 0-17 and 0-18 in the 14-fret orchestra model design as well, along with one special order 000-42. However, none of them got the OM as part of the model stamp.

But it is the actual OMs that matter here…

The OMs of that time went through a rapid evolution. For example, the small pickguard only lasted some six months (although some examples from 1931 exist.)

The bracing on the original OMs consisted of an X-brace that was 5/16″ in width, surrounded by smaller “tone bars” that were 1/4″ in width.

The straight bridge used for decades at Martin was replaced with a larger belly bridge, to better withstand the extra tension of steel strings.

1931

The Ditson department store closes during the Great Depression. Martin offers the Dreadnought body size under their own brand for the first time. The D-1 and D-2 are sold as test models and then quickly become the D-18 and D-28. Both have the 12-fret body design.

 1934

Martin introduces a 14-fret version of ALL their sizes from 0 to the D. Any 14-fret Martin is considered to be an “orchestra model,” as opposed to the 12-fret “standard models.” For example, the 14-fret dreadnoughts appear in the 1934 catalog as “Orchestra Model, Size D.”

Martin changes the stamp inside the OMs to “000” so they may return to their normal size designations. Therefore, a 1933 OM is identical to a 14-fret 000 from early 1934. They are the exact same thing.

Sometime during the first six months of 1934, Martin changes the 14-fret 000s to the short scale already used for the 0 and 00 sizes, leaving the dreadnoughts as the only long-scale Martins. And the bracing on the 000 changes to 5/16″ for all braces, around the same time. Long-scale 000s from 1934 remain among the most desirable Martin guitars.

1939

Martin changes their neck width for all 14-fret models from 1-3/4″ at the nut to 1-11/16″, and changes the string spacing at the saddle accordingly, from 2-3/8″ or 2-5/16″ for most guitars to 2-1/8″ (equal to the fingerboard width of the 12th fret on the new more-slender neck.)

1946

Martin changes all bracing to non-scalloped “straight” bracing. (Actually, this evolves starting in 1944.)

So, by this time, all 000-size Martins are short-scale guitars, with a 1-11/16″ neck and 5/16″ non-scalloped braces. This 14-fret 000 design remains in place for the next 60+ years.

1969

A guitar shop in Pittsburgh convinces Martin to make a small batch of “OMs” that have a long-scale 1-3/4″ necks. This was Music Emporium, which moved to Massachusetts in 1970.

1970s

By 1970 the only 000s remaining are the 000-18 and 000-28.

Various small-shop luthiers begin to offer guitars for fingerstyle guitarists that are closer to the old Martin OMs.

Martin remains conservative, offering OMs in small limited editions throughout the 1980s. They have 1/4″ scalloped bracing across the top, to better simulate the lighter, more responsive build of the 1930s Martins.

1990s

In 1990, Martin finally introduces the modern OM into their main catalog. The guitar has the same body size as the 000, but it has a long-scale, 1-3/4″ neck with compatible string spacing, rather than a short-scale, 1-11/16″ neck. OMs continue to have scalloped 1/4″ bracing, while 000s have straight 5/16″ bracing.

The OMs are also offered with the smaller “teardrop” pickguard similar to those seen on the earliest OMs from 1930.

By the end of 1994 the modern Standard series OM-28 and OM-45 have come and gone, but the OM-21 and eventually the OM-42 take their place. All were made from Indian rosewood and Sitka spruce.

In 1996 the OM-28V enters the new Vintage Series of Martin guitars. Also made from Indian rosewood and Sitka spruce, it offers more vintage-esque features than the Standard series OMs, like wider string spacing and a V neck shape. The mahogany OM-18V and pearl-trimmed rosewood OM-45V soon follow.

As for 000s, the introduction of the Eric Clapton models in the early 1990s provide short-scale 000s that have 1-3/4″ V necks and scalloped 5/16″ braces.

Sometime around the turn of the century the first major blurring of the lines between OM and 000 appears, as Martin expands their more affordable series of guitars below Style 18, and the decision is made to offer all such 000s in the long scale, which has become the industry standard.

The OMs below Style 18 continue to have a wider neck and thinner braces, but scalloped braces and a long-scale neck have finally come to the contemporary 000s.

And yet, the Standard series 000-18 and 000-28 retain the short-scale neck and straight 5/16″ bracing.

Post-2000

All heck breaks loose.

OMs below Style 18 go extinct, leaving only long-scale 000s.

The Golden Era/Marquis series of Martin guitars introduces the 000-18GE and later the 000-42 Marquis. Both guitars offer 1/4″ scalloped OM-style braces on a short-scale 000, for increased response and resonance. This series also features Adirondack spruce tops and a more-vintage-like scalloping to the braces.

The John Mayer signature model offers an OM with a 1-11/16″ neck, and the lines between OM and 000 continue to blur further.

Please bear in mind there are exceptions to almost everything I have said so far, when it comes to limited editions, special editions, artist signature models, etc.

To make matters more confusing, Martin recently decided to put their new “High Performance Neck” on their Standard Series OM-28, OM-21 and 000-18, so they now have the same neck shape and string spacing: 1-3/4″ width at nut, 2-1/8″ at the 12th fret, and 2-5/32″ string spacing.

In practical terms, it has the dimensions of the previous 1-11/16″ neck, only cheated out a bit wider near the headstock, and with a tad wider string spacing at the saddle.

At least the 000-18 gets the scalloped 1/4″ braces it deserves, (and hopefully soon the 000-28) while remaining a short-scale guitar. And the OM-stamped guitars continue to have a long-scale neck and classic 1/4″ OM braces.

2016

Martin introduces the OMC-18E, OMC-28E, and OMC-35E to the Standard Series. Each is an Orchestra Model with a Cutaway body and on-board Electronics.

This re-introduces a long-scale OM in Standard Styles 28 and 35, and an OM with Standard Series specs in Style 18 for the first time ever.

All of these guitars have the modern High Performance Neck.

Only the Standard 000-28 remains as the lone 000 alive and kicking with straight, non-scalloped 5/16″ braces, and a short-scale, 1-11/16″ neck with the Low Profile neck shape.

The OM-42 remains as the only OM left standing with the low profile neck and a traditional fretboard taper of 1-3/4″ at the nut and 2-1/4″ at the 12-fret, with 2-1/4″ string spacing.

Both models sell too well for Martin to change them, thus far.

All in all, it is easy to see how someone would look at the current Martin lineup and wonder; why would a long-scale Auditorium-size guitar made in the various series below Style 18 be called a 000 rather than an OM?

When it comes to Martin guitars, the answer is rarely as simple as the question.

 

OM-28 vs OM-21 – Reader Question

A reader asks about the possible companion for his much loved OM-21 and if the OM-28 might be too similar.

Eric from New York City asks:

Is the new OM-28 essentially the same as the OM-21 but for the binding and inlays?

I ask because I have the OM-21 (2012) and love it, and I’m looking for another guitar that is similar (in tone) but also a little different. Maybe the new 000-18 or the CEO-7?

Thanks, Eric

Spoon writes:

Thank you for your question, Eric.

I have not seen the new OM-28 yet in person, but yes, you are basically correct.

The major differences include:

Higher grade rosewood and spruce for Style 28.

28 gets herringbone purfling around the edge of the top, 21 has no top inlay around the edge.

28 gets “diamonds and squares” fingerboard markers (short pattern circa 1930,) 21 gets small dots (long pattern)

28 gets grained ivoroid binding, 21 gets black tortoise shell binding.

28 gets a bridge that looks more like the vintage Martin bridges, the 21 does not.

The 28 gets a vintage zig-zag back strip and Style 28 trim around the edge of the back, the 21 gets the similar Style 18 back strip.

Until recently, the OM-21 was made with a rosewood fingerboard and bridge, and that gave it a different sort of sound compared to today’s OM-21.

The new OM-28 is essentially identical to the now retired OM-28V from the Vintage Series, only it has lost its modified V neck with the traditional taper and 2-5/16″ string spacing, for the new High Performance neck that Martin was put on the 000-18, D-18, OM-21, OM-28. The important differences between the necks are found in the shallow modified low profile on the back of the HP neck, and the “taper” (the traditional Martin OM neck was 2-1/4″ at the 12th fret, the HP neck is only 2-1/8″,) and the HP string spacing is 2-3/16.

The new OM-21, like yours, has a fuller body down in the voice and a darker, thicker bottom end compared to the old OM-21, so it is much more like the OM-28V and the old OM-28 (retired in 1994.) And other than cosmetically better looking wood, there will likely not be much difference in the tone of the new OM-28 compared to your current OM-21.

So if you want something in the same size that differs more from your OM-21 the CEO-7 and 000-18 are both good choices. The CEO-7 has a different body shape, that is a little longer and a little narrower, but has the same depth to the sides. The neck is fuller in the hand as well, but it is has the short-scale neck.

The 000-18 also has a short-scale neck, but it is the same shape and has the same taper as your OM-21, so it widens to a lesser extent as you go up the neck compared to the CEO-7.

The 000-18 comes with a Sitka spruce top, so it will sound more like your OM-21 compared to the CEO-7 which has Adirondack spruce. Adirondack has a drier tone with a pronounced ring. The fundamental notes are not as thick, but they have great projection and clarity.

Neither will have the same thick warmth in the undertone or as complex harmonics as your OM-21, as mahogany sounds more open and less somber than rosewood guitars.

The 000-18 will sound most similar in terms of balance and dynamics, the CEO-7 will have greater bass response and thinner trebles but with a deeper basement under them, as it were.

And that is one man’s word on…

Martin OM-28 vs OM-21

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