Martin OM-28 vs OM-21

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 at all (which may decrease a top’s flexibility and resulting resonance.)

28 gets “diamonds and squares” fingerboard markers (short pattern circa 1930,) 21 gets small dots (long pattern, like the 1990s OM-28.)

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 over all mass and shape should have some effect on string vibration and how it transfers to the top, but impossible to say for sure how the two might differ.)

The 28 gets a vintage zig-zag back strip and Style 28 trim around the edge of the back, the 21 gets the simpler 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 oval 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 2-5/32.

The new OM-21, like yours, has a fuller body down inside 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, more like a 12-fret Martin but with a 14-fret neck. so it is a little longer, 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 (same neck as the 000-18GE.)

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, and the profile at the back is fuller and deeper.

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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28 Comments

28 thoughts on “Martin OM-28 vs OM-21

  1. What a great site, Kudos to a very important question to those of us who are tight… I mean work really hard for our daily bread. I bought a used OM 21 after trying out at least 30 other guitars, yes I’m very cheep (thorough) and want the best for my dollar!!! The new OM 28 is tight ( reserved bass and just not an airy open-ness ) with not a noticeable improvement over the older rosewood appointed neck and bridge, the 10 year old OM 21 I played against it, was far superior with balance ( and projection). I’m a recording engineer ( 58 years young ) and to me the OM series and especially the broken in and properly dried out instrument is a wonder to behold. As any instrument ages it develops, sometimes good sometimes….. Naaa they always sound better with 10 or more years on them, The new OM 28 sounded so lame against the old OM 21 I thought I was hearing things, soooo I asked the shop to put new strings on the 28, which begrudgingly they did. Well the old 21 still was the winner by the mile. What does this prove, nothing,… I wish I had an old OM 28 to try side by side but alas. Whatever Martin you buy, just know that in the years to follow you will hear a beautiful well made instrument bloom with its full potential, Just use a case and HUMIDIFY!!! Thanks.

    • Thanks for the feedback, sound man. Err, well you know what I mean.

      It sounds like your OM-21 is the original version with a rosewood fretboard and bridge, and the low profile neck with 2-1/4″ string spacing, yes? The new ones with ebony board and bridge and High Performance Neck are closer in tone to the 28s. But no doubt 10 years of playing-in will get rid of any new guitar tightness to be sure!

      • Your absolutely right, my OM 21 is the older rosewood neck and bridge. I’m asked to flush out songs with more guitar and drums, well anything even slide whistle ( don’t ask). That is why I wanted a OM, I have a 1972 Guild D40 and other very good pickers and wanted a very complex overtone series with tighter bass and a very balanced tone. Thanks for reading, Just wanted to put my 2 cents in about the quality of Martin guitars and the exceptional bloom they have over time ( the Guild did the same thing, and my Mass Haride Tak).Thanks

  2. I’ve played both, but honestly they vary. I love general guitar reviews, but if you know anything about guitars it is that all of them carry their own personality. I’ve played OM-21s I personally liked better than om-28. I own both, and both offer great tone. My om-28 is my guitar of choice however my om-21 Is an excellent sounding instrument and though it’s a bit stripped down in terms of binding and grade of wood it’s still a beautiful guitar. If you are wanting a little different sound that the average player can tell a difference I’d check one of the 000-18 models or even the Sustainable wood OM. The 000-18 is going to have mahogany, but is also going to have a bit smaller scale which in part makes it a gem of its own on scale alone. I had the same thought process only I already had both the om21 and om28, so it was down to getting a quality american made Martin at a cheaper price point to travel and offering something different yet still supplying the quality I’m used to. I chose the SWOMGT granted it’s back n sides arent gloss, but it’s a damn fine sounding guitar bringing excellent quality and beauty in its own right. The cherry is a fabulous tonewood and has some gorgeous figure to it even different from mahogany or rosewood. It’s tone is somewhere in between mahogany and Indian rosewood so it leaves me with the option of still going back and getting a mahogany based 18 one day. The swomgt Is probably a step below the 18 series given its tortoise coloring while the aging toner top have even the old school guys asking me how old she is. I’d have to say I bought a 1,900 dollar, something I didn’t care to beat on acoustic to allow me to leave my om21, and om28 at home on trips, but fact is I care for this little gem equally to that of my standard series guitars. I’ll eventually buy an 18 series, but if you want the OM body and scale playability, american quality, and a noticeable difference I would check the swomgt as well. I’m telling you, it is the best thing at its price point ever created imo. I’ve always favored the om scale length over the 000, so it was a natural choice when I actually seen it’s quality and heard it’s mouth watering tone. Sure, my next orchestra bodied guitar will be a 000-18, but this little cherry tonewood gem is hard to beat sound wise and it’s a gorgeous guitar all the same. Don’t let the catalox fingerboard wood turn you off.. it’s as durable as anything I’ve ever owned and while a bit dull from the shop it was nothing a small dose of Fret Doctor couldn’t fix. It’s been as dark as any rosewood I’ve ever seen and I only put it on once a year. Whatever you choose will be a fine guitar all the same. 🙂

    • Having played several OM-21s since first answering this inquiry, I am inclined to agree with you, Rob.

      But there really is very little to support the claim that it is a matter of the models being that different in tone, as opposed to specific guitars being compared.

      There is virtually no difference between the OM-21 and the OM-28, except for cosmetics like the fingerboard markers. At least no difference that Martin claims.

      The only one I can think of at all is the fact the OM-21 does not get any purfling inlaid around the top and back, while the OM-28 gets the herringbone on the top and a thin line of black and a thin line of white around the back. While I believe that thinning the top along the edge for inlay of any kind will make the plates of spruce or tonewood flex easier when vibrating than no purfling at all, I cannot say that is why the OM-28 sounds fuller to my ear in terms of fundamentals and undertone than an OM-21. But it has been my experience that they do sound differently.

  3. Having started with a D28, loved it but coming from a classical guitar background , I have just picked up an OM 28. It has SO much better playability, the most fabulous sound and sustain with projection Absolutely love this guitar and would recommend it to anyone, beautiful Rosewood and Sitka, action perfect from the off. Go for it !

  4. 14 months now and the tone and playability of the 2014 Martin OM 28 is better than ever.
    Thank you Spoon for all the great info on the Martin OM – Standard Series.

  5. Hello there, thanks for a the great reviews and all the feedback. A great help for me right now.
    I played a new OM-28 in a music store in Vancouver BC last month. It is by far the best Martin ( tone, feel and playability) I have had in my hands. The only thing holding me back from making a purchases is I believe the OM-21 has the same feel and playability for a lesser price? I have yet to find an OM-21 in my area to complete my comparison.

    • Mactitan,

      The modern OM-28 is very similar to the older OM-28V, only with the new neck, bridge and string spacing. The OM-21 is more like both of then than it once was, now that it has an ebony bridge and fingerboard. So much so that I was surprised they made the new OM-28 and kept the OM-21.

      However, some people have suggested that the 28 is fuller and richer in tone. The OM-21 is fuller and richer in tone than the old OM-21, but I have not seen the new 28 and 21 in the same room, or close enough in time to really compare them. It is my hope to find a local shop that has them both in stock at the same time, but so far that has not happened. I will feature the results once it does.

      • I look forward to your review of the two. Please make it soon, I am sure there are several persons who will find it very beneficial?

        However I took the plunge and made the purchase two months back. I am happy to report I am now the proud owner of a fantastic 2014 Martin OM-28. Life could not be better for me – guitar wise that is. 🙂

        Well done to the Martin Guitar Co, who have produced an absolute Gem. The new neck is a super fit for my hands, the finish and workmanship are 2nd to none.

        The East Indian Rosewood used on my guitar must be the nearest thing to Brazilian Rosewood- in looks, smell and tone. I don’t know how they do it, as compared to other EIRW guitars from other manufacturers, it seems it is only a Martin that emits the sweet smell of roses when it is played. – Has anyone else noticed this?

        • I apologize for being remiss in following up on this topic. I did finally find a guitar shop that had both models in stock – Sam Ash on 34th Street, NYC.

          I was skeptical of the claims that there was a distinct difference between the OM-28 and OM-21, since they are now so much more similar than any other incarnation of either since the OMs were returned to the Martin catalog in 1990. But these two examples were very much that way, and very much in line with the traditional descriptions of guitars made in Style 28 and Style 21 since the 1950s.

          But I have been too busy with many other projects to get my notes in order on the topic. I hope to go into more detail soon.

          Otherwise, congratulations! It really is a fine model indeed and I would be happy to share photos of your guitar and its rosewood in the reader’s photo section. If you care to do so, please send them to oneman@onemanz.com, and please include the largest files you have, as I can make them smaller in Photoshop but enlarging photos never looks very good.

          Finally, for now, I agree that rosewood smells like roses. And it smells vaguely like rosewood oil, which is not actually made from wood of a completely different botanical family (Aniba rosaeodora), which also grows in Brazil and has a vibrant red heart inside the tree.

          But while Brazilian rosewood smells similar to Indian rosewood and Amazon rosewood, it has a noticeable peppery spice to it, very much like ground black pepper. But Indian, Brazilian, Cocobolo, you make a guitar out of it and add some aromatic cedar kerfing and I can inhale that wonderful smell all day long. It is like the bouquet of a fine wine or a great single malt whisky.

        • Mactitan,

          Congratulations on your new OM-28. I think it’s Martin’s finest Standard model. And I share your love of the new HP neck.

          I believe the scent you are smelling is primarily the Spanish Cedar that is used for the kerfling. The scent of cedar seems to be more dominant than RW. But Spoon may care to confirm this.

          Jim

          • The cedar has a very strong aroma, as anyone with a cedar lined chest well knows, but rosewood and mahogany each have their own scent as well and each variety has a slightly different scent.

    • Check the 18 series and read my review of the swomgt. Neither will feel like a 28, but the price is manageable considering you can get one less than 2k. Cherry offers a great consideration in a tonewood as it carries sweet tones while giving you beautiful character and grade. Catalox is a hard yet extremely playable fingerboard wood. I went 2 weeks pondering my swomgt because of the ugly duck looking color of catalox. Until that first drop of Fret Doctor. Now? I have my om28 and om21 in my studio, but they never leave my home. I have a beautiful looking and sweet sounding american made om with a fingerboard that’s as dark as any rosewood board ive ever seen. I want an 18 next just because I have a guitar addiction, but if you are looking to stick with american made, and the cost down while not sacrificing true quality check the swomgt. 15 bucks for some fret doctor and you’ll have another gem as one of your go to options.

  6. Spoon,

    I have compared the redesigned OM-21 and redesigned OM-28 on several occasions since the OM-28 first arrived at my local dealer and I can say unequivocally that I’ve found a pronounced and difference between the two. Although they share the same basic voicing, the OM-28 has considerably more sonic depth, projection, and resonance. The OM-21 has slightly more note-to-note clarity; and the notes are slightly thinner, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

    The local Martin dealer to which I refer stocks nearly every Standard Series model so they’ve routinely had both OM’s in stock. And even though they’ve sold one or the other at least a few times over the past few months, every time I’ve conducted the comparison, with a different OM (21 and/or 28) in hand, the differences between them remained.

    Befuddled by this mystery, I’ve even enlisted friends to compare them, in some cases blindly. They’ve all formed an opinion very similar to mine. Based on their responses, if I had to describe what you might conclude if you did a blind comparison, you could be forgiven for mistaking the OM-28 for being a GPCPA1 Plus. In that sense, compared to the OM-21, the OM-28 sounds like what I’d imagine a GP-28 would sound like, if such a model existed.

    The only difference as far as I can tell between the two that might have an impact on tone is the herringbone purfling on the 28, but the difference is so dramatic that it can’t be the purfling alone.

    If you haven’t already, I hope you conduct a comparison of your own. I look forward to reading your impressions here.

    • I have not seen them side by side. Neither model is found in stock in New York City during my many attempts to do so. When it came to the old OM-21 compared to the OM-28V, my take was similar to what you describe here. But that could be explained by the rosewood bridge vs ebony. I would want to experience several comparisons between the modern OM-28 and OM-21 before making a sweeping statement about models which appear to be identical except for the trim. I believe how the top, back and sides are inlaid near the edges can have some impact on tone production, but not nearly as big an impact as bracing, types of wood etc.

      You lost me on the GPCPA1 reference, saying I might mistake an OM-28 for one. All of the non-dovetail PA models when played unplugged sound thinner and less resonant than any Standard Series Martin.

      • Spoon,

        I admit the comparison to a GPCPA1 may have been a bit of a red herring. And I absolutely agree that the PA models sound “thinner” than any of the Standard Models. I like to describe them as more “metallic” or less complex. So I guess it would have been more accurate to say that you could be forgiven for mistaking the OM-28 for being an M-36.

        I realize my characterization sounds “sweeping,” even hyperbolic. I wouldn’t make such an assertion if it was only my impression. As I said, many of my friends had a similar impression. I have a lot of respect for your reviews and insights, which is why I posted the response. If your ears tell you differently than mine, I’d certainly reevaluate what I’m hearing.

        Now on the subject of the impact a dovetail neck has on tone, I’d love to hear how the assumption squares with the tone a Bourgeois produces. But that’s a topic for another conversation.

        • Not really another conversation.

          A traditional dovetail neck joint provides a considerable exchange of resonant energy between the neck and body that just does not occur with other kinds of neck joints. And just like a violin or cello would sound differently if it was made without that dovetail connection between the body and the neck, so does a guitar.

          Michael Gurian developed what Martin calls the M&T neck and Bob Taylor championed the bolt-on neck, which allowed what was basically a shallow electric guitar neck to be used on an acoustic guitar. Gurian stopped building guitars, so there was not much of an evolution there. But Taylor has continued to make changes to his neck joint over the years, and that translated into different types of guitar tone.

          Bill Collings uses multiple steel rods in his neck, along with a bolt-on neck that also has a wide (sort of) dovetail.

          All of these people have come up with guitars that sound like THEIR sound. None of them sound exactly alike.

          As Stephen Stills famously said, a guitar is a box that rattles, and everything you do in the construction of the guitar affects how it rattles.

          Dana Bourgeois has never built guitars with the traditional dovetail under his own brand, and the Schoenbergs he made had the neck’s set at the Martin factory. So until he does make such a guitar it is speculation as to how the sound would change.

          • it is absolutely true that we can only speculate how differently a Bourgeois guitar might sound with dovetail construction, if at all. Only Dana knows that for sure. Likewise, we can only speculate whether his choice is driven by tonal properties, dictated by economics, or determined by some other manufacturing dynamic. Whatever the case, the combination of projection and resonance that a Bourgeois guitar produces is nothing short of phenomenal–phenomenal enough to give one pause to question conventional wisdom. After all, the history of the Western music tradition, especially since the latter half of the 20th Century, has been riddled with such causes for pause.

          • Well Dana Bourgeois does not know that, if he has never made a guitar with a dovetail neck joint. Dovetail neck joints take considerably longer to create than other neck joints, because they require precise workmanship at a degree of difficulty even veteran woodworkers have trouble with.

            It is the single most expensive thing in the construction of a Martin guitar. Only the cost of inlaying a Style 45 instrument costs the company more in terms of craftsman wages.

            Seems pretty obvious some guitar builders do not use them because they do not want to spend the time, or money in veteran employee wages.

            But many people like the sound of guitars made with neck joints other than the old fashioned dovetail.

            To my ear the fundamental notes from such guitars stand out and separate from the resonant undertone and overtones, and each note from each string basically “stays in its lane” as it were. The top notes do not waver and wash into each other’s tonal space nearly as much as they do on something like a traditional Martin. Some people find the Martin sound “muddy” because of how that undertone invades the province of the fundamentals. Others find the dovetail sound like a typical Martin has to be imperfect because of the way the tone of each note wavers slightly flat or slightly sharp, etc.

            This is not to say such guitars have no resonance, or do not quiver when they quaver. It is just a different kind of resonance, different kind of relationship between the registers, between the fundamental and the sympathetics, etc. There are many people who make such guitars and deserve their fine reputations. The few guitars I have played made by Sparky Kramer are fine examples of world class luthiery accomplished without a traditional dovetail.

            I know plenty of people who prefer the tone of Taylors, or Collings, or Huss & Dalton, or Bourgeois to guitars built by Martin, or Santa Cruz or other guitars made with the traditional dovetail. If we all liked the same thing there would only be one kind of guitar.

            I actually like that imperfect wavering to the sustained notes of a Martin, and that presence filling up the three-dimensional voice. I have played many non-dovetail guitars that I find impressive and I rank Bourgeois’s among my favorites. But I have yet to find a guitar built with a non-dovetail neck joint that I like as much as my favorite Martins. If I have I would own one.

            I sold my Bourgeois and my Collings guitars long ago.

          • I happened to have a 1988 000 12 fret, Soloist Schoenberg built by Dana Bourgeois while he was at Martin. It has the dovetail joint construction, Euro Spruce top (w/slight bear-claw) with Braz Rosewood b/s., 1 7/8″ mahogany neck…
            A real cannon!

  7. Hi Spoon, really like your reviews here and for Maury’s. I’ve a quick question from your thoughts on the new om-28 vs om-21. When you say that the style 28 has higher grade rosewood and spruce than style 21, do you mean in appearance, in tone, or both? I’ve seen the om-21 been called the best value in the martin line, but has that changed now with the new om-28?

    • Hi Ernie, and thanks a lot for the kind words!

      I have not played a new OM-21 side by side with a new OM-28, but all indications are, they should be extremely close if not entirely interchangeable when it comes to tone. The 28 gets the fancier herringbone trim and grained ivoroid binding of Vintage Style 28, but the differences in materials and necks etc that once existed between the OM-21 of the Standard series and the OM-28V of the Vintage Series are a thing of the past.

      The wood grading at Martin is done entirely on looks. The company line is that grading is cosmetic only. However, there are many people of experience who believe that certain aspects recognizable to the naked eye can matter when it comes to tone, like features in the grain of a spruce top for instance, which may indicate a certain degree of stiffness.

      There are others who feel that very wild “slabby” rosewood does not tend to be as resonant as the boring, but quartersawn rosewood. Who knows if such things are true or if some people believing them to be true is enough to convince them that they hear a difference.

      I do know the now-defunct Vintage series guitars originally got spruce tops on par with Style 40. I do not know if that remained the case all the way up into the past few years. So I do not know if the wood on the 2014 OM-28 is identical to the wood that would have appeared on a 2013 OM-28V. But it probably is.

      Style 21 was traditionally where the conservative Martin company would put the rosewood and spruce deemed to unusual in grain features to use on a Style 28 guitar. That likely remains true today. But even the wavy grain, etc. that might show up on a 21 is still better most wood one finds on an acoustic guitar made today.

      Frankly, when they came out with the new OM-28 and dropped the OM-28V it made me wonder if the OM-21’s days are numbered. I guess the public’s interest in buying them may have a lot to do with whether or not that proves accurate.

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