Martin D-18 Authentic 1939

Martin’s Legendary Pre-War Banjo Killer Lives Again in the D-18 Authentic 1939

The classic mahogany dreadnought now with rear-shifted braces

D-18 Authentic 1939 specs include: 14-fret dreadnought body; made in vintage Style 18 with solid woods throughout, including mahogany back and sides, Adirondack spruce top, ebony bridge and fingerboard, mahogany neck with a hand-carved vintage V profile, 1-11/16″ width, and period correct T-bar reinforcement; solid abalone dot fingerboard markers; glued-in long saddle of fossilized ivory; Authentic Series scalloped braces; rear-shifted X brace; tucked bridge plate; hot hide glue construction

A Beautiful ‘Hog

The first thing I noticed about the D-18 Authentic 1939 was the weightless sensation when I picked it up. Even by mahogany standards, this is an ultra-light guitar. But it is anything but a lightweight. With clear ringing trebles and a robust, yet open bottom end, this D-18 Authentic fills a room like Sinatra, and it can purr, shine or belt out a tune with similar ease. The bass is woody and spacious. Notes off the mid-range strings and unwound trebles are bright and sunny, with a purity that is both pretty and strong. And the tonal space under the fundamental voice is so clear and roomy that it seems to defy the laws of physics. It is like the interior is far larger than could possibly fit inside a guitar. And, boy, does it power up when pressed to it.

All of the new guitars in Martin’s Authentic Series are virtual replicas of a specific guitar housed in the Martin Museum, and in this case it is a 1939 D-18 considered among the finest specimens still in existence. Everything down to the thickness of the ebony used for the fingerboard and bridge, and the precise size and shaping of the bridge plate has been painstakingly reproduced by a specially trained team of builders in the Martin Custom Shop.

More Authentic Than Ever

D-18 Authentic 1939

photo: R. Dennie

The top is made from the same species of spruce and of the same grade found on the D-18s from Martin’s pre-war Golden Era. The extra definition and chime provided by Adirondack spruce takes that dry, hollow log effect in a mahogany guitar and brings it into pristine, focused and ringing clarity. But unlike other vintage D-18 reissues, the top on this model is sanded down to actual pre-war thickness, and so is the mahogany used for the back and sides. When you bring into account the Authentic style scalloped braces and shallow back braces, all held together by traditional hide glue, and you got yourself a seriously responsive and resonant D-18.

Is this what a brand new D-18 would have sounded like right off the line back in 1939? It is impossible to say. But if they were this good, it goes a long way toward explaining why the small, set in its way Martin Guitar Company shifted their whole line of guitars to 14-fret designs in 1934, and why the new dreadnought size quickly rose to dominate the landscape of popular music ever since.

A great many guitar builders of reputation have tried their hand at making a close replica of the pre-war D-18. And while there is no way to build into a guitar 70 years of playing and aging and drying out though the natural course of time, one will not find a better starting point to begin the process. No mahogany dreadnought in history had specs as close to the original D-18 it was based upon.

The major differences from pre-war D-18s include the use of Madagascar rosewood for the headstock faceplate, rather than the now-endangered Brazilian rosewood, and the use of fossilized ivory for the nut and saddle, which to my ear adds a bit of warmth or presence, compared to bone saddles, while reducing some of the brittleness or shrillness that comes with a brand new Adirondack spruce top and takes some “playing in” to dissipate.

Rear-Shifted Braces

The light build on this mahogany/Adirondack dreadnought is reinforced by rear-shifted braces, with the main X brace placed a bit farther back than on modern Martins. This helps add to the openness of the voice, and reduces the rumble in the bass, so the bottom notes retain great definition while the highs have all the cutting power a Bluegrass flatpicker could hope for. Martin has made a few modern rosewood dreadnoughts with rear-shifted bracing, but this is only the second D-18 with scalloped bracing in the pre-1960 X brace position, the other being the D-18 Del McCoury signature model.

The D-18A 1937, now retired, had forward-shifted braces, and was famous for sounding a bit darker and warmer than other mahogany/Adirondack dreads – almost rosewoody in that respect. The D-18A 1939 prototype I played at the factory did not share that attribute. It still had a powerful bottom E string, but overall it was very clear and clean in its mahogany-ness, bright, dry, and chimey, with great definition in the fundamentals and a Windex-clear openness underneath. How much of that difference is due to the specific guitars, and how much could be assigned to things like forward-shifted braces vs. rear-shifted braces is anyone’s guess.

 D-18 Authentic 1939  D-18 Authentic 1939  Martin D-18 Authentic 1939

 Ebony bridge with thinned wings

photos: A. Lane

 Madagascar rosewood trim

 Adirondack spruce

The Smallest Authentic Neck

Of all the Authentics made to date, this one has the smallest neck by far, in terms of how lean it is in the profile down near the headstock. It is rounder than its new D-28A counterpart, with noticeable cheeks where it meets the fingerboard, but it is shallower, with less of a V, so my hand engulfed the 1-11/16″ neck, and the strings felt closer together as a result.

In the old days, the neck you ended up with depended upon which of several workman had carved it. They used steel plate templates just like today, but they also used their own judgement to decide what was comfortable, or a good fit to the hand. This is more like a modern neck than a typical pre-war neck, at least below the 5th fret. It does gain some girth in the upper reaches, due to the period-correct shape of the neck’s heel, but nothing I would call too thick.

Players who passed on the older D-18 Authentic 1937 because of its prodigious neck barrel and wider string spacing may find this neck much more to their liking. Those who find it too narrow or shallow, and hope Martin will come out with a version that sports a vintage 1-3/4″ neck, while retaining the reduced price of the new D-18A, well, you may just get your wish – eventually. I can say no more.

As Traditional As They Come

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photo: R. Dennie

Few guitars have as impressive a tradition as the D-18. It outsold the other dreadnoughts during Martin’s Golden Era of the 1930s, and it has found its way into the hands of working musicians ever since.

Whether you are listening to Brownie McGhee singing the Blues, or Kris Kristofferson singing about Bobby McGee singing the Blues, you are hearing a D-18 laying down the rhythm. The folk music of Simon and Garfunkel, Donovan, and Gordon Lightfoot featured the D-18, as did the Rock n Roll of Elvis Presley, Jerry Garcia, and Kurt Cobain. And when it came to Mountain Music, Old Time, and Bluegrass, the D-18 has reigned supreme, especially among the hot-handed pickers. It is said that even the immortal Clarence White, who is famous for his D-28, actually recorded his solos with a D-18, and for good reason. The defined ring of the D-18 just cuts through a mix of instruments so well, and that makes the model ideal when recording or for live performance, while also having fewer feedback issues compared to overtone-heavy guitars made from rosewood.

But then, you may find that a D-18 this good will sound best right there on your living room sofa. And since you won’t be spending the king’s ransom required to buy a real 1939 D-18, you will be able to take yours to a local jam session without too much in the way of worry. However, at such a reasonable price for such an exacting replica of a pre-war D-18, don’t be too surprised if your D-18 Authentic 1939 isn’t the only one at the party.

List Price:  $6,749

Call your Martin dealer for the real price.

And that is one man’s word on…

The Martin D-18 Authentic 1939

Read more about C.F. Martin & Co. HERE

Read our primer about Martin Model Designations and Naming Conventions HERE

The official spec sheet can be seen HERE.

33 Comments

33 thoughts on “Martin D-18 Authentic 1939

  1. A Mr. Williams of South Carolina left this message on an unrelated blog post, so I am sharing it here.,

    “I am sitting here playing my 2013, 39 Authentic in good old Murrells Inlet, S.C. and can’t believe how this guitar has opened up. Good people at Gruhn put me on this guitar as it had travel to Namm and told it was something to look at as it had a good sound and would open up. So my point is, I never thought a guitar could open up like this. I know a guitar has to have a promising sound to begin with,but that being said, if played they will sound better with time.”

  2. Todd, your comprehensive review of the D-18A 1939 VTS was the instrumental component in my decision to purchase this model, which has far exceeded my best hopes for this Authentic model. Every aspect of the guitar’s build, playability and tone fit me and my style like a well-made glove. Thank you for continuing to offer Martin guitar enthusiastics the finest reviews available today. Paul Goricki

    • Well I think you, Mr. Goricki, for or welcomed and encouraging words.

      And I am very happy to congratulate you on a D-18A 1939 that brings you so much satisfaction. Play on!

  3. I have a 51 D28 and a 56 D28 and IMO there ain’t no better sound, they are exceptional pieces. I purchased a 39 D18 authentic from Gruhn guitars in 2013. I was originally looking at a sunburst 37 D18 authentic that they had, which was more expensive than the 39 D18 Authentic but Billy put me on the 39 authentic that they had just receive at NAMM, that he said was exceptional. I will say that this guitar is the best sounding new one that I have purchased. I am glad that my top is not VTS, if it made that much of a difference don’t you think the price would reflect it? I would recommend the 39A to anybody. Thanks Clay

    • I believe the price of the VTS reflects the extra cost it takes to use it, rather than any statement about it is X times difference therefore it has an X times price increase.

      In my only one to one comparison thus far, the VTS D-28A 1941 made the non-VTS one sound tight and constrained. It has that typical new Adirondack thing where the stone was skipping across the surface of the lake, even though I could hear the potential in that top. The VTS top sounded broken in, at least in the way the playing instantly went down inside the voice, it did not just skip across the surface.

      But I know some people will or would prefer the non-VTS sound and I am surprised Martin does not offer it as an option.

  4. Great Review it is 2015 now and the only guitars in the the Authentic Series come with the VTS. I scrambled to get a non VTS. I got my 1941 and my 1939 in the 2014 specs, yea.

    I have a definite love for all things Red Spruce, so take this next comment with a grain of salt. Having 2 Collings CJ, and CJMh SB. Both Sitka and and Hybrid neck attachment – Verdict: Killer Guitars. 2 Bourgeois one Sitka and one Adi 1 square Shoulder and one sloped – Verdict: Killers. Gibson J45 True Vintage and a LG2 Americana: Verfict: Killer. Last a Mahogany/Adi Guild Custom Shop. My conclusion no greatest Brand and many Great Guitars. I believe I may have a few, but I can only play one at a time. Play everything more then once. I went too far out and my descendants will really know how I did. I really love the Martin 1939 though!

    • Hi I am back and need to revise my thoughts. I have been rotating through my guitars. I have a clear cut favorite. My Martin D-28 1941 Authentic and right with it my Martin D-18 1939 Authentic. It seems there is a Marquis Brand at least for my taste anyway. The 1939 Authentic is my easiest playing guitar. I have had six trigger finger surgeries and scar tissue tends to dampen strings. The D-18 1939 has a very forgiving neck. In fact the Mahogany makes it sound like it has opened up more. Anyways I learned never write comments until you really have proper perspective and experience. All of you looking for a lifetime guitar the Martin D-18 1939 Authentic is that guitar. And Martin Builds Masterpieces!

      • Nice to hear (except the part about finger surgery!)

        I played to lovely D-28A 1941 examples – one with the VTS and one without. This was at Maury’s Music, in Coaldale, PA, where I was recording some demonstration videos for them. I really do love that model and that neck. But yes I can see why you might like the 18’s neck better. It is a little less bulky down by the nut.

        • I purchased from Alfonso the very last for Sale that Maury had in the Marquis D-18 1939 Authentic. I find it a bit confusing that 2014 non VTS is an 1939 Authentic and a 2015 VTS is an Authentic.I do love my non VTS D-28 1941 Authentic for all things. I will never hear it’s full blossom but I will play it towards that end with great joy. Music is subject (a great joy). We know what naturally played in guitars sound like. I for one think everything else is theory. It made for a lighter more sea worthy ship. But where are those ships now?

    • Thanks, Michael.

      To date, the only VTS Authentics I have played were the new ones, the OM-28A and OM-45A DLX.

      I too am waiting to see one of the VTS dreads, and especially see it side by side with a 2014 or 1023 Authentic.

      • Did you have a preference between the D-18A ’37 and ’39?

        Also, you notice a difference between torrefied and non-torrefied OM-28As and 45As?

        • I did not played them a year apart. I like the sound of rear-shifted braces, as it has a more 3-D definition to the fundamental notes off the wound strings, but I did not like the neck on the ’39 compared to the D-28A 1941. Both necks are 1-11/16″, but the 18’s shape stabbed into my finicky hand too much and it is shallow and narrower in the first position, so it felt a bit cramped.

          But their is also a lot to be said for the forward shifted boom and rumble of the ’37. So I would have a hard time choosing based on tone along. I am moving away from the 1-3/4″ vintage necks, except perhaps the lower profile on the new OM-28A.

          Otherwise, they did not make an OM-28 Authentic or OM-45 Authentic without the VTS torrefied top, so we will never know how they might have sounded without it.

  5. I have had my 39 D18 about two yrs and I’ll have to tell you, It is one of the best sounding guitars out of the box I have had. Hope you enjoy yours, take good care of it and chances are, you will never lose any money on it. Clay Williams

  6. I have just purchased one and currently have it on layaway. This was after immense research into high end Martin’s (I’m basically an expert now 🙂 What got me in the end was the tone of this instrument, I was considering a 1962 D18, a custom D21 from Gruhn, numerous Adi Madi customs, a 60’s D28. It was literally the trueness in the fundamental sound that won me over, the magic high end clarity and overall resonance. I can safely say, for me this is the BEST new dreadnought I have ever heard RW or Hog, (I understand they are apples and oranges) I really appreciate all the hard work in this comprehensive review.
    Thanks again Tom

  7. How’s this compare sonically to your D-18 Retro? Would you say it’s as versatile? Would you consider it a worthy upgrade if electronics weren’t in the picture?

    • Mike, thanks for your query.

      They are different beasts. The Authentic is lighter, with expansive, open depth, Adirondack clarity, and extremely responsive to slight changes in pressure on the strings or picking attack. The modern D-18, including the Retro, has a more solid voice, which has the Sitka warmth, benefited by the forward shifted braces for added resonance. Both are bargains for the money, as far as I am concerned. But the prices suit what you get for the money.

  8. I have had my 39 authentic almost 2 wks now and I’ll have to say, that it is a keeper. I also have a 56 and a 51 D28 that have a entirely different sound than the 39 authentic. I really enjoy comparing the sound of each. Thanks Clay Williams

  9. Mine’s “on the truck.” So far this year, in large part due to your fine reviews, I’ve acquired, in order: D-1GT, D-45, HD-28, and finally, the 1939 D-18A. My GAS is satiated… for now. ;<)

    • Wow that is quite a collection, Gary, and all in one year!

      Congratulations! I envy your task of breaking in that new, stiff Adirondack top on your upcoming Authentic and getting to enjoy how the bottom increases in depth and character over time.

  10. i have a 75th anniversary d18, it is a great sounding guitar! But i really have my eye on one of these d18A’s at a music store thats nowhere around where i live so im just going by what the store is telling me witch is this is an awesome d18A! “theres nothing in our store that comes close to the volume an tone”. So is the d18A an the 75th anniversary d18 even in the same class? An should i trust what the store is telling me is true? Thanks!!

    • Hi David,
      The D-18 75th Anniversary model is a very good guitar to be sure. And when one gets up into this level of instrument the difference in tone, feel, playability can be seen in terms of personal taste. The D-18A is more lightly constructed, including the special thin finish. And they are notably different from all other D-18s. I have no trouble believing when I hear someone say a shopkeeper claimed nothing comes close to the D-18A in their shop.

      The closest Martin to the 75th is the D-18 Golden Era. I know a number of pickers who were in love with their D-18GE, which were all sold once they could find and afford the D-18 Authentic 1937. The new D-18 1939 has a smaller neck than the 37, but very much belongs right alongside the ’37 it is replacing.

    • thank you for your reply an knowledge! Everything that im hearing about the d18A is awesome! I believe im gonna have to bit the bullet an order this one!!! two more question please. Is the t bar thats in the d18A just as good as the truss rods an does the d18A 1939 have the tongue brace? Thanks again!!

      • David,

        The D-18A does have tongue brace, or top plate as they call it at the factory. The D-28A 1941 does as well. The guitars they are based on has the brace as well. The brace was added to guitars to help prevent the top cracks around the fingerboard, which was a frequent warranty issue at Martin after they went to 14-fret necks. No one knows for sure when they started this practice. We just know there are 1938 Martins that do not have it.

        You will find respected luthiers who claim this brace effects the tone of the guitar (Kimsey for example) and others who say that such a thin bit of wood could not possibly effect the tone of a guitar (Greven for example.) But the fact is, the 1939 D-18 in the museum has it, so the Authentic replica has it too.

        As for the T-bar in the neck. The obvious disadvantage is you cannot adjust the torque of the neck like you can with an adjustable rod. But there is no doubt that the T-bar is strong enough that there are a great many Martins from the T-bar era that have shown very little in the way of issues, other than needing a common neck reset after so many years.

        Hope that helps!

        • Good afternoon. One question on the disadvantage of not having a truss rod. How does one change the action on a D18 A? Is that a challenge or impossible?

          • Hi Chris.

            They way such guitars have always been adjusted is to begin with lowering the saddle, by sanding it down. That is one reason the saddle starts as high as it does.

            It is common to see old Martins and Gibsons et al with barely a sewing needle of saddle left and they still play and sound just fine.

            Replacing the saddle is another option, but you have to know what you are doing, and the original saddle will be destroyed in the process, since it is glued in. I did this with an OM-28VR I had bought used, with a saddle taken way down by someone who clearly only played cowboy chords, as it buzzed from the 6th fret upwards. And I had it replaced with a drop-in saddle, which worked ever after and had no issues.

            Anyone who is the original owner of a new D-18A whose string spacing is out of spec can report this to Martin who should approve a neck reset free of charge. But it is my understanding that the modern Martin corporation has limited neck resets due to age to five years only, after which they charge for it.

            You will see many vintage guitars that also had the bridge sanded down once the saddle can’t be lowered any further, but that is not advisable.

    • Yes, Clay. All the Authentics are made in the Custom Shop. You could say the original crew that developed the D-18 Authentic 1937 evolved into the present-day custom shop at Martin.

      That is one reason they will not be filling shops any time soon. They are made by the custom shop, along with all the custom orders from customers and dealers. So they will come out at a slower pace than the normal Martins, if you can call Martins normal guitars. All the more reason for people to pounce on one they see available for sale at a dealer. They don’t stay around long, and they are not quickly replaced.

  11. I received mine from Jon and Sharon a little over a month ago now and I am still amazed at how this guitar sounds and feels. I wish I could thank the Martin employees who worked on 1663399, I love this guitar!

    • Congratulations, Rodney. I am up here at Martinfest right now. So if I see any of the current custom shop employees out at the park pavilion today, or tomorrow at the factory, I will certainly tell them for you. I will mention it to Jon and Sharon at the very least.

  12. I have one coming Tues. or wed. from Gruhn that he purchased at the namn event. I was told that this piece has a beautiful tone, I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Thanks for the information. Clay Williams

    • You are very welcome, Clay.

      Please report your thoughts about the new guitar, once the swelling goes down on your fingertips so you can type, after all that playing.

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