C.F. Martin & Co.’s Performing Artist Series
In January, 2010 Martin Guitars unveiled the impressive Performance Artist 1 models at the NAMM trade show. This new line of contemporary acoustic-electric guitars included three sizes of cutaway bodies, the classic Dreadnought, the traditional Orchestra Model and the rad, new Grand Performance. They were an instant sensation.
That same day I met up with Tim Teel, Head of Instrument Design at the Martin factory, where he gave me a tutorial of the new GPCPA1, which translates as Grand Performance size with a Cutaway body made with Performing Artist 1 tier appointments. I learned how these guitars were going to represent Martin in the twenty-first century.
Three more tiers were added to the PA Series over the following year, with different price levels and corresponding features. The fanciest is tier 1, with tier 4 standing as the least-expensive. But they all share certain attributes that make the Performance Artist Series so new and exciting. Conceived with versatility in mind, they are created equally suitable for fingerstyle and strumming. I must say they have succeeded brilliantly in this respect, thanks to the High Performance neck shape, which has a ratio of width at nut to width at the 12th fret different from any previous Martin neck. Each model has a new, easy access cutaway as well as a special bridge and hybrid string spacing to go with the new neck. The on-board Fishman F1 pickup interface is matched with a new cord jack separate from the end pin. There is even a new pickguard design. Each of these features is detailed below.
The Performing Artist 1, 2 and 3 models all feature Indian rosewood back and sides and a Sitka Spruce top. Other materials vary depending upon the tier. The Performance Artist 4 models appeared in 2011, made from Sapele and Siris from Africa, and rosewood from India, and are reviewed here. Martin has since introduced a PA5 level, that brings the price down even further, for those looking for their first “real guitar.”
The PA1 models are gorgeous to look upon. They have a high gloss body and a smooth satin finish neck. The faceplate on the headstock features a new Martin logo, with block letters similar to those found on their Style 45 guitars, but reduced in size and made from a material never before seen on a Martin. It is type of Ablam created out of small pieces of shell to achieve a uniform color, that is slightly off white. Unlike mother of pearl, it reflects in the yellow part of the spectrum rather than blue. In Mr. Teel’s words, he wanted a logo that would appear “contemporary yet old style”.
The fret markers on the dark, ebony fingerboard fit that description as well. They have traditional, notched diamonds of brilliant blue paua shell set between two sleek arrowheads made from the same material as the logo and pointing out toward the edge of the fingerboard. The rosette is high-color blue paua busy with veins and facets that tie in beautifully with the diamonds on the fingerboard. The combination of pale yellow shimmer and the glinting sea blue was an inspired choice and gives the PA1 guitars an upscale appearance without being ostentatious. The inlay enhances the wooden instrument, it does not encrust it.
The body and neck have solid ovankol binding, a wood of mottled reddish-brown, matched with a wide, solid strip of the same wood running down the center of the back. Martin has rarely used wooden binding in modern times and never this species. Between the inlays and the ovankol a PA1 model instantly says, “This is not your granddaddy’s Martin.”
The pickup is connected to the new Fishman F1 Aura interface, developed specifically for these new guitars. It consists of two, flat dials and an LCD readout, all about the size of a nickel, set into the bass side where the player can easily see it and adjust it, mid-tune if necessary. Those two, little disks access a wealth of settings, including volume, eq and 9 Aura images that mimic the sound of the specific PA guitar as recorded through various, high-end microphones. There is also a tuner and nifty phase switch to instantly get in phase with the whatever PA or amp it plugs into.
PA2 and PA3 Models
The next tier in the Performing Artist Series is was originally limited to one model only, the GPCPA2, with a List Price $500 below the PA1 models. The PA3 models come in all three sizes with a List Price $1,800 below the PA1 tier.
The most important difference from the PA1s is no more solid wood bridge and fingerboard. Instead, they have Richlite, a composite of resin and cellulose fiber taken primarily from recycled paper. Since the cellulose layers are woven into fabric they become infused with the resin and the final product acts more like a solid than a veneer. That should mean it will also transfer vibrations from the guitar strings in a similar fashion. It has a density slightly greater than the densest ebony.
Another noticeable difference; the PA2 and 3 have a high gloss top and a satin finish back and sides. The 2 gets an attractive three-piece back, similar to the D-35. The wood binding is also gone, replaced by grained ivoroid on the 2, as seen on Vintage Series Martins and the 3s get the white Bolatron used on the Standard Series. Each has a headstock featuring a gold logo like that on Martin’s Standard Series models.
The fret markers on the 2 are still luxurious, made up of large, abalone “scalloped diamonds” that are, as far as I know, unique to this model. It also has a rosette with a ring of abalone much like the paua shell ring on the PA 1.
Performing Artist Design Features
The idea for the new Grand Performance body came from C.F. Martin IV. He wanted something that could enter into direct competition with the small jumbo models popularized by luthiers like Jim Olson and George Lowden, and since emulated by just about every major guitar maker, except Martin. The GP size has a depth similar to the Dreadnought and a lower bout that is wider, and rounder than a Martin OM, but not as wide as their M and J sizes. In general, it has a voice more like an OM than an M, but with a heartier low E string than either.
Like the GP, the PA Series Dreadnought and OM models have a new cutaway angled with a greater scoop that allows the player to really get to the upper frets and play them with the ease of an electric guitar. This is as accessible an acoustic neck as I have seen without a double cutaway.
The new F1 electronics interface came out of brainstorming sessions that Martin shared with Fishman in early 2009. It packs a lot of features unique to the Aura imaging system, but can be used with simpler pickup systems like the Fishman Sonitone, now on the PA4 models and found on other Martins outside the PA Series under the name F1 Analog. Like on the pricier Aura version, the F1 Analog interface still gets the on-board tuner and feedback-killing phase switch.
One feature I love is the new end piece on these guitars, which has a pop-out 9 volt battery for the pickup. Perhaps this means the batteries get used up quicker, but it is a nice feature none the less. No more detuning the strings and reaching into the soundhole. Having the guitar’s 1/4″ cord jack separate from the strap button is yet another brilliant feature. The button is now set closer to the top of the guitar, allowing the instrument to hang suspended from the player’s neck without tipping forward.
The Performing Artist bridge is also unique, as it is smaller and the wings on either side of the saddle are shallower. The shape looks traditional at first glance, but it has a subtle but decorative curve at the back and it is actually narrower in length on the soundhole side, so the edges have a tilt to them. Not only does the bridge have less mass than normal, it has a smaller bridgeplate. This smaller bridge footprint results in a top that is more responsive to vibration and leads to more resonant string energy converting into soundwaves.
High Performance Neck
The most impressive feature of the Performing Artist Series is Martin’s first new neck in decades. Slightly shallower than other Martin necks and less cheeky, what makes it a truly new neck is the taper, or lack there of. It has a width of 1-3/4” at the nut like Martin’s OMs, but it retains the 2-1/8” width at the 12th fret used on guitars that normally end with 1-11/16”. This gives the player a little extra room down in the first position, while offering a faster, sleeker neck in the upper frets. The necks are made from Spanish cedar and are finished in a low-friction satin that makes gliding from headstock to heel wonderfully slick.
The High Performance neck profile is as comfortable and effortless to play as an electric guitar, easy to grasp all the way around while providing enough mass to hold onto. It is slightly V’d so the palm does not flatten out like it does on the Martin’s Low Profile necks but not so V’d that it gets in the way of a Classical hand position, like vintage-style Martins. Players who like to use Jazz chords, Rock power chords and a lot of barre chords should appreciate the High Performance neck, where even thumb-fretting at the 8th fret is a breeze. The slimming taper up the neck makes it ideal for players with smaller hands and shorter fingers – are you listening ladies?
In the mid-1970s Bob Taylor became the first builder to make a success out of offering what were essentially acoustic guitars with an electric guitar neck. Bill Collings and other makers came along with slender necks that feel more parallel than tapered as you move up the frets and Jim Olson was among the influential luthiers who carved their necks shallow, because wider necks are easier to play with very little wood behind the fingerboard. Only now has Martin moved to offer their own, contemporary neck, which is different than any found elsewhere. However, the company has made up for lost time; there are three new models outside of the PA Series offered with this neck, the CEO6, D-28P and D-18P.
Thus far, this neck is always matched with string spacing of 2-3/16”, a sort of hybrid set halfway between the spacing used on the Standard Series OM and Dreadnought models. For an old OM player accustomed to vintage spacing, it still feels a bit narrow for my picking hand, but I love how easy the neck plays all the way into the cutaway. It cries out for hot lead licks. Owners of standard 1-11/16” necks should find playing these guitars feels free and easy, but not all that different from what they are used to.
The Performance Artist guitars sound as contemporary as they look. They should prove competitive when standing amongst the Taylors and Takamines inundating the progressive pop and country charts and may just tip the scales in Martin’s favor when it comes to players who want more oomph behind the bright and shiny top voice coming off the strings.
In fact, a Performance Artist Series Martin compares quite favorably to a Taylor, or to a Bourgeois (Pantheon) or other guitars that employ a bolt-on neck, which tend to have a lot of ring and sustain from fundamentals that stand out and open from a milder undertone. It is no coincidence that Taylor players who end up getting a Martin often buy themselves a guitar from the 16 Series or some other M&T Martin like the John Mayer model. They went looking for a voice that still pops out with chimey, forthright trebles, but has more guts and growl, a bit more body under the hood, yet not too much. Well, now they have a whole collection of Martins in the Performing Artist Series that will give any of those other brands a run for the guitarist’s money, with comparable acoustic chimes and perhaps the best acoustic-electric tone available.
Performing Artist Pickguard
The OM and GP models come with Martins’ new pickguard that mimics the curve of the guitar’s waist and has a pointy, “flame” appendage aimed toward the bridge, purposely set somewhere between the one on similar pickguards by Taylor and Gibson. It is clear who these guitars are designed to compete against. They still look like Martins, but a new kind of Martin made for the twenty-first century guitarist. When the guitar is standing upright, the new guard looks somewhat like a heraldic shield, which, in a way it is. Yet another example of how Tim Teel, his staff and the skilled craftspeople out on the floor have brought together the classic and contemporary to create a whole new line of guitars that still very much say C. F. Martin & Co.