Martin Wows NAMM 2020 with the Ultramodern SC-13E
The first 13-fret Martin model offers ergonomic versatility in a beautiful, cutting edge acoustic-electric guitar
SC-13E specs include: New 13-fret asymmetrical S body size with deep scoop cutaway; fine koa veneer back and sides over solid Khaya core; solid Sitka spruce top; unique asymmetrical bracing with partial scalloping; new heel-less Velocity neck with new asymmetrical ergonomic profile; new Sure Align neck joint; solid ebony fingerboard with High Performance Taper; new solid ebony sloped belly bridge with 2-5/32” string spacing; new Road Series Style 13 appointments unique to this model; faux tortoise asymmetrical teardrop pickguard; chrome Grover open back tuners; Fishman MX-T electronics with onboard tuner.
Note: Specs based on final prototypes, subject to change between now and actual production models.
“Not your grandad’s Martin, the SC-13E is an ultramodern acoustic-electric guitar of tremendous versatility. Its ergonomic design is ideal for long term playing sessions, and its innovative shape and bracing provide satisfying tonal balance, good for countless musical styles.”
January 15, 2020
At three o’clock today, Pacific Standard Time, C. F. Martin & Co. unveiled to the public the SC-13E. With its innovative S size, deep angular Cutaway, and the attractive updated Style 13 appointments, this acoustic-Electric guitar introduces to the world the first new Martin-invented body design since 1934.
The M and J models of the 1970s and ‘80s were flattop guitars that used the body mold of a 1930s archtop. The various OMs and 12-fret Martins that followed were remakes of guitars invented across the twentieth century, as were the various Martin models that were adapted in homage to other classic American guitar designers. But Martin’s SC body size is the basis for a truly new, ultramodern twenty-first century guitar, conceived and designed for ergonomic comfort, and engineered for tonal balance and the effortless playability of an electric guitar.
The SC-13E’s special features will appeal greatly to electric guitarists who are looking for a crossover acoustic guitar. But its marvelous ergonomic design and defined acoustic tone will win over many acoustic purists, because of how comfortable it is to play for extended periods of time. And this new Martin body size is being introduced as a member of their Road Series, at a price point within reach of any working musician.
The back and sides are gorgeous Hawaiian koa, laid down as a fine veneer over an interior core made of solid Khaya. This building technique was also used to make the original Road Series Martins and returned on the Style 12 koa models this past year. It allows for good looking wood on the outside, while having a Khaya core for strength and stability. And the koa on the five SC-13Es that I have played is beautiful stuff.
Khaya is a tropical hardwood from Western Africa that furniture makers have called African Mahogany for centuries. In this case it is Khaya ivorensis, which is nearer to Big Leaf mahogany in weight, hardness, and specific gravity than other African wood. It has been used for many years to make the backs, sides, and tops of acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and classical guitars, as well as fretboards and bridges, etc.
The soundboard is made from solid Sitka spruce from the Pacific Northwest. And on a top this wide it is nicely flexible and resonant. But some of that has to do with the special bracing that was developed for this unique body size.
With its very round bottom bout and angular cutaway, the shape of the SC-13E appears to be inspired by the small jumbo designs that arose in the 1950s and caught on with the boutique luthiers a quarter of a century later. But it is unique in its details, including the silhouette, which has a high waist with the bass side offset from the treble, giving the wide lower bout the look of some of those enormous archtops favored by Swing Jazz guitarists in the ‘40s and ‘50s. In this case, it isn’t really all that large a body. It has a pretty shallow side depth for one thing, the same as a 14-fret 00 and 000. And the top and back look like a combination of a 12-fret 000, a 14-fret OM, and a smaller version of the GPC, yet with a wider waist than any non-dreadnought Martin. But the ratio of top size to body depth is partly responsible for its successful tonality, and something that adheres to the best Martin traditions, even on such a non-traditional Martin guitar.
New Martin for the New Decade
The inaugural Martin guitar of its kind, the SC-13E provides today’s guitarist with an acoustic instrument that plays as easily as an electric guitar. It has a fast, innovative neck providing access to the entire fretboard, and construction features that achieve pleasing unplugged tone while helping reduce the sort of high-volume amplification issues inherent in most acoustic guitars.
Nearly everything about this exciting Martin guitar is new, including the name. While the C stands for Cutaway, and the 13 represents the visual appointments and construction materials of Style 13, at the top of Martin’s affordable Road Series, the S signifies the first time in Martin history that they’ve used a letter that describes the actual shape, rather than it being an initial, as in D for Dreadnought, or OM for Orchestra Model.
Tim Teel, Manager of Instrument Design, said the naming was as simple as noticing the apparent S-shape to the look and vibe of what kept being sketched during the early conceptual brainstorming.
Fred Greene, Martin’s Vice President of Product Management, wanted to develop a production model with an asymmetrical shape for some time. According to various Martin insiders, Teel and his team explored new design concepts, including some that were inspired by R&D experiments going back several years. As Tim Teel puts it, “In the end, I feel the S stands for whatever the player decides it stands for, on a personal level. Maybe it will stand for Stage, or Studio, or Stadium, or Solo, or Sexy, or Shredder, etc. It is such a versatile musical instrument; it will earn every one of those designations, and more.”
At the very least, it will definitely earn its fans among players of rock and jazz that want to do what they do without having to feel like they are compromising to perform with an acoustic guitar. And there is no doubt it is different from any previous Martin body size, or anyone else’s body sizes for that matter. The many Martin firsts making up the SC-13E can be seen from stem to stern and everywhere in between. Others are hidden inside.
While I had expected this new design to debut eventually, I thought it might come out as a high-priced limited edition, rather than an everyman’s gigging guitar. But then, it seems fitting it was released in the Road Series’ Style 13. This is Martin’s first 13-fret model!
Guitars with 13-frets free from the body were being made elsewhere just before and after Martin introduced the first modern 14-fret acoustic guitars in 1929, the fabled Orchestra Models that transformed steel-string guitar design ever afterwards. Martin also tried out 13-fret guitars back in the day, but as one-offs, never as an actual catalog model. The reasoning behind this 13-fret guitar is anything but a throwback to the old days. It is all about thoroughly modern lead guitar playing.
Having the bass shoulder meet the neck at the 13th fret allows the guitar to retain the main benefits of a long-scale guitar (it has a 25.4” string scale) while providing an ease of playability along the lines of a short-scale guitar. It seems to make a big difference in the comfortable feel of what is not exactly a small instrument. It feels smaller than it is, because the first position on the fret board is closer to the body and the weight is centered on the neck joint, making the body seem shorter than it is. It hangs on a strap perfectly balanced.
In reality the full length is 40-1/2”. The body is 20-3/8” long and at its widest it is 15-1/2”. So it is a bit larger than it feels because of the ergonomic shape of the body and the way the neck feels and plays because of where it connects to the body.
The basic shape came together rather quickly during the evolution of this new Martin model. It was the details surrounding the bracing and neck that took a lot of trial and error. The most revolutionary aspect, to my mind, is the SC-13E’s new super-fast neck, which is attached to the body by the new Martin neck joint that they are calling a “linear dovetail.” Certainly this is a radical departure for Martin, even if it was inspired by traditional dovetail neck joints.
The neck block is exclusive to the SC design. It is made from a large block of solid African sipo, meticulously carved to accommodate the 4mm two-way adjustable neck rod and the components of the Linear Dovetail mechanism, which is made from a lightweight metal, probably some sort of aluminum alloy. The neck has a metal shaft that fits onto a movable metal tongue, which is tightened via two bolts, one of which is accessed through a small but rather decorative-looking port on the back (requiring a long slender tool designed to reach all the way up to the neck joint.)
When the bolts are loosened, a technician can insert or exchange a prefabricated shim into a dedicated slot setting just below the fingerboard. A variety of shim sizes are available to set the neck within official Martin specs, while allowing options for players who like higher action.
And another exclusive feature is a second hole set into the neck block about where the b string is. It has a fitting for an Allen wrench to make micro-managed adjustments to the intonation, something that could be done at home by the player if they are accustom to traditional neck rod adjustments. Although, I should point out that Martin recommends all neck setups be done by a trained professional.
The default string height for the production version of the SC-13E is set for “ultra-low,” compared to the higher action I am used to hammering away at. But then even the traditional Martins are sold with lower action than I normally prefer. And it ships with Custom Light gauge strings that have a .11 high e string, making this new Martin feel and play very much like an electric guitar, to the hands of someone who hasn’t owned an electric guitar in many years. Not that this is a bad thing. It makes for a relaxed and very fun playing experience.
But that is not the only thing it has in common with electric guitars. While this trademarked Sure Align neck joint is easily and quickly adjusted by an authorized Martin repair person, it also eliminates the need for a heel where the neck meets the body!
In other words, it is an electric guitar neck that actually works on an acoustic guitar – a holy grail for many guitarists. And it allows for a treble-side cutaway with a sleek drop-off when seen from out in front, while also having a scoop where the back meets the side that provides access to the entire fretboard without having to reach around the obstacle of a traditional neck heel. And yet, the neck also has a feature found on the best vintage Martins from the pre-war era – the thumb side is shaped differently than the side used by the fingers.
New Profile for the New Neck
In 2014, when Martin decided to create an Authentic Series model based on the priceless 1930 OM-45 Deluxe recently purchased for the Martin Museum, I was in the design office the moment they discovered the unusual shaping of that gloriously comfortable vintage neck. Basically, the carving was skewed so the apex did not run up the center of the neck, but rather drifted off-center as it traveled along the neck, adding or reducing the cheek area of the thumb side as needed, to keep the apex of the V in the contour of the fretting hand as it advanced up the frets.
They did a good job replicating the carving on that extremely limited edition Authentic model. But it wasn’t until this time last year that they applied the same principal to the shaping of the new Vintage Deluxe neck profile, exclusive to the models in Martin’s new Modern Deluxe Series. Now, Tim Teel and company have used a similar concept to create the advanced neck shape debuting on the SC-13E. It is not an attempt to replicate the feel of a vintage Martin. Rather, it is the Martin neck of the future, with no V to it at all.
It has an effortless feel, similar to Martin’s Low Profile necks, but with a subtly changing shape that fits amazingly well in the cupped palm of the guitarist no matter where they are fretting, or however they might be gripping the neck.
Tim Teel calls it the “Velocity” neck profile and described it to me as having “an asymmetrical barrel shape that twists in a helical manner to move ergonomically with your hand in all playing positions.” In my own words, I don’t have to fight the neck to play the guitar. It adjusts to what I want to do, rather than forcing me to adjust to it.
And having no heel allows for such easy playing where the neck meets the body. Never have I played an acoustic guitar above the 12th fret and fretted so many notes and chords without having to contort my hand or distort the strings and the tone along with them.
I expect most players encountering this neck in a guitar shop won’t even notice the subtle way the shape adjusts to their hand. But that is the point, the neck shouldn’t be noticed. And in this case the guitar seems so easy to use that it practically plays itself.
I will also point out here that the solid ebony fingerboard depth is the same as used on the the Authentic Series instruments. In combination with the shallow profile behind the fretboard, the neck transmits physical energy so well it feels alive and humming with living music. And it also has the modern High-Performance Taper, which begins with a 1-3/4” width-at-nut but measures 2-1/8” at the 12th fret, helping in that sleek, fast electric guitar neck feel.
New Bracing for the New Body
Like the neck and cutaway, there is some asymmetry to the top braces. For one thing, the X-brace is shaped differently on the bass side than the treble. They don’t want me to go into too much detail, but I can say that Tim Teel referred to it as “asymmetrical scalloping.” And went on to say that the bass side of the X-brace is shorter because of the body shape and it is not scalloped per se but has a new kind of carving to increase bass response. That is obvious by how the low E string is never overwhelmed by the other strings. I cannot remember playing an acoustic guitar where the string to string balance was this even.
The new back bracing is obvious, because it has its own X brace visible through the sound hole. Again, I was asked not to go into detail. But it will not take long for people to look inside and see how the new bracing and new neck joint work together so successfully.
Rather than expecting this new, futuristic body shape to function with the traditional top and back bracing of other Martins, the design team accepted the challenge of coming up with a pattern based on the X bracing that Martin invented in the 1840s and perfected over the decades, but which has now been “reimagined” and designed specifically to get the most tone out of the new body. It bodes very well for C. F. Martin & Co. that they have such inventive minds at work above those veteran and very skilled hands, and executive management in the upper offices who are bold enough to let their designers go where no Martin has gone before.
The acoustic voice of this guitar is not as robust as traditional Martins. How much of that is due to low action and Custom Light strings, how much is due to the new design features, and how much is due to the Road Series construction level, I cannot say. But like other Road Series instruments, once I adjusted my attack to a relaxed and lighter touch, the guitar responded with clear fundamental notes and some quick body reflection not very different from Martins made with solid koa back and sides, and that remarkable string to string balance.
All of the wound strings sound with identical volume and projection. The thin treble strings do sound a bit, well, thin. But that is comparing them to other Martins. Otherwise they are on par with some 90% of the acoustic guitars you find in a typical Guitar Center.
I would be very curious to hear this same guitar with higher action and 12s if not 13s. But then the strings would not have the play and bending ability that electric guitarists need, and that is really the immediate target audience for this guitar.
When plugged in, it sounds like other amplified acoustic guitars, but again, the string tension makes it feel more like an electric guitar, and I had a lot of fun running it through a distortion pedal and pretending to be Neil Young for a while. But I could be perfectly happy sitting in a café and playing my usual fingerstyle pieces on the SC-13E through an acoustic guitar amp.
Really, any typical fingerstyle, classical, or strum and sing type music can be played on this guitar with great success straight out the box. One just has to play with a lighter touch. Digging in makes it become much more like a Telecaster with some snappy, twangy bark and of course fun-to-play blues and rock string bends get real pingy when a pick bites into the strings.
When it comes to pure acoustic playing, the dynamics and sound are closer to a short-scale 14-fret 00 than an OM, even though the string scale is 25.4”. But because of that string scale, my fingers did not encounter the annoying traffic jams up in the cutaway that I must contend with on my traditional short-scale Martins. And that is a very persuasive selling point for someone who needs a cutaway as often as I do.
New Versatility for New Music
The versatility of this new instrument will overcome many players’ reservations about it looking so different from the Martins they are used to playing. In fact, my sources say a young Bluegrass phenom of growing reputation was visiting the Martin factory recently and absolutely loved playing the SC-13E.
And playing is what it is all about – playing for long sessions without the fatigue that can set in with conventional guitar designs. That is important for someone who has as many repetitive stress issues and old football injuries as I. It is how the guitar feels and plays that will make people like me put down cash on the barrel head. The acoustic tone is very nice, if not entirely what one is used to hearing from traditional Martins. And some may like it more than other Martins. But the major draw is its use as an electrified live performance instrument. It simply excels in this capacity.
My personal custom shop Martin “000C-21 TSP” guitar was also designed with comfort and playability in mind. It is why it has a short-scale neck. But there are times when I wish it has the larger voice and more powerful dynamics of a long-scale guitar. And I wish it had the kind of asymmetrical skew to the neck shape on the Modern Deluxe models or of course that 1930 OM I love so much.
I have been imagining something along the lines of a long-scale mahogany custom with a Sitka top to serve as the TSP’s companion. But now this SC-13E has given me a lot more to consider. The 13-fret design and totally free cutaway, along with the new neck profile, well, it adds up to a very attractive offering to be sure.
As usual, I am not at liberty to talk about R&D stuff, or what prototypes I may have seen relating to this project (which is why I cannot comment on string gauges and higher action, etc. other than to say the SC-13E tested successfully with all the normal light and medium gauges used on other Martins.) But it is not telling tales out of school to suggest this will not be the only SC model ever made. And while it may be tempting to wait and see if fancier models come out in other tonewoods, a beautiful thing about this debut model is the sticker price.
The SC-13E’s Fishman MX-T pickup system, with its tuner hidden inside the sound hole, makes it a great stage and tour guitar just as it is, for not a lot of money – one that could be upgraded eventually for a more deluxe version, should one appear in the future.
And therein lies the brilliance of Martin introducing the new body size and neck in the Road Series. It falls in a price range that is obtainable within modest budgets while being a relative bargain for those with deeper treasure chests.
I assume the thinking went something like this: Older Martin traditionalists will be less likely to be immediately drawn to such a new and different Martin model than younger players who are interested in experiencing things both new and different as often as possible. And younger players are more likely to be shopping in price points below Martin’s Standard Series. As too will the players who consider themselves primarily electric guitarists, but who want or need to be able to pick up and play an acoustic guitar through the same rig or sound system as their solid body guitars. And the feel and playability of the new neck and cutaway will make switching between the two easier than ever before.
And then there are those who already own and play higher-priced acoustic guitars, like traditional Martins from the Standard Series on up. They may be willing to pick up an SC-13E to add to their herd because it is a relative bargain for an unusual instrument. But if they are avid public performers, they may need an exceptionally versatile instrument they can play in clubs and bars or use for busking or when on a cross-country trip, instead of their more expensive heirloom instruments. And that is really what Martin’s Road Series guitars were designed for in the first place.
If and when the time comes for Martin to release more SC acoustic-electric models at higher price points, with more elaborate appointments or more advanced electronics, these journeyman musicians are the guitarists who may be first in line to buy them, once they see how enjoyable and so very useful is the new SC-13E.
Not your granddad’s Martin, the SC-13E is an ultramodern acoustic-electric guitar of tremendous versatility. Its ergonomic design is ideal for long term playing sessions and its innovative shape and bracing provide satisfying tonal balance, good for countless musical styles. I am very happy with how this project turned out. And I am sure my Django Reinhardt-Fats Waller-Irving Berlin-Duke Ellington-Chuck Berry-Merle Travis-Bob Dylan-Beatles-Stones-Dead-Neil Young-John Prine-David Bowie-Elvis Costello-Leo Kottke-R.E.M-Joan Armatrading-Tom Waits-Townes Van Zandt-Laurence Juber playing self would be very happy to keep on fingerpicking and flatpicking an acoustic-electric guitar as ergonomically comfortable and musically versatile as this new Martin SC-13E. I can only imagine how the acoustic/electric hybrid emulators of John Mayer, Keith Urban, Jason Isbell, Courtney Barnett, and Alex G. will love this Swiss army knife of a new Martin.
And that is one man’s word on…
The Martin SC-13E
List Price: $1,899.00
Call your Martin dealer to find out their best price!
Comes with an attractive, waterproof, plush-lined gigbag.
Note: FYI We didn’t have much time. I just plugged in and said, “That’s sounds ok. Let’s try it.” We thought the audio was ruined by electrical interference, but it actually recorded OK. So you can hear how ‘acoustic’ the plugged-in tone of this guitar is through a Fishman Loudbox Artist amplifier.
courtesy of maurysmusic.com
Martin on Martin
Jason Ahner of Martin Guitars and your humble Spoon discuss this new Martin.