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 to the fretboard and the 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.


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

  1. Just a short follow up. I never suggested that the Martin Authentics aren’t worth their price–to the contrary, and as I stated, they are “really, really good”. And, I’ll add, I think they are well worth their price–I’m focusing primarily on the 18 and 28 styles I am familiar with. The point was that, in my view, that same spacing ought to be made available on standard models. Your suggestion that narrower spacing can be a preference seems consistent with my initial statement that there are individual preferences, etc. Your comments on technique and “derailment” are fair–weak technique can manifest itself in many ways. But, I wonder what all of those brilliant classical guitarists would say about mastering narrow spacing.

    I assume your reference to T.J. Thompson is intended as a reference point of extraordinary excellence. Anyone who has an opportunity to play a T.J. Thompson guitar should jump at the chance. T.J. consistently makes only “holy grail” guitars. He is a man of the highest character whose integrity seems to instill even more greatness into his guitars. His work is impeccable and playing and hearing one of his guitars makes me think I made it to “the good place”. They are well worth whatever he is charging.

    It is easy to be a fan of Martin guitars–they are great instruments with a wonderful tradition. That’s a big reason I read your articles–very informative. Most of my guitars are Martins. And, Martin actually does a better job than most at specifying variables like string spacing. The original comment/question is a particularly good one because many people do not focus on these variables and may miss out on options that best suit their playing style. I just like the traditional spacing and would like to see various spacing options made available at various levels of the Martin line. Whether the preference is narrow or wide.

  2. No doubt, there are individual preferences to accommodate when selecting fingerboard widths and string spacing. It is important to add information about historical Martin spacing at the 12th fret and saddle. The new spacings are very narrow in my view. Check out One Manz’ reviews of the 1931 OM-28 Authentic and the OM-45 Deluxe Authentic–they have wider spacing that, in my opinion, is much better suited to the 000/OM body’s strengths. Those spacings continued into the short scale, 14 fret body 000 models in 1934 and until about 1939. While the “derailment” issue can arise, why sacrifice spacing for poor fret work or poor technique? But, if “derailment” is the reason for pinching the strings closer together, at least consider the wider traditional starting point that gives you greater flexibility. As you can see, either way, I much prefer 2-3/8 (or at least 2-5/16) specing at the saddle, with 2-1/4 spacing at the 12th fret. And, I prefer nut slots that push the strings as far apart as reasonably possible. Players should also check out bar frets, which may help in avoiding “derailment”. I know this sounds like a “back in the day” comment, but there are many reasons those early 1930s OMs are so amazing. And, while the Authentics are really, really great, there’s no reason to have to pay that much just to get the same fingerboard widths and string spacings.

    1. There are many reasons to have to pay so much, since the Martin Authentics cost way below what T.J. Thompson or Jim Merrill will charge you for such guitars. The Authentics are relative bargains, but they are not cheap to produce and produce well. I would be surprised if Martin’s profit margin on the OM-28 Authentic 1931 exceeds that on the Standard OM-28.

      Martin’s modern neck should really have even narrower 2-1/8″ string spacing if they want the same relationship to the edge of the fretboard on their traditional fretboards. Even with the switch to 2-5/32″ it is cheated it OUT a bit for those who need wider spacing for fingerpicking.

      As for “technique,” one might suggest that wider string spacing allows those of less-precise technique to successfully fingerpick at all and many who play 2-3/8″ or my favorite 2-5/16″ spacing are unable to master narrower string spacing.

      I was certainly that way for a very long time. Playing a neck measuring 2-1/8″ across the fingerboard requires much more disciplined technique than 2-1/4″ or wider fretboards.

      I have moved back to a 1-11/16″ low profile neck partly because of arthritis issues, and partly because I am playing a lot of swing and mid-century Jazz that requires stacked, thumb-fretted chords, etc. But anything like Leo Kottke fingerstyle stuff requires much greater effort of concentration and dexterity if I am to play it cleanly.

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