Martin Carved Tops: 1932 C-1T And 1934 C-1

Rare Bird by George Gruhn
Guitar Player, December 1983

ALTHOUGH THE Martin Guitar Company is currently best known as a maker of flat-top steel-string guitars, it has actually produced quite a wide variety of fretted instruments over the years. During the big band era of the 1930s, for example, there was considerable demand for carved-top orchestral guitars, and Martin responded.
At the time Martin introduced its own version of a carved-top guitar, Gibson and Epiphone were the dominant forces in the market, each company producing far more carved-top f-hole guitars than flat-tops. With the exception of its carved top, Martin's new model was essentially the same in construction as its flat-top guitars. This is in marked contrast to Gibson, Epiphone, D'Angelico, Stromberg, and other makers of fine carved-top guitars, whose instruments have such features as carved maple backs and elevated fingerboards in addition to the carved top. Martin's carved top seems to have been installed almost as an afterthought.
While it is virtually impossible to accurately characterize a guitar's tonal quality in words, Martin carved-top guitars have a fine sound which seems to combine the characteristics of flat-top and orchestral-type f-hole guitars. While the Martin carved-tops have excellent tone, they were not a great market success, since they failed to please either orchestral or flat-top enthusiasts.
Martin discontinued production of carved-top guitars after 1942. Today these instruments are quite scarce. Although they were more expensive than flat-top models at the time of their debut, a Martin carved-top guitar now commands a lower price than an equivalent flat-top. Since these are fine quality, scarce instruments, it is my opinion that these guitars may prove to be "sleepers" with excellent future investment potential.
Martin produced carved-top guitars in three sizes and a variety of different quality grades: Size R corresponds to the flat-top size 00 (14-5/8" wide), size C corresponds to the flat-top size 000 (15" wide), the 16"-wide size F had no pre-War flat-top equivalent (although the modern size M flat-tops are the same size and shape as the old style-F carved-top). The Martin carved-top guitars are long out of production, but from an evolutionary point of view their influence lingers on. The size M flat-top and the now familiar hexagon fingerboard inlay and headstock block lettering inlay seen on the style D-45 and D-41 are examples (this inlay pattern was first designed for use on the carved-top models).
The earliest Martin carved-top guitars (1931-'33) have round sound holes. By contrast, early Gibson arch-tops had round or oval holes. Gibson first introduced the f-hole style L-5 guitar in 1923, and by 1932 the company had essentially phased out production of carved-top round-hole guitars. Martin produced a few experimental f-hole models in 1932, and began full-scale production in 1933. During 1933, size C and size R guitars were available with either round-hole or f-hole construction. From 1934 onward, carved-top Martins had f-holes exclusively.
Except for its carved top, the early style C-1 is essentially equivalent to a style 000-18 Martin flat-top. The wood and ornamentation are the same as the 000-18's: spruce top, mahogany back and sides, dot fingerboard inlay, and dark body binding. A few very early C-1s have the Martin name inlaid vertically on the headstock; subsequent C-1s have the standard Martin decal. Beginning sometime during 1935, the C-1 began to feature white ivoroid body binding.
The 1932 C-1 T tenor (4-string) guitar and 1934 C-1 f-hole shown here are interesting examples of Martin's carved-top craftsmanship. The tenor guitar was a relatively popular instrument during the '30s. Tenor banjo was extremely fashionable during the 1920s, but it was not suited to the music of the following decade. The tenor guitar permitted banjo players to switch to guitar without having to learn new chord forms. Although the fingering is the same as on its banjo counterpart (the guitar is tuned in fifths—C, G, D, A, low to high). The tenor guitar has a distinctive sound of its own and is a remarkably versatile instrument. Martin tenors have a 23" scale length: the C1-T features the round-hole construction.
The 1934 f-hole C-1 — a typical instrument of the period — has an excellent ringing sound with strong treble and superior sustain. Unfortunately for Martin, this was not what players wanted for their 1930s-style orchestral music. But it is a sound very well suited to blues and many of today's musical styles. While the C-1 is a fine quality pre-World War II vintage instrument, its current market price is about the same as that of a recent-issue used 000-18. Along with its potential as a playable instrument, this makes the C-1 an excellent buy.
Over the years, many carved-top Martins have been converted to flat-tops. This operation involves removing the original top and resetting the neck to a shallower angle in order to accommodate the flat top and lower bridge. The F-size guitars in particular have been sought for conversion, since they are relatively large, and until recently Martin offered no equivalent flattop guitar. Singer/ multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg did much to popularize F-size flat-top conversions; Martin's introduction of the M-size flat-tops in 1977 was in response to the demand for guitars of this type. While I have seen a number of C-2 conversions, a converted C is essentially equivalent to a standard Martin 000—it does not offer anything notably different from what can already be found in a stock item by Martin.
Since a good conversion job is quite expensive and involves the irreversible alteration of a pre-World War II collectors' item instrument, I suggest that carved-top Martins should be preserved in their original condition. Since Martin now offers the M-size guitars and operates a custom shop to produce special instruments made to the customer's specifications, there is no need to alter old instruments. The original carved-top Martin guitars are fine instruments, worthy of attention from serious musicians as well as collectors.