Martin had been turning out flat-top acoustic guitars of the highest standards since long before the Civil War. On the strength of its quality workmanship and integrity Martin had risen to the status of a world renowned institution by the mid-20th century. Quite secure with this reputation, and conscious of its heritage, the Nazareth, Pennsylvania firm had previously chosen to do nothing about the growing prominence of amplified instruments.
But by the late '50s--when companies such as Fender and Gibson were building or expanding their empires utilizing radical new concepts in amplified guitars--Martin's executives decided to join in with an electric line of their own. At the same time, they determined to stick with what they knew how to do best.
The move came in the form of three guitars, the D-18E, D-28E, and 00-18E, each not too different from their acoustic counterparts--the D-18, D-28, and 00-18--except that they had pickups. However, with their electronic innards and large white control knobs, they represented quite a departure from Martin's traditional concepts and aesthetics. To some purists it must have been shocking. Perhaps to the purists' satisfaction, then, the experiment was shortlived--born in '58, well into decline by '61, defunct by '65. We'll see just why when we explore these guitars in detail.
The 00-18E features one pickup in the rhythm (front) position, one tone control, and one volume control. The D-18E has two pickups, one volume control, two tone controls, and a 3-position toggle switch for pickup selection. The 1959 D-28E pictured here was Martin's top-of-the-line electric flat-top, featuring two gold-plated pickups, two tone controls, two volume controls, and a 3-position toggle.
The D-28E is constructed of the same woods as the standard acoustic D-28: a Sitka spruce top, Honduras mahogany neck, ebony fingerboard and bridge, and Brazilian rosewood back and sides. (Brazilian rosewood was standard on style 21 and higher Martin guitars until the introduction of Indian rosewood in 1970.) The example shown here has exceptionally attractive grain on the back. Martin flat-top electric guitars, as well as the Martin f-hole thin-line electrics produced from 1961-68, are fitted with single-coil DeArmond pickups similar to those used on many Gretseh models during the mid-1950s.
Although the Martin electric flat-top guitars were built to meet the same rigorous standards of high quality as the company's acoustic models, they lacked sales appeal. The chart below tells a story of small production figures and relatively short lifespans for all three instruments. Note that company records often indicate a catalog price for a model after the factory had already ceased production: some likely remained in the warehouse and were still being offered for sale.
Part of the problem was price. The D-28E was considerably more expensive than the standard D-28, listing for $390 in 1959, more than a third over the standard model's $285 tag. In 1964 the D-28E was still way out in front of the standard D-28 at $474.50 versus $369.50. In fact, this made it Martin's most expensive instrument of the time, and also quite highly priced in comparison to electric guitars by other makers.
A second major problem with the Martin flat-top electrics was image. They did not seem to fit the traditional conception of Martin as a conservative maker of quality guitars. Although the electric guitar was becoming increasingly popular, Martin's customers were primarily acoustic players who were not in the market for an electric. While Gibson, Fender, and Gretsch models were designed from the ground up as electric guitars, these Martins looked like acoustic guitars that had been customized with pickups, and since they had the same type neck and bridge as an acoustic, their handling characteristics were essentially more acoustic than electric.
A third problem area was tone. The tops of the D-18E and D-28E were fitted with transverse bracing instead of the traditional Martin X-bracing, which would have been cut by the routing for the lead pickup. Unlortunately, this alteration inhibited a good acoustic sound. The DeArmond pickups presented an additional hitch. They produce more background noise and are more susceptible to feedback than double-coil (humbucking) pickups, and they give the guitar a tone closer to that of a standard electric than a flat-top acoustic amplified through a microphone.
Nowadays these instruments are quite scarce, and while not greatly sought after for their playing value, they are certainly of historical interest. [Ed. Note: Other Martins covered in Rare Bird columns--Mar. '73, Martin Guitars: Serial Numbers 1898-1963 May/June '73, The Dreadnought by Martin; May 78, The 1929 Martin 0-45; Dec. '78, Civil War Martin; May 79, Martin Arched Top F-9; Jan. '80, 1840s Martin and Coupa; Apr. '80, Martin's OM Series; Mar. '81, Martin D-28 Herringbone. Also of interest: What 's In A Name, Jan. '79, C. F. Martin III.]
Altogether, it would seem that the Martin flat-top electrics were a commercial flop because they failed to please either electric guitarists or acoustic musicians. Thus they were fated to fall victim to marketplace Darwinism and join the extinct species of rare birds.
Martin Electric Flat Top Production Totals