Martin's Foden Special

George Gruhn
Guitar Player Rare Bird, 2/83 OVER THE 150 YEARS of its existence, Martin has sometimes produced instruments intended for distribution by other firms, such as Ditson and Wurlitzer. Some of these special-issue guitars are stamped with both the Martin name and the name of the distributing company. Others bear neither the Martin brand nor serial number; nevertheless, they are manufactured to the same quality standards as the standard Martin line and bring equivalent market prices.

Most Martins produced under different trade names have body dimensions very similar to regular Martin models, although some guitars produced for distribution by the Oliver Ditson Company featured body shapes and sizes not found in the standard line. For example, the popular dreadnoughts, or D-size guitars, were first produced by Martin under the Ditson trade name in 1916 but were not issued under the Martin brand until 1931.

This month's rare bird was built by Martin for William Foden, one of America's better known guitarists and teachers from the turn of the century until about 1920, and a good friend of the Martin family. During this period, the guitar was already popular as a classical instrument, although the American school of technique differs markedly from the Spanish style popularized by Segovia. Martins produced before 1928 were usually designed for gut strings, but they were quite unlike their Spanish gut-string cousins and admirably well-suited to the stylistic needs of Foden and other virtuosos of the day.

The Foden instruments came in five styles (A to E), and two body widths, O (13-1/2") and OO (24-1/2"). They were produced in very limited quantities for Foden's students. While records may be incomplete, the sales books of 1914-17 indicate the following totals: Style A: none; B: 5; C: 3; D: 9; E: 9.

The five Foden Special styles corresponded closely to the standard Martin styles 18, 21, 28, 30, and 40, respectively. The Style B Foden illustrated here, for example, has specifications very similar to a standard OO-21 Martin of the time. But the 20-fret fingerboard was an innovation first proposed to Martin by Foden himself, and later adopted as a regular feature. Another highlight: the rosette. The herringbone trim around the soundhole and down the center of the back is typical of pre-World War II Style 21 Martins, but the single, wide soundhole rosette differs from Martin's standard 3-ring rosette. This single wide ring is also found on guitars produced by Martin for Ditson and Wurlitzer.

Continuing with parallels to the OO-21, the Style B Foden is constructed with Brazilian rosewood back and sides, ebony fingerboard, spruce top, and a triangular contoured mahogany neck 1-7/8" wide at the nut--all as on a typical Style 21. The diamond inlay at frets 5, 7, and 9 is typical for this period; later, in the mid-1930s, additional position markers were introduced on most Martins. The bar frets on our Foden are like those used by Martin until the introduction of modern fretwire in late 1934, while the rectangular pyramid bridge is a typical Martin feature of the pre-1929 period.

The bridgepins are worthy of separate mention. First of all, it is interesting just to see bridgepins--now firmly associated with steel strings--on a gut-string guitar. Second, the Martin guitar is, from an evolutionary standpoint, a Germanic instrument--and the bridgepins are the clue. Early French and German guitars featured bridgepins, while the Spanish guitars from which modern classical guitars evolved featured pinless bridges. While the Foden Special shown here was designed for gut strings, modern steel-string Martins evolved from guitars of this type. Except for being of light construction, the X-bracing on the underside of the top of this Foden is basically the same as on the later steel-string Martins.

Inside the body, stamped both on the neck block and the center seam of the back, we find the words "Foden Special, Made By C.F. Martin & Co., Nazareth, Pa." But this guitar bears no serial number, so it can not be dated with precision--1915 is a good guess.

Since the proliferation of modern classical guitar techniques, demand for early American gut-string instruments has been very greatly reduced. Fortunately, these instruments respond exceptionally well when strung with extra-light gauge steel, or silk and steel strings. While few artists these days are familiar with the playing technique of William Foden or his contemporaries, the Foden Special is a fine instrument which easily adapts to the needs of modern musicians.