The Captivating Art of Restoring Vintage Guitars

Men­tion the Mar­tin D‑28 and you need say no more to fans of folk, coun­try, rock and roll, coun­try-rock, folk-rock, coun­try-folk, etc. Elvis, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, John­ny Cash, Hank Williams, Neil Young… all played one. (Neil, in fact, owns Hank’s gui­tar, and calls it “Hank.”) It is the stan­dard against which all “Dreadnought”-style gui­tars are mea­sured, because it was the first, and is still, arguably, the best. Named after the Roy­al British Navy’s HMS Dread­nought, a famous ves­sel that “spawned a new class of bat­tle­ships around the world,” writes Daryl Nerl, the larg­er-bod­ied D‑28 (D for “Dread­nought”), first arrived in 1917, at a time when small par­lor gui­tar and ukule­les were the norm.

The D‑28 has lived up to its name, says Jason Ahn­er, C.F. Mar­tin & Co.’s archivist. “If you were on that ship, you wouldn’t fear any­thing else and if you were play­ing that gui­tar you wouldn’t fear not being heard over a ban­jo or anoth­er instru­ment.” Built like bat­tle­ships, D‑28s don’t only take up space in an ensem­ble, they fill a room per­fect­ly well on their own, with del­i­cate fin­ger­picked fig­ures or big boom­ing strums. The D‑28 flopped on arrival but explod­ed in pop­u­lar­i­ty after it was adver­tised in 1935 as a “bass gui­tar,” before such things as bass gui­tars exist­ed.

As more and more folk and coun­try play­ers fell for the D‑28’s square shoul­ders, broad waist, and rich, almost sym­phon­ic, tonal range, the gui­tar became an object no play­er, once they got their  hands on one, would part with eas­i­ly, or ever. Repair­ing and main­tain­ing vin­tage Mar­tins, how­ev­er, is a del­i­cate busi­ness that requires an inti­mate under­stand­ing of the guitar’s con­struc­tion. Not every luthi­er is up to the task, but as you can see in the video above, Nor­we­gian gui­tar­mak­er Lars Dalin has the expe­ri­ence, patience, and know-how to dis­as­sem­ble and restore one head (and neck) to tail.

Dalin’s D‑28 restora­tion video should not only inter­est stu­dents of gui­tar repair. In it, we learn about the spe­cial fea­tures of Martin’s build that give the instru­ment its spe­cial tonal qual­i­ties, those we’ve been danc­ing and cry­ing to for over a cen­tu­ry. For those more inter­est­ed in elec­tric gui­tars, Dalin presents a refret and restora­tion of anoth­er Amer­i­can clas­sic — one that also didn’t get its due at first, but has since become an icon: the Fend­er Jazzmas­ter. Intro­duced in 1958, the gui­tars did­n’t catch on until the 1970s when they could be picked up cheap­ly at pawn shops by punk and new wave pio­neers like Tele­vi­sion and Elvis Costel­lo. The 1960 mod­el above is a joy to behold, and a les­son in gui­tar build­ing, repair, engi­neer­ing, like no oth­er. See more of Dal­in’s gui­tar restora­tion projects on his Insta­gram.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch a Luthi­er Birth a Cel­lo in This Hyp­not­ic Doc­u­men­tary

How to Build a Cus­tom Hand­craft­ed Acoustic Gui­tar from Start to Fin­ish: The Process Revealed in a Fas­ci­nat­ing Doc­u­men­tary

Repair­ing Willie Nelson’s Trig­ger: A Good Look at How a Luthi­er Gets America’s Most Icon­ic Gui­tar on the Road Again

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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