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.

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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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