A Martin Guitar Gives Up Its Secrets

Article by Myra Saturen; photos by Patricia Canavan
April 29, 2013

The "patient" had a long, active and useful life, and at age of 94, was in terrific shape.  That's  what the X-rays said about the 1919 C.F. Martin guitar taken on April 26 by two Northampton Community College radiography students and examined by Tim Teel, director of instrumental design and Brenden Hackett, research and development specialist at C.F. Martin Guitar. 

On its side or on its back, the guitar lay on the table, x-rayed by Eric Becker and Britta Nylund.  Knowing that NCC had state-of-the-art X-ray equipment, Martin Guitar had decided to investigate its anatomy through X-ray, a non-invasive method that would not necessitate tearing it apart. 

 So, what did the pictures say about the guitar's "bone structure?"  Did it, as Teel and Hackett suspected, lack a rod truss to keep the neck straight?  Where did its braces sit--the struts that hold up the stringboard? 

The findings came in quickly--and remarkably clearly. The pictures revealed minute detail, down to the glue keeping parts together.  They displayed the bracing, the pick art, and the finely grained Brazilian rosewood and mahogany.  Indeed, the instrument did lack a rod truss, but seemed none the worse for its absence.  

Made mostly of Brazilian rosewood, the guitar showed inward signs of frequent use and exquisite care.  C.F. Martin acquired the vintage instrument, made at its own factory, from a Nashville music shop. 

Britta Nyland and Eric Becker position the Over time, a strutless guitar such as this one can warp out of shape.  But this one had not.  Eric Becker picked it up and played it.  Out of its body came warm, robust tones.  "The sound is incredible, it jumps right out" Hackett said.  "This guitar was well-loved and well-played."  The sound itself indicates the guitar's long and frequent use.     

 Most amazing of all, the X-rays showed that after nearly a century, the guitar showed no signs of structural repairs.  It was completely unaltered.  

That authenticity is what C.F. Martin seeks.  The company has plans to make a prototype and fashion close facsimiles at a more reasonable price than the $40,000 the original instrument would fetch today.  

The 1919 guitar is the second to get a checkup by NCC radiography students.  On April 22, a guitar from 1921 underwent a similar examination.

While the use of X-rays to examine a guitar may seem highly unusual, the use of radiography in non-medical fields is not rare.  X-rays delve behind painted canvasses to show whether a lost masterpiece waits underneath.  Radiography probes mummies and other archaeological finds.     

For the radiography students, working on guitars is a valuable challenge to their skills. Taking pictures in sections, they used analogies to the human body to determine how much radiation to use.  As their radiological technical charts refer to part of the human body, the students had to make delicate adjustments and analogies to transfer the neck measurements of a person to the neck measurements of a guitar.  "It is a marriage of art and science," Nylund said. 

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