[My friend and noted historian Jerry Zolten is writing an article celebrating next year’s 100th anniversary of the dreadnought guitar for the Martin Guitar Company. He asked me to submit a few words reflecting on the historical, musical, and cultural importance of this iconic, now ubiquitous design. Some of this will presumably find its way into Jerry’s much more in-depth article, but in the meantime I thought these couple of paragraphs would make a nice blog post. –GR]
The C. F. Martin Guitar Company’s introduction of the dreadnought guitar in 1916, under the Oliver Ditson brand name, represents the pinnacle of trends in guitar design and usage that extend well-back into the nineteenth century. In the decades following the end of America’s Civil War, guitars were becoming increasingly popular, their uses breaking free of the genteel parlors where they flourished in the antebellum era. In these new performance contexts and with the rapid changes in American musical style during those years, guitars needed to be louder, more assertive, and more supportive of other instruments. As a result, their bracing patterns evolved (with most still rooted in Martin’s own x-brace innovation), their scale-lengths extended, their strings began changing over from gut to steel, and, most obviously, they were getting bigger and bigger.
While there were other experiments with large-bodied designs before and after the appearance of the first dreadnought guitars, it was Martin’s 1916 12-fret design and its 1934 14-fret modification that became the de-facto standard for large, steel-string instruments. The dreadnoughts offered an ideal combination of tone and power, playability and boldness, perfectly suited to a wide variety of popular styles in the early and mid-twentieth century. The coincidence of these breakthroughs in instrument design with the emergence of America’s roots-based commercial genres in the 1920s and 30s solidified the connections that still shape the sounds of popular music today. Martin’s dreadnought design—extensively adopted, imitated, and modified by others but never surpassed—became the instrument of choice in country, western swing, bluegrass, folk, folk rock, singer-songwriter, Americana, and numerous other genres. It has remained one of the primary tools of musicians across a staggeringly wide range of styles and decades, an ubiquitous sound that has inspired brilliant artistry and musical innovation for 100 years. Indeed, there is no other branded, specific acoustic instrument design in all of popular music history that has had such a far-reaching impact on the development of popular musical expression in America—and by extension, the world—as Martin’s iconic dreadnought.