Evolution of the American Guitar - Part Two

Evolution of the American Guitar - Part Two

In part one of my interview with "Inventing the American Guitar" editor Peter Szego, he talked about Martin Guitar Company founder C.F. Martin Sr.'s journey from Markneukirchen, Germany, to New York City in 1833 and how a series a of guitars Martin built in his 196 Hudson Street shop evolved from his Austro-German style to Spanish-style in later years. In this interview, we delve further into the evolution of the modern American guitar and the people who influenced Martin's designs.

Peter Szego at his home in New Jersey. [Emon Hassan/Guitarkadia]

Peter Szego at his home in New Jersey. [Emon Hassan/Guitarkadia]


Guitarkadia: Did you ever find out why Martin set up shop on Hudson Street in New York City? 

Peter Szego: New York was a major commercial center, but it ends up he and his family didn't like being in New York. Within 5 or 6 years, they emigrated to Pennsylvania. I believe they were much happier there than they had been in New York. 

Henry Schatz may have influenced Martin's moving to Pennsylvania, but that's a supposition. Schatz was a guitar maker from the same town as Martin who came to America three years before Martin and settled north of Philadelphia. The two of them worked together on and off over the five years Martin lived in New York. 

Guitarkadia: How hard was it to find documentation from back then when you were doing research?  How much of it came from the Martin Guitar Company's archives? 

Martin & Coupa label, c. 1840-1850

Martin & Coupa label, c. 1840-1850

Peter Szego: Martin Guitar Company has all of the business journals from the time C.F. Martin established his business in 1833 to the present with one exception; all of the business journals from 1840 to 1850 are missing, the first 10 years of his operation in Pennsylvania. So we had to figure out the design development of Martin guitars during that period by studying what he was doing to change the guitars both from a construction and a design standpoint.  

J.B. Coupa label, c. 1841-1843

J.B. Coupa label, c. 1841-1843

During that period he had a partnership with a Spanish emigre, teacher, guitar virtuoso, performer and composer John Coupa. It was the longest partnership Martin had with anyone. We believe Coupa was very important in influencing Martin to learn from Spanish guitars and put a lot of the features of Spanish guitars into his guitars. In fact, the first record of anyone ordering a "Spanish guitar" from Martin was Coupa and that was, I believe, in 1836 or 1837. Coupa was already asking for a Spanish guitar or a guitar with Spanish features. At that point Coupa was a customer.  It wasn't until Martin decided to move out of New York City that they became partners.

Guitarkadia: Speaking of design, how did you plan the design of the book?

Peter Szego: We put together a team of five scholars who brought their own specialties to the project. They good at collaboration and worked well together during the years it took the project to be completed. I also brought an editor and designer on board. The team was very much like a design team on an architectural project or a building team on entire construction project where each brought his own specialty. 

Guitarkadia: Can you talk about each of the people you've brought in? What their specialty is? 

Peter Szego: I had worked with Robert Shaw, the editor, on an earlier museum project which was a catalog exhibit of The Birth of the Banjo at the Katonah Museum of Art. He was one of my co-curators along with George Wunderlich. Steven Hill is a very, very talented and creative graphic designer. He had worked with me for ten years so he and I had a good working relationship. A lot of the graphic and organizational elements that went into the book were things that Steve and I developed over the years developing product oriented materials. 

The guitar scholars included Richard Johnston, a renowned Martin scholar. He's written a number of books on Martin and Martin Guitars and is the one who wove together the chapters specifically about C.F. Martin. He also wrote the epilogue on which of Martin's early guitars remain and which have disappeared. It's a really wonderful epilogue to the book. David LaPlante is a guitar maker, both of Martin type guitars and modern Spanish classical guitars. David was the person who had the insight that Martin must have studied early Spanish guitars in order to develop his guitar from the German style to what we now think of as the Martin Guitar. The story of how he had that insight is very interesting. He was given an early Martin Guitar with a "Martin & Coupa" label by a museum curator to restore before it went into one of the New York State museums. When he took off the back of the guitar and looked inside, it looked to him exactly like the early Spanish guitars he had studied. He realized Martin must have been exposed to and learned from those early Spanish guitars because he was imitating them from the inside to the outside. It was a Spanish-style guitar. That literally was a pivotal moment for David LaPlante and really is the missing link that we then communicated in the book. 

Guitarkadia: Did that guitar end up in the book? 

Peter Szego: That one didn't, but similar ones did.

Guitarkadia: Did David get that museum project while he was researching for your book?

Peter Szego: No, this was years and years before. I met him as someone who I had been told was an early Martin scholar - he had already come up with that concept and explored it. I knew he would be included in any kind of scholarship we did on the early career of Martin or the early history of Martin Guitars. I think that so much of the book includes lots and lots of smart luck, one of which is just the sheer lucky coincidence that the one person who really understands Spanish guitars and Martin guitars inside and out, was the person asked to restore the most prototypical Martin Spanish-style guitar. 

Another key person is David Gansz, a James Ashborn scholar who's also very knowledgeable about classical guitar and American guitars. He actually got in contact with me through an eBay purchase. He discovered I was interested in Ashborn guitars and knew of my "Birth of the Banjo" exhibit. He contacted me and as soon as I was aware that he had devoted such energy and enterprise into learning about the life, career and guitars of James Ashborn, I knew he clearly belonged on the team. 

Next is Arian Sheets, a Curator of Stringed Instruments at the National Music Museum in South Dakota. She has an expertise in the instrument trade of Markneukirchen, Germany, where Martin is from, so she certainly belonged on our team. She also has a pretty broad knowledge of American instruments as well.

Finally there's James Westbrook. He's from Brighton and a scholar of romantic guitars. It was very difficult to find anyone who knew much about the Viennese shop of Stauffer where Martin apparently got his apprenticeship, but James knew the literature and he agreed to contribute a chapter on Stauffer and the Vienna Guitar. 

Peter Szego on how C.F. Martin's designs evolved from his 1830s Austro-German style guitars.

Guitarkadia: So the group must have amassed huge amounts of information?

Peter Szego: There was a massive amount of information and much too much for a single book. We made certain decisions, set up certain objectives: First of all, we committed to developing a book that would be accessible to someone who didn't know much about guitars, as well as to someone who was a real aficionado. Secondly, we wanted to tie this story in with American history, American culture, so the book would appeal to people with a much wider interest in Americana than just American instruments.   

Guitarkadia: Can you talk a little bit about the fold-out timeline? I understand you spent a lot of time getting it just right. 

Peter Szego: When I conceived of the book, we wanted to tell a number of stories. A part of the challenge of designing the book was weaving these different stories together. The first thing I thought of was to come up with a device of really documenting a large number of these early guitars, more than half of which were discovered during the process of putting the book together, and all of which very few people had ever seen or knew they existed. They were little known even by most guitar collectors, guitar players and guitar lovers. The first idea I came up with was a two-page profile of each of the guitars. On the one hand I wanted to present the guitar in such an intimate way that the reader could feel as if they almost could touch the guitar. On the other hand, I wanted to present technical information so that the more knowledgeable reader could get the kind of documented information and details that was important to him. Each two-page profile includes a full page detailed photograph of something exemplary about each guitar so you could feel as if you could almost touch it. Also, all the dimensions and technical information would  be included. We wanted to make sure the same information would be included in the same place so once you got used to the profile format, you didn't have to work hard to get the same information for each of the guitars.

From left: C. F. Martin, C. 1834, Martin & Bruno, C. 1838, José Recio, C. 1853, Joseph Coupa Spanish-style, C. 1841-1843, and C.F. Martin 2½-34, C. 1850-1862.

The purpose of the book was to come up with the answers about how Martin progressed from making a very European style guitar that he learned to make in Germany to eventually progressing to making the prototypical Martin Guitar we recognize today. We discovered Martin basically went through three periods, three different styles of guitar making in his life. The first period was what he came over to America, making the German style guitar. The last period was the modern guitar. We discovered during this scholarship, during the research for the book that the missing link (the second period) was the Spanish style guitar. It was an imitation of guitars made in Spain in the 1830s that were pre-classical guitar. They were guitars that were folk instruments, vernacular instruments, played in the community. When Martin discovered these guitars, probably through going to performances of Spanish Guitar virtuosi on the New York stage, he discovered that they were playing guitars that were louder, more resonant and had more sustain than his guitars. I would think as a designer, it certainly made sense for him to figure out how on earth those are better than his.

Our scholarship that led to this book, in fact, answered the question of how Martin got from his earliest guitar style to developing the modern guitar. When we stepped back after completing the book project, I think one of the really important contributions we made wasn't that we answered that question, but that for whatever reason, no one had even asked the question before. It was the fact that we became curious about how Martin developed his guitar styles that gave us the initiative to try and answer that question, which in fact is, is the book. During the research for the book, we think we recreated how Martin learned about Spanish guitars, how he was inspired to add features of the Spanish guitar to his guitars, and why he was successful at that. The Martin Guitar Company is still privately held. It's owned by descendants of the original C.F. Martin, so there are business journals in the Martin archives that span the 185 years of the history of the Martin Guitar Company. The Martin Archives are absolutely extraordinary, a unique record of an American company.  

So whereas we were able to look to the archives to try and piece together other aspects of Martin's business and Martin's creative development during this critical period, we had to rely on the guitars themselves to try and determine what steps Martin was going through during this period. That meant inspecting as many of these guitars as we could both for exterior features and also interior construction. Then coming up with a plausible story that explained how he went step by step from a ladder-braced small German guitar into a guitar that included Spanish features and had the fan-patterned top-bracing, which eventually lead to the X braced pattern to reinforce the guitar top which was Martin's last step in developing what we think of as the modern guitar. 

Peter Szego, editor of "Inventing the American Guitar," on how and why Martin guitars embraced X bracing in his designs for what we know of today as the modern American guitar.

Guitarkadia: Can you talk a little about John Coupa and Madame De Goni connection with Martin?

Maria Dolores Esturias y Navarres aka Madame De Goni [A.G. Powers, via Frick Collection]

Maria Dolores Esturias y Navarres aka Madame De Goni [A.G. Powers, via Frick Collection]

Peter Szego: Unfortunately very few of the early Martin guitars can be definitively dated, so one of our challenges was coming up with a plausible dating of the various guitars. With the earliest guitars, we were able to use the paper labels that included addresses and partnerships to give us hint as to when Martin would have made those guitars. When it came to the later guitars, we really had to look at the features themselves. One of the very few extant guitars that we can definitively date is a guitar with the label, Martin & Coupa, with an inscription inside the label that says "Made for Madame De Goni." Madame De Goni was a Spanish Guitar virtuoso who came over to New York and played in the New York stage, and in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati to great acclaim. She was apparently a stunningly beautiful woman. Martin wanted her to play one of his guitars. She apparently demurred and said no. She enjoyed playing her Spanish guitars, but at some point, she played one of his guitars and supposedly indicated that it was the best guitar she ever played. She'd never play another guitar, only Martin's guitars. We only know this side of the story from Martin's relatives, so it may be nothing more than apocryphal. However, we do know that after De Goni's death, retailers selling Martin Guitars still advertised the fact that De Goni played Martin Guitars. 

Guitarkadia: Why did the De Goni guitars stand out? 

Peter Szego: The reason the De Goni guitar is so important is because it has a X braced pattern. It was the X bracing that allowed Martin Guitars, and other flat-top guitars, to have the structural stability to increase in size to where, in the 20th century, Martin guitars became dreadnought size. It also allowed for a more complex vibration of the top, and therefore was a terrific sonic solution to supporting the sound board of a guitar.  

Guitarkadia: What year did Martin guitar become the modern Martin Guitar that we know of today?

Peter Szego: By the time Martin made the guitar for De Goni in 1843 he basically had included all of the features, both structural and visually, that we think of as the modern Martin Guitar. Within 10 years of Martin's arrival in New York he was making guitars that would be identifiable as a modern Martin Guitar. 

Guitarkadia: Is there any evidence of guitar culture before Martin came to the U.S.? 

Peter Szego: No, there wasn't any. To the best of our research, guitars were being imported from Europe and they were being sold by the American Instrument Emporium, the large jobbers. I think a broad interest in the guitar was just emerging and there certainly wasn't a group of guitar makers up until Martin arrived.

Guitarkadia: At what stage of this project did you decide to stop digging further into the story? When did you say "I think we have enough"?

Peter Szego: In our book, we were concerned about the creative journey that Martin went through. Once we answered that question, basically our story was over. By 1850 Martin had codified his sizes, codified his styles, so that there really was now a style 18 guitar and a two-and-a-half size or a one size guitar, and by that time, as far as we were concerned, Martin's creative journey was over and that was when we ended the book.