Chris Martin IV Hears Emotion in Acoustic Guitars

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If you’re fascinated by the craftsmanship of acoustic guitars, a new coffee table book titled Inventing the American Guitar will keep you company on a long winter’s night. Through detailed photos and essays, the book explains the evolution of American flat-top guitars.

A key player in the book is C.F. Martin Sr., often considered the first major guitar maker in America. From its home base of Nazareth, Pa., Martin Guitars is currently led by Christian Frederick Martin IV, who visited Nashville over the summer for the massive National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) conference.

During a chat in the Martin Guitars booth, the CEO known to many simply as “Chris” talked about modern interest in Americana music, the swings between acoustic and electric music and what’s next on his to-do list.

CMT Edge: I know the music business is always competitive, but do you consider this musical instrument segment of the industry competitive?

Martin: It’s competitive, but it’s collegial. Some people that I work with that I brought in from the outside, they told me that they had trade shows and they never went into their competitors’ booths. And I’m like, “Really?” We go, “Hey, what are you doing?” So in that respect, this is apparently a very different industry than other industries. We attract people in other industries that want to hang out with us.

Your guitars are beautiful, but I’m sure every now and then you see a Martin that’s beaten up from being played. Are you cool with that?

Well, look at Willie Nelson’s guitar. Work has been done to keep that thing from [falling apart]. That is an extreme example. It’s part of the character of that guitar. And in terms of a vintage guitar, that guitar is worth more than if you would have taken that guitar and gotten it refinished. Finishing an old guitar today is a no-no. People would rather know, “Hey, somebody played this thing.” … These are works of art that actually have a function other than being looked at.

You’ve signed up the Avett Brothers, the Lumineers and Jason Isbell as Martin Ambassadors. What is it about that roots-oriented sound that is so popular right now?

I get asked this question a lot. And I want to tell you I know. But all I can tell you is, I think that those musicians have an idea for a song and they have come to the conclusion that, along with their voice, an acoustic instrument will help convey that idea better than an electric instrument.

Do you think the audience absorbs the idea better when the music is acoustic?

The other thing I’ll tell you is, I have this perspective that if, as a musician, you want to create a very cerebral message, use an electric instrument. If you want to convey a more emotional message, use an acoustic instrument.

Depending on what your message is as a singer-songwriter or a musician or a band, you’re either coming from here or here. It’s tough to blend both. It’s kind of one or the other and the pendulum will swing. Acoustic instruments are hot. They’ve been not so hot and they’ll be not so hot again. The electric will rise up, but not forever. We just duke it out, you know?

You’ve said many of your customers are “dedicated amateurs.” What does that mean?

It’s not the beginners. Once in a while, a beginner or that parent of a beginner will pop for a Martin — and last night at the panel discussion, I said, “Go to a music store, buy a good $300 guitar and see if you or your child is into it.” I don’t want you to go, “Man, I dropped a thousand bucks on this thing and now it’s just sitting in the closet.”

We certainly sell to professionals, but that does not support the business. It’s a connection we make and they’re very serious about it and I appreciate that relationship. The bulk of our customers play the guitar pretty seriously, but not for a living.

So what do you see happening with Martin in the next three to five years?

Well, I’m personally going through a transition. I have been chairman and CEO for over 25 years. I have an 8-year-old daughter. I’m not waiting until she’s ready because that’s gonna be when she’s 30. So I’ve come to the realization that I can be “Mr. Martin” as long as I’m lucid and alive, but I am now in the process of doing a search for a new CEO. And that will be interesting because for six generations it was the first-born male son. But part of my job as chairman is succession-planning … .

People like meeting me, I like meeting them, so that’s going to be my job in the future. Going to trade shows, do interviews, travel, I’m going to get more involved with that.

There’s a reward in that, too. Music is more than just being alone in a room, playing.

Yeah. And whenever I met someone, I am very conscious of the fact that I am representing the 999 other people that work for me. I’m just the front man.

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