New America snob culture — folkie guitars for six figures

Posted in Culture of Lickspittle, Rock 'n' Roll at 2:29 pm by George Smith

There are no Holy Grails or epiphanies to be had in Nazareth, PA. It is not a town of treasure or import. Trust me. Been there many times. The Highway Kings rehearsed in a Pleasant-Valley-Sunday-style tract home in Nazareth. But over the weekend the New York Times ran a piece on another bifurcation in New America’s Culture of Lickspittle, in this case, the acoustic guitar, a musical instrument designed to be cheap and for everyone to play, now something domestically made as a collector’s item for the wealthy and their upper middle class shoe-shiners who haven’t yet been obsoleted.

The genesis and use of the acoustic guitar in this country does not lie in the heart of the aristocracy.

However, like everything else in the society that has two tiers, the very rich and the poor and getting poorer, if one is to survive making a material good in America, you must evolve it into a snob artisan commodity.

And that’s where Martin Guitars of Nazareth, PA, and the New York Times come in.

From this weekend:

NAZARETH, Pa. — For guitar aficionados, a visit to the C. F. Martin & Company factory is akin to a religious experience. They talk in reverential tones about the handcrafted instruments that have been coming off the production floor here for more than 150 years, even referring to certain models in online discussion forums as “the Holy Grail” of the acoustic guitar.

The reason for this unintentionally laugh-out-loud news is a coffee table book on Martin guitars, Inventing the American Guitar, and the exhibit of them at the Metropolitan.

“The text of the book, which is in coffee table format, is supplemented by lush color photographs of the guitars themselves, many of them close-up shots that highlight design features or the sheen or grain of the wood that Martin used,” informs the Times’ reviewer, Larry Rohter. “The effect is similar to that of viewing a Georgia O’Keeffe painting that magnifies the stamen of a flower or part of a cow skull …”

The quality of praise arcs ever upward:

“We’re seeing the appreciation of these things as objects, not just as tools, which is why you’re seeing them in an art museum,” Arian Sheets, the “curator of stringed instruments at the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota” told the newspaper.

“[Classic] Martins can sell for well into six figures, reflect how these vintage instruments — including the banjos, ukuleles and mandolins that the company has also manufactured at various times in its history — are being elevated to the status of works of art.”

New Martins cost between $1,000 and $11,000.

Like Fender Musical Instruments, Martin almost went out of business in the Eighties. Bad management and the emergence of dance, disco. and rap/hip-hop hurt the company’s market, reducing production at its lowest point to 3,000 instruments in a year.

A bit over a decade ago the American guitar instrument split into two divisions. One made cheap instruments that people could still afford to buy by scrapping their old factories and moving production to Mexico, then China. The other half, much smaller in terms of manufacturing floor space and workers employed, devolving into “custom shops” providing domestically made snob-priced instruments for musicians with recording contracts and lawyers and bankers who might have played in crappy bands in their college years, now with greatly expanded disposable incomes.

Like Martin acoustic guitars, domestically made electric guitars became investments, paradoxically priced out of the purchasing range of most of the employees now pushing them on show room floors.

Woody Guthrie’s acoustic guitar had a sticker. It read “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Now they should could come with an update: These machines are for corporate fascists.



  1. David LaPlante said,

    October 18, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    Well, I can tell that you didn’t actually see the book, because all of the guitars in it were made from around 1820-1860.

    You make a good point about the fact that the “guitar collector” culture is a litttle out of hand………..be encouraged though because it’s dying out at exactly the same rate as the Baby Boomers who drove (and continue to drive (for the time being anyway) it.

    Rohter’s article was a bit all over the map (about 175 years worth….)
    I recommend you do look at the book…….hell, I helped write it…….

  2. Christoph Hechl said,

    October 22, 2013 at 2:44 am

    Personally i wouldn’t have the money to buy one of these guitars, yet i have respect for every craftsman who can make a living from what he is good at and hopefully likes to do.
    If this helps to preserve the knowledge about this craft and at the same time enables a few people a bit of prosperity gained through actual work, then i am all in favor of their trade.

  3. George Smith said,

    October 22, 2013 at 11:33 am

    I can tell that you didn’t actually see the book

    Got me. Point well taken.

  4. Anon said,

    October 25, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Regarding the “hand crafting” of the guitars at Martin, the guitars are *not* completely hand crafted.

    I grew up in Nazareth/Lower Nazareth. I have cousins who work or worked for Martin. They were worried they would lose their jobs in the 1990s, either to a new, heavily automated manufacturing process, or to the factory being sent overseas entirely.

    A good portion of the first rough cuts of the pieces that assembled into a Martin guitar are cut by a machine running a computer program.

    This can be confirmed by watching the filmed tour of the Martin facility, broadcast regularly on the PCN-TV (pcntv.com) cable network or by getting the DVD set, also from PCN-TV.