By Brian Wolfe
I don’t recall when the notion of having an acoustic guitar first entered my mind but I think it may have been after hearing Bob Dylan. It might have been Donovan; but I’d rather think it was Dylan that encouraged me to start playing an acoustic guitar. The first two songs I learned were ‘Masters of War’ and ‘Try For the Sun’ - so I’ll leave it at that. My first acoustic was a Mosrite - kind of a mini-jumbo. I think it had a zero fret and a metal nut like their electrics. It had great action and a fast neck. It was 1968, the summer before my first year of high school and my two loves where: that Mosrite and my 1966 450-12 Rickenbacker. The desire for the Rickenbacker was easy to remember: that unmistakable sound of Roger McGuinn playing ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ with the Byrds.
Both guitars were bought at Caruso Music in New London. At some point during the next year I got it into my head that I needed a Martin guitar. I was aware that Dylan and Donovan where both playing Gibsons. Dylan played a Gibson J-50 and later a modified Nick Lucas and Donovan a Gibson J-45. No one I knew played a Martin that I can recall, so I’m not sure who put the idea into my head. I do remember my dad coming home one night and telling me about a guy he met at The Woodlawn, an upscale bar in Madison CT, that told him he had just received a Martin guitar he had been waiting two years to get. He said that if you had a Martin, you would never need another guitar.
In any event, by the middle of my second year of High School I had saved up $210 and I was ready to buy my first Martin. During the time spent saving money, I started meeting and talking to ‘folkies’ that told me to play as many Martins as I could before buying one because some were better than others. It was not simple advice to follow since there were only two local shops that sold Martin guitars: Caruso Music in New London and Goldie Libro in New Haven. Each store treated their Martin guitars as if they were solid gold and kept them stashed away out of reach. They would only take them out if they felt you had the money to actually buy one. They appeared to base this decision on how old you were and how you looked. Scruffy teenagers usually didn’t make the cut. Even if you had the money and were ready to buy: they managed to make the process difficult and stressful by only letting you play one. I did, however, end up leaving Goldie Libro with a 00-18 Martin guitar without a case. The case was extra and I just didn’t have the money. I did get a heavy duty plastic bag to carry it home in. It seems ironic that they treated the instrument with such respect and then let it leave in a glorified trash bag.
I don’t recall what happened to the Mosrite. It didn’t matter once I had the 00-18. That’s how fickle an instrument love affair can be. I took the Martin everywhere, even to school. I never bothered to get a case. I bought a very cool leather strap from a hippie leather shop in Ivoryton CT and carried that guitar on my back. It was a part of me.
Everything was fine. I was learning lots of Dylan songs and even writing my own and then one day one of my teachers said, “I have a 00-18 Martin just like yours”. He brought his Martin 00-18 to school for me to see. That day my life changed. His guitar was nothing like mine! First of all, his had a bright red pickguard and bindings. His Martin’s tuners had beveled edges. My Martin 00-18 had a black pickguard and bindings with what now looked like cheap tuners. His had Grover Sta-Tites; mine had Grover Slimlines. I picked his guitar up and it seemed to be light as a feather, half the weight of mine. In that moment, I decided that light guitars ruled and heavy ones were… well: heavy and nowhere near as cool. His Martin had much more projection than mine and seemed to be more open sounding. I now know it was older: more played-in and had gained beautiful overtones with age. As we sat there playing each other’s guitars I decided to offer an even trade: my brand new Martin for his older ‘more beat up’ one. He said that it would not be right for a teacher to enter into a trade of this nature with one of his under-age students. I sat there thinking of how long it would take me to get to the principal’s office, quit school and get back and make the trade. He said, “Besides, I like my like mine better”.
I think this is where my love for vintage guitars started. The strange thing is: in reality, his Martin was only about eight years old at the time. I didn’t figure this out right away. There were no reference books and few knowledgeable vintage guitar dealers who had any interest in sharing their knowledge.
I modified my 00-18 in an effort to make it more vintage. I pulled off its black pickguard and took some old ebony bridge pins from an old parlor guitar I had bought at an antique shop (I may have unknowingly destroyed an old Maurer parlor guitar).
On a trip to Jacksonville Florida I met a friend of my brother named Eddy Hart. He introduced me to the possibilities of alternate tunings. He showed me Drop D, Double Drop D and G tuning. When I got back to Connecticut, I bought a set of Grover Rotomatics and put them on my guitar in an effort to make tuning changes faster and easier. I used this bastardized Martin guitar until in my junior year. I then found a late 1800’s 0-28 in an antique shop for about $40. It had ivory fraction pegs for gut strings and in my complete lack of knowledge of the history of guitars I tried to put Martin Bronze strings on it. To say it would not stay in tune would be a complete understatement. Shortly after getting this guitar I saw an ad in the Village Voice for a shop in New York City that bought Martin and Gibson acoustic guitars. I responded to the ad, which turned out to be a leather shop named The Lee Shop, run by Lee Erdburg. He was very interested in my little 0-28 guitar.
At this point I had been visiting New York City on a regular basis: buying and selling electric guitars on west 48th street, but I had never bought and sold acoustic guitars and this would be my first trip to Greenwich Village. I got off the train in Grand Central Station and walked to Lee’s shop on Greenwich Ave. He thought I was crazy. He said no one in New York walks that far. That’s why they built the subway. I told him I grew up in Clinton CT and we walked three miles for a coke and thought it was fun. After looking my little guitar over, he decided he wanted it and told me that it was a 0-28 Martin. He had about twenty vintage Martins for sale in his shop and he gave me a quick lesson on the different models and which years were the best to buy. I traded him for a pre-war 000-18 and was well on my way to becoming an obsessed collector of vintage Martin guitars.
I was born in April of 1952 and own a 1952 00-18 Martin made sometime around April of 52 as a tribute to my birth and my first Martin guitar. Over the course of the last forty years I have owned, played, dealt and traded more Martin guitars than I can count but I sometimes wonder where my first 00-18 Martin guitar is now. If you see a late 60’s Martin 00-18 with a missing or replaced pickguard, poorly fitted Grover Rotomatics and miss matched vintage ebony bridge pins it may be my first Martin guitar.