The most well known and most recognised Martin acoustic guitar is probably the D-28. The dreadnought guitar that drove Martin to fame. But besides the D-28 Martin has a large offering of dreadnought guitars. Even if we just focus on their USA build guitars, Martin presently offers over 30 different versions of their dreadnought guitar. Why so many?
Not all dreadnoughts are equal
A dreadnought is a dreadnought, right? Well, as it turns out that is not the case. Of course, Martin made sure that they all look different. From the basic D-18 look to the rich pearl inlayed D-45 there is plenty to choose from. But there are also serious differences between how these the Martin dreadnoughts sound. Today we will focus on that. Let’s have a listen in what sets these models apart from one other.
D-28 and HD-28
Let’s start with iconic D-28. This guitar has a Sitka spruce top and rosewood back and sides. Rosewood tends to have a more pronounced bass and treble response and a slightly less midrange. And this D-28 does just that. It has a tight bass due to the non-scalloped bracing. The midrange is warm and balanced. And the attack of the guitar feels slow. Meaning it responds less direct to the players input. Also, rosewood is prone to produce overtones. So, the sound it makes is perceived as more harmonically complex. You could say that it has its own reverb installed. So, these characteristics make it an ideal guitar for big strumming parts and to accompany a singer. It is because of this that the D-28 became immensely popular in the folk boom of the 60’s. The HD-28’s main difference with the D-28 is that is has scalloped bracing. Therefore it is a little louder and will produce even more harmonics than the D-28.
D-18, D-18 Modern Deluxe and D-18 Authentic
The D-18 looks more basic than the D-28 and that is a good indication of what to expect in the sound. The D-18 has a Sitka spruce top and mahogany back and sides. And the latter is very defining in its sound. Mahogany tends to have a focus on the midrange. And many players associate that with warmth in the tone. Also, mahogany is direct in its response to the players input. It has less of the complexity that we find in the D-28. But it is straight forward and honest in what it gives you. The D-18 finds it place between other instrument more easily as it has a more focused frequency range and is competing less with other instruments in the mix.
The D-18 Modern Deluxe is like its name suggest a modernized variant of the D-18. Besides a more luxurious appearance Martin added a top with a VTS treatment, which stands for Vintage Tone System. Using the Vintage Tone System, Martin is able to make the guitar sound older and louder, like it has been around for long time. And thus getting closer to the coveted vintage Martin guitars in the way they sound. This guitar seems to compress a bit more than the standard D-18 and the bass sounds round and blends in beautifully.
If the Modern Deluxe is a step forward in time, then the D-18 Authentic is a step backwards in time. For this model Martin went back to the original features of the D-18 as it was produces in the 1930’s. They use the original bracing patern, hide glue and many of the historically correct features. To make the guitar sound more like a vintage guitar they use the Vintage Tone System again. But on the Authentic, Martin applies the VTS to an Adirondack Spruce top. Adirondack Spruce gives this guitar more volume, more clarity and headroom. The Authentic comes with an original 1930’ neck shape and that adds to the honest feel of this guitar.
On the D-35 we are back to rosewood back and sides. But this time with a three piece back. Of course, that looks different and more luxurious. But it also makes the back stiffer and it helps the guitar to project better. Also, the D-35 has lighter bracing. Where most Martin guitars will have a 5/16” bracing, the D-35 has 4/16’ bracing. This makes the guitar more responsive to players input. It sounds more mellow and round than other dreadnoughts. Its softer voice and players responsiveness make this dreadnought very suitable for fingerpickers as well.
The D-35 was made famous by Johnny Cash who ordered a D-35 in black. Martin’s boss, Henry Martin at that time would hear nothing about building a black guitar so he refused it. Other Martin employees thought differently and the defied their bosses’ orders and got Johnny Cash his now famous black guitar. The standard D-35 comes with a natural tinted top.
D-42 just looks?
The D-42 is easily recognizable by its appearance. It looks rich with plenty of pearl inlay. And if you like that kind of look that alone could be a great motivation to go for the D-42. When we compare the more technical specs that influence the sound, they are more the less the same as those of the HD-28. So, we assumed they should sound more or less similar. But they do sound different. The D-42 sound more balanced, warmer and seems to have a greater dynamic range. This means that the guitar is more able to handle differences in volume before the volume starts to affect the tone. Could it be that we are influenced by its looks and its price tag? Or is there something Martin is not telling us?
How to pick your dreadnought?
When talking about acoustic guitars we must keep in mind that although there are differences between the models in general, every individual acoustic guitar will be somewhat different to other guitars from the same series or model. After all wood is a product of nature and every piece of wood is slightly different. Deciding a general direction based on specs, reviews and videos is a good starting point. But nothing beats going to your favorite guitar store and playing them yourself.