It’s another article in our Unsung Heroes of Americana series and, following on from his article on the Gibson J-45, Richard Phillips is back with another piece on an instrument that is at the very heart of this genre; the Martin D28.
Over the years since its birth in the early 1930s, the Martin D28 has inspired artists from many musical genres. The D28 originally became popular with string bands where the instrument’s powerful bass and sound projection could make its presence felt over the fiddle and banjo. To this day, the guitar remains popular with Bluegrass musicians and holds a special meaning for Tony Rice, one of this genre’s most notable exponents.
The D28 that Rice owns dates back to the 1930s when the original owner enlarged the soundhole; this was in an age before guitar amplification and would have helped increase the volume of the guitar. Rice first saw and played the guitar, which was then in the ownership of bluegrass musician, Clarence White, when he joined White and his band The Kentucky Colonels for a TV performance in the early 1960s. White would go on to join the Byrds after Gram Parsons departed the band and become an influence in the creation of country-rock music. Following Clarence’s death in the early 1970s, Rice tracked down the now damaged guitar, instigated repairs and brought back the classic tones of this instrument.
The D28, when launched, was part of a series of Martin guitars that used the ‘D’ designation to refer to its large size compared to smaller guitars of the period. The letter ‘D’ referred to the word Dreadnought, which was a term given to the huge battleships of the early 20th century. Today, the term Dreadnought is ubiquitous terminology that designates this size of any make of acoustic guitar.
The deep presence and rich harmonic overtones generated by the Rosewood back and sides coupled with the clarity generated by a Sitka Spruce top have made this a guitar of choice for many Americana artists including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, John Prine, Joni Mitchell, Lester Flat, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Dylan’s performance at Concert for Bangladesh was ably supported by a D28 whilst Young wrote, ‘This Old Guitar’ dedicated to his 1941 model named ‘Hank’ after its original owner, Hank Williams Snr. Young relates sentiments that may well be appreciated by many a D28 owner when he sings, “Its been up and down the country roads/it brought a tear and a smile/seen its share of dreams and hopes/it never went out of style”. Young is accompanied by, ‘Hank’ and Emmylou Harris on this live version of the song:
Steve Earle’s extensive guitar collection represents an amazing musical history with many beautiful guitars but he says of the D28, “It’s the best guitar I’ve used in the studio. It’s like a B–52“ and that when making a bluegrass record, “You can’t do that with anything but a D–28“. He says that if he had to lose all of his guitars bar one, he would keep the D28 in his collection, which is of 1935 vintage. Here is Earle talking about the D28 and treating us to a performance of, ‘Michaelangelo’ :
Finally, here is a great performance with John Prine and his D28 given in 2018, which showcases how the warm mellow tones of this guitar are the perfect compliment to Prine’s distinctive vocals:
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