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In Pa., a Museum That Hits Just the Right Notes

By Tim Warren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

You can see some fascinating things at the C.F. Martin guitar factory and museum in Nazareth, Pa., but nothing intrigued me more than the inscription on the wall at the museum's entrance. It is attributed to Eric Clapton, and it goes: "If I could choose what to come back as, it would be a Martin OM-45."

That got me to thinking: The OM-45 is an awesome guitar, but who would want to be resurrected as a collection of wood pieces and metal strings, likely to be dropped dozens of times and subjected to the indelicate hammerings of musical neophytes? But the Martin factory and museum are not for the rational: They're for people who really, really love their git-tars.

More specifically, they love their Martin guitars. There's considerable chest-puffing at the Martin enterprise regarding the company's place in American popular music and all the noted musicians who have used their products. But as Martin celebrates its 175th anniversary this year, you have to concede there is a lot of heritage inside this long, very unassuming brick building in a very unassuming Pennsylvania town.

The Martin Guitar Co. was started in New York in 1833 by Christian F. Martin Sr., a guitar maker who fled his native Germany because, the museum tells us, he tired of demands from the Cabinet Makers Guild and the Violin Makers Guild ( Unions! Even then!). Within a few years, he moved the entire enterprise to Nazareth, in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Nazareth, nestled in rolling hills like so many towns in the region, had been founded a century before by Moravian missionaries, who also established neighboring Bethlehem. Both towns come alive during Christmastime but otherwise remain quiet places, best experienced as part of a trip through the area rather than as a single destination.

Like the town, the Martin factory and museum are unpretentious and welcoming, and you have to like a place where they pipe top-level bluegrass into the restrooms. In the Pickin' Parlor, a room opposite the gift shop, anyone can grab one of the Martins on display -- no cheapo models here, either -- and play to his heart's content. As I listened to a couple of guys work their way through the Eagles' "Tequila Sunrise," I noted all the album and CD covers displayed on the wall. Represented were pop-music icons Jimmie Rodgers, Elvis Presley, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills and Hank Williams; amazing pickers such as Tony Rice, Clarence White and Norman Blake; and such folk-music luminaries as Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Josh White and Tom Paxton.

The last group was primarily responsible for my visit a couple of weeks ago, for it was during the folk music boom of the early '60s that I became aware of the Martin mystique. Every week, my oldest brother would sit in front of the TV set and strum along with the musicians on "Hootenanny," calling out for our benefit the chords somebody was playing: "That's a C," or "That's a G major 7th," or, occasionally, "What in the hell was that?"

Because of the exquisite workmanship of Martin guitars and their unmatched tone, they were the gold standard for aspiring folkies. My brother's conversations with his pals inevitably turned to when they would get their first guitar made by the fabled company -- few rites in their lifetime would have as much significance.

I never progressed in my own playing beyond strumming along to "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," but acoustic pickers remained dear to my heart, even when electric guitarists became the gods of pop music. A great acoustic guitar seemed magical, almost mythic, and it was with considerable anticipation that I made the trip to Nazareth. And I must admit there were times during my visit that I got all gushy inside.

It wasn't during the factory tour, which went from being mildly interesting to mind-numbingly tedious over the course of an hour. Our guide, a cheerful fellow named Steve, told us he had spent 13 years on the factory floor, and he could impart any number of technical details about woodworking, drilling and so forth.

I did like learning about the various woods used -- backs and sides of the guitars are usually rosewood or mahogany; the tops are spruce -- but, frankly, watching an instrument being made piece by piece isn't inherently interesting to someone who is not a guitar geek. Since there are more than 300 steps to making a Martin guitar, and it can take several weeks from beginning to end, a visitor sees mainly discrete segments of the process. It's hard not to feel as though you're back in high school shop class.

The museum is a different story, if for no other reason than that there are now people in the equation -- and you need people to have a myth, right? Some of the 19th-century instruments make you wonder: Could anybody have played those awkward-looking things? But mostly you come to gawk at the 170 or so guitars on display.

The temptation is to check out the celebrity guitars -- the custom-made models for Clapton are particularly arresting (and frightfully expensive, running to many thousands of dollars). But I found myself drawn not just to the big-name pickers, but also to musicians whose stature was enhanced through their Martins.

There's Ricky Nelson's D-28 guitar -- the favorite model of thousands of pickers -- resplendent in a custom leather covering. Nearby is Elvis's own leather-covered model, a D-18. And you'd never figure to see Andy Griffith represented, but there it is, his own D-18.

Still, nothing represented the Martin myth as much as the custom left-handed D-42 that belonged to Tex Fletcher, the "radio cowboy" of the 1930s and '40s. It turns out that Ol' Tex was born in Harrison, N.Y., and was christened Geremino Bisceglia by his Italian-immigrant parents. But slip a Martin into his hands and he's Mr. Sagebrush himself, the author of such classic cowpoke songs as "The Lord Is in the Saddle Tonight."

You can get so caught up in Martin lore that it's easy to forget that sometimes a guitar is just a guitar. But when the son of an Italian stonemason can star in the movie "Six-Gun Rhythm," now that's magic.

ยท The Martin Guitar Museum is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The free guided tours of the factory take about an hour and are offered from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Info: 610-759-2837; http://www.martinguitar.com.

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