by Todd Stuart Phillips
The anchor of Martin’s Standard Series of professional level acoustic guitars is the classic D-28.
Many people will find there is something so familiar about the Martin D-28. And no wonder! With the squared off shoulders and wide waist of the dreadnought size, a black pickguard to go along with the inky ebony bridge and fingerboard, its long pattern white dot fret markers that tie in so well with the white binding, set off by decorative black and white ply inlay around the sound hole and the edge of the spruce top, and its iconic headstock shape, the D-28 is by far the most imitated acoustic guitar in history. It remains the benchmark that other guitars are compared to, especially when it comes to the 14-fret dreadnought size, which has outsold all other designs for the past half a century.
Specs include: All solid wood construction throughout; East Indian rosewood back and sides; Sitka spruce top with 5/16” straight (non-scalloped) braces; mahogany low profile neck with 1-11/16” width at nut and 2-1/8” at the 12th fret; ebony fingerboard and bridge; bone saddle and nut with 2-1/8” string spacing; high gloss nitrocellulose finish on the body and a satin finish on the neck; chrome closed back tuners with large buttons.
Musicians who are ready to move up from other basic brands to a “real” guitar often seek out the D-28 from Martin’s Standard series, since their research will have shown them the D-28 is in fact the industry standard. And when they get one in their hands what they find is a standard of excellence that sets it apart from all the lesser imitations that have copied the looks, but will never be able to come close to the tone produced by a genuine Martin D-28, made with solid exotic tonewoods and a top of solid, quartersawn spruce.
Big, bold and beautiful, the rich rosewood resonance backing up the clear, strong Sitka spruce ring off the strings has come to define the acoustic guitar sound for many ears, and for many years, due primarily to the popularity of the D-28.
Martin has offered a wide variety of rosewood dreadnoughts in recent decades, many of them made in homage to their “golden era” from just before World War II. But the Standard D-28 is not made in the image of a classic Martin model. Rather, it is a classic Martin model, and one which has remained virtually unchanged in its design and construction since John Lennon and Paul McCartney purchased their D-28s in time to use them for recording the White Album in 1968.
The one major difference between then and now was the switch made in 1970 from endangered Brazilian rosewood to the more plentiful but no less exotic Indian rosewood. As such, today’s D-28 is even more closely identical to the one Bob Dylan used at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, as well as the D-28 used by fingerstyle master Michael Hedges to record his most famous albums, just like the D-28s used by Country music stars Townes Van Zandt and Dwight Yoakam across the latter part of the twentieth century, and by such artists as Mumford and Sons in the twenty-first century.
Indian rosewood is dark, deep and somber to gaze upon, but when you look into it, there is a lot of variation and complexity to the highlights and coloring. Of all the major guitar woods, it is the one that sounds the most like how it looks, with deep murky undertones, thick with presence and rich coloring, offset by bright trebles and all sorts of subtle variation to the complex harmonic overtones.
Sitka is the most prevalent type of spruce used for acoustic guitars, with good reason. It offers a nice beefy fundamental note while contributing some of its own warmth and complexity. I think it fits right in the center of the various spruce options, as for example when compared to the drier, chimier Adirondack spruce, and the warmer less focused glow of Engelmann spruce. And when infused with the prominent overtones of Indian rosewood, the result is a voice plump with warmth and richness, effortless power and presence.
The Standard D-28 offers a unique version of that Indian/Sitka tonality that sets it apart from other Martin dreadnoughts currently available, thanks to its traditional straight braces that allow the detail in the notes to pop out of that dense rosewood complexity. Martin once put these braces on all their guitars from the mid-1940s on past the Woodstock era. Since then, scalloped braces, which have less stiffness, became the norm, and the D-28 in the Standard series is the last Martin dreadnought standing to retain the 5/16” straight braces found on the “Bluegrass canon” Martins of the 1950s and the folksinger Martins of the 1960s.
In preparation for this series of exposés being written for Maury’s Music on the major Martin models, I sat down in a room with examples of many Martins made today, including all of the dreadnoughts from the Standard Series, just to remind myself of each of them. And I was also reminded of just how much I love the sound of the straight-braced D-28. It really does have a voice that stands out from the crowd.
And by that, I mean it actually has such wonderful definition to the ringing notes that they project clearly across a room and stand out even while other instruments are being heard. When I play a Standard D-28 it is like the notes take shape out in front of the instrument, about 4 to 6 inches beyond the strings. When I play a similar guitar with scalloped braces, that sonic orb of guitar tone making up the main voice is set back much more into the body of the instrument, with a smaller portion forming out in space.
There is a punchy solid undertone from down inside the body of the D-28, but it is not as echoy and warbling as you get with scalloped braces. Instead, it is quickly reflective, supporting rather than dominating, and it helps push the primary voice of the guitar forward into the room as the sonic perception of each string is formed with startling clarity - strong, pure and ringing.
The lowest bass notes are finely formed, as if sculpted with precision, and all the fundamental notes sit up and are heard distinctly, like an aural version of a high-definition photograph. You can still get a full-bodied Neil Young whomp out of the bottom end when palm muting the strings, but even that has wonderful definition to it.
The sympathetic harmonics and undertone are always present and fill out the overall sound, but it is the potent, focused fundamental that commands the attention. And that makes the Standard D-28 a welcome addition to group performance.
I spent several years playing in two different New York City bands that routinely featured a D-28 with the straight braces, and an HD-28 with scalloped braces, played alongside my OM or D-18. Those two rosewood dreads worked very well together, but it was the notes of the D-28 that always stood out and cut through, especially when it came time for leads and solos. The HD-28 had a very nice open cellar under the top notes and the classic reverb of scalloped braces, but the D-28 had a more commanding attack, and when played as accompaniment, the notes were always heard clearly, each string sounding bigger without needing to be played hard, but in a muscular way and not “phat” like you get with scalloped braces that are also forward shifted.
I totally get why people love the scalloped braced warble and why the gut rumbling resonance of forward-shifted bracing is so popular. But there is so much to like about the extra definition and pronounced ringing clarity firing out of the Standard D-28 with its traditional straight braces. It does its job and it does it well, without a lot of extras going on around that clear, full singing voice of pure notes.
With less unfocused echo glowing out behind the top voice, the primary notes become the main focus, which makes the D-28 a good candidate for the recording studio. And that is exactly why Al Houghton, owner of Dubways Studio in New York City, makes the straight-braced D-28 his first choice when recording acoustic guitar for complicated rock and pop arrangements. And just like on stage, the D-28 also records very well in tandem with scallop-braced acoustic guitars, with the qualities of each complimenting the other while retaining their own personality.
There is some irony that the Standard D-28 is now looked on as being the plainer Martin dreadnought, with its black pickguard and white binding, since both features helped define what acoustic guitars looked like for so many years.
When Martin changed the looks of their Style 28 guitars in the mid-1940s they were replacing an old-timey appearance of herringbone trim and diamond fret markers, which originated in the mid-nineteenth century. These were replaced with the white domino dots and black and white ply inlays of the art deco guitars of the Jazz Age, which included Martin’s own archtop Jazz guitars of the 1930s. Clearly the makeover was meant to get with the times.
But today, acoustic guitar trends harken back toward “vintage” styling, and the Standard D-28 has accidentally become “retro” in its own way, without changing a thing. And one of those things is the 1-11/16” low profile neck and its corresponding 2-1/8” string spacing. Again, this is a feature that once appeared on all Martin dreadnoughts but is now available on a shrinking minority of them.
I had moved away from this neck years ago, when I was starting to focus on fingerstyle playing. At the time I needed the extra room found on the wider OM necks. But these days, I have come back to the 1-11/16” low profile neck, partly because the economy of motion in my playing no longer needs the extra space, and partly because of the aging high school football injury in the wrist and thumb of my fretting hand. Having the lower, non-V profile makes barre chords less taxing for me. And now that I am doing more complicated thumb fretting these days, both for Travis-style playing and various Swing Jazz numbers, I find the sleek width and low profile found on the D-28 very much to my liking.
People with larger hands and longer fingers may prefer the traditional Martin neck widths of 1-3/4” or 1-7/8”, as found on the GE, Marquis and many Authentic series models. And some players may prefer the in-between qualities of the new high performance neck, found in the Performing Artist series and some other models, including the modern D-18. But I know I am not alone in remaining happy that the 1-11/16” low profile neck is still found on guitars like the D-28.
Most Martins are listed as having a neck made from “select hardwood” so the company does not have to worry about shortages in material that may crop up from time to time. But to date Standard series Martins like the D-28 still get a neck made from genuine mahogany, as they have for almost 100 years. Today’s D-28 has a satin finish on the neck, which is extremely comfortable and fast, and it only gets faster and slicker the more it is played, as that satin acquires a natural polishing from the guitarist’s hand.
I very much enjoyed my time getting reacquainted with the Standard D-28. It was nice to be reminded why this classic dreadnought remains so popular all around the world, it is a great guitar.