How long does it take to break in a Martin guitar?
Here is a query we received that would fit right in with one of Maury’s Martin Myths podcasts. So, just how long does it take to “break in” a Martin Guitar?
We asked some experienced musicians and bona fide experts to get to the true answer. It takes exactly 5 seconds, or 5 minutes, or 5 years. Or something like that. It depends on who you ask and how they feel about such things. I am sure you can find someone who says it takes 50 years.
What do we mean when we say “break in” anyway? It is a fact that the sound made by a traditional acoustic guitar will change over time. By traditional, we refer to guitars that made primarily of wood. There are various factors involved in why that happens. But acoustic guitars of good quality sound very good from the moment their construction is completed.
Martin guitars and Blueridge guitars are of exceptionally good quality. That is why one of the answers is “5 seconds.” They sound with good tone from the moment they are strung up the first time at the factory.
It is claimed that when you play a guitar for a few minutes, it “warms up” and starts to resonate more easily. This is thought to be true for guitars that have sat idle for days or weeks or months, more than one that gets played daily.
There is also an old saying regarding acoustic guitars made of quality tonewoods that goes, “Today is the worst that guitar is going to sound.” That’s because the more you play an acoustic guitar the better it sounds, day after day, year after year.
This is particularly true of guitars that have a soundboard made of solid tonewood. And it is especially true of guitars that also have solid tonewoods for the back sides. Starting off with a guitar that sounds wonderful when brand new does give one a head start when it comes to this ongoing improvement of tone.
Many players will tell you that their guitar sounds noticeably more alive, responsive, and resonant after a year of playing. But the fact is, that process starts on the first day of the guitar’s life, and never ceases, on and on. By five years time it sounds noticeably better than at one year, and so on.
Some people who are fortunate enough to play very old, well-made guitars may just be spoiled by the privilege to the point that new guitars do not sound good enough for their tastes, because they have not “broken in.” But most of those people acquire new guitars none the less, because they know they will break in over time and they enjoy the process of being the guitarist who gets to train that guitar, as it were.
The question that we find more interesting than “How long does it take to break in a Martin guitar?” is “Why does that happen?”
The energy created by guitar strings enters the guitar at the saddle, which is sunken into the bridge and passes vibrations to the bridge, which passes them into the soundboard and bridge plate, ultimately energizing the soundboard, sides, and back, and the air inside the body of the guitar, also called the soundchamber. The soundwaves radiating from the tonewood body are amplified inside the soundchamber before projecting out into the room.
The more the wood vibrates, the more easily it vibrates as time goes by, and the easier it is for the wood to transfer tone-producing energy through its fibrous, solid structure. This means the tone created by the guitar becomes more resonant as time goes by. And the amount of energy created by the guitarist while picking or strumming the strings will result in more tone over time, because less of that energy is absorbed by the wood before it gets a change to be converted into soundwaves.
The neck and fingerboard also vibrate from energy injected at the nut and, to a lesser extent, that kinetic energy makes its way to the soundchamber via the fingerboard extension and the neck joint. Some neck joints accomplish this better than others.
For instance, the traditional dovetail joint used on Blueridge guitars and Martin guitars found in the Standard, Modern Deluxe, and Authentic Series instruments have a larger piece of the neck glued into the neck block the sound chamber than other kinds of neck joints, allowing more energy to transfer to the body.
Be it made of softer wood like spruce or cedar, or some hardwood like mahogany or koa, the soundboard is responsible for creating (most of) the tone. The back and side woods add audible “coloring” and harmonic complexity to the tone. But it is the thin soundboard, along with the bridge plate and bracing attached underneath it that vibrate the most from the kinetic energy and are likely most responsible for a guitar breaking in and as the top is “opening up.”
There are people who set their guitar near a stereo speaker and then crank Beethoven or their favorite guitar music, so that the soundwaves strike the soundboard of the guitar to make it vibrate while it is not being played, and then will leave it there for hours or even days. This is believed to accelerate the breaking-in process.
There are even electronic devices you can buy that sit on the bridge and strings and vibrate enough to get the whole soundboard quivering away. Many people attest that such devices work wonders on a brand-new guitar.
Some guitarists have applied some sort of soundboard vibrating device while the guitar is tuned to Open D and then changed to Open G, Open E, etc., with the belief that it will ultimately make those specific frequencies resonate more easily when a D, G, or E note or chord are played in standard tuning. We have never tried this, but like the logic behind the idea.
Drying Out and Opening Up
Breaking in or opening up a top or a guitar is not just about how much a guitar is played or how long a top vibrates. The tonewood ages as the years go by, whether it is played or not, and that matters.
When tonewood is first sawn into the thin plates destined to make up a guitar, they are seasoned in a stable environment for months or even years before they are used. But once they become part of a guitar, the tonewood continues to season and the moisture inherent in the cellular structure of the wood continues to dry-out over many more years.
As tonewood dries out the cellular interiors crystalize, so that the wood provides less resistance to the transit of kinetic energy passing through the wood on its way to become audible soundwaves. Again, leading to greater resonance as it responds more-easily to the guitarist’s playing of the instrument.
This is a major reason that vintage instruments of good quality are so desirable. One cannot reproduce decades of aging. Or can they?
Martin’s Vintage Tone System, and similar torrefaction treatments, are modern versions of an ancient technique where wood is exposed to extreme heat in an oxygen-free environment that prevents it from bursting into flame. It was recently discovered that this crystalizes the resins and cellular interiors in a way that is very similar to what happens when wood dries out for many decades.
The results are new guitars with certain tonal properties that resemble the sound of a guitar that has aged for decades. There is less tension in the voice, so a guitar sounds more like a vintage instrument because it gives off a 3D tonal phenomenon known as sounding “open.”
While it can be said the torrefied tops will not continue to open up, there are many other aspects to a VTS Martin model that will continue to break in over time.
Glue and Joinery
The joinery where the back, sides, top, and neck are glued to one another likewise transfers energy more easily the more the guitar is played and as the guitar ages. This is one of the benefits of old-fashioned hot hide glue construction. Hide glue seeps down into the raw wood at the various joining sites and over time, as the joinery ages, it fuses together in way synthetic glues do not, allowing for optimum transference of tone-producing energy.
That being said, Martins and Blueridge guitars that use modern glues and do not have VTS tops still sound awesome, without the additional benefits provided by such enhancements. But we know many guitarists who would tell you that upgrades like VTS treatments or hide glue are worth the money if you can afford such things.
Types of Spruce
Different species of spruce may take longer than others to break in and open up. But there is no universal agreement about this. Some luthiers will tell you one spruce takes longer to break in than others, while other luthiers will claime the opposite. It is, however, clear that hardwood tops do take longer to break in than spruce tops, due to their density.
Guitars made with hardwood tops also sound very good when brand new, in their own way. But if you are familiar with the mahogany-topped Martins in the 15 Series and lucky enough to play or hear a 15 Series Martin that is several years old, you should notice just how much the tone has improved over time.
In conclusion, most people agree that well-made guitars do break in over time. It is very much a matter of opinion as to when a guitar reaches whatever milestone qualifies for broken in. But one thing is certain about this query. It is not the destination that matters, or how long it takes to get there. It is our enjoying the journey along the way.