1922 Beltone A-K

Martin has built a wide variety of instruments over the many decades since the company’s inception, but few have ever gained traction other than conventional flat-top acoustic guitars. The brand’s resume includes archtop acoustics, archtop electrics, solidbody electrics, tenor and plectrum guitars, acoustic and electric basses, ukuleles, banjos, and mandolins, but you wouldn’t realize it from browsing the average vintage shop’s inventory. A few of these Martin instruments are in demand (particularly the high-end ukuleles), but most command paltry prices in comparison to an early dreadnought.

Of course, this is good news for anyone seeking a bargain in a vintage instrument. Prices of Martin mandolins are nowhere near the same level as their Gibson counterparts, yet they exhibit the same fine quality as the best Martin guitars. This is mainly because most Martin mandolins are flat-top style As and Bs, which are superb folk instruments but lack the volume and cutting power required for bluegrass. Martin’s carved mandolins are considerably rarer, and as a consequence they’ve remained obscure even if they match Gibson for build quality.

That’s not to say that they sound like their Gibson counterparts – they don’t. I’ve played several that matched the volume of an F-5, but the tone is somewhat different. They have tremendous cutting power, but the bass is not as strong. It’s a remarkable contrast to Martin’s big flat-top guitars, which emphasize a booming bass sound that can be heard thumping along under a bluegrass string band. Generally speaking, I prefer my Gibson F-2 for playing alone, but in a loud group setting, my Martin 2-20 can be heard far more easily with the same picking style.

It’s not surprising that the sound is different; the construction of the 2-20 is completely different as well. The curves in the top and back are much steeper (“graduated like a violin”, according to the Martin catalog), and the top has an odd “ramp” carved into the center where it rises to meet the fingerboard. This same carve was used in the 2-20s siblings, the 2-15 (plainer, without points in the body) and the 2-30 (the same 2-point body with more ornate trim). Martin also made short-scale, oval-hole versions of each (the models 15, 20 and 30) which are similarly rare. All these models except the 2-15 were discontinued at the start of World War II and not revived afterward.

The 2-20 is built of conventional woods: a spruce top, maple back and sides, and a maple neck. The fretboard is ebony and has a 13 ¾” scale. Mine is close to mint condition and is all original except for the case. It’s one of the best-playing mandolins I’ve ever played, with a straight neck and perfect action despite not having a truss rod. The 12th fret neck joint, combined with the narrowness of the body near the joint, makes upper-fret accessibility easier than on any Gibson I’ve played.

The serial number dates to the tail end of 1941. The 2-20 was last built in that year, so it’s possible that I have the very last one. 24 were built that year, and only 106 total since the model was introduced in 1936, so it’s a pretty rare instrument. The model 2-15 survived all the way through 1964 and is considerably easier to find for anyone seeking a carved-top Martin. I have an affinity for two-point mandolins, though, so I’m happy with this one.

 

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