1931 Martin C-1T

 

Archtop guitars took a while to catch on. Although first mass-produced by the newly-formed Gibson company in 1902, it wasn’t until the late 1920s that Kay Kraft and Epiphone offered any competition. Even those early offerings harked back to Gibson’s older round-hole designs several years after the revolutionary L-5 had been introduced. The first real challenge to Gibson’s dominance of the archtop market came in 1931 when Epiphone introduced its Masterbuilt series of modern archtops.

It’s no surprise that Martin, which had a long tradition of building flat-top guitars of relatively conservative design, entered the archtop market somewhat tentatively at first. They, too, introduced a line of carved-top guitars in 1931, but these were based on the body shape of existing flat-tops. The C-1, C-2 and C-3 had the same silhouette and trim as the 000-18, 000-21 and 000-28 respectively. The C-series tops were carved and the backs were slightly arched via the bracing, but they still featured 15” wide bodies at a time when Gibson and Epiphone were already building one inch larger. This was remedied by the introduction of the 16” F-series archtops in 1935 (and the more affordable 00-sized R-series), but the fact remains that Martin was always behind the curve; when their competitors were upsizing to 17”, Martin was still an inch shorter.

In addition, the first C and R series archtops featured round soundholes. F-holes were introduced on the C series in 1932, but both variations were built side by side until the round-hole version was discontinued in 1933. The result is that these early guitars have a tone somewhere in between a flat-top and a Gibson-style archtop, which is a very pleasant sound but not what cutting-edge jazz musicians wanted in the early 1930s. The neck was also pitched back at a considerable angle to allow for the high bridge, and some players found the resulting playability to be awkward. I don’t notice this awkwardness on my tenor, but that may be due to the short scale: the neck isn’t long enough that I have to pull my fretting hand way back. For all their quirks, all Martin archtops were built with similarly high quality to their other instruments. The C-1 was similar in appointments to a 000-18 but featured a shaded top and a vertical pearl logo inlayed into the headstock (this was replaced by a decal several years later). The C-1T was, coincidently, the largest catalogued tenor model that Martin offered. Both the tenor and 6-string versions initially sold for the same $75 price tag.

Martin’s experiment with archtops was short lived. They were briefly popular in the early years, making up over a quarter of Martin’s guitar production in 1933, but their small, quirky designs couldn’t keep up with the competition and they were cancelled altogether in 1942. This specimen dates from the first year of production and is in excellent condition. The pickguard is a replica and the bridge is a replacement, but its sound and playability are superb.

 

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