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December/January 2019

by Otis Mace

Gear Reviews: Martin D-28 Standard Series

by Otis Mace

Gear Reviews: Martin D-28 Standard Series

Hard case all right. Out of the blue, middle of a very busy week, promoting a gig… my usual part-time work dried up, bills piling in. Then… “Hey, Otis, would you like to review a high-end Martin acoustic for NZ Musician magazine?” -“Well hell yes!”. Martin’s 2017 Standard Series D-28 was delivered in its own elegantly shaped shell case, a dark grey, five-clasp, three-hinge, scalloped beauty, inset with the curved ‘C.F. Martin and Co’ logo on the lid, four sturdy upright and four steel side pods, plus four oval bosses for when the case is on its back.

The solid handle is at the perfect balance point. It’s the sort of case that quietly says, “Serious guitar within.” Mind you, so does the $4850 rrp price tag. Not the sort of instrument I regularly get to exercise with.

MARTIN d-28Nestled in amongst the protection of the case’s fluffy deep green interior and generously padded surround is this Dreadnought, the biggest size Martin manufacture, a timeless looking and precisely put together instrument. Fairly wide ebony fretboard with 14 narrow frets. Sitka spruce top, with rosewood back and sides. The grain of the wood under the lacquer looks like sex.

Not heavy, say medium weight, with extra strength where the neck joins the headstock from a sort of diamond-shaped extra bit standing a tad proud of the usual curve. Under the top Martin have used non-scalloped, straight taper bracing, evidently forward shifted to the original model’s position. (D-28s have apparently been in production since 1931.)

Exposed Grover tuning cogs with big wheels make fine-tuning a breeze. Guess I’d expect covered ones to keep the grit out but these would help save weight. Also easy to clean and keep an eye on for wear.

First strum? The new strings are perfectly in tune, a big even sound, maybe with a tiny bit of residual ring and pick squeak. Good sustain. The sound is a bit raw – the harmonics slightly out.
I wasn’t immediately inspired to thrash out a 40-minute practice session on the D-28 – that would come later!

Seven days later and I’ve used it to record two songs, and taken it up to the studio at Radio NZ, watching from the control room as Robert Scott played a song live to air. Their matched pair of Sennheiser condenser mics picked up the real character of this lovely axe, a warm big precise and even tone.

If you wanted an acoustic guitar in a recorded mix then starting out with this D-28 you couldn’t go wrong. EQ-wise you would have ample to work from, no matter what the other instruments were doing. Warmth, definition, and just the right cut and bass clarity.

Okay, but what am I used to? I play a Maton, handmade in 1989-ish. Had it re-fretted twice, and extensively repaired after flight damage. It has a really sweet spongy tone, syrupy almost, and a very basic built-in pickup.

Of course, I’m not going to adjust straight off to a brand new D-28. I guess the person who buys this type of guitar is looking at the long-term pleasure, it will most certainly improve with age and playing.
Taken in small sips the nature of the beast starts to emerge, maybe mellowing a bit over just a few days play. The slight pick squeak soon vanishes. The fretboard proves perfect, a good width with frets very precise polished and ready for, what? Gentle flat-picking or bluegrass seems to suit it rather than my style of drum-like strumming, the separation of the sound of each string is impressive with a very long sweet sustain.

Recording tests:

This comes across live to air also. The matched Sennheiser mics combined with the RNZ studio engineer’s expertise brought out a big warm sweetness and sparkle. And hats off to Robert Scott who calmly conjured an indie folk slab of Clean/Bats/ Minisnap magic for the lucky radio listeners. Wow!

My mate Robbie Halcrow helped me to record two songs, using two mics, a Røde NT and a Shure condenser of some sort, fairly high end. Not bad results.

It’s like any cyberspace experience, Youtube etc., you only get what the tech allows. To really enjoy a guitar with the high end/high-priced qualities of Martin’s D-28 you’ve got to either have state of the art gear or be in the room at the time of playing.

The Otis Mace stairwell test:

Playing it in the stairwell of my building? That’s what it/I needed. Now I can truly say I don’t want to give this baby back. The ringing pure rounded sweetness! The precision! After our week together that initial brittleness has now gone and all frequencies bounce into the space of the stairwell and amplify brilliantly. The tops are clear, the bass punching at gut level, but not below the belt. With a wide, even response to varying degrees of string impact. Okay, by now some of that $4.8k price tag is showing its value.

Historical test:

Ninety minutes or so of total use and I’m starting to adapt away from my ancient handmade Melbourne honey, and onto a 2017 model track-ready, flagship of one of the world’s best woody wonder makers. I could almost hear the cheers of Woody Guthrie, and the last gasps of fascists worldwide being killed by this beast.

Now to figure out if I can extend the review period by, say a few years, plus get them to pick up the tab for a really hot pickup (which I’d happily review for another seven years just to be sure I hadn’t missed any of the finer points).

Otis Mace, guitar ace,
Remember the name,
‘Cause you might forget the face.
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