A history in six strings and spruce

Grant MacNeill is the owner of the Twelfth Fret, the well-recognized guitar emporium on Danforth that caters to guitar aficionados from around the world. Grant himself is also an avid collector of guitars, one of which is a unique example of a Martin guitar built in or around 1840 that marks the legendary guitar maker’s split from his European background, and initiates design elements that will eventually establish the Martin guitar as one of the standards of acoustic instruments ever since.

Grant MacNeill, owner of the Twelfth Fret, discusses the finer points of a fine guitar.

This Martin & Coupa guitar was crafted in New York City almost 20 years before the American Civil War in a studio at 383 Broadway owned by John Coupa, a guitar teacher at the time. He rented workshop space to Christian Frederick Martin, then a 37-year-old luthier who had come to New York from Germany in 1833 to ply his trade. MacNeill guesses that this particular guitar may have been made for a a visiting celebrity from Europe – a common practice at the time as in the mid-1800s the guitar was enjoying widespread popularity as a parlour instrument – who played it, and took it back to Europe with them. MacNeill won the instrument at a London auction in 1993.

What makes this individual instrument so valuable for the collector is, as mentioned, its design and construction. CF Martin broke from his mentor, Johann Stauffer’s design elements most notably by making the headstock – the part of the instrument where the strings are attached and tuned – a sleeker, simpler, squared-off piece rather than the elaborately-curved headstock that the Europeans favoured. It would have been just before the Arts & Crafts period in the States.  And the interior bracing marks the beginning of a new system that would redefine guitar construction. Another valuable feature of this guitar is that as far as MacNeill can tell it has never needed to be repaired, and has never been refinished.

“There is a sister guitar to this one in a museum in Germany,” he said. “But it has been refinished, and repaired.” And to demonstrate the craftsmanship of the builder, MacNeill picked up the guitar, tuned it up and played some chords. The music coming out of the instrument sounded as good as if it was  brand new.

“You see how the sides have this purfling around them,” MacNeill said pointing to the lighter-coloured strip of marquetry. “It could be a case of the Brazilian rosewood being cheaper in narrower widths. Rather than use a much more expensive wider piece of wood, maybe Martin used two narrower strips and glued them together.” Brazilian rosewood has stopped being legally harvested since 1988 for environmental reasons. Both the fingerboard and the bridge of this guitar are made from ebony, while the nut – the small piece that the strings go over where the head meets the neck – is made of what MacNeill assumes to be pewter, or German silver, a soft metal used for jewelry at the time. The top is made from Adirondack spruce reflecting its American roots. CF Martin still used the ‘dart’ construction method of attaching the head to the fingerboard for this guitar, but for later instruments kept the ‘design’ but made the head and neck one piece. Where the neck attaches to the body, Martin used a dovetail joint allowing the neck, should it need it, to be removed. Older guitars were again one-piece.

Under the top of the guitar, just a little off from the sound hole, there are two fingerprints. “These are right in the same place as they would be if one of our guys in the shop were refinishing a guitar, and wanted to move it to another bench,” said MacNeill. “These two prints could very well have been made by CF Martin himself.”

Attached to the back of the guitar, visible through the sound hole, is a label naming the instrument “Martin & Coupa” with a line at the bottom in fine elegant print: “We have always at hand the largest assortment of Guitars that can be found in the United States.”

The guitar came to MacNeill in its original “coffin” case, so called because of its boxy, coffin-like construction. It, too, was in superb condition.

“I had a locksmith recreate a key for the lock,” Grant said. “And I’m looking for period hardware for the missing clasps.”

In 1839 CF Martin moved his business to Nazareth, Pennsylvania where it has been ever since. It remains a family-run enterprise operated by CF Martin IV. The company produced its one millionth guitar in 2004. I asked Grant if the company knew of this particular guitar’s existence, and whether they had ever expressed an interest in buying it back from him.

“There have been discussions and Chris Martin IV knows of it,” he said. “But nothing serious has been discussed.” MacNeill has completed his search for the four main examples of guitars from the Romantic Period, and is planning to create an online museum to showcase them. I was naturally curious about the guitar’s monetary value, but MacNeill was coy.

“There isn’t the same value on instruments from this period as there is, say, from the 50s and 60s early Rock ‘N Roll period.” he said. Looking on line, other examples from this period are being offered in the $30-40,000 range, but none are in such pristine condition. To compare that, a Google search mentions that a Martin D28 that Elvis Presley played at his last concert recently was sold at auction for more than $100,000!

“Frankly, I’ve never actually tried to sell it,” MacNeill admitted. “It is the most collectable guitar I have ever seen in my career, and I’ve just been enjoying it.”


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