Through the history of bluegrass guitar, many iconic guitar players have added their unique sound and vision to the catalog of traditional American music. In many cases, the guitar that these influential pickers play is just as iconic as the person. In addition to their playing technique, their signature sound can equally be defined by the instrument itself. In this article, we explore iconic bluegrass guitars, specifically the Martin D-28.
#1. Tony Rice’s Martin D-28
Tony Rice’s Martin D-28 is probably the most iconic bluegrass guitar of all time and possibly one of the most iconic guitars of any genre. The storied history of this guitar stretches back to the 1930’s when the original owner chiseled the soundhole around the edges, making it larger. This was possibly to make the guitar louder before the age of guitar amplification. This large soundhole would become one of the unmistakable features of Tony Rice’s Martin.
Originally owned by Clarence White, Tony Rice first saw this guitar as a young picker when he joined the Kentucky Colonels for a television performance in the early 1960’s. He was immediately drawn to the instrument and Clarence let the young picker play it. It would be the first time Tony played this iconic instrument which was destined to become his main axe. The years passed and the old Martin became damaged and unplayable. It ended up in Clarence’s living room where he gave it little thought. Clarence even shot the guitar with a pellet gun! To this day, the Martin still bears the scar from Clarence’s pellet gun.
After Clarence’s death in the early 1970’s, Tony Rice tracked the instrument down and purchased it from a liquor store owner in Los Angeles who was storing it under his bed. The instrument has been reset, damaged and repaired and has always come back sounding better than ever.
#2. Norman Blake’s Martin D-28 12 fret slot neck.
This iconic and beautiful instrument has a very unique appearance and a shorter scale than modern Martins. Dreadnought Martins of this era featured a 12-fret neck which refers to the point at which the neck meets the body. They also had a slotted-head neck and extended-length body. It also has a distinct rounded top which gives it a more classic look than the more squared modern dreadnoughts.
Norman Blake preferred the short scale guitars and has been known to play other guitars of this type throughout his career. This exact guitar came up for sale last year for over one million dollars!
#3. Clarence White’s Martin D-28
Clarence White originally owned the iconic Tony Rice Martin but after a few years, the guitar became unplayable as the action was too high. The guitar ended up in his living room and was replaced by a newer, cleaner D-28 with a black pickguard and a standard diameter sound hole. Clarence played this guitar (among many others) until his death in the early 1970’s. Every Martin has a distinct sound and this one was no exception. Clarence can be seen and heard playing this D-28 in various live recordings and filmed live performances. Clarence White, playing his iconic Martin D-28 created a bluegrass phrasing vocabulary which inspired an entire generation of bluegrass flatpickers.
He was known to work on and modify his guitars including his iconic Telecaster which he heavily modified and played with The Byrds.
#4. Carter Stanley’s 1941 Martin D-28
Carter Stanley is probably the most influential bluegrass singer songwriter of all time. Although he wasn’t known as a technically gifted flatpicker (he used a thumb pick!), the singing and songwriting of the Stanley Brothers defined the sound of bluegrass for a generation. They also had a second guitar player, George Shuffler who’s distinct lead and crosspicking technique provided the Stanley Brothers with some awesome lead lines.
At some point, Carter Stanley’s iconic 1941 Martin D-28 had the neck replaced with a D-45 neck which gave it a nicer appearance. This was Carter Stanley’s main axe for years until his death in the 1960’s.
#5 Bryan Sutton’s Martin D-28
Bryan Sutton is one of my favorite guitarists of all time. His clean technique is an inspiration to any picker who wants to be inspired to improve. I also love his Martin d-28 with the double pick guard! It gives the instrument an unmistakable look and delivers the signature mid range Martin tone that has become his signature sound.