July 2012

Oh? No.


Friday 7/20/2012

I was in Nashville for the summer NAMM Show last weekend... enjoying the show during the day and the downtown Nashville music scene at night.

Since John is making the executive purchasing decisions now, I let him tend to business while I wandered around the show with his friend Dave.  (I didn't want to get in John's way because at NAMM Shows I've often had a tendency to order stuff like this!)  

As Dave and I passed the Martin booth, he asked why some models were designated OO and some OOO.  I said, "I'm glad you asked, Dave!"

Way back in 1820, before coming to the good old US of A, C.F. Martin (The First) worked in Vienna as an apprentice for the famous European guitar-maker, Johann Stauffer.  Stauffer's guitars, as with all guitars in the early 1800s, were significantly smaller than the guitars we know and love today.  The largest guitars made in those days were a little more than 12" wide at the lower bout.  For comparison, Martin's current small "travel guitar," the Little Martin LXM (available at Pittsburgh Guitars!) is 12 1/2" wide at the lower bout.

When C.F. (The 1th) started making his own guitars in New York in 1833, he modeled them after the Stauffer instruments... small by our standards, "large" in their day.

Eventually C.F. was making so many guitars that he decided to give them model designations.  His method was relatively simple.  Each model was given two numbers, separated by a hyphen... like this: 1-18.   The first number represented the size of the guitar, and the second represented its level of fanciness.  The biggest guitar he made was the Size 1, at 12 3/4" wide. Subsequent models got smaller from there, all the way down to Size 5, which was 11 1/4" wide at its widest point.

Originally, the second number, the "Style" number, was the wholesale cost of the instrument.  So in 1851, Model 1-21 had a dealer cost of $21.  (... which I believe could buy you a house in those days... or at least a couple of horses and a chicken.)

C.F. quickly learned the error of his ways, and after changing the 1-27 to the 1-28 when the cost rose $1.00 (or two chickens worth), he eventually standardized the style number designations (i.e. the Style 28 would continue to be called a 28, regardless of future price increases.) 

Still, though, the second number always represented the level of fanciness. A higher second number meant a higher grade guitar, and an increase in price.   Which was just the opposite of the size number.  Size-wise, as the first number increased, the size decreased.   So, Model 1-28 was fancier and more expensive than Model 1-18.  But Model 2-28 was smaller than Model 1-28. (Although just as fancy, since they are both 28s.)  And Model 3-28 was even smaller.

To recap:
- First number:  the higher the number, the smaller the guitar
- Second number:  the higher the number, the fancier and more expensive the guitar.

By 1854 C.F. wanted to make a bigger (louder) guitar.  But he had already backed himself into a corner with his numbering system.  As the "Size" numbers increased his guitars got smaller.   His only choice, he decided, was to go downward, numerically speaking.  He called the new guitar a Size 0.   Like his other instruments it was available in a variety of levels of ornamentation:  0-16, 0-17, 0-18... all the way up to 0-42.

Things went fine for another decade or so.  But you know how guitar players always want to be louder?   Well, that was true in the 1860s, too.  Eventually C. F. (Numero Uno) needed to add an even bigger, louderer guitar.   Since his sizes at that point, from smallest to largest, were 5, 4, 3, 2 1/2, 1, and 0, mathematically the next larger guitar should be the -1.  But I'm not sure that they even had the concept of a "minus 1" in 1860.  (I guess I could wikipedia the history of negative numbers...)

Rather than call his new bigger guitar the "Size -1," C.F. called it the Size 00.    If you're following along, a 00-18 would be bigger than a 0-18.  (And a 00-18 would be fancier than a 00-17.)

With this approach, C.F #1, his son, C.F. Jr., and C.F. Jr's son, Frank Henry Martin, made it to 1900.  Whew!  But with the turn of the century, players still wanted bigger.   So, in 1902 Martin introduced an even larger size, the Size 000. 

Meanwhile, throughout their history Martin had also been manufacturing guitars for other companies.  In 1916 the Ditson Company asked Martin to make the biggest guitar ever made (until then)... bigger than any standard Martin model.  Ditson marketed this giant (for its day) guitar as the Ditson Style 222.   Martin considered this a "bass guitar," and didn't think much of it until 1931 when the Ditson Company went out of business.  Martin reluctantly added the size to their line, and since it was so big they named it after the world's largest battleship size: the Dreadnought.  The new guitars were designated with a D for dreadnought... D-18, D-28, etc; again with the second number indicating the level of fanciness.

So finally, in 1931, Martin got away from the concept of adding more zeroes to indicate a bigger size!

And that's the story of the Martin 0, 00 and 000 guitars. 

Except that they're really zeroes.

And we've been pronouncing them wrong for the last 150 years. Rather than zeroes, which is what they are, we call them "oh," "double-oh," and "triple-oh" guitars.

And that's what I explained to Dave last weekend.  (Although he may have wandered off right around 1860...)

See you soon,

PS:  From the "Just To Confuse Us" Department:
In 1929, a banjo player and orchestra leader, Perry Bechtel (no relation), requested a guitar with a longer, thinner neck.  Martin responded by making a guitar with a neck that joined the body at the 14th fret, rather than the traditional 12th fret.  They called it the "Orchestra Model" and two styles were manufactured, the OM-18 and the OM-28.  In this instance, the first letter actually is an O and not a zero.

PPS:  From the "Just To Confuse Us Again" Department:
Since the 1990s, Martin has occasionally manufactured assorted larger-than-dreadnought guitars, and designated them as 0000 instruments.  Yes, four zeroes.   I'm not sure how to pronounce those.

PPPS:  Changing the topic briefly, The Carnegie Science Center is currently hosting an exhibit called "Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked The World."  It runs through September 30th.  Here's a link.   This Saturday and Sunday, July 21 and 22, John and I will be set up at the Science Center giving free guitar appraisals.  These appraisals, of course, will just be our two cents worth.  And since we won't have the opportunity to take anything apart (look under the pickguard, etc.) the appraisals will only be general and not send-this-to-my-insurance-man worthy.  But it should be fun!  We'll be there from noon until 4 both Saturday and Sunday.  And to liven up our booth, I'll be taking a few vintage and reissue Beatle guitars for display.

PPPPS:  Getting back to Nashville music, I saw some unbelievably good players.  Look at this guy:  J. D. Simo with the Don Kelley Band.

PPPPPS:  Getting back to the correct pronunciation of Martin 0, 00, and 000 guitars, it just occurred to me that when I opened Pittsburgh Guitars many years ago, some of my older customers referred to those models as "aught," "double-aught" and "triple-aught."   These days you don't often hear the word "aught" used in daily conversation, but it does mean zero.  Maybe that's the way Martin described the guitars in the old days!



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