Nestled in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley is the small town of Nazareth. With a population of a little more than 5,700, this tiny suburb has managed to leave an indelible mark on the world. If you’re an auto racing enthusiast, you probably know it’s home to the sport’s royalty – the Andretti family – but what you might not know is Nazareth has also sparked some of music’s greatest minds.
For close to two centuries, it’s been the home to C.F. Martin & Co., one of the most recognizable names in the world of acoustic guitars. In 1839, German immigrant Christian Frederick Martin moved his successful guitar manufacturing business from New York City to the quiet Pennsylvania suburb, partly because it reminded him of home and because a majority of its inhabitants also spoke German. The company has survived all sorts of political, economical and social climates through innovative business strategizing, such as creating other instruments like violins, banjos and ukuleles, and an increased reputation as an elite, hand-made guitar producer.
Today, the Martin facility contains a museum and visitor center, thanks to current CEO C.F. Martin IV, where tourists and guitar aficionados alike are able to see the history surrounding one of the state’s most recognized companies and just how these guitars are currently created. People from all over the country come to learn more about perhaps the most coveted acoustic guitar on the planet, with past customers including Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.
Taking a tour of the 200,000 square-foot facility is a rather easy process.
Conducted in regular afternoon intervals from Monday to Friday, the tour offers a remarkably in-depth look at constructing a guitar, a process that requires almost 300 individual steps and a slew of workers to complete. Free tours are on a first-come, first-served basis with 12 people to a group, and are free of charge. There’s a more behind-the-scenes tour offered as well, which will run $25 per person and last about two hours, almost an hour longer than the free tour, but visitors must call ahead for bookings. During the tour, groups are allowed to take photos, as long as there’s no flash, but no video.
Through headsets and a tour guide with a microphone, the group is introduced to a multitude of the steps required in building a state-of-the-art guitar, while also encountering the smells and sounds. From laser-blasting the shape of the guitar, to bending it using heat, to sanding it down, to seven coatings of varnish, the guide offers a wealth of information on how it all comes together, all while introducing visitors to some of the people who accomplish these tasks. At specific points in the tour, groups can see an example of what characteristic is currently being crafted. There’s no shortage of pieces lying around either, since the facility makes 200 guitars each day. And, if you time it just right, you can hear one of the testers playing one right off the assembly line.
Once the tour is completed, each person is given a round piece of wood, which just so happens to be from the rosette, containing some Martin information – a small little keepsake. It leads right to the 1833 Shop, a small gift shop with apparel, strings, instruments and other goodies. Of course, there’s a small sound studio to test things out as well. The tour on its own is certainly worth the trip but you can’t forget to hit the museum as well.
Chock full of more than 200 guitars, the museum can take a half hour or an hour and a half, it really depends on your interest level. The gem of the collection is immediately when you walk in, the 1,000,000th guitar – an artistic and pearl-ladened piece that is gaudy but eye-catching. Given Martin’s deep-rooted history, the museum shows the evolution of the company’s guitars – as well as several other instruments – from its earliest incarnation and how it ultimately had an affect on music and popular culture. There are more than 200 instruments on display and some honor those who used them to create some of music’s greatest melodies. Gene Autry, Elvis, The Beatles, John Mayer – each provide the stories for how Martin evolved into what it is today. The coolest might have been Kurt Cobain’s iconic D-18 guitar, nicknamed “Grandpa,” which was used while Nirvana toured in promotion of it’s second album, Nevermind.
At any point in the front lobby, enthusiasts can find a guitar to strum on, whether it’s one in the museum sitting on a makeshift stage or it’s one of nearly a dozen around the gift shop area. It’s encouraged and, often, guitar riffs – some good and some bad – can be heard. If you’re someone who likes to unplug now and then and enjoy the sounds of an acoustic guitar, a music lover or just someone who enjoys seeing how factories operate, the Martin facility offers a pretty amazing way to see something that’s still handmade and built with precision and technology.
If you’re thinking about getting a guitar, buying one there is the way to go. The experience would be its own story. It’ll certainly cost you, however, with their guitars starting close to $2,000 each and ranging well above $100,000. But, if it’s good enough for Paul McCartney, Dierks Bentley and Weezer, it’s good enough for you, right?