Film marks 100 years of famed Pa.-born guitar

Portions of “The Ballad of the Dreadnought” documentary were filmed inside the original C.F. Martin & Company factory.
Portions of “The Ballad of the Dreadnought” documentary were filmed inside the original C.F. Martin & Company factory. Photo provided

For the past 100 years, the C.F. Martin & Company’s Dreadnought guitar has firmly established itself as an American institution, right up there with apple pie, baseball and fireworks on the Fourth of July. To celebrate this centennial, the Nazareth family-owned business has released “The Ballad of the Dreadnought,” a short documentary about its iconic instrument.

On Feb. 22, Penn State professor Jerry Zolten and Director of the Martin Museum, Archives and Special Projects Dick Boak will bring the film to Penn State with a screening in Foster Auditorium, followed by a panel discussion.

With notable musicians like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Rosanne Cash and Jason Isbell all passionately testifying on behalf of the Dreadnought, the film offers audiences an in-depth look at one of the most important ingredients in our country’s history of popular music.

“The Dreadnought really is the quintessential American acoustic guitar,” said Zolten, who has also produced records for the Fairfield Four, authored a book on soul gospel music and teaches a course at Penn State Altoona called “The Cultural Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” “It became what it was to fit what musicians were doing in this country with our various vernacular music forms, covering everything from bluegrass to country to rock ‘n’ roll and I think that all of this comes through beautifully in the film. There really are so many luminaries featured who explain what it was about a Martin guitar that attracted them.”

Established in 1833 by German immigrant Christian Frederick Martin, the company spent its first six years headquartered in New York City before settling in Nazareth. Since then, C.F. Martin & Company has significantly grown, attracting musicians from around the globe in search for the perfect guitar.

“The Martin family took great pride in becoming Pennsylvanians and passing their work on from generation to generation,” Zolten said. “People really do make pilgrimages from all over the world and descend on Nazareth to be where the magic takes place. It really is a remarkable thing. When Robbie Robertson sat down to write ‘The Weight’ and sang, ‘I pulled into Nazareth,’ he was talking about Martin’s Nazareth.”

“One of the things that is really great about Martin is that there has been a complete continuity from 1873 all the way to present day,” said Boak, who has been with the company for 41 years. “The family really has preserved the integrity of the instruments, the processes involved in their construction and their special details. These guitars haven’t been messed around with.”

C.F. Martin & Company is a true rarity in that it has remained a family business throughout the years. As current CEO, Christian Frederick Martin IV has strived to ensure that his family’s name maintains its reputation for producing quality instruments. This independence has allowed the company to play by its own rules, which coincidentally enough, have mostly remained unchanged since its inception. It’s this strict adherence to tradition that attracts a certain type of musician, one who is serious about their craft.

“The company has never really even advertised, instead relying on high-profile artists playing their instruments to spread the word. Even back in the 1930s, little local Pennsylvania folk groups or country acts would take pictures of their band and they would have a Martin front and center in their photograph,” Zolten said. “A Martin guitar is kind of an identifier of quality and class to the extent that musicians for decades seem to take great pride of putting their Martin front and center in their photographs. Johnny Cash once famously said that he ‘feels safe behind a Martin guitar.’ It has sort of become synonymous of a certain quality.”

“From Gene Autry to Hank Williams and Elvis Presley to the Beatles and just about any musician you can think of is associated with the Dreadnought guitar,” Boak said. “People tend to want to emulate their musical heroes and the best way of doing that is to pick up a Martin guitar.”

Narrated by Jeff Daniels, himself a Martin player, “The Ballad of the Dreadnought” prominently features Zolten and Boak. During Wednesday’s event at Penn State, both men will be there to field questions and tell stories about the company.

“The film features a cross-section of people who have had great success in their musical careers playing Martins and you will get to hear about how having a Martin in their hands impacted them,” Zolten said. “I’m just really excited about this event, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with the people in our community. It’s going to be great to share our appreciation of this guitar and what the Martin Company is all about right here in our own backyard.”

While the testimony of some of the greatest American musicians ever adds to the Dreadnought’s legend, it wouldn’t have lasted this long and garnered all of this acclaim without actually sounding, well ... good. When it comes down to it, the Dreadnought’s pristine sonic capabilities continue to echo across genres and generations, sounding as crisp and clear as originally intended.

“It’s a combination of the finest wood that gives a Martin guitar an outstanding sound right from the start,” Zolten said. “A Martin guitar top is typically made from spruce and its grain makes all of the difference, but there are other options as well. But in addition to just this high-quality wood, it’s the company’s two centuries of experimenting and trying new things that make these guitars sound so good. When you get behind this guitar, its character and its sounds makes you follow its lead and it shapes how certain songs sound and come out.

“A Martin guitar gets even better with time and age,” Zolten continued. “A lot of musicians even say that the older Martins are unsurpassed in their sound quality, durability and ease of playing. Its sound is ultimately why the company has lasted all of these years.”

“The combination of the wood that we use for the guitars with a fantastic evolutionary design that has evolved over many decades and flawless craftsmanship make the Dreadnought so special,” Boak said. “There’s a great sense of pride among the people who work these instruments and then see them get launched into the hands of the musicians we love so much.”

With such an amazing pedigree, the future remains bright for the C.F. Martin & Company and its signature Dreadnought acoustic guitar. Its own exclusive magazine, factory museum and a renewed interest in American roots music will help to further bolster the company for future players and music lovers everywhere.

“There seems to be a rekindled interest in making music the old fashioned way and the Martin guitar is at the heart of it,” Zolten said. “It really is an iconic instrument, and I think that this trend will help the Martin maintain its place in American popular music.”


  • What: “Ballad of the Dreadnought” screening and discussion
  • When: 7-9 p.m. Feb. 22
  • Where: Foster Auditorium, University Park
  • Info: www.martinguitar.com