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New Book on Invention of the American Guitar Finds Early Spanish Influence

(New York, NY) – October 15, 2013 – A new book on the early history of the American guitar, “Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C.F. Martin and His Contemporaries,” documents the Spanish influence on C. F. Martin and the evolution of the iconic American flat-top steel string acoustic guitar.

Peter Szego, the co-editor of the book, explained, “Our most startling and significant discovery was that Martin’s major inspiration for creating the modern flat-top guitar was the early Spanish guitar, not the Austro-German ‘Stauffer-style’ guitar historians had until now considered his most important influence.

“The early history of the American acoustic guitar drops us in the bustling melting pot of New York City in the years before the Civil War, where Martin adapted Spanish guitar design after attending performances of Spanish guitar virtuosi on the New York stage. This would lead in short order to his creation of the modern X-braced flat-top guitar, at least 10 years earlier than we previously thought.”

It is well known that C. F. Martin arrived in New York City from his native Saxony in 1833 and began making European-style guitars with distinctive scroll headstocks and elegant decorative elements in the style of his mentor, Johann Georg Stauffer of Vienna.  Equally known is that, by the start of the Civil War, Martin’s guitars had evolved into the iconic American flat-top that is recognized around the world today. But what happened in between has been unknown until recent research for this book.

“Since there was minimal documentation on the history of the guitar in America prior to the Civil War,” Szego explained, “we quickly came to the conclusion that the path to a better understanding lay in studying the instruments themselves.” Szego and other experts organized a series of conferences in 2008 and 2009 to examine recently found instruments from the period, including over 40 Martins and guitars by contemporaries Louis Schmidt, George Maul, Henry Schatz, and James Ashborn.

The missing link in the evolution, Szego and the others found, occurred during C. F. Martin’s partnership with John Coupa, a Spanish guitar virtuoso and teacher who encouraged Martin to build guitars in the Spanish style. Martin retained Coupa as his New York sales agent in 1839 when he moved from the city and set up shop in Cherry Hill, near Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where Martin guitars are still made today. This relationship continued until Coupa’s death in 1850.

The first to discover the missing link was guitar maker and contributor David LaPlante. While he was restoring a guitar with a Martin and Coupa label, he noted the striking similarity between this guitar and early guitars produced in and around Cadiz in southern Spain.  The construction and decorative features that many Martin & Coupa guitars share with Cadiz guitars include fan-patterned top bracing and a “Spanish foot” on the interior and exterior elements such as a tapered rectangular solid headstock with friction tuners, a back strip that continues over the heel cap, and striped banding along the centerline of the sides of the guitar. Even the Spanish heel, which we now take for granted on all contemporary acoustic guitars, is a detail that Martin adapted from Spanish guitars.

Among the many discoveries uncovered during research for the book is the earliest documented example of a C. F. Martin guitar with X-bracing, a defining characteristic of the modern Martin guitar.  Martin produced the guitar in 1843 as a gift for Senora Delores Nevares de Goni, a Spanish guitar virtuoso who arrived in New York in 1840 and quickly established herself on the New York concert stage. 

Chris Martin IV, C. F. Martin’s great-great-great-grandson, who is the current CEO of C.F. Martin & Co., said, “That old saying, ‘you never stop learning,’ is very apparent to me with the publication of ‘Inventing the American Guitar.’  Reading about the research that went into revealing the ‘Ah Ha’ moment when my great-great-great grandfather made the leap from copying Johann Stauffer to developing his own, distinct style, with the help of Spanish luthiers, is a tremendous step in telling the story of this great American instrument.”

“Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C. F. Martin and His Contemporaries” will be published by Hal Leonard on October 15.  www.martinguitar.com

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