The Search for My First Great Guitar

Posted on Posted in Stories

By Mark Hanson

Note: In this age of internet sales, EBay and Reverb, this story of my first Martin guitar purchase is both quaint and touching. Thanks to caring family members for my lifetime possession!

My first nice guitar, a Gibson J-45, went with me from Minnesota to California for college. While there, the guy in the next room taught me Jorma Kaukonen’s “Embryonic Journey.” That, and singing Beethoven’s 9th with the San Francisco Symphony, sent me on my lifelong musical escapade!

The J-45 was nice, but it had too narrow a neck and too small a sound, so I began searching for a used Martin dreadnought, since I couldn’t afford a new one. Over time I traveled to every guitar shop in the Bay Area, to no avail. Back in Minnesota during the following summer I did the same thing, again striking out. My very wise mother then offered this advice: Go to the library, find the Nashville phone book, scour the yellow pages, and write letters to shops asking if they have enough inventory to warrant driving 1,500 miles round trip to choose one.

I mailed off a dozen letters, and heard back from three proprietors, one of them being the now-famous George Gruhn, who was then just getting started in his brand new hole-in-the-wall shop. Amongst those three shops there were enough used Martin dreadnoughts for my very supportive father to offer to drive the family car with me to Nashville.

Off we went, stopping in Louisville, Kentucky, on the way to see if we could cut some miles off the trip! (Google maps sends drivers through Illinois these days, rather than Indianapolis and Louisville.) No luck in Derby town. They told me: “Those boys from Nashville come up here all the time looking for them.”

In Nashville, my choices boiled down to a ’66 Brazilian D-28 at Gruhn’s, and a ’69 D-35 at a pawn shop. I replaced the worn-out strings on the D-35 to make sure I could hear its true nature. This was right at the time that Martin was switching from Brazilian to East Indian rosewood. To this day I don’t know if that D-35 used Brazilian or East Indian (I didn’t write down the serial number), but I definitely chose the right guitar despite my youthful tonewood ignorance. 

The D-28 was $375 out the door, plus $20 for a chipboard case. (I spent all my summer lawn-crew money on that guitar. I saved up for a hardshell case later!) New ones cost $495 at the time, $525 for a new D-35. So I felt like I had gotten a good deal. I don’t remember if I helped pay my father for the gas — it was about $.30 a gallon at the time. I certainly should have!

In addition to meeting George himself in the Gruhn shop, I met his early partner, dobroist Tut Taylor, soon to gain notoriety as part of John Hartford’s famed Aeroplane album.

Living in the Bay Area the next 25 years, I was convinced to have the braces shaved on the inside of the top, to imitate the resonance of the Martins with shaved braces from the ‘30s. I hired my friends at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto to perform ‘surgery.’ They did a great job. Gryphon no longer offers that service, as many guitars these days arrive from the factory with shaved braces. The brace shaving opened up the sound of the guitar, which ever since has resonated like a herringbone.

This D-28 was my main performing/teaching/recording guitar for the next 20+ years. I started using others when I needed a mounted pickup in the guitar for ease in performing — I was not going to drill any holes in the D-28. It has remained a main home-use and recording guitar ever since. It helped win me a Grammy for my contributions to the Henry Mancini — Pink Guitar album of 2004. Taking advantage of the instrument’s rich dreadnought bass, I used C-Wahine tuning (C G d g b e’) for my arrangement of “The Sweetheart Tree.” 

Two fun addendums to the story: The Gruhn folks told me that Joni Mitchell’s ‘people’ had been in the store the week before and had bought 10 Martin dreadnoughts to ship to her in California. From those she would chose the one(s) with the best muse. So between the time that George answered my letter and the two of us arriving in Nashville, the Gruhn shop lost most of its Martin inventory! Glad he had one left!

And, as I have seen George regularly over the years at the Chet Atkins show in Nashville and the NAMM show in Anaheim, I’ve reminded him of my early support for his store (and his early support of me!). He’d rub his chin and try to remember the exact D-28 I had bought. He never could, but it’s a great guitar just the same!


April, 2022

Photo: My first out-of-college duo “Waterwheel”, with Fred Cummins. Notice the early use of a thumbpick!

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