Iconic guitar celebrates 100th anniversary at Museum of Making Music

Iconic guitar celebrates 100th anniversary at Museum of Making Music
On Saturday, the Museum of Making Music opened a limited-time only exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the iconic Dreadnought guitar. The exhibit runs through April 30. Courtesy photo

CARLSBAD — Most musicians and their fans know and love this guitar.

But many fans may not know it’s history and, perhaps, it’s name.

However, on Saturday the Museum of Making Music opened a limited-time only exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the iconic Dreadnought guitar. A wide collection of guitar’s, including one used by Johnny Cash, will be on display through April 30.

The museum and C.F. Martin & Co., which produces the instrument, collaborated to bring the display to Carlsbad. The exhibit includes dozens of guitars, two video displays and a comfy nook for guitar players, new and old, to jam out.

Attendees will also be treated to the history of the Dreadnought and a piece-by-piece breakdown of how the instrument is constructed.

In addition, the museum will also host a concert series and school tours.

“We will probably have a concert once a month, if not more, between January and April,” said Carolyn Grant, the museum’s executive director. “It’s appropriate for any age level and any interest level. You can stay here for an hour … or you can come in and get a general idea of the story.”

As for the history, Martin Guitar’s Director of Museum and Archives Dick Boak explained the roots of the guitar. The company was founded by Christian Frederick Martin, a German, in 1839 and the company has been passed down from son to son ever since.

As for the Dreadnought, in 1916 a group of Hawaiian musicians played a concert in San Francisco, but guitar’s in those days were small and less powerful. And in the days before microphones and sound systems, the sound didn’t travel.

So, the group asked for a larger guitar, which the company produced. The sound carried and the Hawaiians became a hit, travelling the mainland playing in front of thousands of fans.

But it wasn’t until the explosion of radio and Gene Autry did the guitar really take off. Autry was the one of, if not the, biggest stars in the country. He played music, acted in movies and was all over the radio.

His use of the guitar put the instrument into the mainstream and sales skyrocketed.

“Everybody wanted to be like Gene Autry,” Boak said. “The Dreadnought started to gain momentum. This is all concurrent with the invention of the microphone, with radio, with the Grand Ole Opry and the use of the guitar on stage migrated from the back of the stage.”

The larger guitar also added frets to its design, which gave musicians more options to make music.

It’s namesake, meanwhile, was the largest battleship in the British navy, Boak explained.

“Mr. Martin was a history buff,” Boak explained.

As the musical landscape evolved, so did the Dreadnought’s reach. From country, to rock and roll and everything in between, the guitar has become a staple for many musicians.

The company also manufactures a Dreadnought Jr. model, which is primarily used for beginners and travelers, Boak said. However, the smaller edition still produces the same power as its counterpart.

Of course, there were some shenanigans’ along the way.

Boak said Cash, who was known as the “Man in Black,” requested a black Dreadnought. However, C.F. Martin III, who ran the company at the time, declined.

Instead, employees went behind their boss’ back, made the black guitar and sent it to Cash. Martin didn’t discover the truth until an appearance by Cash on the TV show “Columbo.”

Boak said Martin had a chuckle and went along with Cash’s requests for the rest of the legendary musician’s career.

“Mr. Martin said … we are not painting anything black to cover up the wood,” Boak said. “He wasn’t mad. I think he was more like, ‘You rascals.’”

Another anecdote from Boak concerned Elvis Presley.

The King used to place letters spelling his name on each guitar. Presley got those letters from mailboxes, but the “S” fell off.

From there on, Elvis’ guitar became known as the “Elvi.” A replica is on display at the museum.

“I’m hoping people will scratch it up so it looks like Elvis’,” Boak said.

Other legendary musicians and bands that use or used the Dreadnought included The Beatles, Tom Petty, Paul Simon, Crosby, Stills and Nash plus younger musicians such as Ben Harper and John Mayer.

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