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Garden Party: Vintage Martin 5-17T and O-18T Tenor Guitars Meet Their Progeny

Now that the two older tenor guitars are finished, I introduced them to their great-grandchild!  Then they all went out to play in the garden.

A trio of Martin tenor guitars. From left: 1927 5-17T,
1931 O-18T, and 2012 MM5-17T.
Here they are, relaxing by the swing.

On the left we have the 1927 5-17T, then the 1931 O-18T in the center, and their progeny, the 2012 MM5-17T on the right.

This shot gives a good perspective on their differences.  I'll go into more detail below.  Long post, lots of pictures!

This is a closeup of the front of the 1927 5-17T.  Martin model numbers can seem confusing, but they actually are logical if you understand a bit about them.  The first number or letter indicates the body size.  In this case, a Size 5 is a small body, 12 frets to the body, 11 1/4 inch lower bout, 16 inches long, and 3 7/8 depth.

The second number is the style.  At the time this guitar was built, a Style 17 was an all-mahogany body, with a 5-ring rosette.  Style 17s have all been steel-string instruments since its reintroduction 1922.  (The 'old' Style 17 was gut-string and was dropped in 1918).  The "T" suffix stands for...wait for it...Tenor.  Turns out that 1927 was the first year this guitar was offered.

This guitar has a lot of scratches, nicks, and scars.  But the finish itself is in very good condition.  It polished out nicely.

Here you can see the worst of the scratches.  Quite a few on the lower bout where it would rest on the player's leg.  But you can also see the beautiful grain and nice gloss.

This guitar has a dark-ish, woody and rich tone.  The whole guitar seems alive - the whole body and neck vibrate when it's played.  It's just fabulous.

And it's a lot louder than the small body would make you believe.  It has a nice amount of bass and is wonderfully balanced.

I did a neck reset and now it plays very nicely.  The action is right around 4/64ths at the 12th fret on the bass side.  No buzzes at all.

I have all three of the guitars tuned to the 'standard' tenor guitar (fifths) tuning of C, G, D, A, low to high.  Compared to a standard 6-string guitar, the low C is the same as C on the third fret of the A string.  The high A string is A 440 - the A at the fifth fret on the high E on a standard guitar.

I love these Grover banjo-style tuners!  I took them off the guitar and polished them up and they look wonderful.

They have planetary gears, but the ratio is direct - 1:1.  They take a little getting used to, but they are reasonably smooth and stay in tune very well.

Note the Martin stamp on the back of the headstock.  The stamp was used until 1933, when it was phased out for a decal on the front of the headstock.

What beautiful mahogany!

Here we have the 1931 O-18T.

As you can tell from the picture at the top, the O size is bigger than a 5.  It's 13 1/2 inches across the lower bout, 4 1/4 inches deep, and 18 3/8 long, with 14 frets to the body.  Style 18s feature a spruce top and mahogany back and sides.  The Style 18 was first offered in 1857(!).

This particular guitar has some overlapping features from the 1931-32 model years.  It has a tortoise pickguard and belly bridge like the later models, but it has had banjo tuners like the earlier models.

This guitar was a semi-trainwreck when I got it.  (You can find the restoration posts on both of the older Martins elsewhere on the blog).

This guitar was played a lot.  And it's had a lot of work done to it over the years.   There is a very nicely done top seam repair, and there is a mediocre-to-poor repair of a crack/split/break on the top side.  There is also a finish repair/patch on the back, and the endpin was enlarged to over 1/2", presumably for an end pin jack.  (I put in a K&K under-bridge pickup and end pin jack since the hole was already there).

Here's the back.  You can see the bad finish spot.  Fortunately it doesn't affect the tone!  I can't quite figure out what happened.  The spot is directly under the neck block, so it was probably not a crack.  I'm guessing it was belt buckle wear and an attempted finish touch-up.

The finish is very, very thin to non-existent on the back.  But the wood is beautiful.

Most of the finish was gone from the neck too.  Rather than repaint it, I rubbed about 12 coats of Tru-Oil on it and it looks and feels great, and the wood is protected.  To be honest, the whole guitar (not just the top) should probably be refinished, but I don't have the heart to do it.  

Most of my work was on the top.  When I bought the guitar, the top was filthy.  I thought it was a yellowed finish, but it was dirt!  I cleaned it up (a dozen cloth rags and a 30:1 solution of Simple Green) and found that 90 percent of the finish was gone under all the ground-in dirt.  So I wound up refinishing the top.  There was enough old finish left on the top for me to brew up some toner to match the color.

I did enough light sanding on the top to get the remaining finish and ground-in dirt off.  I didn't dare sand it perfectly smooth.  You can see quite a few divots and imperfections remaining.  I wanted to make it look like an original 'survivor' finish and hopefully I succeeded.

The original bridge was long gone.  It had been replaced by a straight 6-string guitar bridge with the two outer string holes plugged.  There was a telltale trace line where the curved 'belly' of the original bridge had been glued.  I traced the outline of my modern 5-17T and used some fantastic pictures from the incredible Vintage Martin web site as a guide for carving a new one.

And the old pickguard looked awful.  It had been reglued at some point and there were bad glue stains underneath it and on the spruce.  I used the old one (still have it) as a template for a new one made out of Tortoloid and fastened with modern 3M adhesive tape.  You can see the grain right through it!

Compared to the 5-17, this guitar is bright, articulate, and a little louder.  It has terrific bass response, but it's very balanced overall.  The body size is very comfortable to play.  I can only imagine what the 6-string version from this era sounds like - must be spectacular.  Where the smaller mahogany body is rich and a bit dark, this one is more hi-fi and clean.  If that makes sense.

Last and most certainly not least is the 2012 MM5-17T.  This one is #9 of a run of 18 from the Martin Custom Shop.  I am very, very fortunate to have this guitar.

The run was commissioned by the incredible multi-instrumentalist Marcy Marxer.  It's a modern version of her 1929 5-17T.  And brother, it is amazing.

There are just a few details that differentiate it from an old one - the 'drop-in' saddle bridge and modern tuners.  I love the look of the old through-saddle bridges, but after having made 4 of them (to get 2 good ones...sheesh), I can say they're a pain in the tuckus to make compared to the modern ones.

Lookit that finish.  It's incredible.  It's so beautiful I don't like to touch it!  And that grain!  Wow.

I could look at this all day.  I would guess this is what an old Style 17 might have looked like when it was new.  This one is much more red-orange than an old one, since the lacquer is fresh and crystal clear.  The lacquer on the old ones has yellowed over time, so they look darker (today) than this one.

I'm speechless looking at these pictures.

And I am a lucky boy.

The aforementioned modern bridge.  I could make a saddle for this in 10 minutes.  Not that I will anytime soon.  Much easier to maintain than the through-saddle style.

I used this one as a base outline for the one I made for the O-18T.  In the process, I put some tiny SCRATCHES behind the bridge.  I polished them out for the most part, but I'm still sick about it.

Fantastic modern Waverly tuners.  The best you can get.  They are amazing.

(The peghead is not a trapezoid - it's the wide angle lens!)

Move over maple...mahogany might be my new favorite wood.

Label signed by Marcy and the famous Dick Boak, the Martin Company's Historian.  How'd you like to have his job?'s it sound?

It sounds like a cross between both of my other tenors!  It's got the small body balanced tone and fast response, it's got a touch of dark round tone to it, but it's somewhat cutting and bright like the O-18T.   It's really spectacular.  And it will only get better....IF I can bring myself to play it. 



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