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The Martin D-28CW, the Clarence White Guitar

Updated on November 17, 2019
Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.

The Martin D-28CW.
The Martin D-28CW. | Source

A Legendary 1935 Martin D-28

C.F. Martin & Company is one of the world's finest manufacturers of steel string acoustic guitars. There have been many famous individual instruments produced during its long and proud history, but one of the single most famous individual Martin guitars is the one which had belonged to Clarence White, and which has for many years now belonged to Tony Rice.

The Martin HD-28 is already one of the world's most sought after instruments. Particularly, these guitars are desired by persons who flatpick bluegrass, Celtic, and jazz fusion music. Surely an HD-28 modeled after a guitar owned by both Clarence White, and Tony Rice, perhaps the two single greatest flatpickers of all time, would be a dream guitar for anyone involved in playing the types of music those two masters played, and play, respectively.

It is well known and widely acknowledged that Martin guitars produced before the second world war are especially fine instruments. Martin D-28 guitars produced before the second world war routinely sell for around eighty thousand dollars. Yes, you read that number correctly, and an especially well kept and loud one could cost you much more.

The Martin D-28 belonging to Tony Rice, which had once belonged to Clarence White is infamous in the guitar world. This is one of the only guitars in the world where the instrument's serial number is itself known globally. The guitar is a 1935 Martin D-28, and its serial number is 58957. The Martin D-28CW is made to be a replica, and this is precisely what this article is concerned with.

1935 Martin D-28, serial number 58957 history

The guitar is historic, and over the years has been very heavily modified. There are a lot of stories around about this guitar which can not be verified, and may not be able to be disproved. Then there are stories which have been told, and years later, denied by the exact same entity.

Think of it like a famous sword. This is absolutely the Excalibur of the steel string guitar world. What that says about Tony Rice is pretty obvious.

Clarence White purchased the guitar in 1959. He was a young bluegrass musician, and he and his brother Roland were four years into their famous bluegrass band, the Kentucky Colonels. For a total of twenty five dollars Clarence purchased the 1935 D-28 with serial number 58957. Some lunatic had whittled away the soundhole to where it now measured around 4 5/8" in diameter.

The original fingerboard was gone, and an ebony one was taped to the neck in its place. This was not the ebony fingerboard which has served as a replacement for both White and Rice, that was something added to the guitar by highly skilled luthier, Milt Owen. The ebony board Owen applied was a Gretsch blank he had laying around. The guitar was returned to White with a warning against using heavier stings than light gauge, and of course, White completely ignored this.

The 1935 Martin D-28, serial number 58957, which once belonged to Clarence White.
The 1935 Martin D-28, serial number 58957, which once belonged to Clarence White. | Source

Clarence White and Tony Rice

In 1960 a 9 year old Tony Rice would first experience his future guitar. The Rice family was much like the White family in that they were a bluegrass music family. Tony asked Clarence about the D-28. He didn't know what kind of guitar it was because it had been radically altered from its original form. Tony says that even then the guitar looked like hell, but sounded like a million dollars.

Clarence White and Doc Watson, in the early part of the 1960s revolutionized how guitar was utilized in bluegrass music. In the later part of the 1960s, and into the 1970s, White would become equally as important as an electric guitarist performing country rock in bands such as The Byrds.

It seems odd today, but when Clarence White was playing in the Kentucky Colonels, he was the person who made the guitar a lead instrument in the context of bluegrass music. Before Clarence White, the guitar had been almost entirely a rhythm instrument. While Doc Watson was doing a lot of the same things as White, it's important to realize Watson was never truly a member of an entire band.

Even as Clarence was breaking new ground with The Byrds and his first in history B-bender Telecaster, the band would break for Clarence to flatpick on an acoustic, and typically he'd do a medley of Soldier's Joy and Black Mountain Rag, and he'd do it at a lightening speed which assured you that Clarence was very much keeping up with flatpicking and bluegrass, despite being in a psychedelic country rock band.

There is one thing here which simply can not be avoided concerning this guitar and Clarence White. There were photos of Clarence playing the modified 1935 D-28, especially when he was very young; he even appeared with the 1935 D-28 on The Andy Griffith Show, but I can't verify where and when he played it on recordings, and the guitar was only ever his primary acoustic guitar for a short time, but It has always been Tony Rice's primary acoustic guitar.

So this all begs the question, why is this Martin reproduction known as the D-28CW, when Tony Rice is the man who it is mostly associated with? The answer is simple. Tony Rice had already endorsed the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, and its two fine reproduction models of his guitar. This page concerns the Martin reproduction of the legendary Martin, but the reader should absolutely know the Santa Cruz Guitar Company makes not one, but two reproductions, and the Collings Guitar Company also makes a reproduction of this exact 1935 Martin D-28.

Notes cascading all over, the genius of Clarence White

The Large Sound Hole

The guitar owned by Tony Rice, once owned by Clarence White, the infamous 1935 D-28 with the large soundhole, this thing has such a mystique about it that its single most distinguishing visual feature has taken on a life of its own. Everyone wants to know what the effects are of having an enlarged soundhole on such a guitar.

Most people will agree a Martin D-28 is a guitar designed to have a very strong bass response. My opinion on the matter of the large sound hole is the larger sound hole provides a bit more treble. Some persons think the large sound hole causes every note, bass, mid, and treble, to be more well defined.

An obvious question soon presents itself to the astute mind. If the large sound hole is better, then why has it not become standard? Well, I think there is no such agreement that the larger sound hole is better. It certainly has a distinct look, and one might well agree with my analysis of the difference in tonal properties, but better and worse here would only be an opinion. And I'll tell you another thing, guitar people are often very much in love with their traditions, and certainly not everyone is looking for brighter trebles.

I think there is one thing here we can all agree on. If you drop your pick into the larger soundhole, there's a higher probability you can get your plectrum back without it slipping into another dimension. Don't shoot me, I'm just the writer.

Tony Rice, when quizzed about the sound hole, has absolutely advised that people not make that modification to their guitars. There's just no going back from such a thing, once that wood is gone, it's gone forever, and all you could do to fix something you did which didn't turn out well is to have an entire new top put on the guitar. Just don't do it. If you want a large sound hole guitar, buy one made that way.

The Martin D-28CW, large sound hole, solid black ebony fingerboard, and dalmatian pickguard are the visual hallmarks.
The Martin D-28CW, large sound hole, solid black ebony fingerboard, and dalmatian pickguard are the visual hallmarks. | Source

Herringbone trim, Advanced X bracing, and Ebony fingerboard

Now before we go further I'd like to make some things very clear to the reader. C.F. Martin & Company is calling this model the D-28CW. Okay, no problem with that, but the fact of the matter is, that were consistency employed in the nomenclature, the model would be called an HD-28CW. What am I talking about?

An HD-28 is a herringbone dreadnought in the 28 style. What this means is the guitar has everything a standard D-28 would have, plus it has the forward shifted bracing, and herringbone trim. The D-28CW absolutely does have the forward shifted bracing and the herringbone trim, as that is what it would have to have to be modeled after any specific 1935 D-28.

So what else is expressly different about the D-28CW? Check out the fingerboard. The original guitar, when owned by Clarence White, went through a few different fingerboards before it finally landed and stayed on the one which it had when acquired by Tony Rice. It's an ebony board, but it's a blank one. What do I mean? It has no fretboard positioning marker inlays.

My own Santa Cruz dreadnought has exactly that sort of fingerboard, and I absolutely love the thing. Now, to be sure, the Martin HD-28 already has an ebony board, so what is better about the blank ebony board? There's nothing better about it unless you just think there is. It's absolutely got a very cool look to it, and if you're into the idea, then the lack of positioning inlays allows you to better disguise your playing. It makes it just a bit harder for people to 'steal' your licks! Ha!

There are still politioning marks on the side of the neck, so the player can still on the fly check to make certain where on the fretboard his fretting hand is at. We shouldn't really concern ourselves with concealing the exact whereabouts of licks, as anything can be transcribed by the great transcribers.

Adirondack Spruce and East Indian Rosewood

Now the soundboard of this guitar, which we've already discussed has a larger than normal sound-hole, is made of Adirondack spruce. Adirondack spruce is sometimes called red spruce, so if you see it called that somewhere else, you should remember it's the same thing as Adirondack.

Not only is the soundboard of Adirondack, so are the internal braces. This is period correct for a 1935 D-28 replica. Some people believe Adirondack is superior to Sitka, which is the standard for spruce on Martin steel strings these days. It's pretty debatable, and not what I'm going to argue here. What is certain is that because it is harder to get high grade Adirondack, the laws of supply vs demand cause the price for Adirondack to be much higher than Sitka.

When you're buying a guitar with Adirondack instead of Sitka spruce for the top and internal braces, you're going to be coughing up a lot more money for that guitar, and maybe for more reasons than just the Adirondack, but that will certainly increase prices.

What isn't period correct on this guitar is the east Indian rosewood. To be just like the 1935 D-28, it would have to be Brazilian. Brazilian rosewood, of course, is astronomically expensive and extremely difficult to get these days. Don't expect that to change, and I will say that while I do not think of Indian rosewood as lesser, I do find it to be fairly significantly different than Brazilian.

How would I describe the difference in sound between Brazilian and east Indian rosewoods? It's terribly hard to describe such things, but I would say Brazilian is darker, more metallic sounding, and produces more overtones. Yes, I think rosewood sounds more like a metal than say, mahogany does. Brazilian even more so than Indian.

The other end of this is I believe Brazilian rosewood is much more likely to develop hairline cracks in the back and sides of your guitar. I've sure got one on my Santa Cruz, but it's been there forever, and isn't really causing me problems, it's just unsightly, and worrying. The D-28CW is, of course, available with Brazilian rosewood, but you already know the price is going to be your children's inheritance. That model is known as the D-28CWB.

Finally

So have I played this guitar? Buddy, you had better believe it, although to be completely honest, I've only played one of them. It was exactly this one, the D-28CW, and not the much more expensive D-28CWB.

I've also played both models of Santa Cruz Tony Rice guitar, the Brazilian and the one which matches this one pound for pound, with Indian Rosewood. And I've got to play exactly one Collings Clarence White guitar as well. I was raised around bluegrass people, and took lessons from a bluegrass guitarist for some years.

These exact types of guitars and the music and musicians they're made after are things I know and love quite a lot.

This guitar is currently not in production. I can't help but believe the people at C.F. Martin & Company, however, knowing what a market they have for this type of D-28, will bring it back. As already mentioned in this section, there are competitors, and very very stiff ones for this, and those are standard production, although in limited supplies as Collings and Santa Cruz are not makes that manufacture large numbers of guitars in a year.

I've seen one of these Martins for sale online at under three thousand, but most are selling for around four thousand. When you buy this kind of guitar used, you need to know the people who play these are most likely using medium gauge strings, and so, it's possible the guitar would need some frets replaced at some point. I know I can sure beat up some frets flatpicking bluegrass, and eventually frets do have to be replaced. .

So these are bluegrass cannons. There's got to be at least a million guys out there who wish they could play like Clarence, or Tony Rice. The fantastic Martin HD-28 is as good a place as any to go for the ultimate bluegrass or flatpicking guitar, and I absolutely have owned one of those. I would never do it, but you enlarge the soundhole, replace the fingerboard with a solid blank one, and get that super cool dalmatian tortoise pick guard, and whammo, you've got something which is essentially the same, and in my opinion, just as good.

Again, I honestly do not find Adirondack to be superior to high grade Sitka spruce. I figure there are people out there who'd want to fight me on this, and I understand their position, they've spent lots of dollars on Adirondack, and so, they're invested in the idea of it being superior. I'm not looking for fights, just trying to say my piece. Complete specifications for the D-28CW are below, thanks for reading.

Martin D-28CW Specifications:

  • CONSTRUCTION: Mahogany Blocks/Dovetail Neck Joint
  • BODY SIZE: D-14 Fret
  • TOP: Solid Adirondack Spruce
  • ROSETTE: Style 28 - B/W Wood Fiber
  • TOP BRACING PATTERN: D-OMLE Forward Shifted
  • TOP BRACES: Solid Adirondack Spruce/ Scalloped 5/16'' Golden Era
  • BACK MATERIAL: Solid East Indian Rosewood with Sitka Golden Era Braces
  • BACK PURFLING: HD Zig Zag
  • SIDE MATERIAL: Solid East Indian Rosewood
  • ENDPIECE: Grained Ivoroid
  • ENDPIECE INLAY: B/W Wood Fiber
  • BINDING: Grained Ivoroid
  • TOP INLAY STYLE: Fine Herringbone
  • SIDE INLAY: none
  • BACK INLAY: B/W Wood Fiber
  • NECK MATERIAL: Select Hardwood
  • NECK SHAPE: Modified V
  • NUT MATERIAL: Bone
  • HEADSTOCK: Solid/Long Diamond/Tapered
  • HEADPLATE: Solid East Indian Rosewood /Golden Era Style Logo
  • HEELCAP: Grained Ivoroid
  • FINGERBOARD MATERIAL: Solid Black Ebony
  • SCALE LENGTH: 25.4"
  • # OF FRETS CLEAR: 14
  • # OF FRETS TOTAL: 21
  • FINGERBOARD WIDTH AT NUT: 1-11/16''
  • FINGERBOARD WIDTH AT 12TH FRET: 2-1/8''
  • FINGERBOARD POSITION INLAYS: none
  • FINGERBOARD BINDING: Grained Ivoroid
  • FINISH BACK & SIDES: Polished Gloss
  • FINISH TOP: Polished Gloss Aging Toner
  • FINISH NECK: Satin
  • BRIDGE MATERIAL: Solid Black Ebony
  • BRIDGE STYLE: Standard Belly- Long Saddle
  • BRIDGE STRING SPACING: 2 1/8''
  • SADDLE: 16'' Radius/Bone
  • TUNING MACHINES: Waverly Nickel w/ Butterbean Knobs
  • RECOMMENDED STRINGS: Martin SP 4200 Medium Phosphor Bronze
  • BRIDGE & END PINS: White w/Black Dots
  • PICKGUARD: Pattern Unique to D-28CW and D-28CWB Guitar
  • CASE: 545
  • INTERIOR LABEL: Label Signed By C. F. Martin IV & Michelle White Bledsoe/ Numbered in Sequence

© 2019 Wesman Todd Shaw

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