Martin tune-up

The Martin GE and V series are excellent guitars stock and you could nothing to to them and still have a great guitar.  However, they have more sound in them and they are not as close replicas of late-30's Martins as they could be.  These are some of the steps I usually take to get them sounding a little better.  Go here and here for an idea of what can be done to 70's era Martins.  Note that while these modifications focus on the "Golden Era" models with an eye toward making them more like the originals, most of the modifications apply to virtually any new Martin.


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Notice how much the pins stick up on the stock bridge. The pins are slotted, which means that the ball end is jammed in between the pin and bridge plate. On the re-worked bridge (a D-18 GE here), the bridge is slotted and the pins are not (slotted pins can be turned around).  The string fits into a slot and inside the guitar is supported on 3 sides by the bridge plate.  You can almost, but not quite, remove the bridge pins under full tension.  The string's break angle is much straighter (notice how the string curves when it meets the stock pin).  And this is the way it was done until about 1985 or so.  I fit the pins individually so they don't stick up 1/4" above the bridge.  I replace plastic pins on D-18's with either ebony, Antique Acoustics hard vintage plastic, or (as shown here) water buffalo.  Water buffalo pins are a little brighter, ebony is a little woodier sounding, and AA pins have smooth trebles.  

The stock D-28 GE pins shown in the photo are mammoth ivory and I see little reason to change them although I do slot the bridge and  turn the pins around so that the slot faces the rear.   Regular D-28's have soft plastic pins and I replace these with either bone, black water buffalo, ebony, or Antique Acoustics white plastic pins.

Click for more discussion on slotted bridges.

saddle_before.jpg (19184 bytes)saddle_after.jpg (20058 bytes) While on the bridge, I re-shape or even replace the saddle if necessary.  The stock saddle on GE's and V's is a round, non-compensated shape.  Some of the GE's I've gotten have even had almost flat-topped saddles.  I compensate and reshape the stock saddle to a rounder edge which gives better bite on the string.  I don't get it razor sharp (which would cause breakage problems) but just define the shape a little more.  Also, check out the difference in the pin heights.  If necessary, I'll lower the saddle height at this time, although few of the GE's I've worked on so far have required this.  Quite the opposite, actually. Many early GE's have the triple whammy of a high saddle, lots of neck relief, and a low action.  These are tough to get playing really well.

I will often replace the stock fossil ivory saddle with bone.  Fossil ivory gives a smoother mellower sound and can be too soft sometimes.  Bone is harder, with a more aggressive and biting sound.

Another problem with the bridge is poor attachment.  Here I'm putting an .002" feeler gauge under the bridge.  This is due to Martin not cleaning the finish all the way out to the bridge outline. Glue doesn't stick to finish very well, and since the finish is .006-.008" thick the bridge simply does not make full contact with the top.

Martin has recently changed their bridge attachment method and this only applies to pre-2010 Martins







Here is the same bridge removed.  You can clearly see the excess finish. I like to scrape this away and then re-glue the bridge, usually with hot hide glue.  This will result in an overall more robust sound. 






Here's a cleaned-up bridge and patch ready for regluing.

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'50's Martin with open-back Klusons

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D-18 GE with oversized holes

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UPDATE: I have almost quit doing this modification because it makes the tuner harder to turn and therefore gives them an inconsistent feel.  It does help the sound, but for most people, the stiffer feeling tuner is not worth the slight increase in sound.

The pegheads on old Martins were drilled in two-steps- a larger hole for the tuner grommet, and a smaller hole for the tuner shaft.  New ones use a single big hole.  This means that the tuner shaft is hanging in dead-air.  The tuners catch a lot of vibrations- strum a big chord with your hand resting very lightly on the buttons if you don't believe me.  I plug the holes with a walnut dowel and re-drill for the tuner shaft so that it makes contact with wood.  The tuners will turn just a little stiffer, but they're also supported along the entire shaft which has to help dampen rattles and unwanted vibrations. 

This modification by itself doesn't do much, but it works well in combination with the popsicle brace removal.


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New Martins have a "popsicle" brace and truss rod cover, neither of which were used in late 30's D-18 and D-28's.  This brace was added to prevent cracks alongside the fingerboard (the ebony fingerboard and spruce top expand at different rates, and the ebony fingerboard bears down pretty firmly on the top.  In the bottom shot, both the brace and the cover are removed (I no longer remove the truss cover as I feel that offers good support to the top at little or no sound cost).  (Dark lines are scratches in the mirror, not the top).  This gives the sound an "airy" quality and is noticeable sound-wise.  I think that this portion of the top picks up vibrations not from the bridge but from the neck itself, since the fingerboard lies right on it.  I notice that the more sound I capture in the tuners and headstock, the more noticeable the absence of the popsicle brace.

Be warned: this will void your warranty and may cause cracks in the future. If you are concerned about either and/or "collector's value" do not do this modification.  I am not responsible if cracks develop.

Click here for a whole page on popsicle braces.


Pre-90's Martins had two sizes of back braces- taller ones in the front and lower ones in the rear.  In the mid-90s, Martin changed this to 4 tall braces.  The resonant frequency of the back also changed (higher pitch).  I can shave the rear two braces back to the older 1/2" height for increased bass and richer overall sound.  

UPDATE:  Martin's changed recently to a Delmar pickguard which, frankly, I like a lot. 


For many years, Martin used a dot-matrix pixelated pickguard that looks kind of so-so.  A popular upgrade is to remove it and install a Tortis or celluloid pickguard. 

More pickguard info

That's the basic tune-up to the GE's specifically and most Martins in general.  These modifications push the guitars a little closer to the older guitars and, with the possible exception of the popsicle brace removal, do nothing to compromise the structural integrity of the guitars.

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